Michael Drosnin's 1997 runaway best-seller, The Bible Code, fascinated the public with a controversial idea: the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible that Christians refer to as the Old Testament, contained an embedded secret code that encapsulates past and future human knowledge. Drosnin’s book took its starting point from peer-reviewed research in a statistics journal where the encryption thesis for the Torah was presented. The idea nevertheless quickly came under withering criticism, but many still accept the thesis uncritically. In fact, other books promoting Bible codes followed in the wake of Drosnin’s work, authored by both Jewish and Christian enthusiasts (e.g., Satinover, Missler, Ramsel). Does the Torah encrypt information, some of which is prophetic? How is the idea defended? What are the problems with such a notion?
The Bible Code: How Does it Work?
In simple terms, when people speak of a “Bible code,” they are expressing a belief whereby God supernaturally led the human authors of the Torah to write each letter of the Torah. Allegedly, if you took all the letters of the Torah and put them in a continuous string with no spaces, and then rearranged those letters in equal columns of any length (forming a square of “block” of letters, like a filled-in crossword puzzle), intelligible words and phrases that could not otherwise be detected in the Torah as it stands would emerge (Figure 1). This technique is called “equidistant letter sequencing” (ELS). Though the emphasis in Bible code books is often the Hebrew text of the Torah, those same books go well beyond the first five books of the Hebrew Bible to include the entire Hebrew Bible in their code detection work.
By way of illustration (Figure 2), if one begins with the last letter of the first word of the Hebrew Bible (a “t” in our alphabet, in the word bereshit), and then proceeds to skip fifty letters, the next letter would be the Hebrew letter that functioned as the long “o” vowel. Skipping another fifty brings one to an “r”. Two more skips of fifty would yield the last two letters of the word “T-O-R-A-H” itself. This discovery, it is argued, is what it is because of divine planning and prompting of the Hebrew letter sequence of the Torah. Mathematicians and computer programmers cooperatively produced software programs to quickly assemble the Hebrew letter squares and find meaningful words and phrases.
The Bible Code: Why it’s Bogus
Earlier we mentioned that the Bible code idea was quickly debunked. Researchers from the fields of mathematics statistics pointed out with little effort that the same “discoveries” could be made in English books of similar length to the Bible. Did God divinely select the letters of Moby Dick? Shakespeare’s plays? War and Peace?
As telling as these sorts of reproductions of the phenomenon are, the lethal blow to the Bible code actually comes from the field of biblical studies—specifically, the ancient manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Bible.
All Bible code research operates on the same premise: the use of the traditional Hebrew Bible text produced by the scribes (Masoretes) since about 100 AD. Researchers typically adopt a version of this Hebrew text that is based on the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Leningrad Codex (L), produced just after 1000 AD. This decision is the fatal flaw in all Bible code research, a flaw that completely undermines the idea. Why?
The decision to use the Masoretic Text overlooks several critical items:
To illustrate the final point above, here (Figure 3) is a comparison of the letters in the same sequence in the same verse (Isa 53:3b-4a) viewed in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text:
The coloring marks the number of consonant differences in the sequence. The superscripted letter in the Dead Sea scrolls is a scribal correction in that scroll—something else Bible code theorists ignore.
In the final analysis, the Bible code idea is dead on arrival. If the ELS sequencing was the product of God, the Bible code researchers aren’t using the oldest text, the text that would be closest to divine activity. But even if they were, there’s no way to tell, for instance, “which text is God’s” – LXX or the Masoretic tradition. Both are equally as old as the other because both are found among the Dead Sea scrolls, the oldest manuscript material for the Hebrew Bible that we have.
Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg, "Equidistant letter sequences in the Book of Genesis". Statistical Science 9:3 (1994): 429–38
Michael S. Heiser, The Bible Code Myth (Blind Spot Press, 2017)
Ronald S. Hendel, "The Secret Code Hoax," Bible Review 13:4 (August, 1997): 23-24
H. Van Dyke Parunak, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41 (1998): 323-325 (book review) J. Paul Tanner, "Decoding the 'Bible Code'," Bibliotheca Sacra (April-June 2000): 141-159 Richard A. Taylor, "The Bible Code: 'Teaching Them [Wrong] Things'," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43:4 (December 2000): 619-636