Sir Isaac Newton’s Case for Why Noah’s Story Matters

The person who probably knew more about Noah and the Ark than anyone else in the world was Sir Isaac Newton. Using his knowledge, the discoverer of the laws of gravitation came close to providing definitive proof that the patriarch of the Ark and his sons were actual historical personages, who repeopled the Middle East in just the way the Bible says.

Sir Isaac also offered a beguiling explanation as to why, after several millennia, the story of Noah and the Ark continues to haunt our imagination. Newton believed the figure of Father Time holding the scythe (which we personify at New Year’s as the ‘Old Year’) is a racial memory of Noah and the veneration accorded him. Newton also believed Noah’s notorious drunkenness was commemorated in the figure of Bacchus, meaning that—to extrapolate from Newton’s words—when we get drunk on New Year’s Eve, we doubly conjure up this ancient figure!

This is only one small aspect of Newton’s thought. Sir Isaac had strong reasons for believing that Noah had been commemorated in many ways. The patriarch of the Ark fascinated him not merely because this “one righteous man” had saved our species and all other species from extinction. He also believed Noah had brought with him on the Ark the now-lost artifacts of the most ancient and the purest of the religions of mankind.

Newton tells us in his Theologiae Gentiles Origines Philosophicae that in this archetypal but utterly real religion the ancients represented the structure of the universe by a “fire for offering sacrifices [that] burned perpetually in the middle of a sacred place.” Newton called this arrangement a prytaneum, a word used by the ancient Greeks for describing a similar structure. The fire at the center of the prytaneum represented the sun, with the sanctified space around the central fire representing the entire world, which was “the true & real temple of God… The whole heavens they reckoned to be the true & real temple of God, & therefore that a Prytaneum might deserve the name of his Temple they framed it so as in the fittest manner to represent the whole system of the heavens.” (Students of the true nature of the pyramids of Egypt will be interested in Newton scholar Robert Markley’s assertion that the prytaneum as a whole functioned as a “kind of computational code by which true knowledge can be demonstrated and transmitted without interruption, interference, or corruption.”)

Newton began his argument that Noah had brought the religion of the prytaneum through the Flood by pointing out that, according to Genesis 7:2-3, there was not only one male and one female of every species on the Ark. There were also “seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and female” and “seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female.” Newton understood this to mean that, “Noah, when he went into the Ark, provided for sacrifices by taking in with him a greater number of clean beasts & clean fowls than of unclean ones.” Continued Newton: “For so soon as Noah came out of the Ark, he built an altar and offered burnt offerings of every clean beast and every clean fowl unto the Lord.” Since a sacred flame—one that was housed in a temple and never allowed to go out—was required for such a ritual, Newton concluded that Noah “for the same end [of making a proper sacrifice] took in [the Ark] with him also the sacred fire with which he was to offer them.”

What about the third component of the religion of the prytaneum: the sacred dimensions that enabled the worshiper to erect a temple “framed… so as in the fittest manner to represent the whole system of the heavens”? Newton devoted a great deal of time to calculating the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon—he believed they accurately reproduced the sacred measurements of the pre-Flood temple—and even developed a more accurate measurement of the ancient “sacred cubit.” With equal zeal, Newton applied this measuring skill to Noah’s Ark. Ultimately, he decided the Ark must have been 611.62 feet long, 85.24 feet wide, 51.56 feet in height between keel and top deck, and 18,231.58 tons in weight, empty. Newton scholars are not quite sure what sort of cosmic significance Newton attributed to these dimensions. They think he may have believed that taken as a whole they comprised a kind of gigantic mnemonic device that enabled Noah, once back on dry land, to re-create the ancient prytanea.

Noah’s three sons were called Shem, Ham and Japheth. Newton knew of the body of legend, set down by John Cassianus in A.D. 428, claiming that Noah’s eldest son, Ham, was expert in all the arts and sciences of the pre-Flood era and wanted to bring this knowledge along with him in the Ark. However, Noah and his other two sons were so holy that they forbade Ham to bring on board any handbooks on the ancient “superstitious, wicked and profane arts.” Ham then inscribed them on metal plates and buried them underground. Once the flood waters had receded, he managed to recover these metal plates, thereby “transmitting to his descendants a seedbed of profanity and perpetual sin.” In Science & Civilization in China, Vol. 4, Joseph Needham adds that “In Pseudo-Clement of Rome (fictional material written about +220), Cham [Ham] figures as the first great magician, handing down his technical knowledge to his sons, especially Mizraim, ancestor of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians, and finally being burnt to death [by] his own conjured star-sparks.”

Sir Isaac considered these stories to be harshly distorted accounts (adopted by later nations to justify their idolatrous behavior) of Noah’s bringing through the Flood the knowledge of the worship of God in the prytaneum. Newton also believed that even as Ham ruled over Egypt, the first post-Flood country even more so as Ham’s grandson, Nimrod, ruled over the newly formed country of Assyria and with increasing swiftness as the descendants of Japheth trekked far to the west to the land which they would come to call China—that during this time the religion of the prytaneum itself was also becoming corrupted. Newton believed this decay had taken place in several stages.

Piling evidence on evidence from hundreds of ancient mythologies and scholars, he demonstrated that what was at first the worship of God as represented by the consecrated fire in the temple soon became the idolatrous worship of the flame for itself alone. Then mankind transferred the worship of the consecrated fire in the temple to the sun, to the known planets, and to the four elements (initially other fires in the temple had represented the planets). Then humankind began to honor the memory of its most illustrious ancestors by naming the planets after them. Believing that the souls of its ancestors had transmigrated to these planets, humankind finally began to worship them as gods.

Newton despised this descent of mankind into idolatry (he thought that it repeated itself through the ages). But he also believed it provided him with proof that Noah and his family had really existed. Since the first illustrious ancestors of the post-Flood era had been Noah, his wife, their children and their grandchildren, Newton thought it likely that the planets and elements had initially been named after them. Comparing the pantheon of gods and goddesses of numerous countries, and at the same time deciding that the four legendary ages of antiquity—Gold, Silver, Brass and Iron—stood for the first four generations of Noah and his family, Newton proceeded to find the presence of the passengers of the Ark everywhere in ancient astronomy and mythology.

He wrote in The Original of Religions: “The Saturn therefore who reigned in the Golden age and his son Jupiter who reigned in the silver one can be no other than Noah and his son Ham. For Saturn because of his great age is made the God of time. He… was accounted the author of husbandry and in token thereof carries a sith [scythe]. Drunkenness was attributed to him and in memory thereof the Saturnalia were instituted. He was painted by the Egyptians with eyes before and behind and reputed the justest of men and the father of truth. And in all these respects he agrees accurately with Noah.”

But this is only the barest glimmer of all that Newton thought about the ancient patriarch of the Ark. Those interested should go to the online Newton Project at http://www.newtonproject.ic.ac.uk and key the word “Noah” in for themselves. They will find that Sir Isaac probed into the character of Noah with the same astounding genius with which he pursued his physics and mathematics.

By John Chambers