Newton and the Origin of Civilization

Newton and the Origin of Civilization

Newton and the Origin of Civilization

Newton and the Origin of Civilization


Isaac Newton's Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, published in 1728, one year after the great man's death, unleashed a storm of controversy. And for good reason. The book presents a drastically revised timeline for ancient civilizations, contracting Greek history by five hundred years and Egypt's by a millennium. Newton and the Origin of Civilization tells the story of how one of the most celebrated figures in the history of mathematics, optics, and mechanics came to apply his unique ways of thinking to problems of history, theology, and mythology, and of how his radical ideas produced an uproar that reverberated in Europe's learned circles throughout the eighteenth century and beyond.

Jed Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold reveal the manner in which Newton strove for nearly half a century to rectify universal history by reading ancient texts through the lens of astronomy, and to create a tight theoretical system for interpreting the evolution of civilization on the basis of population dynamics. It was during Newton's earliest years at Cambridge that he developed the core of his singular method for generating and working with trustworthy knowledge, which he applied to his study of the past with the same rigor he brought to his work in physics and mathematics. Drawing extensively on Newton's unpublished papers and a host of other primary sources, Buchwald and Feingold reconcile Isaac Newton the rational scientist with Newton the natural philosopher, alchemist, theologian, and chronologist of ancient history.


Newtons writings on biblical subjects seem to me especially interesting be
cause they provide deep insight into the characteristic intellectual features
and working methods of this important man. The divine origin of the Bible
is for Newton absolutely certain, a conviction that stands in curious contrast
to the critical skepticism that characterizes his attitude toward the churches.
From this confidence stems the firm conviction that the seemingly obscure
parts of the Bible must contain important revelations, to illuminate which
one need only decipher its symbolic language. Newton seeks this decipher
ment, or interpretation, by means of his sharp systematic thinking grounded
on the careful use of all the sources at his disposal.

—Draft of a letter from Albert Einstein to Abraham Yahuda.
September 1940

In 2006, archaeologists announced that the ancient Minoan kingdom on the island of Crete was a century older than had been thought. Radiocarbon dating of tree rings and seeds, coupled to statistics, placed the volcanic explosion of Thera, which likely ended the Minoan period, to between 1660 and 1613 BCE. This had disturbing consequences. It had been long held that the Minoan period overlapped the New Kingdom in Egypt, which began about 1550 BCE, and that contacts existed between the two civilizations. The revised dating made this impossible, since at the earlier time the Egyptians were ruled by Canaanite foreigners, the Hyksos. Nevertheless, the New York Times reported, “early indications suggest that proponents of the later chronology are not backing down. Their main line of defense is the Egyptian historical chronology, derived from its written records as well as pottery and iconography. They insist that a chronology tied to the Egyptian record could not be off by as much as 100 years.” Evidence drawn from a source that knows neither culture nor history—the traces of radiocarbon—suddenly battled in 2006 with the remnant words and art of antiquity. Still, the proponents of text and relic held their ground, while an archaeologist argued that “the dates offered in the textbooks for these periods have always been interpretations and estimates with little evidence.” The proper solution requires

ALS, 1p. [AEA 39–602], Albert Einstein Archives, by permission of the Hebrew University and Princeton University Press.

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