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Newton’s Chronology

‘All Nations, before they began to keep exact accounts of Time, have been prone to raise their Antiquities; and by this humour has been promoted, by the Contentions between Nations about their Originals.’

The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms amended (London, 1728), p. 43.

The chronology of ancient kingdoms amended (London, 1728), titlepage.

Worth’s interest in all things Newtonian is not only visible in the double editions he collected of Newton’s most celebrated works but also in his purchase of this posthumous work. The publisher’s advertisement, following the dedication, declares that ‘The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms amended, was writ by the Author many years since; yet he lately revis’d it, and was actually preparing it for the Press at the time of his death’. The resulting book was a very odd work indeed – and not just because its subject matter was so totally divorced from his major texts. The scope of the Chronology was very broad: the main text was preceded by a ‘Short Chronicle from the First Memory of Things in Europe, to the Conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great’ which the publisher stated had not been revised because Newton had no intention of making it public. Its inclusion was explained by the fact that it provided material in an abridged format which correlated with the main text. The text proper was divided into a lengthy Chapter I, which examined the chronology of the Greeks; Chapter II focused on the empire of Egypt; Chapter III on the Assyrian empire; Chapter IV on the two ‘Contemporary Empires of the Babylonians and Medes’; Chapter V was a ‘Description of the Temple of Solomon’; and, finally, Chapter VI which examined the empire of the Persians.

Portrait of Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach.

The addition of the ‘Short Chronicle’ to the text was undoubtedly because it had been the part of the work read by Queen Caroline (1683-1737), whom Newton’s nephew-in-law, John Conduitt (1688–1737), in his memoire of Newton’s life, calls ‘the Minerva of her age’. Here Conduitt was eager to draw attention to the role played by the Queen in the genesis of the Chronology:

‘The Queen, who shews so much favour and countenance to all learned men, and entertains herself often with hearing arguments concerning matters of philosophy and divinity, frequently desired to see him, and always expressed great satisfaction in his conversation; she was graciously pleased to take part in the disputes he was engaged in during his life, and expressed a great regards for every thing that concerned his honour and memory, after his death. I must not omit telling you, that I have often had the honour to hear her Majesty say, before the whole circle, that she kept the abstract of Chronology Sir Isaac gave her, written in his own hand, among her choicest treasures, and that she thought it a happiness to have lived at the same time, and to have known so great a man.’

Certainly Queen Caroline had played an important (though perhaps unwitting) role in bringing the text to publication. As early as 1716 her attention had been drawn to the fact that Newton was writing a work on chronology and she asked to see it. This left Newton in something of a quandary since he could not possibly give her the draft of his ‘Theologiae gentilis origines philosophicae’ on which the work was based. This was a text, begun in the 1680s and subsequently radically revised on numerous occasions. It never saw the light of day in Newton’s lifetime because of its heretical implications: as Westfall (2004) relates, Newton’s anti-Trinitarianism was to the fore in his re-dating system which moved away from James Ussher’s focus on Christ to treat Christ as just another prophet. Newton’s solution had been simple: he provided the Queen with a ‘Short Chronicle from the First Memory of Things in Europe, to the Conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great’, which contained nothing that could be deemed theological suspect since it was a simple listing of dates from 1125 BC (during the reign of Pharoah Mephres in Upper Egypt), to the death of Darius Codomannus in 331 BC. Given that it was this text with which the Queen was familiar, it made sense in the subsequent posthumous publication, to include it in pride of place.

Conduitt’s dedication of the heavily revised 1728 Chronology to the Queen not only drew attention to her support for Newton but also was a carefully chosen device to shield the book from the criticism which Conduitt obviously expected. A defensive note runs through the entire dedication: Conduitt makes it clear that the work would not have been published without the Queen’s intervention; he draws attention, not only to Newton’s own tolerance but lays emphasis on ‘That Sincerity and Openness of mind, which is the darling quality of this Nation’. He further states that the Chronology was not to be included among Newton’s ‘severer studies’ and it is striking that as editor he refers to the subject matter as ‘only Chronology’, representing it as little more than one of Newton’s hobbies, ‘the fruits of his [Newton’s] vacant hours, and the relief he sometimes had recourse to, when tired with his other studies’.

The chronology of ancient kingdoms amended (London, 1728), Plate of the Temple of Solomon.

The rather eclectic nature of this posthumous work is nowhere more apparent than in Chapter V, which is a detailed description of the Temple of Solomon. Based heavily on Newton’s readings of Ezekiel, and the books of Chronicles and Kings, Newton used both the Hebrew and Septuagint versions, combining their account to provide the reader with a new version of Ezekiel’s vision (Chapter XL, verse 5 etc). This methodology undoubtedly flew in the face of previous chronological accounts which had either chosen to use the Hebrew text of the old testament or the Septuagint and it is clear that even in its heavily revised version of 1728 the implications of the work were clear to clergymen of the Church of England. It was subsequently vociferously condemned in another work collected by Worth: Arthur Bedford’s The Scripture Chronology demonstrated by Astronomical observations (London, 1730). As the title of Bedford’s work makes clear, Bedford, a Church of England clergyman, was keen to uphold James Ussher’s famous chronological work The annals of the world (London, 1658). Central to Ussher’s chronology had been an acceptance of the Hebrew chronology and this was duly highlighted by Bedford who fundamentally disagreed with Newton’s use of the much longer Septuagint timeframe.

Bedford explains in his preface how, on hearing that Newton’s Chronology was due to be published he had stopped work on his own, only to find, as he says, ‘When it was published, I found his Astronomical Observations to be very few, and even those not to be satisfactory. And as the Septuagint and Samaritan Versions would destroy the Authority of the Hebrew Text, by Placing the Date of Creation too far forward; so I found, that Sir Isaac’s Hypothesis would have the same Consequence, by bringing the History too far backward.’ According to Bedford, Newton’s Chronology was ‘contrary to all Mankind, and utterly destructive of the Scripture History’ and he therefore brought out an initial rebuttal in 1728. However, realising that this was not enough, Bedford then devoted himself to publishing his major work: The Scripture Chronology demonstrated by Astronomical observations (London, 1730).

His scripture chronology demonstrated by astronomical calculations (London, 1730), titlepage.


Hall, A. Rupert (1999), Isaac Newton. Eighteenth-Century Perspectives (Oxford).

Mandelbrote, Scott (2002), ‘Newton and eighteenth-century Christianity’ in I. Bernard Cohen and George E. Smith (eds) The Cambridge Companion to Newton (Cambridge), pp. 409-430.

Mandelbrote, Scott (2004) ‘Bedford, Arthur (bap. 1668, d. 1745)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

Westfall, Richard S. (2004) ‘Newton, Sir Isaac (1642–1727)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

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