NEWTON’S REVISION OF ANCIENT CHRONOLOGY BASED ON ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATIONS

NEWTON, Sir Isaac. The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended. To which is Prefix’d, A Short Chronicle from the First Memory of Things in Europe, to the Conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great [edited by John Conduitt]. London: J. Tonson, J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1728.

Quarto (230 x 182mm), pp. xiv, [2 (contents and advertisement/errata)], 376. Printed in roman and greek type. Engraved arms of the dedicatee by P. Foudrinier at head of dedication, one engraved initial, and 3 engraved folding plates. (Occasional light marking, short tear on B3, plates slightly creased.) Contemporary British sheep gilt, boards with gilt-ruled borders, spine gilt in compartments, [?later] gilt morocco lettering-piece in one, board-edges roll-tooled in blind, all edges speckled red. (Slightly rubbed and scuffed, causing small losses at extremities, splitting on joints, skilfully reinforced.) A very good, crisp copy in a contemporary binding. Provenance: [Edward or possibly Roger] Howman (engraved armorial bookplate of Roger Howman MD (1640-1705), also used by his son (Edward Howman MD, d. 1753; Franks 15570) and grandson (Roger Howman, d. 1766); cf. David Pearson ‘English Book Owners in the Seventeenth Century’, s.v.)– Edwin Ash, Poulton, Wiltshire, 8 May 1874 (ownership inscription on upper pastedown) – Kate Reylock (trial signatures on lower pastedown).

First edition,standard-paper issue.Newton’s serious, scholarly interest in theology began a few years after his appointment as a Minor Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1667, probably due to the obligation to enter holy orders incumbent upon fellows of the college. In about 1670, ‘[i]n his usual style [Newton] purchased a notebook and entered a set of headings under which to collect the fruits of his reading in an orderly way […]. He devoured the Bible, making himself a master of it to an extent that few could match, and tackled the early fathers of the church in a prodigious programme of reading that took him through all the major fathers and many lesser ones as well. Almost immediately his study found a focus. In his notebook headings such as “Christi passio, descensus, et resurrection” and “Christi satisfactio, & redemption”, apparently expected to be major topics from the space allotted to them in anticipation, received very few entries. “Deus filius” (“God the Son”), on the other hand, spilled over the smaller space originally intended for it, and the entries he did set down suggest that very early he began to see a distinction between God the Father and God the Son and to question the status of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.It did not take Newton long to read himself right out of orthodoxy. He became fascinated with the theological struggle of the fourth century as a result of which trinitarianism was established as Christian orthodoxy. For Athanasius, the principal architect of trinitarianism, he developed more than a mere antipathy – passionate hatred is a better description. One of his manuscripts, “Paradoxical questions concerning the morals & actions of Athanasius & his followers” […], virtually stood Athanasius in the dock and prosecuted him for an extended litany of sins. Newton enlisted himself among the disciples of Athanasius’s opponent,Arius, for whom Christwas not an eternal part of the Godhead but a created intermediary between God and man, a doctrine similar but not identical to modern unitarianism’ (ODNB). These heterodox religious opinions were carefully concealed by Newton and did not impede his progress to the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669; the potential problem caused by the requirement for ordination was circumvented by a royal mandate removing the obligation from the Lucasian Professor, thus avoiding any embarrassing examination of Newton’s religious beliefs.

In The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended ‘Newton attempts to determine the dates of ancient events from astronomical considerations and indicates the manner in which astronomy might be used to verify the views on the chronological points derived in the main from Ptolemy, which were held in his time’ (Babson). The text, which evolved over a long period of time, had its origins inNewton’s ‘most important theological composition, “Theologiae gentilis origines philosophicae” (“The philosophical origins of gentile theology”)’ (ODNB), which dates from the early 1680s, and ‘removed the coming of Christ from the focus of world history and treated him as merely the latest in a series of prophets sent by God to reclaim mankind from false gods. But mankind has an innate tendency to idolatry; trinitarianism, the worship of a creature as God, was only another turn in the cycle that throughout history had repeatedly perverted worship’ (op. cit.). It developed through the following decades but remained in manuscript and unknown outside the author’s circles until 1716, when the Italian Abbé Antonio Schinella Conti (a friend of Newton’s) spoke of Newton’s work on chronology to the Princess of Wales, who demanded to see the text. ‘Newton had no intention of surrendering a manuscript he considered potentially damaging. Because he could not refuse a royal command, he hastily composed an “Abstract”, later called the “Short chronology”, which put the work in a shape, little more than a list of dates, which Newton deemed suitable for the princess’s eyes’ (op. cit.). Conti, however, took a copy of the ‘Abstract’ to Paris, where he showed it to French scholars who questioned Newton’s chronology, and the text was eventually published – without Newton’s knowledge or consent – as Abrégé de la chronologie de […] Isaac Newton, fait par lui-même, & traduit sur le manuscrit anglais (Paris, 1725), including criticisms of Newton’s proposed chronology. Upon learning of the work, Newton responded with ‘Remarks upon the Observations made upon a Chronological Index of Sir Isaac Newton, Translated into French by the Observator, and Publish’d at Paris’, which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in late 1725, and continuedto work on the text during the final years of his life.

After Newton’s death in 1727, the manuscript was discovered by his heirs and edited for publication by his niece’s husband, John Conduitt, who dedicated it to Queen Caroline, the former Princess of Wales, whose husband had ascended to the throne as George II in 1727. The final, published text comprises the ‘Short Chronology’, followed by six chapters enlarging upon the evidence from a variety of sources, including the Bible, literature, astronomy, and archaeological finds, which Newton drew upon to establish his chronology: ‘Of the Chronology of the First Ages of the Greeks’; ‘Of the Empire of Egypt’; ‘Of the Assyrian Empire’; ‘Of the Two Contemporary Empires of the Babylonians and Medes’; ‘A Description of the Temple of Solomon’; and ‘Of the Empire of the Persians’. The first edition of The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, for which the rights were sold for £350, was published in two states: an issue on large and thick paper and a standard-paper issue (as here).

Babson 215; ESTC N2784; Gray 309; Wallis 309.

£950

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