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The Bible Code

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?

A sample Bible code tableFigure 1

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.

Hebrew version of a sample Bible code tableFigure 2

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:

  1. There is no one Masoretic Text. Bible code theorists assume that the Masoretic Text has remain unchanged since it was produced. That is demonstrably untrue. A German scholar named V. Aptowitzer spent a good deal of his research life combing Jewish rabbinical texts (Torah commentary, sermons, etc.) for all the places rabbis quoted the Torah—and then recorded all the places where those quotations differed from each other and the premier text of L (in the same passages). His findings are catalogued in a multi-volume work.
  2. Bible code researchers also assume that the Masoretic Text produced ca. 100 AD was identical to the Hebrew biblical text of biblical days prior to 100 AD—that the Masoretic Text preserves the original words of the Hebrew Bible. This is also demonstrably not true. The most ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible we have are the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the text of those manuscripts is not identical to the Masoretic Text. This is overwhelmingly the case when we’re talking about the letter sequences. The same is true when the ancient text of the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible produced ca. third century BC. The LXX was of course produced from a Hebrew Text. The content of that Hebrew base could simply not be identical to the Masoretic Text based on what one actually finds in the LXX translation. Frequently the Dead Sea scrolls agree with the LXX against the Masoretic Text. Even worse (for a letter sequence), the text of the book of Jeremiah is 15% longerthan the Hebrew base of that book underlying the LXX, and there are places in the book of Jeremiah where whole chapters and sections of the book are in a different order than in the Masoretic Text.
  3. Bible code researchers not only ignore the older manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible—the manuscripts closer to the actual time when the Torah was composed (and, including the providential oversight of God, when inspiration was operative), but they also ignore the fact that the spelling practices of the scribes that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls was different than those scribes that produced the letter sequence of the Masoretic Text. The Hebrew Bible originally had no vowels. The little dots and dashes above, under, and in Hebrew letters were produced in the early medieval period. The scribes who produced the original biblical text and the manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls used consonants for “double duty” – to function as vowels. The Masoretic scribes invented their own system of vowels—a system that frequently removedthe “vowel consonants” of the most ancient texts and replaced them with dots and dashes – which are not part of the equidistant letter sequences (because they aren’t letters). The result of this is that anyequidistant letter sequence produced by Bible code software will be dozens or even hundreds of letters differentthan the sequence of extracted from the oldest manuscripts. This destroys the idea that God embedded information being detected by code researchers for a simple reason: they aren’t using the original, oldest letter strings.

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:

A comparision of the letters in the same Bible code sequence viewed in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text shows great differences.Figure 3

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.

Resources:

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 Review13:4 (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