Israel’s Isaac Newton papers gain UNESCO recognition
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Israel’s Isaac Newton papers gain UNESCO recognition

7,500 handwritten texts at Israel National Library reveal little-known theological views of the father of modern science

Books on a shelf inside the National Library of Israel, which holds more than 5 million books, and is located on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. July 06, 2011.  (Photo by Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Books on a shelf inside the National Library of Israel, which holds more than 5 million books, and is located on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. July 06, 2011. (Photo by Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Isaac Newton, the towering 17th century English figure best known for discovering the laws of gravity, was also fascinated by theology and understood sufficient Hebrew to read the Jewish Bible and other texts.

Now, his 7,500 handwritten theological papers, housed at Israel’s National Library, have been recognized by UNESCO as part of its “Memory of the World” program aimed at preserving documentary heritage that has contributed to the history and development of mankind.

“Newton believed that science and faith were inextricably linked,” said an announcement by the library, “and that God is the author of two books: the book of science and the Holy Book. These two books are the key to understanding the world and its history from the beginning until the end. As embodied in this exquisite collection, Newton enabled physics and theology to live together in perfect harmony.”

Dr. Milka Levy-Rubin, the library’s Humanities Collection Curator, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that Newton believed that if he could properly interpret the secrets encrypted in the Bible and other sacred texts, he would reach the truth and be able to discover the future as well as the past.

Newton brought science to bear in his probing of religious works. He calculated the world would end in 2060

He belonged to a group of 17th century thinkers dubbed the Hebraists, who studied the Old Testament, as well as Talmud and Kabbalah.

He could write Hebrew and read enough to understand it, with the help of language guides, Levy-Rubin said.

The papers fell into the hands of Jerusalem-born Abraham Shalom Yahuda, a linguist and writer, expert in Middle Eastern studies and collector of rare documents, in 1936.

An engraving of Isaac Newton based on a 1726 painting by John Vanderbank. (photo credit: AP/NY Public Library, File)
An engraving of Isaac Newton based on a 1726 painting by John Vanderbank. (photo credit: AP/NY Public Library, File)

The Newton family had offered to donate the scientist’s manuscripts to his alma mater Cambridge University. Interested only in those dealing with physics, the university returned the manuscripts focusing on chemistry and theology, Levy-Rubin said.

Shalom Yahuda was able to buy the theology papers at a Sotheby’s auction for a fraction of their worth, because Christie’s nearby was holding a more eagerly attended auction of impressionist art.

The chemistry papers were snapped up by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who did some post-auction swapping with Shalom Yahuda, according Levy-Rubin. The theological collection was donated to israel’s National Library in the late 1960s.

Newton brought science to bear in his probing of religious works. He calculated that the world would end in 2060 and believed he could reconstruct the Temple if he could work out the length of the aqueducts that brought water there.

He was fascinated by the Third Temple prophesied by Ezekiel and studied other biblical prophets such as Daniel, Levy-Rubin added.

The National Library’s collection of the Newton Papers is now available to the general public in digital format. All of the papers are also linked in the catalog to the Newton Project where they are presented in two versions: a “diplomatic” version that includes all the changes and corrections as they appear in the original manuscript, and a clean version that enables a continuous reading of the text.

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