Sunday, 28 April 2019


One of 7,500 sheets of Isaac Newton's recently discovered private manuscripts.


Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), arguably one of the world’s greatest scientists, is best known for his Laws of Inertia, Acceleration and Reciprocal Actions. He also invented Calculus and discovered the Universal Principle of Gravitation.

However, there is another side of his life that has only come to light in the past few decades, with the discovery of some of his hitherto unknown non-scientific manuscripts.

Bernard Cohen writes about these manuscripts (quoting John Maynard Keynes):

“Upon his [Newton’s] death in 1727, a big box of unusual papers was discovered in his room. Bishop Samuel Horsley, who was also a scientist, ‘was asked to inspect the box with view to publication. He saw the contents with horror and slammed the lid...’"

Alan Avery-Peck writes:

“Bishop Horsley (1733-1806), who examined some of Newton’s papers on theology, declared them unfit for printing.”[1]

This article is an attempt at exploring the gist of some of the manuscripts which filled that box.


The story behind the discovery of Newton’s unexpected writings is fascinating:
Isaac Newton had passed away and left behind a big box of papers. This collection of writings remained, apparently unread, in the family home for two centuries. Even Cambridge and Harvard Universities, at that time, weren’t interested in receiving this collection of non-scientific documents.
It was only much later - in 1936 - that these papers were eventually sold at a public auction at Sotheby’s. 

On the same day as the auction, the other great auction house, Christie's, was selling Impressionist art, and that event attracted a much greater crowd. The result was that only two main bidders showed up at the Newton auction: the economist John Maynard Keynes (who bought the alchemy papers)[2] - and Avraham Shalom Yahuda, the son of a rabbi, and a Jewish Oriental Scholar and book collector (who bought the theological papers).


Avraham Shalom Yahuda was a collector who amassed what was reputed to be the largest and most valuable assemblage of rare Arabic books and manuscripts in private hands.[3] 

Sarah Dry describes how Yahudah came from a religious Jewish family. He was encouraged to study in the wider world, but was still expected to observe Jewish law. Once, while staying with an observant host family while studying in Frankfort, he felt the need to smoke a cigarette on Shabbat. Not wishing to offend his hosts, he caught a train to a nearby town and, as luck had it, he was seen smoking by a relative and was ostracised by his family.

As a result of this rejection by his family, he drifted towards a more ‘leftist’ style of Judaism.[4]

Sarah Dry writes:

“In 1915 Yahuda was offered a professorship in rabbinic literature and languages at the University of Madrid, the first such position to be created in Spain since the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Directed to make an appearance before King Alfonso XIII, Yahuda took the opportunity to proclaim both his heritage and his independence:
‘I am not the first in my family who appears in audience before one of your majesty’s family,’ he informed the monarch. ‘It was in the midtwelfth century, when one of my forefathers, Sheshet Benveniste, had the high honor of appearing before your majesty’s forefather, King Alfonso II.’”
Avraham Shalom Yahuda and Albert Einstein became friends. Einstein lent an air of importance to Yahuda’s newly acquired collection of Newton's theological papers when he wrote:

“While the formative development of Newton’s lasting physics works must remain shrouded in darkness, because Newton apparently destroyed his preparatory works, we do have in this domain of his works on the Bible drafts and their repeated modification; these mostly unpublished writings therefore allow a highly interesting insight into the mental workshop of this unique thinker.”

However, in 1955, just two weeks before Einstein died, he expressed his hope that the unpublished writings of Newton remain unpublished. He believed that they were uncompleted works and that was why they were placed in a box in the first place. Einstein felt Newton had the right to maintain the privacy of those personal writings.

Nevertheless, Yahuda’s collection of the Newton papers was eventually donated to the Israel National Library in 1969, and the shroud of mystery over his personal worldview was finally lifted.


Yahuda, a colourful character, had had disagreements with some of the early Zionists, including the first president of Israel, Chaim Weitzman. When Yahuda died in 1951, his wife Ethel inherited his entire library, including the Newton papers. She decided, despite her late husband’s disagreement with Weitzman, to donate all the books and manuscripts she had inherited, to the Israel National Library. She made this announcement at a luncheon in Israel – attended by the Israeli president - in the early 1950s. 

Ethel died in 1955 and in the absence of any written documentation concerning her donation, a relative challenged the legality of moving the library to Israel. A court case ensued until 1966 when the Supreme Court of Connecticut finally ruled that the library can be moved, because there was clear evidence of her oral intentions which were made before a large crowd.

This case became an important precedent for the intention of donations in the absence of written documentation.[5]

Recently, Israel’s National Library has digitised 7,500 pages of Newton’s theological writings from the Yahuda collection, as they were originally found and in his own handwriting. [See here.] 
The shroud of secrecy over the Newton papers had finally been lifted.
Lest one think that Newton may have experienced some sort of ‘break down’ by withdrawing into a theological cocoon, Keynes writes:

“All his unpublished works...are marked by careful learning, accurate method, and extreme sobriety of statement, they were nearly all composed during the same 25 years of his mathematical studies.”

There is still much of Newton’s personal life as well as some of his original drafts of his scientific work that are still withheld from us. B. Gordon writes:

“It’s perhaps no wonder that he hid his true identity and means of study from the public; he would have likely been ostracized and his scientific discoveries immediately dismissed.”[6]

According to Sarah Dry:

“The drafts were evidence not of insanity or senility but of a vigorous faith that did not waver... The recopying, the fact that Newton had rewritten sections two or even three times, was evidence of the difficulty of the task as well as Newton’s passion for it.”[7]


These newly discovered manuscripts paint a picture of Newton which is very different from the perceived ‘paragon of English rationality as enshrined in Westminster Abbey’.

According to Louis Trenchard More:

“[T]here was something sinister in his religious beliefs.”[8]

Alan Avery-Peck writes:

“The papers reveal that Newton was a strict monotheist. He saw no need for a new revelation and rebuffed the Christian notion of atonement and salvation...

...the Noahide precepts alone suffice for salvation, and thus there is no need for Jesus’ expiatory death.

...Newton was resolute in his belief that the Law of Moses was not abrogated with the advent of Christianity...”

Newton himself wrote quite tellingly:

“We need not pray to Christ to intercede for us.”[9]


Newton actually believed that Jewish thinking was behind Greek mathematics and philosophy. In his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, Newton claimed that the Greeks “had falsely predated their history by 300-400 years to cover-up that they had received their ideas in mathematics and philosophy from the Jews. For example, he hypothesized that Plato travelled to Egypt where he made contact with Jews.[10]


Apparently, Newton had more books on theology than any other books. His library included Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, an (incomplete version of) The Guide of the Perplexed, Abarbanel’s commentary on Vayikra, Seder Olam, and various Kabbalistic works.


According to the Sephardic Chacham, and academic writer, Rabbi Jose Faur:

“Newton's knowledge of Rabbinics was neither casual nor superficial. To illustrate, when expounding the apocalyptic conflict of Gog and Magog, Newton refers to the Targum or Aramaic Version of Esther (2:12), as well as to Vayikra Rabba, and the commentaries of Se'adya Gaon and Ibn `Ezra.

In a discussion of a Rabbinic passage, Newton records the opinion of R. Aharon ha-Levi (thirteenth century), the supposed author of Sefer haHinnukh, and his disagreement with Rashi on the matter at hand.

 He also refers to the Rabbinic work Sifra as well as to the position of R. Aharon ibn Hayyim (born c. 1560), the author of Qorban Aharon (Venice, 5369/ 1609).

Later on, he discusses Seder Ma'amadot (the participation of the Israelites in the daily sacrifices) and quotes the opinion of Bertinoro on the Mishna Yoma (7:1).

There are extensive copies in Newton's own hand of passages from the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud in Latin.”


According to many scholars, including Faur and Keynes, Newton was very much influenced by the writings of Maimonides.

Keynes, who is regarded as an expert in Newton’s theological manuscripts, wrote:

“Very early in life Newton abandoned orthodox belief in the Trinity...He was...a Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides.”[11]

Faur writes that:

“Newton's interest in Maimonides is well-documented. In addition to four books of Maimonides' Legal Code in Latin, as well as Pococke, Porta Mosis (1655) in Hebrew and Latin found in his library, there are thousands of words copied by Newton from Maimonides' legal writings in Latin. More importantly, there are many parallels between the doctrines of Maimonides and those of Newton... Newton did not see any contradiction between the realm of physics and the scriptural concept of God.

Newton used Rambam’s ‘Laws of sanctification of the New Moon’ in his notes on ‘considerations about rectifying the Julian calendar’.

He also studied the measurements of the Beit haMikdash and the Third Temple to understand the dimensions of the earth, because he believed that the Temple was a microcosm for the earth – and he quoted excerpts from the Latin translation of Maimonides’ De Cultu Divino, which explain those measurements.

Newton recorded his calculations of the amah or cubit in his Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews and Cubits of the several Nations. Dr Arnie Gotfryd claims that “[T]he accuracy of his analysis of the circumference of the earth and his theory on gravity were dependent on these findings.”

Many are unaware that Judaism also suggests a theology for non-Jews who wish to observe the seven commandments of Noah. This was intended to be a universal religion for all people of the world. Its adherents are known as Bnei Noach, and they live in theological harmony with Jews, correspondingly known as Bnei Yisrael.

Newton was aware of this and wrote:     

“Although the precepts of Noah are not as perfect as the religion of the Scripture, they suffice for salvation...Indeed, Jews had admitted into their gates heathens who accepted Noah’s precepts, but had not converted to the Law of Moses.”


It is now, perhaps, clear just why Bishop Horsley shut the lid of the box declaring these manuscripts unworthy of publication – and why the contents remained unknown until recently.

This fascinating collection of more than 8 million words which comprise Newton’s theological papers raises two important questions:

Was one of the world’s greatest scientists indeed influenced by Maimonides and did he regard himself as a Ben Noach?

Whatever the answer is, a great irony remains: - it is most likely that Newton never
even met a single Jew during his lifetime.

[1] Judaism and Christianity, by Alan Avery-Peck and Jacob Neusner, p. 133.
[2] Newton the Man, by John Maynard Keynes. 1946.
[3] Sarah Dry explains that the bulk of these—an incredible 4,800 Arabic texts spanning a thousand years of history and ranging across astronomy, mathematics, literature, geography, philosophy, and medicine—ended up in the Princeton University Library, making it the largest repository of Islamic manuscripts in North America (which it remains today). 
[4]According to Sarah Dry: “Yahuda was a forensic philologist, a practitioner of a brand of so-called Higher Criticism. ‘Lower Criticism’ concerned itself with the nuts and bolts of transcription, the errors introduced into texts by lazy or unskilled scribes, the almost unavoidable mutations a manuscript underwent as it was copied over many years. Higher Criticism was after bigger game, capturing not simply the literal meaning of words written long ago but the entire worldview or culture in which those words were written. What did the writer of the text mean to accomplish at the time? What events surrounded its composition? Such questions seem plain enough, but when asked of the Bible, they become sensational...”
[5] Hebrew University Assn. v. Nye.
[6] Sir Isaac Newton and Judaism, by B. Gordon.
[7] The Newton Papers, by Sarah Dry.
[8] Isaac Newton: A Biography (New York, 1962), p. 631.
[9] Sir Isaac Newton Theological Manuscripts, by McLauchlan, p. 51.
[10] The Newton You Never Knew, by Dr Arnie Gotfryd.
[11] Newton, the Man, The Royal Newton Tercentenary Celebrations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), p. 30.


  1. Strange how the world works, the Israeli National Library only landed up with the documents because Cambridge University, the university at which he lectured, rejected them. (There were Jewish professors and lecturers at Cambridge at the time that Newton taught there and there was a Hebrew Chair)

    Bernard Cohen wrote an exceptionally dry book in which at one stage he raises the issues of Newton's private papers called "Franklin and Newton..." Cohen suggests that Newton's principia mathematica has pages missing, as these pages rely on Rambam's principles and logic. (In the times of Newton, Judaism was not a religion with which one would voluntarily choose to associate) Benjamin Franklin, in his work on electricity, relies on the foundations of Newtonian physics and Newtonian principles. He obviously studied Newton's works extensively. Franklin, in turn, wrote an autobiography. In part of the book he dealt with method of overcoming one's undesirable characteristics - without expressly dealing with, or even realising, that he was reflecting the Rambam's similar concept. Did he draw it out of Newton's writings? What are that chances that both of these genii (geniuses) were more influenced more than they appreciated, by the earlier genius that was Maimonides?

    While Newton may have accepted the concept of a Ben Noach, he remained a firm Christian although he strongly disagreed with concept of the trinity. He also accepted the divine origin of the bible, unlike the church of his time. When his arch-rival Liebnitz started incorporating kabbalah into his theories, Newton studied the kabbalah in Latin. He then pronounced that Kaballah was a pagan theory that had introduced idolatry into Judaism which then introduced corruptions into Christianity.

    And a freebee: Newton taught himself Hebrew and calculated the end of days based on the Book of Daniel. He also predicted that the Jews would return to their homeland.

  2. It would be extremely difficult to remain a "firm Christian" whilst at the same time “The papers reveal that Newton was a strict monotheist. He saw no need for a new revelation and rebuffed the Christian notion of atonement and salvation..." It would be supremely paradoxical to believe in a religion, whilst at the same time, deny its very raison d'etre. It is possible to be a Christian and not believe in the Trinity as the history of Christianity from the days of the Jerusalem Church to the Mormons, shows.