Isaac Newton: “Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides”
Newton had a profound interest in things Jewish. His library alone supplies ample evidence of this. Newton owned five of the works of Maimonides, and makes numerous references to them in his manuscripts. He also possessed Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala denudata (1677), which shows extensive signs of dog-earing, along with an edition of the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo. His writings reveal that he used the Talmud, the learning of which he accessed through Maimonides and other sources in his library.
Although he never acquired a competency in the language, Newton picked up a smattering of Hebrew and armed himself with an array of Hebrew lexicons and grammars. He also owned and used a Hebrew Bible. Much attention is given in Newton’s writings to studies of the Jewish Temple and its rituals. His fascination with these things was motivated in large part by the importance of understanding both the complexities of Jewish ritual and the design of the Temple for the interpretation of prophecy. Newton owned a number of works on these subjects as well. A further testimony to his research on the Temple exists in the physical evidence of his octavo Bible, the pages of which are heavily soiled in the section detailing the Temple of Ezekiel’s prophecy.
This study also bore its fruit. Several scholars have pointed to Newton’s appropriation of elements of Jewish theology. John Maynard Keynes famously characterized Newton as a “Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides.” [...]
The temporal distance of Newton’s conception of the Jewish Restoration from his own time is startling. While Finch thought the conversion of the Jews would begin in 1650, Mede at a date no later than 1715, William Lloyd by 1736, and his own erstwhile protege Whiston by 1766, Newton saw it as centuries away. There can be no doubt that his vision of the return of the Jews was strong. Few intellectuals of Newton’s day could match the vigor of his faith in this prophetic event. Nevertheless, there is no sense of apocalyptic urgency.
While the otherwise similarly-minded Whiston preached the nearness of the end, the imminence of the Jewish Restoration and toured the English resort towns with a model of the Millennial Temple, Newton stayed at his desk, communed with his books and worked and reworked prophetic treatises that few in his own lifetime would read. However, while he did not think apocalyptically about his present, he did see an intensely apocalyptic period focused at the end of time. Implicit in this eschatological pro¢le one can also see Newton’s inherent religious radicalism. By contending that the true Gospel would not be widely preached until the end, he marginalizes the Reformation and distances himself from the mainstream Protestantism of his day. This belief even leads Newton to read Romans 11 differently: the time when “all Israel shall be saved” was not the time when the converted Jews would be added to already believing Gentiles. Rather, for Newton this referred to the moment at the end when all Israel - Jew and Gentile alike - would convert together to true Christianity.
Unlike many other Christians, Newton refused to place Jewish faithlessness over Gentile Christian unbelief. Moreover, Newton’s prophetic world was a very private one. Unlike so many others of his age, there is no direct political context for his belief in the return of the Jews, no discussion of mercantile interests and no evidence of involvement in efforts to convert the Jews in his time.
It is difficult to estimate the impact of Newton’s published writing on the return of the Jews. While it would be wrong to argue that his influence was great, conservative Protestants nevertheless saw him as an important prophetic authority and recent scholarship has demonstrated that his published Observations - which includes a detailed section on the return of the Jews - was a chief source for fundamentalist exegetes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And, while it is not overly lengthy, the section on the return of the Jews in the Observations is one of the fullest and most detailed articulations of his views on this subject. Nor must we overlook the secondary (albeit likely more important) influence he exerted through theological disciples such as Whiston, who published several works that deal with the Jewish Restoration. In both cases Newton’s exegesis merged with a prophetic tradition that helped create during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the religious and political climates that paved the way for the resettlement of Jews in Palestine - the longed-for vision of the Restoration. Newton would have approved.