Of Mice and Men

When Isaac Newton died, in 1727, the scholarly world was eagerly awaiting the publication of his chronological studies. A topic he had been working on since his mid-thirties, in the soon published Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (January 1728) Newton proposed radically different dates for events such as the Fall of Troy and the voyage of the ship Argo. Moreover, he had done what no one in his time had managed to do: to fit in Assyrian and Egyptian history in the time span allowed for by the strictly limited chronology of the Old Testament, which would only accept large nations after the Flood.

Whether or not he was successful is a different story; what so far has not been explored is how Newton’s friends, colleagues, and relatives edited the papers Newton had left. For one, the final chapter in the Chronology, which dealt with the history of Persia, was not included with the manuscript Newton had been working on during his final weeks, and was clearly left unfinished. But there were other, more subtle edits, that showed that although Martin Folkes and John Conduitt, the main editors, tried their best, they did not always interpret Newton correctly.

Soon after the publication of the Chronology, Conduitt, Folkes, and other editors decided to try their hand at the millions of words Newton had left on the prophecies in Scripture. Here, they did not have a readily available copy text to work with, and instead decided to copy-past one themselves. The resulting Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John (1733) was an amalgamate of chapters and sections from all over Newton’s theological writings. And although most of the text was certainly Newton’s, the resulting construct was not.

For a detailed discussion of all of the above – and more – please see my recently published ‘Of Mice and Men: the Editorial History of Isaac Newton’s Chronology and Observations‘ in Notes and Records (2009), via https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsnr.2018.0069.

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