NEWTON (ISAAC) Autograph manuscript, in English, headed "The Question stated about abstaining from blood", complete in itself and comprising two drafts (each ending "Quaere, Whether the law be still in force?") towards a passage in his last work, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, with extensive autograph revisions, deletions and insertions, [c. 1719]
Lot 111
NEWTON (ISAAC)
Autograph manuscript, in English, headed "The Question stated about abstaining from blood", complete in itself and comprising two drafts (each ending "Quaere, Whether the law be still in force?") towards a passage in his last work, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, with extensive autograph revisions, deletions and insertions, [c. 1719]
Sold for £58,750 (US$ 78,592) inc. premium

Lot Details
NEWTON (ISAAC)
Autograph manuscript, in English, headed "The Question stated about abstaining from blood", complete in itself and comprising two drafts (each ending "Quaere, Whether the law be still in force?") towards a passage in his last work, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, with extensive autograph revisions, deletions and insertions, a four-line autograph endorsement on the verso of the second leaf ("Tis not any defilement by prohibited meats but the danger of idolatry & cruelty upon which the prohibition of eating them is founded, not the company of weomen, but the ill consequences in certain cases which occasioned the prohibition in those case"), and some words in Hebraic script (such as 'sacrifices', 'blasphemy', 'theft', 'idolatry', and the 'cruelty of man'):
The Apostles therefore being consulted about obliging the Gentiles by circumcision to become the sons of Abraham & keep the law of Moses returned such an answer as imported that it was sufficient for them to observe the laws imposed upon the sons of Noah before the days of Abraham.

Some of those laws were moral & sufficiently enforced by the Christian religion; as to abstain from idolatry blasphemy & theft: others were positive; as to abstain from things offered to idols, from blood & things strangled & from fornication: that is, from communicating with the heathen in their festivals upon things offered to idols because it tends to idolatry, from blood & things strangulated because it leads to cruelty, & from prohibited weomen because of the ill consequences, whether they were prohibited untill marriage only or by reason of affinity, or of their being idolaters or during their menses.

Noah was allowed to feed upon animals provided they were killed by bleeding to death. But he was not allowed to feed upon blood least he should thirst after the blood of animals & for the sake of it become cruel & kill more animals then was necessary for food, or cut them in pieces before they were quite dead by bleeding. He was not to eat things stranguled because that sort of death is painfull. He was not to eat a limb taken off from a living animal because of the cruelty. And so Moses commanded that the people of Israel should not seeth a Kid in the mothers milk, nor take a bird with its young nor muzzel the mouth of an Ox which treadeth out the corn, because such actions incline men to cruelty & savour of unmercifulness...
3 pages, a few small stains, one short worm-track and two small worm holes, large folio (310 x 194mm.), [c. 1719]

Footnotes

  • 'THE LAWS IMPOSED UPON THE SONS OF NOAH BEFORE THE DAYS OF ABRAHAM' – ISAAC NEWTON AT WORK ON HIS LAST PROJECT, drafting his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, which was to be published posthumously in 1728.

    John Locke described his friend Newton as 'a very valuable man not only for his wonderful skill in Mathematicks but in divinity too and his great knowledg in the Scriptures where in I knew few his equals'; and Newton himself said of his Principia that 'When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering man for the beliefe of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose'.

    With the recent greater availability of Newton's non-scientific manuscripts, modern scholarship has reversed the view that Newton's theological interests were an aberration of his old age. In fact he pursued them throughout his life. In the Principia Newton himself stated that 'this most beautiful system of the sun, planets & comets could only proceed from the counsel & dominion of an intelligent & powerful being'. He was committed to the tradition of the prisca sapientia, the Renaissance idea that the ancients had possessed true knowledge about God and the world, and his surveys of Christian and Jewish theology were carried out to retrieve pure doctrine -- ancient knowledge was valid as a key to Truth. He considered his theological pursuits to be 'a duty of the greatest moment' and was convinced that God revealed himself in Scripture as well as Nature and therefore that theology and science were two sides of the same coin, two parts of the same whole, interrelated, interconnected, each throwing light on the other; God's intentions were revealed equally through science and theology – through the 'books' of Nature and of Scripture. Indeed the bulk of Newton's writings and manuscripts were on theological and alchemical (also no longer considered an aberration) subjects. Newton owned more books on humanistic learning than on mathematics or science and about half of his manuscripts were on religious and theological subjects (mostly still unpublished) including a 429-page ecclesiastical history entitled 'Of the Church'.

    The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, his last completed work, is of especial importance in this context: 'It was theology rather than science, however, that dominated the consciousness of the ageing man. Some time between 1705 and 1710 he returned to the subject he had largely ignored for two decades, and theology formed the principal staple of Newton's intellectual life from that time until his death... One theme unites much of it. Newton had become a prominent man of the world who did not intend to compromise his position by publicly espousing opinions that had passionately stirred an isolated young don in Cambridge. Much of his effort was devoted to laundering those opinions to obscure their radical thrust. The most radical of Newton's theological endeavours had been his 'Theologiae gentilis origines philosophicae', which he transformed into the Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, as the manuscript published soon after his death was entitled... When he died his heirs found the completed manuscript of the Chronology, which they immediately sold to a publisher for £350' (Richard S. Westfall, ODNB).

    In the present manuscript, Newton grapples with the precedence of Noahide and Mosaic Laws over those of Abraham, and their meaning and application, finding that an earlier law of God imposed on all nations, not only the sons of Abraham, the avoidance of eating of blood; he also touches on the questions of circumcision and the Gentiles, fornication ('...& from prohibited weomen because of the ill consequences, whether they were prohibited until marriage only or by reason of affinity, or of their being idolaters or during their menses...'). It forms part of Newton's Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, in which he uses taxonomic materials to argue for the greater antiquity of the Hebraic world than any of the pagan ones and for the original revelation having been given to the Hebrews, particularly Noah and his sons.

    A few days before Newton's death, Zachary Pearce, rector of Newton's home parish, St. Martins-in-the-Fields, visited him and found him 'writing over his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms...He then told me that he was preparing his Chronology for the press, and that he had written the greatest part of it over for that purpose...' (Richard S. Westfall, Never At Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, 1998, p.869). A possible date for our manuscript is suggested by a bill dated May 1719 in the Yahuda Manuscripts in the Jewish National and University Library, on the verso of which Newton has drafted some of the same material (Westfall, p.821).

    It was rumoured among his contemporaries that Newton abstained from black-pudding and rabbits (whose meat remained bloody because they were killed by strangulation) because of the Old Testament prohibition against eating blood. After his death, his niece, Catherine Conduitt, claimed that this was a matter of ethics rather than taste: 'He said meats strangled were forbid because that was a painfull death & the letting out of blood the easiest & that animals should be put to as little pain as possible, that the reason why eating blood was forbid was because it was thought the eating blood inclined man to be cruel'; a stance reflected by our manuscript. This prohibition, of course, underpins Jewish kosher and Muslim halal methods of preparing food and the refusal of Jehovah's Witnesses to allow blood transfusions.

    Provenance: Sir Isaac Newton to his niece, Catherine Conduitt and her husband John, whose daughter, also Catherine, married in 1740 John Wallop, Viscount Lymington, son of the Earl of Portsmouth; by descent in the Portsmouth family at Hurstbourne Park (surviving a fire in 1891); sold at Sotheby's London by the ninth Earl of Portsmouth (1898-1984) on 13 July 1936 ('The Newton Papers'), lot 232 ('Blood. "The Question stated about abstaining from blood." about 1000 words, 3 pp., autograph, much corrected, folio'); sold at the sale to Emmanuel Fabius, a Paris dealer; Roy Davids; private collector.

    A transcript of the manuscript and printed text for which it forms the basis are both available upon request.


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