Sunday, April 3, 2011

Isaac Newton on Ancient Wisdom

Isaac Newton 1643 – 1727
The Noahides, or Children of Noah, held – or hold if they still exist, I'm not sure – that Noah was the first to believe in one God, and was issued with Seven Laws. (I'll come to Newton in a minute so bear with me.) The Seven Laws of Noah included: that you must have but one supreme Lord God, that you must not profane his name, that you must abstain from fornication, from theft and all injuries, and must be merciful, even to brute beasts. 

Noahidism holds that whilst only Jews are obliged to abide by the Ten Commandments and rest of the Jewish Law, all humanity is required to observe the Seven Laws of Noah.

On a blackboard

This little factoid came to me from attending a lecture about Isaac Newton at UCC on Wednesday.  Cork Astronomy Club had rescheduled a committee meeting to enable members to attend this lecture and I must say it didn’t begin auspiciously. An elderly lecturer, a poorly photocopied handout, the first two pages of which were in Latin, and, deary me, chalk and a blackboard, no PowerPoint.

Moreover a good portion of the lecture went straight over my head.

So I'll stick to the bit that didn’t.   Lets start with my meagre store of knowledge about Newton when I entered to room: that he is considered by many to be the greatest scientist that ever lived, that he was a deeply unpleasant man, and that he said some quotable quotes.

My favourite being : “ I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than the ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. ”

I was also aware he held strange religious beliefs. One of these, it turns out, was Noahidism. But a strange religious belief? From what standpoint do we call Noahidism strange? Actually from the brief outline I've read in Wikipedia it seems quite an attractive doctrine.


Professor George L. Huxley told us: “The more one studies Newton the more one feels humble in his presence”.  He had a thirst for facts.  Theology was of supreme importance for him.

The idea of the creator loomed over everything else in Newton’s mind. He was a Unitarian, meaning he was resolutely against the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  This conviction seems to have been the most important thing in his life, and made him intensely lonely.  Even with his friends he had to be circumspect.  For in those days, to be at Cambridge University you had to sign the 39 Articles, and one of these articles was belief in the Trinity. Had the authorities got wind of Newton’s belief that there was only God and no Trinity, he would have been expelled. It must surely have rankled with him that his Cambridge college was actually called Trinity.

And the worst of it was, that to be Lucasian Professor of Mathematics you had to be ordained a Church of England vicar.  Luckily a friend of his went out of his way to get this rule quashed so Newton could hold the post.

I want to go back to the professor saying Newton’s religious beliefs were the most important thing in his life.  Let’s scan this. It means that though Newton was perhaps the greatest scientist ever, there was something even more important to him than that! This needs pondering.

The professor speculated that Newton’s psychological makeup was strongly influenced by having to live his whole life outwardly conformist, yet knowing that he had unique access to the Truth.

Being anxious to prove that Noah took priority over the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks, Newton spent a huge amount of time, energy and erudition on comparative chronology.  He needed to prove that Noah lived before the Argonauts expedition of Greek legend. He did this by calculating the precession of the equinoxes.   (Don’t ask. But if you want to look it up, here's Wikipedia).  The precession of the equinoxes was a phenomenon unknown to the ancient Greeks, and Newton was able to use his knowledge of it to calculate from astronomical references (in Homer I suppose) that the Argonauts expedition took place 43 years after the death of King Solomon. Thus a long time after Noah.

Thereby Newton felt he had shown that the Seven Laws of Noah are the most ancient wisdom, and the lecture was called “Isaac Newton on Ancient Wisdom”.

Mythical events

Here I pause. Did I say Newton is possibly the greatest scientist that ever lived? Yet here he is applying his brain to whether one mythical event happened before or after another mythical event.  What conclusions can we draw from this?

(a)    Maybe Newton was actually a bit of bozo so can't possibly have been greatest scientist ever

(b)    Or maybe I'm not as smart as I think I am. I only know Noah and the Argonauts are mythical because of geology, Darwin etc. In which case, as Newton didn’t have access to this information, he remains eligible to be the greatest scientist.

Then there was Newton's biblical textual criticism. Newton may not have invented this but he must have been one of the first.  By comparing various New Testament texts including an early gospel from Ethiopia, he was able to reconstruct which text was the earliest. And by this means was able to work out that a supposed reference to the Trinity in a New Testament book known as the First Letter of John, has actually been corrupted to lend spurious weight to the doctrine of the Trinity.  (See footnote)

All this he did while inventing gravity and discovering the laws of nature in his spare time.  

Yes I'm glad we changed that committee meeting.  I've emailed the good professor with a few questions and eagerly await his replies. Professor Emeritus George L. Huxley was introduced to us as adjunct Professor of Maths and Ancient Classics at Maynooth.  That’s some combination.  A worthy successor to Newton I would say.  Sometimes it’s fun just to sit and listen to someone who’s right on top of their subject even if half of it does go over your head.

1 John 5:7 usually appears as "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one." This supports the doctrine of the Trinity. For a discussion of how it might
have been different and less Trinitarian, see this article on the Johannine Comma.


  1. What makes you refer to Newton as "deeply unpleasant" Pete? My knowledge of him is far far less than yours was but I'm interested to know. Also, was the whole Noah story made up years after the supposed events, or only embellished (ie was there any truth in it)? I had no idea he had a doctrine or followers, the talk sounds very interesting.

  2. Robert Hooke was a brilliant scientist and Newton did him in, so it’s always said. I'll have to look up the details. It's hard to say just how accurate this portrayal is, but the common view is that this was typical of the way Newton conducted himself.

    Noah was a mythical figure. But in Newton’s day the distinction wasn’t as clear as it seems to us. We distinguish between mythical, legendary and historical. Jesus was historical. King Arthur is legendary, meaning there's a good chance that at the bottom of all the King Arthur stories there is an actual person who really did live in Britain at the end of the Roman empire, but we are most unlikely ever to find him, so all we have is the legends. And mythical means a fictional character about whom stories are told to help us understand the world. That’s Noah.

    And in the Noah myth the rest of humanity was drowned in the Flood, so all existing humans must be descended from him. Newton clearly believed that Noah had a doctrine and saw himself and Noah’s follower. But we would say today that a mythical person can't have doctrines. Though I suppose they can have followers!

    From ancient times up till Newton’s day and even beyond, it was common to assume that mythical figures were legendary – ie based on real persons who had actually lived at some time, and about whom miraculous stories had accumulated over the years.