Monday, June 18, 2007

Breaking News from 1700

The Associated Press discovers what Thomas Jefferson already knew:
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Three-century-old manuscripts by Isaac Newton calculating the exact date of the apocalypse, detailing the precise dimensions of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and interpreting passages of the Bible -- exhibited this week for the first time -- lay bare the little-known religious intensity of a man many consider history's greatest scientist.

Newton, who died 280 years ago, is known for laying much of the groundwork for modern physics, astronomy, math and optics. But in a new Jerusalem exhibit, he appears as a scholar of deep faith who also found time to write on Jewish law -- even penning a few phrases in careful Hebrew letters -- and combing the Old Testament's Book of Daniel for clues about the world's end...

In one manuscript from the early 1700s, Newton used the cryptic Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the apocalypse, reaching the conclusion that the world would end no earlier than 2060.

"It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner," Newton wrote. However, he added, "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."
I'm surprised that Newton's religious interest is news to the AP. In fact, Newton was a lifelong student of the scriptures* and wrote copiously about subjects historical and prophetical. And this is not something newly-discovered, either: I have in my library a reprint of Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of Newton's commentary on Daniel and Revelation, complete with Jefferson's handwritten marginal notes. Newton repeatedly claimed that he spent far more time in the Bible than on science**, which leads me to believe that the AP knows a lot less about Newton than it thinks it does.

The AP also seems less interested in Newton's thought than in making him into another of a long line of apocalyptic date-setters. Newton did not "calculate the exact date of the apocalypse" as the article's first sentence claims - just read his last quote above, Newton says exactly the opposite of what the AP says he says - but rather interpreted the scriptures in the light of later history and concluded the end was a long, long way off and probably incalculable***. Rather than the precise date of the end, Newton was concerned about the practice of setting dates discrediting the scriptures themselves in the eyes of a gullible and ignorant public - even though the scriptures warn against date-setting. That certainly seems to be a problem that continues today.

But perhaps the AP's surprise arises from the paradigm that separates faith from science and the faithful from the rational****. That paradigm, wholly a product of modern times, would have surprised Newton no little bit. For not only was he the single most important contributor to the methods and philosophy of modern science, he was a man who firmly believed that science only worked because a rational God created a rational universe that could be understood by rational men created in His image. Even if He didn't tell us when it would all end.

* The book of Daniel in particular, of which he began a lifelong study at age 12.

** Which also makes the AP's claims that his religious intensity was "little known" and that he "found time" to study Moses just a trifle silly. Perhaps "little known" just means the reporter asked her co-workers and they hadn't heard that, either.

***He did, however, insist that before the end a Jewish state would be re-established in Palestine. That it didn't happen for 300 years after he made the assertion probably made him look foolish at the time, but he who laughs last laughs best, I suppose.

**** The article notes that "The Newton papers...complicate the idea that science is diametrically opposed to religion." It's more of a meme than an idea, but don't tell Dawkins.

Copyright 2007 El Borak, inc. Makers of Stovehenge brand yard art kits for rednecks. Turn those old appliances into an astrologically significant landmark from the comfort of your trailer home.

No comments: