Chronology, history, or prophecy?

Bible chronology is a fascinating Early Modern intellectual phenomenon that combines science, history, and theology. Put simply, it is basically the attempt, assuming the Old Testament to be true and historically accurate, to develop the time frame of that history bringing into accord with what was known of the histories of the ancient cultures and calculate backwards to the point of God’s creation of the world. Although aware of its existence for a long time I paid it little heed because there were/are so many other things that interest me and occupy my time. This changed when the so-called gnu-atheists, whom I regard as smug ignoramuses, who give atheism a bad name, started to mock the Irish mathematician and theologian, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, and Primate of All Ireland, on the “earth’s birthday”, 22 October, the date that Ussher calculated for the day of creation in his Bible chronology. A date well known amongst Protestants because it was enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer. I took up cudgels on Ussher’s behalf and wrote a blog post, In defence of the indefensible, pointing out that in the framework within which Ussher was working his calculations were in fact totally rational. In this post I wrote amongst other things:

Ussher was by no means the only prominent Bible chronologist of the 16th and 17thcenturies the most famous being the philologist and historian Joseph Justus Scaliger and of course Isaac Newton; others such as Johannes Kepler and Phillip Melanchthon also dabbled.

Now, it is well known that I am interested in everything that Isaac Newton indulged in during his long and unbelievably productive life, but that unbelievable productivity is exactly the problem. Newton wrote literally millions of words over a vast range of topics. If James Brown could crown himself, the hardest working man in show business, then Newton could crown himself the hardest working man in the history of science. Although I did write a brief post sketching Newton’s involvement in Bible chronology entitled, Newton was one too, the topic got put very definitely on the back burner.  I wrote another post on Bible chronology, about Joseph Justus Scaliger’s involvement, Counting the days, because his Julian Year Count, converted to the Julian Day Count became, in the nineteenth century, the universal dating system for astronomers.

Returning to Newton’s impossibly vast intellectual output, most people over the decades and centuries since his death concentrated on his mathematics, astronomy, and physics, actually by far the smallest part, whilst quietly ignoring the rest. There have been notable exceptions, which I’m not going to list here, but they were on the whole piecemeal. In more recent times the historian Rob Iliffe set up the Newton Project to systematically edit, comment upon, and make available Newtons vast inheritance, initially in Cambridge, and then somewhat ironically moving the whole to Oxford University, where it still current resides. There is a parallel Chymistry of Isaac Newton project at Indiana University. The Newton Project has been producing first class results and publishing first class material, such as Iliffe’s Priest of NatureThe Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (OUP, 2019) for some time now and one of the most recent publications is Cornelius J Schilt, Isaac Newton and the Study of ChronologyProphecy, History, and Method (Amsterdam University Press, 2021), which could also be titled everything you ever wanted to know about Bible chronology in general and Isaac Newton’s involvement in it in particular. Yes, it really is that comprehensive!

The first thing to note is that this is a very serious piece of academic research and not in anyway a popular book. However, Schilt writes in a clear accessible style, so that anybody, who is interested, and is prepared to invest the effort can read the book with profit, even if they come to the topic as Bible chronology virgins, so to speak.

 A short introduction sets out the purpose of Schilt’s research, the problems that it entailed and a brief guide to the sections of the book. It closes with an unusually feature of the book. Instead of the usual massive bibliography at the end of the book, each section, and I will explain the sections shortly, closes with an, often extensive, bibliography for that section. The book is divided into four sections, each of which deals with a different aspect of Newton’s work and Schilt’s research into that work.

The first section is a comparatively short and concise, but highly informative, explanation of what exactly Bible chronology was in the Early Modern period. It illustrates how individual Bible chronologist approached the topic and what they hoped to achieve through their work. Having explained Bible chronology, Schilt closes the section with the question, Isaac Newton … Chronologist? Here Schilt discusses Newton’s two published chronology text, the first during his lifetime and heavily criticised and the second put together from his convolute of manuscripts by his acolytes after his death. Here Schilt touches upon, for the first time, the sheer volume of manuscripts and manuscript fragments on the topic, none of them noticeable finished, that Newton left behind in a total chaos, when he died, for historians to try and make some sort of sense out of. This section closes with an extremely extensive bibliography. If one just wished to read an introduction to Bible chronology and not Newton’s work in particular, then this section provides an excellent one. 

In the second section, Schilt introduces the reader to the mind of Isaac Newton and how it worked when he was producing his chronological work. We start with his library, the books he owned. The books that he read to inform himself about ancient history. Primary text by ancient authors for their historical content. Books by contemporary authors for information about which other ancient books he should read. Lists of books that he wished to acquire to further his knowledge. This is followed by Newton’s note taking habits. Here we run into major problems of which I was already aware from other areas of Newton’s work, mathematics, physics, astronomy. Newton was anything but organised in his note taking, using random sheets of paper, using the same sheet two-times years apart etc. etc. How Newton marked passages in books, not by underlining but by dogearing pages bending them over so far that the corner pointed to the passage in question.

The section closes out with a discussion of the fact Newton was an outsider, an independent scholar with no connections to others working in the same or related fields. Newton worked for himself not with others.

The second section makes very obvious that on a meta-level throughout the book we also get a very clear picture of how the researcher, Schilt, worked. He doesn’t just present the results of his research but outlines in detail how he extracted his results from the chaos that is both Newton’s papers and his approaches to his work over the years. This meta-level continues throughout the book and gives powerful insights into how to approach such a research task and carry it through to completion.

The third section takes the reader into the development history of Newton’s earliest chronological treatise, Theologiae gentilis origines philosophicae, known as Origines for short created literally over decades. This is simply not a working manuscript but an extensive collection of manuscripts, fragments, paragraphs, chapters, outlines. Schilt takes his reader through his analysis of what belongs where and why. Explaining his reasons for dating various pieces of writing and why he thinks over separately produced manuscripts belong to the Origines.

The reader gets presented with a master class in academic research detective work.

In the fourth and final section, Schilt does the same for the Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, as he did for Origines in section three. This is the manuscript on which Newton was working when he died, and which was edited and published by John Conduitt and Martin Folkes. Schilt also delivers a deep analysis as to why Newton was involved in chronological studies at all. Another master class in academic research detective work. As with the first two sections two and three both have their own bibliographies. 

I’m not going to go into any details of what Newton is trying the achieve with his chronological work, you’ll have to read the book for that, but his work is very different from that of the other Bible chronologists that the reader meets in section one. At the end of that first segment Schilt poses the question, is Newton a chronologist. His conclusion at the end of the fourth section is no he isn’t really. Newton’s chronology serves the higher purpose of helping him to analyse the Bible prophecies a central concern of his whole approach to religion. 

The book closes with “Some Concluding Remarks” which gives a one sentence summary of the book better then any I could create:

In this book, I have purposely presented the narrative of Newton’s chronological studies from the bottom up, as a quest in search of the real Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended and the real Newton

This he does brilliantly. He goes on the point out that given the vast quantity of manuscript material that Newton left behind when he died and which became spread out all over the world when Newton’s papers were sold off in public auction in the 1930s, his work and the work in general of the Newton Project and the Chymistry of Isaac Newton project, has only become possible because of digitation of the material making it available to researchers.

The book is excellently presented, it closes with another general bibliography and an excellent index. Each of the four sections starts with a clear and informative short abstract explaining its contents. It has extensive footnotes, not the dreaded endnotes. There are illustrations that are just excerpts from manuscripts, which, however, are interesting as they often show Newton actively editing his work. There are also diagrammatical presentations of Schilt’s reconstructions of the order in which individual pieces of work were created and how various manuscripts fit together (see above).

I suspect Schilt’s book is compulsory reading for any serious student of the whole Newton, i.e., not just those interested in the maths and physics and also for scholars of Bible chronology. However, I think it can also be read by those more generally interested in Newton the man, a complex, puzzling and totally fascinating figure. Schilt has opened another window on that conundrum that is J M Keynes’ “the  last of the magicians” Woolsthorpe’s finest, Isaac Newton. 


Filed under Book Reviews, Newton

9 responses to “Chronology, history, or prophecy?

  1. Pingback: Chronology, history, or prophecy? — The Renaissance Mathematicus | Die Goldene Landschaft

  2. The reliability of the Old Testament that Newton took for granted has since been questioned, particularly during the 20th Century. The best academic author I have found who takes a similar position to Newton is Kenneth Kitchen ( Personal and Brunner Professor Emeritus of Egyptology at Liverpool University) whose “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” published by Eerdmans in 2003 would be a useful adjunct in studying Newton’s work on biblical chronology as much of it is covers discoveries in Egyptology made during the 19th and 20th centuries and how they relate to the Old Testament story.

  3. Adam Apt

    Can you say how this book relates to the earlier book by Feingold (an old friend of mine) and Buchwald?

    • Adam, I assume you are referring to Buchwald & Feingold’s Newton and the Origin of Civilization. If so, the simple answer is no, as I haven’t read it (yet!). So many books, so little money, so little time.

      I can only quote the couple of short references that Schilt makes to it:

      “Newton’s chronological materials have attracted ample scholarly attention. Frank Manuel’s Isaac Newton, Historian (1963), and Jed Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold’s Newton and the Origin of Civilization (2013), with its elaborate treatment of Newton’s astronomical and genealogical calculations, are the most authoritative scholarly introductions to Newton’s studies of ancient history to date.” (p. 57)

      “From all this a rather distorted picture has emerged, as fragmented as the manuscript record itself. Manuel and Westfall made it seem as if Newton had pursued chronology only during the 1680s and early 1690s, then briefly around 1717 when he composed the ‘Short Chronicle’, and then again near the end of his life, during the 1720s, rewriting and transforming his earlier materials. Buchwald and Feingold have tried to rectify this picture, by showing how Newton at various points between the 1690s and 1720s was adding to his chronological research. But although they present fairly robust dates for Newton’s astronomical calculations, I believe their dating of Newton’s writings can be improved on.” (pp. 59-60)

      And there is also a small technical note, on a manuscript correction, and two footnotes.

      If you wish to know more, you will have to ask KeesJan Schilt himself. I suspect if you have already read Newton and the Origin of Civilization, all you will gain from Schilt’s book is extra technical details.

      Although I haven’t read Newton and the Origin of Civilization, I have read quite a lot of Mordechai Feingold’s work and I think he is an excellent historian.

  4. Pingback: Newton and Chronology: first review! – Corpus Newtonicum

  5. rtpoe

    That last graphic, Fig. 14 in Schilt’s work, brings to mind dendrochronology – putting together one grand timeline from several small fragments. Which, in a strange way, brings to mind what these historians were trying to do with their Biblical chronologies – piece together one complete chronology from various disparate elements….

  6. Maybe you’ve already answered this elsewhere, but is there any cross-pollination, so to speak, between Newton’s bible chronology and his work in astronomy and physics? I have in mind the example of Kepler, whose religious views had at least some influence on his astronomical work.

    • It is not a subject that I have written a lot about because I don’t feel qualified to do so but there was extensive cross pollination between Newton’s work in physics and astronomy and his views on religion, prophecy and chronology.

      Fundamentally, Newton believed in prisca theologia, which was a belief that back in the time of Moses, mankind had possessed perfect knowledge of all of creation and that over time mankind had degenerated and that knowledge had been lost.

      Newton believed that he had been chosen by God, not to discover, but to rediscover the secrets of nature. One of the reasons that he was so argumentative with his scientific competitors was that he saw them trespassing and poaching on his God given territory.

      To quote Jan Kees Schilt:

      There are related materials, most notably the so-called ‘Classical Scholia’, which he showed to a select group of intimates, including David Gregory, in the early 1690s. These scholia were again drafts for an intended second edition of the Principia and included ample references to ancient writers such as Pythagoras, Epicurus, and Lucretius, demonstrating a firm belief in a form of prisca mathematica. As such, he, Newton, was only discovering what had been known in ancient times but had been forgotten.

      There is an extensive footnote to this topic listing a lot of literature, which I’m not going to type up here

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