2060: The date heard around the world
On 22 February 2003, the Daily Telegraph (London, England) published a front-page story announcing Isaac Newton's prediction that the world would end in 2060. The story was based on interviews with myself and Malcolm Neaum, the producer of the BBC 2 documentary Newton: the dark heretic (first shown on 1 March 2003). I was asked to make myself available to the media because some of my academic research on Newton's prophecy and heretical theology was used in the documentary and since I was not only interviewed for the documentary both in Jerusalem and Cambridge, but am also shown with the manuscript containing the 2060 date in Jerusalem. Although the 2060 date was not news to the small community of scholars who study Newton's theology, this was the first time the wider public became aware of Newton's prophetic views. Over the next few days, the news spread around the globe and was covered in newspapers (making the front pages in Israel and Canada on 23 and 24 February respectively), on the radio, on TV and on a plethora of Internet news sites. The story was covered on the Internet in all the major European languages from English, French and Spanish to Hungarian, Romanian and Russian. Websites in South America, South Africa, Australia, China, Vietnam and India also covered the story. Many of these websites picked up the story second and third hand, and several of them treated the story as a bit of a lark, with one site including a picture of a mushroom cloud (an image more readily associated with Einstein) with the caption "Party like it's 2060". For almost a week, I received a barrage of requests for interviews from the media. CBC Radio and TV, Global TV in the Maritimes, Agent France Presse, the largest radio talk show in Chicago and even the Russian section of Radio Free Europe, which aired the interview in Russian translation. I tried to use this unexpected opportunity to fill in more details about Newton's theological and prophetic thought, and to point out that Newton's apocalyptic thought was not just doom and destruction. Although there was a sensational element in the way the news was covered by many media organizations, the story has performed a very important role in alerting the public to the fact that Isaac Newton was not merely a "scientist", but also a theologian and a prophetic exegete (not to mention an alchemist). The public was therefore challenged to re-conceptualize Newton in all his complexity. The BBC 2 documentary, with its visual impact and much greater detail, challenged its viewers in an even more profound way.
Why did Newton's prediction for 2060 become such a big news story?
One reason why Newton's heresy, apocalyptic thought and prediction about the 2060 date became news in February 2003 is because most members of the media and the public had no idea that Newton was anything other than a "scientist". For many, the revelation that Newton was a passionate believer who took biblical prophecy seriously came as something of a shock. It seems that both the media and the general public have a notion of Newton as a "rational" scientist that makes it difficult to absorb the knowledge that Newton was practising both alchemy and prophetic exegesis—studies many see as antithetical to the enterprise of science. The media has perpetuated a myth that science and religion are inherently in conflict (the fact is, sometimes they are; but religion has also often stimulated the development of science). The story about Newton predicting the Apocalypse in 2060 is the sort of thing that one would expect to see on the covers of the tabloids. In this case, however, the story is true. Ironically, the tabloids did not cover the story (perhaps because this story, although counter-intuitive to many people, is authentic).
There is likely another reason why so many found the story about Newton and 2060 so compelling. When the story broke, storm clouds of war were on the horizon. Concern about the predicted war in Iraq (now a "fulfilled" prophecy) probably heightened the public's interest in Newton's date for the end of the world, particularly because the pending war involved the nation who occupies the land of ancient Babylon—a land that figures prominently in biblical prophecy and in Newton's own prophetic writings. The head of the Department in charge of the Newton collection in Jerusalem, in a TV interview pointed directly to the threat of war in Iraq as one reason for the interest in the story. Reviewing footage of two Canadian television news items on the 2060 story, I was struck by its placement in the midst of images of U.S. troops and helicopters arriving in Kuwait, along with statements about the pending war from presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer. It is clear that whether we are religious or secular, we are living in "apocalyptic" times. India, Pakistan and North Korea are rattling nuclear sabres. Jetliners fly into skyscrapers laden with kerosene and human bodies. Terrorists strike around the world. Also beginning around the time the documentary aired was the SARS outbreak, appearing seemingly out of nowhere like a biblical plague. And then there are concerns about the degradation of our environment and fears of a coming eco-apocalypse. In the context of these troubling realities, a dramatic story about the greatest scientist of all time predicting "the end of the world" carried with it added potency and poignancy. Curiously a couple months after the 2060 story broke, Sir Martin Reese, one of today's leading scientists, published a book entitled Our final hour (Our final century in the UK) in which he argues that the human race has only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the 21st century. Apocalypticism is not the exclusive domain of the lunatic fringe. It is a broader phenomenon that reflects humanity's insecurity about the apparent fragility and tenuousness of our existence on planet earth.
Why is news of Newton's prophetic studies only coming out now?
Newton's theological and alchemical papers were kept from public scrutiny by the Portsmouth family until 1936, when they were sold at Sotheby's in London. The largest single collection of the theological papers was acquired by the Jewish scholar Abraham Shalom Ezekiel Yahuda. When he died in 1951, he left them to the newly-founded State of Israel. His will was contested and thus the manuscripts did not arrive in Israel until 1969, when they were brought to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. It was only after this point that scholars had access to this particular collection of papers. But the manuscripts were only conveniently accessible to scholars after the majority of Newton's scientific, administrative, theological and alchemical manuscripts were released on microfilm in 1991. Since 1991, there has been a revolution in Newton scholarship as the theological manuscripts began to be assessed in earnest by a small group of specialist scholars. A significant element of this revolution was the founding in 1998 of the Newton Project, based at Imperial College, London and the University of Cambridge. This project has already begun the process of transcribing Newton's unpublished theological manuscripts in order to make them accessible to the world. The BBC 2 documentary revealed to the wider public for the first time and in dramatic fashion the results of this recent revolution in the understanding of Newton's life works. The announcement about the 2060 date must be seen in this context.
Although the initial Daily Telegraph article did not make this claim, some subsequent media reports mistakenly attributed the discovery of the 2060 date in Newton's writings to me. However, other media reports (which were based on direct interviews with me) correctly stated that the 2060 date has been known for some time, but only amongst Newton scholars (and academic publications, unlike television documentaries, generally do not make news). In fact, at least three important Newton scholars, David Castillejo, Frank Manuel and Richard Westfall, examined the Yahuda manuscripts (either in the original copies or, in the case of Westfall, in microfilm reproductions) shortly after their arrival in Jerusalem in 1969. Castillejo was likely the first to encounter the 2060 date, as he was the first scholar to examine the Yahuda collection. He published the 2060 date in his 1981 work The expanding force in Newton's cosmos (p. 55). Westfall published the date in his 1980 biography of Newton, Never at rest (pages 816-817). I first came across the date in my own research (as opposed to reading it in Castillejo or Westfall) when I was studying Yahuda MS 7 on microfilm while a PhD student at the University of Cambridge in 1997. I published the date in my 1999 British Journal for the History of Science paper "Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite", pages 391-2. The real story is not the discovery of the 2060 date, but that Newton's non-scientific work is being made known to the public in a spectacular manner.
How important was biblical prophecy for Newton?
Extremely important. For Newton, biblical prophecy forecast the divinely-ordained events of the future. He believed the interpretation of biblical prophecy was "no matter of indifferency but a duty of the greatest moment". Prophecy allowed Newton to see history in advance. It also identified an evil, apostate system (Babylon) that pure Christians must flee to avoid destruction and the wrath of God.
How does biblical prophecy work for Newton?
Newton believed both in God and that the Bible was a revelation from God. He also believed that God was not bound by time as are humans, allowing Him to see the "end from the beginning". Thus, to use Newton's own words, he was convinced that "the holy Prophecies" of the Scripture are nothing else than "histories of things to come" (Yahuda MS 1.1, folio 16 recto). At the same time, biblical prophecy is written in highly symbolic language that requires skilled interpretation. Newton rose to this challenge as he attempted to discover the future of the world in the words of the prophets.
Why did Newton only rarely add up the prophetic numbers?
Because he was wary of prophetic date-setting. Newton was worried that the failure of fallible human predictions based on divine prophecy would bring the Bible into disrepute. Ironically, in one of the two times Newton wrote down the 2060 date, he railed against date-setters (see below). Newton may have been aghast if he had known his prediction would be broadcast around the world in the twenty-first century. His calculations about the 2060 date were private musings made on a scrap of paper not meant for the public. Ironically, the media coverage of the 2060 date has made Newton look like a date-setter.
The logic of Newton's apocalyptic calculations
Newton, like many historicist prophetic commentators of his age, believed that the prophetic time periods 1260, 1290, 1335 and 2300 days actually represent 1260, 1290, 1335 and 2300 years using the "day-for-a-year principle".
For Newton these time periods (especially the 1260 years) represent the time span of the apostasy of the Church (for Newton this means the Trinitarian Church, chiefly the Catholics). Thus, he looked in history for the likely date when the apostasy formally began (one sign of this for him was the date when the papal church obtained temporal power). From there it was a simple matter of adding the time period to the beginning date. However, things are rarely so simple with Newton. As already mentioned, Newton looked askance at "date-setting", and for this reason he rarely wrote out the end date for a time period once he had settled on a beginning date. There is a small number of exceptions, and the date 2060, found twice in the Yahuda MSS at Jerusalem, is one of them. The date 2060 is also significant because in addition to the rarity of end dates in Newton's writings, the calculation giving the 2060 date comes from fairly late in his life and is asserted with uncharacteristic vigour.
Finding the commencement date was of great importance to Newton, since once he added the prophetic time periods to this date, he was able to determine when the great apocalyptic events of the end of the world were going to occur.
Although Newton believed there would be wars and cataclysms around the time of the end, for him this period was also the storm before the calm. Newton's prophetic faith therefore has a positive element.
The prophetic time periods
How did Newton arrive at the date 2060?
This did not involve the use of anything as complicated as calculus, which he invented, but rather simple arithmetic that could be performed by a child. Beginning in the 1670s and continuing to the end of his life in 1727, Newton considered several commencement dates for the formal institution of the apostate, imperial Church. Earlier commencement dates include 607 and 609 A.D. As Newton grew older, he pushed the time of the end further and further into the future. In Yahuda MS 7 Newton twice gives 800 A.D. for the beginning of "the Pope's supremacy". The year 800 is a significant one in history, as it is the year Charlemagne was crowned emperor of Rome in the west by Pope Leo III at St. Peter's in Rome. Since Newton believed that the 1260 years corresponded to the duration of the corruption of the Church, he added 1260 to 800 A.D. and arrived at the date 2060 for the "fall of Babylon" or cessation of the apostate Church. It seems that Newton believed the fall could perhaps begin somewhat before the end of the 1260-year period and continue for a short time afterward. Whatever the precise chronology, Newton believed that sometime shortly after the fall of the corrupt (Trinitarian, Catholic) Church, Christ would return and set up a 1000-year Kingdom of God on earth. On page 144 of his Observations (1733), Newton cited Daniel 7:26-27 as evidence of this:
But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion to consume and to destroy it unto the end. And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.
Newton espoused a premillenarian eschatology and thus held that Christ would return to earth to establish the Millennium.
Two examples of the date 2060 in Yahuda MS 7.3 (Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)
7.3g, folio 13 verso:
So then the time times & half a time are 42 months or 1260 days or three years & an half, recconing twelve months to a yeare & 30 days to a month as was done in the Calendar of the primitive year. And the days of short lived Beasts being put for the years of lived [sic] kingdoms, the period of 1260 days, if dated from the complete conquest of the three kings A.C. 800, will end A.C. 2060. It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner. This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fancifull men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, & by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail. Christ comes as a thief in the night, & it is not for us to know the times & seasons wch God hath put into his own breast.
Comments: This excerpt demonstrates that Newton was not only reluctant to set dates, but that he was convinced the end would not come in his lifetime. He took seriously biblical passages that assert that no-one except God knows the time of the end. Nevertheless, this excerpt shows that even Newton was fascinated with the prophetic conundrum of the date for the return of Christ and the beginning of the Millennium. Finally, although Newton's statement was meant to demonstrate that the time of the end was several centuries away from his perspective, history has now caught up with his predictions, which helps explain the current interest in his apocalyptic calculations.
7.3o, folio 8r:
Prop. 1. The 2300 prophetick days did not commence before the rise of the little horn of the He Goat.
2 Those day [sic] did not commence a[f]ter the destruction of Jerusalem & ye Temple by the Romans A.[D.] 70.
3 The time times & half a time did not commence before the year 800 in wch the Popes supremacy commenced
4 They did not commence after the re[ig]ne of Gregory the 7th. 1084
5 The 1290 days did not commence b[e]fore the year 842.
6 They did not commence after the reigne of Pope Greg. 7th. 1084
7 The diffence [sic] between the 1290 & 1335 days are a parts of the seven weeks.
Therefore the 2300 years do not end before ye year 2132 nor after 2370.
The time times & half time do n[o]t end before 2060 nor after 
The 1290 days do not begin [this should read: end] before 2090 [Newton might mean: 2132] nor after 1374 [sic; Newton probably means 2374]
Comments: These calculations are written on a letter-slip addressed to "Sir Isaac Newton", and thus dating from after 1705, when Newton was knighted. In fact, the shaky handwriting suggests a date of composition late in Newton's life. The manuscript fragment contains a number of interesting features, including the remnants of the red wax seal and a series of mathematical calculations. Thus, this sheet exhibits both mathematical calculations and calculations for the end of the world. It is this manuscript fragment that is shown at the end of the BBC 2 documentary Newton: the dark heretic. When viewing the Yahuda manuscripts in Jerusalem on 9 December 2002, the day before the Jerusalem footage was shot for the documentary, I selected this manuscript as one of a series of worthy candidates to film. My reasons were as follows: not only does this letter slip show a date in Newton's hand that is relevant to us today, but it is also visually interesting with its red wax seals, mathematical calculations and prophetic chronology, all of which helps provide an insight into the range of Newton's thought. Of course, only one thing emerged from this manuscript in the documentary: the date 2060 A.D.
Did Newton believe the world would end in 2060?
No, not in a literal sense. For Newton, 2060 A.D. would be more like a new beginning. It would be the end of an old age, and the beginning of a new era—the era Jews refer to the Messianic age and the era premillenarian Christians term the Millennium or Kingdom of God.
What did Newton believe would happen around the time of 2060?
Newton was convinced that Christ would return around this date and establish a global Kingdom of peace. "Babylon" (the corrupt Trinitarian Church) would also fall and the true Gospel would be preached openly. Before the Second Coming, the Jews would return to Israel according to the predictions made in biblical prophecy. The Temple would be rebuilt as well. Slightly before, or around the time of Christ's return, the great battle of Armageddon would take place when a series of nations (the "Gog and Magog" confederacy of Ezekiel's prophecy) invade Israel. Christ and the saints would then intervene to establish a worldwide 1000-year Kingdom of God on earth. Citing the prophet Micah Newton believed this Kingdom would usher in a time of peace and prosperity, a time when people would "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks" and when "nations shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Micah 4:3). Although the documentary chose not to focus on this message of hope, Newton did believe that there would be a positive outcome to the war and destruction that would take place at the end of time. Newton took seriously the prophetic vision of world peace found in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4—a vision that sees Jerusalem as the beginning of peace. It is thus perhaps appropriate that the largest collection of Newton's prophetic papers now resides in Jerusalem.
Why are his theological and prophetic beliefs important to our understanding of Newton?
Newton was not a "scientist" in the modem sense of that term. Instead, he was a "natural philosopher". Practised from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, natural philosophy included not only the study of nature, but also the study of God's hand at work in nature. Newton was committed to a notion of natural philosophy that saw the discovery of God and His attributes as its chief end. For this reason, any serious study of Newton's natural philosophy must include an understanding of his theological views. For example, Newton's famous concepts of absolute space and time were fundamentally based on his notion of God's omnipresence and eternal duration. It is also clear from his private manuscripts that Newton believed the ideal natural philosopher would also be a priest of nature. For Newton, there was no impermeable barrier between religion and what we now call science. Throughout his long life, Newton laboured to discover God's truth - whether in Nature or Scripture. Although he recognized disciplinary distinctions, Newton believed that truth was one. Thus, Newton's study of Nature and Scripture were in a certain sense two halves of a whole: the discovery of the mind of God.
More information on Newton's attempts to date "the end of the world"
Further details on Newton's end-time calculations can be found on pages 391-393 of my paper "Isaac Newton, heretic" (1999) and pages 106-108 of my paper "‘The mystery of this restitution of all things'" (2001). Both these essays are available on this website in pdf format. More elaborate studies of Newton's eschatology will appear in my paper "'At the sounding of the seventh trumpet': Newton, the Apocalypse and the end of time" and in my forthcoming book Isaac Newton, heretic.