William Whiston was born in Leicestershire on 9th December 1667, the son of an Anglican clergyman. He is often simply dismissed as a devout eccentric. How accurate is this?
William Whiston was a brilliant Cambridge University colleague of Sir Isaac Newton. If you consult the English edition of the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (see section below), you will likely be reading the translation published by Whiston in 1736. Although other translations exist, his scholarly rendering, along with his notes and essays, has yet to be surpassed and is still in print. Many consider this work to be Whiston’s ultimate achievement.
Not to be overlooked, however, is the Primitive New Testament, Whiston’s translation of the Greek Scriptures. It was published in 1745, in his 78th year.
Love for the Bible was the motivation for what Whiston did. He lived in the ‘Age of Reason’ and Deism, the teaching that reason alone is an adequate basis for belief in God, was growing. According to James E Force’s book William Whiston: Honest Newtonian , he strongly upheld “the traditionalist view that the Bible is the one infallible source of ancient history.” Sir Isaac Newton, foremost English scientist and philosopher, and author of the 1687 Principia Mathematica, had a profound effect on William Whiston. How?
After Whiston was ordained in 1693, he returned to Cambridge University to study mathematics and become an assistant to Newton. Three years later, Newton relinquished his position as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, and Whiston was appointed in his stead. Whiston lectured on astronomy and mathematics, but Newton’s influence also spurred him to take a deeper interest in Biblical chronology and doctrine.
Newton was a religious man. Believing in the Biblical Millennium, he wrote extensively on the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. However, hardly any of these writings were published during his lifetime. He rejected the Trinity doctrine. But when it came to publishing his evidence against the Trinity, “Newton withdrew in fear that his anti-Trinitarian views would become known,” observes The Encyclopædia Britannica. F. E. Manuel explains in Isaac Newton, Historian: “Newton’s group either kept their opinions secret or restrained their enthusiasm. . . . Where Newton was covert, Whiston shrieked in the marketplace.”
In July 1708, Whiston wrote to the Archbishops of both Canterbury and York, urging the reform of Church doctrine in view of the false teaching of the Trinity as reflected in the Athanasian Creed. Understandably, he was counselled to be cautious. Yet Whiston persisted. “I have studied these points to the bottom,” he said, “and am thoroughly satisfied the Christian church has been long and grossly cheated in them; and, by God’s blessing, if it be in my power, it shall be cheated no longer.”
Newton feared for his social and academic position. Whiston, on the other hand, did not. Having crystallized his anti-Trinitarian beliefs, he wrote a pamphlet presenting his views. But in August 1708, Cambridge University refused to grant Whiston a license to print this material, censuring it as unorthodox.
In 1710, Whiston was charged with teaching doctrine contrary to Anglican belief. He was found guilty, deprived of his professorship, and banished from Cambridge. However, despite legal proceedings against him, which continued nearly five more years, Whiston was never convicted of heresy. In 1736 he unfortunately caused widespread anxiety among London’s citizens, after predicting the world would end that year because a comet would hit the earth. Nobody’s perfect.
Although his anti-Trinitarian views were pretty similar to Whiston’s, Newton shamefully did not speak out for his friend and eventually ostracized him. In 1754, Newton’s An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture, exposing the Trinity, was finally published 27 years after his death. But that was too late to be of any help to Whiston, who had died two years earlier, 22 August 1752 (See Archetypal Heresy: Arianism Through the Centuries).
Newton is also considered responsible for debarring Whiston from the prestigious Royal Society. But Whiston was not discouraged. He and his family moved to London, where he founded a Society for Promoting Primitive Christianity. He put all his energies into writing, his most important work to that time being the four volumes of Primitive Christianity Revived.
As a scientist, Whiston worked on different ways for mariners to determine Longitude at sea. Even though his ideas were not taken up, his persistence eventually helped Harrison develop the marine chronometer. Though many of Whiston’s views on Bible prophecy, like those of his contemporaries, have proved to be inaccurate, he left no stone unturned in his search for truth. His work on the orbit of comets and his theories on the Deluge of Noah’s day, A New Theory of the Earth from its Original to the Consummation of All Things (1696) was written to defend both scientific and Biblical truth, proving how a man of faith may be further convinced by the evidence of the physical world . Transcending his other writings in many ways however, are those exposing the Trinity doctrine as unscriptural.
True to form, Whiston left the Church of England in 1747. He did so, both literally and figuratively, when he walked out of church as a clergyman began to read the Athanasian Creed. A Religious Encyclopædia says of Whiston: “One must admire the manly openness and truthfulness of his character, the consistency of his life, and the straight-forwardness of his conduct.” Whiston left a memoir, accurately depicting the man and his times (3 vols., 1749-1750).
For William Whiston, truth could not be compromised, and personal convictions were more precious than the accolades of men. Although controversial, Whiston was an honest scholar who fearlessly championed the Bible as the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
Flavius Josephus (37- c.100 AD) Josephus the Complete Works
The Jewish author of what for Christianity has become perhaps the most significant extra-biblical first century testimony. He confirms the historicity of Christ and his early followers, his works covering Jewish history from approximately 200 years before Christ to the dramatic account of the fall of Masada in 73 AD. Archaeological work there and elsewhere in Palestine consistently shows Josephus’ accuracy in detail, just one example being the recent discovery of the tomb of Herod the Great.
The oldest of Josephus’ writings is entitled The Jewish War. It is believed that he prepared this account to present the Jews with a graphic portrayal of Rome’s superior strength and to provide a deterrent against future revolts. These writings scrutinize Jewish history from the capture of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes (in the second century BC) to the turbulent strife of 67 AD. As an eyewitness, Josephus then discusses the war climaxing in 73 AD.
Another of Josephus’ works was The Jewish Antiquities, a detailed history of the Jews. Starting with Genesis and Creation, it continues to the outbreak of war with Rome. Josephus closely follows the order of the Bible narrative, adding traditional interpretations and external observations.
Josephus wrote a personal narrative entitled simply Life. In it he seeks to justify his stand during the war and attempts to allay accusations brought against him by critics of his decision to collaborate with Rome. A fourth work, Against Apion, defends the Jews against misrepresentations.
There is no doubt that much of Josephus’ history is accurate. In Against Apion, he shows that the Jews never included the Apocryphal books as part of the inspired Scriptures. He gives testimony to the accuracy and internal harmony of the divine writings. Says Josephus: “We have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, . . . but only twenty-two books [the equivalent of our modern division of the Old Testament into 39 books], which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine.”
In The Jewish Antiquities, Josephus adds interesting detail to the Biblical account. He says that “Isaac was twenty-five years old” when Abraham bound him hand and foot for sacrifice. To the Scriptural account of Israel’s departure from ancient Egypt, Josephus adds these particulars: “The number that pursued after them was six hundred chariots, with fifty thousand horsemen, and two hundred thousand footmen, all armed.” Josephus also says that “when Samuel was twelve years old, he began to prophesy: and once when he was asleep, God called to him by his name” (See 1 Samuel 3:2-21).
Other writings of Josephus give insight into taxes, laws, and events. He names Salome as the woman who danced at Herod’s party and who asked for the head of John the Baptizer. (Mark 6:17-26) Most of what we know about the Herods was recorded by Josephus.
Just 33 years after Jesus gave his prophecy concerning Jerusalem and its temple; the fulfilment began to unfold. Radical Jewish factions in Jerusalem were bent on throwing off the Roman yoke. In 66 AD, news of this prompted the mobilizing and dispatching of Roman legions under Syrian governor Cestius Gallus. After wreaking havoc in the suburbs of Jerusalem, Cestius’ men pitched camp around the walled city. Using a method called testudo, the Romans successfully combined their shields like the back of a tortoise for protection from the enemy. Attesting to the success of this method, Josephus states: “The darts that were thrown fell, and slid off without doing them any harm; so the soldiers undermined the wall, without being themselves hurt, and got all things ready for setting fire to the gate of the temple.”
“It then happened,” says Josephus, “that Cestius . . recalled his soldiers from the place . . he retired from the city, without any reason in the world.” Evidently without intending to magnify God’s Son, Josephus recorded the very act that Christians in Jerusalem had awaited. It was the fulfilment of Jesus Christ’s prophecy! Years earlier, he had warned: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that the desolating of her has drawn near. Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, and let those in the midst of her withdraw, and let those in the country places not enter into her; because these are days for meting out justice, that all the things written may be fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-22) As Jesus instructed, his followers quickly fled the city, stayed away, and were spared the agony that befell it over three years later.
When Roman armies returned in 70 AD, the consequences were recorded in graphic detail by Josephus. Vespasian’s eldest son, General Titus, came to conquer Jerusalem, with its magnificent temple. Within the city, warring factions attempted to take control. They resorted to extreme measures, and much blood was shed. Some “were in such distress by their internal calamities, that they wished for the Romans,” hoping for “delivery from their domestic miseries,” says Josephus. He calls the insurgents “robbers” engaged in destroying the property of the wealthy and murdering men of importance—those suspected of willingness to compromise with the Romans.
Graphically depicting the civil war, Josephus described living conditions in Jerusalem plunging to unimaginable depths. The seditious themselves “fought against each other, while they trod upon the dead bodies as they lay heaped one upon another.” They plundered the populace, murdering for food and wealth.
Titus exhorted the Jews to surrender the city and thus save themselves. He “sent Josephus to speak to them in their own language; for he imagined they might yield to the persuasion of a countryman of their own.” But they reproached Josephus. Titus next built a wall of pointed stakes around the whole city. (Luke 19:43) With all hope of escape cut off and movement restricted, famine “devoured the people by whole houses and families.” The continuing battle added to the death toll. Unknowingly fulfilling Bible prophecy, Titus conquered Jerusalem. Afterward, observing its massive walls and fortified towers, he exclaimed: “It was no other than God that ejected the Jews out of these fortifications.” Over one million Jews perished.
After the war Josephus went to Rome. Enjoying the sponsorship of the Flavian Emperors, he lived as a Roman citizen in the former mansion of Vespasian and received an imperial pension along with gifts from Titus. Josephus then pursued his literary career, to our lasting benefit, indeed, it has been noted we know more about first century Jerusalem than we do about fifteenth century London, thanks to Josephus.