Issac Newton and the Origin of Civilization by Jed Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold

By Bowler, Richard | International Social Science Review, Summer-Autumn 2014 | Go to article overview

Issac Newton and the Origin of Civilization by Jed Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold


Bowler, Richard, International Social Science Review


Buchwald, Jed and Mordechai Feingold. Isaac Newton and the Origin of Civilization, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. xvi + 528 pages. Cloth, $49.50.

Posthumously published in 1728, Isaac Newton's Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms Amended excited great controversy with its innovative methodology and radical re-dating of ancient history, challenging traditional lines of interpretation that had been advanced by historians, chronologers, and theologians. Many found it difficult to believe that Isaac Newton, now long famous for exposing the true system of the world in his magisterial Principia mathematica (1687), had pored over ancient myths and passages of Scripture to reconstruct the emergence of civilization after the Deluge. Some suggested that the demands of such an endeavor exceeded Newton's competency, despite his genius for mathematics and natural philosophy. Newton himself appeared to downplay these investigations. In the Chronology he claimed his explorations in these matters were simply a diversion to refresh himself when weary with other studies.

Building on the pioneering work of the historian Frank E. Manuel, who explored Newton's religious studies in both A Portrait of Isaac Newton and The Broken Staff, historians Jed Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold show that we can dismiss the idea that Newton conducted chronological research for relaxation. They demonstrate that Newton became devoted to studying ancient history by the 1680s, which was increasingly supplemented by work in technical chronology after 1700. Newton's research convinced him that elaborate kingdoms and city life emerged only slowly after the Flood (dated by the chronologer James Ussher at 2340 BCE), largely because the "course of nature," as evidenced by the primitive demography of his time, did not allow a suitable reproduction in the immediate postdiluvian period for a rapid repopulation, as many assumed. By synchronizing ancient, pagan sources with the Hebrew Scriptures, Newton delayed the development of Egypt and Greece until after the reign of Solomon (d. 980 BCE), thereby believing he had properly situated the origins of civilization within the constraints posed by the natural rhythm of human procreation and the general confines of Masoretic (Biblical) time reckoning. His tenuous identification of the Egyptian king Sesostris with the Biblical Sesac enabled him to contract traditional Egyptian history by at least six hundred years. Since Newton believed the emergence of Greek civilization hinged on the creation of a powerful Egyptian kingdom, he accordingly postponed its development by some five hundred years.

Buchwald and Feingold have worked with an astonishing array of sources, notably a vast stock of unpublished manuscripts, to reconstruct the complex formulation of Newtonian chronology, making clear that in his chronological studies (as in everything else he did) Newton stands out as a unique product of his age. He shared with his contemporaries an intense devotion to the revealed truth of Scripture, believing, for example, in the reality of the Creation, the Flood, and the way Biblical prophecy, properly (and only retrospectively) understood, made manifest divine efficacy in human affairs. Newton also adopted the Euhemerist conviction, common in his day, which allowed ancient deities and myths to be correlated with Biblical personalities and events.

Newton, however, appears to have been unusually skeptical about sources of knowledge. The unaided senses were irremediably flawed; instruments and experimentation had their limits; observation and measurement inevitably produced discrepant data; literary sources and oral testimony were the worst of all. That said, Newton was hardly the categorical skeptic: he admitted that truth could be discovered, but only after careful analysis, comparison, and synchronization of all the relevant sources; in this way, error would effectively cancel itself out. …

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