Newton’s apocalyptic time chart
Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Locke c. 27, f. 88r
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Description of Newton’s Apocalyptic Time Chart
Sometime in the late 1680s Isaac Newton and the philosopher John Locke became close friends. Their friendship early on extended to discussions of theology and prophetic interpretation. This manuscript apocalyptic time chart, which Newton sent to Locke in the early 1690s, is one testimony of the character of their friendship. The physical evidence of this chart also subverts the idea that Isaac Newton and John Locke are the twin pillars of the Enlightenment — a notion that arose in the eighteenth century and that is still common today.
Although this apocalyptic time chart contains no dates, it provides a graphical illustration of Newton’s interpretation of the time periods and symbols of the Book of Revelation. It also helps illuminate Newton’s eschatology. On the chart, time moves from the top to the bottom, with most of the great events associated with the time of the end (the moment when the seventh trumpet sounds) clustered at the bottom.
For Newton, the seven seals relate to God’s judgments on pagan Rome and the Christianisation of the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great (d. 337 A.D.). The first solid chart-wide horizontal line demarcates the reign of the emperor Theodosius, under whose reign in 380 the Athanasian (Trinitarian) version of Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire. This was an important moment in ecclesiastical history for Newton, as he believed the doctrine of the Trinity was a corruption of the purity of primitive Christianity.
Below this, a dashed horizontal line demarcates the reigns of Arcadius (d. 408) and Honorius (d. 423), the sons of Theodosius, who reigned over the Eastern and Western Empires respectively when the Roman Empire was divided at the death of Theodosius in 395. The Western Empire continued until 476 and the Eastern Empire (the Byzantine Empire) lasted until 1453.
The next dashed horizontal line marks the beginning of the “Universal Bishoprick”, the time when Newton believed the Pope gained temporal dominion. For Newton, this pivotal moment in the institutionalisation of the Church initiated the period of deepest apostasy — a period that he saw as prophetically set out in the 1260 days (years) of Daniel and Revelation. Although he does not give a date for the commencement of the 1260 years on this chart, in other manuscripts he speculates with dates that include 609 and 800. It was on Christmas Day 800 A.D. that the Holy Roman Empire effectively begins when Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope. The starting date of 800 points to a conclusion date of 2060 A.D. (the date popularised in the media in early 2003).
The final dashed horizontal line thus represents the end of the 1260 years, or the period of the greatest apostasy. At the conclusion of the 1260 years, Newton believed, the true Gospel would be preached and Babylon (the institutional, persecuting, Trinitarian Church) would be destroyed. This in turn would pave the way for the return of Christ to the earth and the establishment on earth of the Kingdom of God — a Kingdom that would bring peace and prosperity to the entire world.
The schematic layout of this chart reflects Newton’s commitment to synchronisms in the Book of Revelation. Newton held that certain sequences of events prophesied in the Apocalypse were synchronous. Thus, on the chart the seven seals are shown as being temporally synchronous with the seven heads of the Dragon and the Beast. Likewise, the seven trumpets are depicted as being temporally synchronous with the seven thunders and the seven vials.
Virtually all the wording on this chart (with the exception of the names of the emperors) comes directly from the King James Version of the Book of Revelation. A comparison of this wording with the text of the Apocalypse in the New Testament helps clarify Newton’s eschatology and his interpretation of Revelation. More elaborate manuscript apocalyptic time charts in Newton’s hand form part of the Yahuda collection at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem (Yahuda MS 7.2).