THE BIBLE CODES
(Nostrodamus With A Computer?)
This paper is prompted by the flurry of recent publicity about claims that “computer research” has discovered “Hidden Codes” in the Hebrew text of the Bible.
According to ancient Jewish tradition The Torah can be read at many levels. This was thought to include the possibility that there might be “hidden text”. In the late 1950s, Rabbi Michael Weissmandel used manual methods to search for words spelled out by skipping equal numbers of letters through the original Hebrew text. Weissmandel is credited with naming the phenomenon as “Equidistant Letter Sequences” ( ELS ).
In 1986, the Jewish academic, Doron Witztum developed a method to check whether such ELS could be scientifically evaluated. He was joined in the project by Eliyahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg. Rips created a mathematical system for measuring the statistical significance of the results, and Rosenburg developed a computer program to carry out the work.
A paper entitled “Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis", jointly authored by Witztum, Rips and Rosenberg, was published in the journal “Statistical Science”, in 1994. (1) ( Not for the average reader! )
Since that time, others have “extrapolated” from the original work to make the extravagant claim that the so called “hidden codes” were deliberately put there by God, and that they “prove” the authenticity of the Bible as the Word Of God. Others go even further to claim that the “codes” enable the future to be predicted!
Books have been written (movie rights for one book have been sold); several commercial computer programs are now available to do your own “research”; and a mass of information has appeared on the Internet, arguing the claims, pro and con.
This paper summarises some of the available information, and attempts to arrive at a reasonable Biblical conclusion about the ELS phenomenon.
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN!
“There is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)
The wise man was right! Truly, there is nothing new under the sun! Not even the supposed recent discovery of “Hidden Codes” in the Torah.
Around 300 years ago, the famous scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was amongst those who were fascinated by the belief that the Bible contains some type of secret code.
In the last decade of the 19th century, the Russian, Ivan Panin, announced that he had discovered amazing numerical patterns in the Hebrew text of the Psalms and the Greek text of the New Testament.
Until his death in 1942, he devoted the rest of his life to this work. It is said that he left over 40,000 pages of notes. Although largely disregarded and discounted, some of his work is still being published by enthusiasts.
In this century the main “pioneer work” seems to have been that of Weissmandel (mentioned above) working without the benefit of computer technology.
However the real origin of this belief that the Torah contains encrypted messages, in the form of ELS, appears to be the ancient practise of kabbalah .
The kabbalah dates back at least to the 12th century and possibly long before that. The medieval practitioners of this occult form of Jewish mysticism, believed that there were 84 coding schemes in the Torah. (2)
One of these schemes was essentially the same system of ELS used by the latest researchers. For example, the Kabbalists had discovered that choosing every 50th letter from the first Hebrew T ("Taf” in the Hebrew alphabet) in Genesis, would consistently reveal the word "Torah."
Another of their favorite methods was Gematria . According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, this is a method of deciphering the Jewish sacred writings, which substitutes numbers for letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and then unravels “mystical insights” or “new interpretations” from the texts.
One source has this to say about kabbalah and gematria :-
This whole practice of bringing out hidden messages in the Torah is openly admitted to be a form of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, which includes liberal use of numerology through "gematria" or assigning number values to Hebrew letters. They use the revealed information to find guidance, uncover secrets, tell the future and open spiritual "doorways" to power.
Here in Israel, Kabbala is accepted in the Jewish community as a spiritual power tool which especially "holy" people can harness to do all the same things done in sorcery; in spite of Biblical prohibitions it is considered "okay" because the Scriptures or the Holy Name are being used (but it is acknowledged that things can often "backfire" for the uninitiated. It is also admitted that Kabbalah taps into demonic powers, but these are simply renamed the "dark side of G-d"). Numeric exercises aside, the source of the Torah-code business is already defiled. (3)
Another Internet source of information about the occult, says this about gematria :-
Gematria is a part of the Jewish occult system known as Qabbalah (a different spelling for kabbalah - "tradition") and is widely used by modern occultists - Jewish or otherwise (e.g. it is central to many rites of freemasonry). Probably the best way to explain the word gematria is to say that it means “Hebrew numerology ”. (4)
If it is really true that the source of this modern work on ELS, is no more than an extension of these ancient occult arts, it would amount to using a computer for a form “ divination ”! Christians especially, would want to heed the warning in Deut 18:10-12, by avoiding any involvement in practises which God calls abomination .
TWO STREAMS OF RESEARCH!
There are actually two major streams in the continuing debate about the validity of the ELS research. There is the original work on the Torah by the Jewish scholars, Witztum, Rips, and Rosenburg; and there is the subsequent extrapolation (and commercial exploitation ) of that work by “other” sources (some Christian and some not).
The Jewish Stream
This is represented by the three academics Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg, already mentioned above. They were led to this phenomenon by Rabbi Weissmandel's work in 1958.
However Weissmandel and other earlier researchers were compelled to use laborious manual methods. It was not until the 1980s that it became possible to apply computer methods to the ELS research.
The “discovery” made by Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg was that “ Words that are conceptually related to each other (e.g., via an historical event) are sometimes found encoded in close proximity to each other ”. (5) Their initial work related to specific names of famous Rabbinic personalities (drawn from “ The Encyclopedia Of Great Men In Israel ”) and the dates of their birth or death. Harold Gans later related some of those same names to the cities of their birth. (6)
The original work was done on the book of Genesis only . Other books of the Pentateuch were either not tested, or were tested and failed, with the test results going unpublished . The book of Isaiah was definitely tested and failed. (7)
All three of these researchers have said that their work proves only that the ELS do exist. They do not draw conclusions from their work. They do not make any claims that their work “proves” the authenticity of the Bible. Especially, we note that both Rips and Witztum have said definitely that the use of the codes by “others” to predict the future, is based on an invalid use of their methodology. (8)
THE “OTHER” STREAM(S)
There have been a number of attempts by others to “expand” the work of Witztum, Rips and Rosenberg, using much more “elastic” methods. It appears that by making the search criteria broader, and manipulating the nature of the data fed to the computer, it is possible to produce an amazing variety of results!
Amongst those with a fairly high profile, are Grant Jeffrey, Yacov Rambsel, and Michael Drosnin, who have all produced books. Drosnin's “The Bible Codes”, has become a best seller, for which the movie rights have been purchased by Warner Brothers.
Jeffrey and Rambsel are professing Christians. Drosnin is Jewish but says in his book that he is "not religious", and does not believe in God. (9)
On the basis of this “expanded work”, various spectacular claims are being made, such as :-
THE MERU PROJECT
This does not appear to be as well known as those just mentioned above. However it should be mentioned here, if only to highlight the point that claims to find “hidden meanings” in the bible are not as unique as some would have us believe. Meru dates back to the early 1980s.
Director (Stan Tenen) claims to have discovered “an extraordinary and unexpected geometric metaphor in the letter-sequence of the Hebrew text of Genesis that underlies and is held in common by the spiritual traditions of the ancient world ”. (10)
A number of commercial computer programs have made their appearance. (Wouldn't you know it!)
These are designed to enable the layman to do his own ELS “research”. A couple of them search the Hebrew text, and require that the user should at least know the Hebrew Alphabet. But as any Hebrew scholar can tell you, this not a job for the amateur. Given the way words are formed and the diversity of possible different interpretations from the same set of consonants, there be can great danger in that for the ignorant amateur!
However, another program is designed to search The English Text of the King James Bible. If I have understood the reports correctly, it will also search any other English text, religious or not!
i.e. Find your own “codes” in your own favorite book !
TORAH CODES IN THE KORAN?
(And “War and Peace” and “Moby Dick”!)
We should not be surprised to learn that dedicated researchers have found codes in the Koran, based on the number 19, which some Muslems now use to “prove” its authenticity.
Other detractors from the work of Drosnin et al, claim to have found the same “Christian Codes” (including the name of Jesus) embedded in the Koran in the same way as in the Bible.
More perplexing still, are the serious claims that searches in Tolstoy's “War and Peace” and in “Moby Dick”, have also produced the same ELS as found in the Bible!
It all adds up to another big caution ..... doesn't it?
THE CONTINUING DEBATE
Although many Christians have become very excited, these claims are being vigorously refuted by other sources.
The original Jewish researchers, and their supporters, Harold Gans, and Daniel Mechanic, have felt it necessary to publish statements rejecting the validity of the methods and the broader claims made by the “others” (Drosnin especially). We have already noted above, their rebuttal of all claims that the codes may validly be used to predict the future.
One outspoken critic is Brendan Mckay, an Australian mathematician from the Australian national University. Mckay agrees with Witztum et al, that Drosnin's work is defective. However, he also claims to have found serious flaws in the methodology of Witztum, Rips, and Rosenburg. He has published papers to this effect, (jointly authored with Dror Bar-Natan, Alec Gindis, and Aryeh Levitan). (11) Mckay claims to have run the same tests as Witztum et al, without success. He identifies a number of highly technical problems with the experiment that, he says, render it meaningless.
Professor Menachem Cohen, of the Bible Department at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, has also written an opinion letter criticising the data used in the experiment of Witztum and Rips. (12)
THE "STATISTICAL" CLAIMS
It is most unfortunate that the so called "Laws of Probability" and "Statistical Mathematics", have been called upon in support of the spectacular claims by some writers. Scientists and engineers do use those tools in their professions to assess the probable meaning of some data. For some purposes, they can be very useful.
However, we should also be aware that this is NOT an infallible, or precise science. The results obtained by those methods, are not always reliable, and are easily misunderstood, or incorrectly applied by unskilled operators.
It is certainly NOT a valid use of those tools to compute "impossible odds" for something that has already happened, and then claim that the event is miraculous, simply because of the very high "odds" calculated against it! It should be obvious that if it has happened, it is not as impossible as the calculations indicate.
And if an event happens repeatedly , in spite of the "impossible" odds calculated against it, then either the method is invalid, or the calculations are incorrect, or the input data is flawed, or we are dealing with a natural event to which the so called "laws of probability" do not apply at all!
THE METHOD USED
The text to be searched is first stripped of vowels and spaces between the remaining consonants. Next the text is rearranged into blocks with a selected number of letters in each line. Then a starting point and a "skip distance" must be selected. (e.g. If the skip distance is 50, then only every 50th letter from the starting point is examined)
Finally a search is conducted to see whether the "orphan" consonants found by that method, form the desired word. The search can be conducted horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, and if desperate, even backwards!
And if the desired combination of consonants is not found, then line length, starting point, and skip distance are "re-adjusted", and the search is repeated until success is achieved!
It all sounds a bit like a gambler playing with a "loaded dice". He ALWAYS gets the desired result!
Of course, one MAJOR problem is that in Hebrew, it is not at all uncommon for the SAME consonants to appear in DIFFERENT words. If the consonants stand in isolation without the vowels (as they do in the method quoted above) it is impossible to tell which word is intended. It is the same in our English language - compare for instance "read, "road", "reed", "rued", "rude", "rid", "ride" "rod", "rode", "red", "Reid", "raid", "radio", and "rad".
Using the method described, independent searches for each of those words, would produce EXACTLY the same result, by finding the same set of consonants, in the same place in the text! But ..... which one would we claim that God had deliberately "encoded"?
LOOKING BEYOND THE MATHEMATICS
Of course, most of us are mere laymen in this area. We are not qualified to evaluate the highly technical nature of the mathematical debate. We will have to leave all that to the “academic experts”, without being able to come to our own "expert opinion", about the pros and cons of what they are saying.
But we will take note that the several camps of “experts” are presenting us with opposite and confusing claims about "hidden things" that cannot be supported or confirmed by any Scripture that we can read! We do not need to be skilled mathematicians to evaluate the worth of that! The Bible has already done it for us!
DO THE "ELS" REALLY EXIST?
True Biblical faith is founded firmly, and exclusively, on what is plainly written in the Bible. The existence of the ELS, is not mentioned anywhere at all in the Scriptures. That in itself sounds a warning note for those who heed the Biblical warnings about adding to the Scriptures.
What then are we to make of claims that the ELS do exist and can be found by a computer search?
The problem is not that the ELS have been discovered. The real issue has more to do with how they have been found; and whether we can rely on the usefulness of the conclusions drawn by some of the more "creative" researchers.
Reading between the lines of the technical discussions, it seems clear that what is found depends to a very large extent on how the text to be searched is "configured" before it is fed to the computer, and then how the computer is made to deal with that data . To find anything at all you must first decide what you are looking for! Then you must "adjust" the target, and change the input search criteria as often as needed, until it works! The more “elastic” the approach used, the more likely it is that the desired "discovery" will eventually be made.
Alas, that is the nature of computers ..... isn't it? They are merely “servants” doing exactly what they are told to do!
THE IMPACT ON THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
Although Witztum et al have tried to defuse claims that the ELS "prove" the authenticity of the Torah, many Jews have concluded othewise. There are claims that that some Jews have converted to Othodox Jewish Faith as a result. (13)
One Jewish organisation is conducting seminars which include sessions on the “Torah Codes”. (14)
Daniel Mechanic claims that Jewish anti-missionary groups are reporting unprecedented proselytizing with this material. It is claimed that Christians have posted a million pamphlets to Jewish homes all over Israel, claiming that the “Yeshua codes" prove Jesus is the Messiah. Similar activities are reported in New York and New Jersey, in USA. (15)
CAN IT INCREASE FAITH IN THE SCRIPTURES?
The answer to that must surely be a loud NO! Even the best mathematicians can only SPECULATE about the meaning of the ELS. (assuming that they can agree amongst themselves whether the methods used are valid.) And when IDENTICAL so called "codes" can be found in other texts than the Bible, it hardly inspires confidence that they represent an infallible proof of inspiration!
Faith in the existence of God, and in the Bible as the Word of God, does not depend on a 20th century computer program, using highly questionable mathematics which most of us can never begin to understand. The real word for THAT is not "faith". It is second hand "CREDULITY".
IS IT PERHAPS DIVINATION?
I have read some of the "scientific papers" and several of the books for and against. Some are by Christians, some are by Jews, and some are by atheists. And I am left with an uncomfortable "feeling" that a great deal of it is nothing more or less than a computerised form of DIVINATION!
However the ELS are found, it does NOT necessarily lead to the conclusion that they are genuine premeditated “Hidden Codes”; or that they are a valid method of “proving” the authenticity of the Bible; or that they represent a Biblically acceptable basis for prophesying the future!
That would require a degree of "speculative subjectivity" which informed Christians will want to avoid.
“Bereans” (Acts 17:11) need more solid Biblical evidence than the conclusions reached by a computer which is fed an artificially manipulated set of criteria.
True faith is not for the lazy who want others to do all the Bible Study for them! (either at a Bible college, or elsewhere with a computer!)
True faith in the word of God depends on things that are plainly written, and within the reach of all who will personally, and prayerfully, and diligently study "whether those things are so".
The computer and the silicon chip technology on which it is based, will eventually join all those other archaic scientific discoveries which have already been superseded.
The ELS will sooner or later be lost in the shadow of the next highly promoted "sign and wonder" of our religious world. (Matt 24:24, 2 Thess 2:9)
"But the word of the Lord abides for ever."
(1 Pet 1:25)
Internet addresses listed below were all current and were visited, when this article was being researched. However even during the relatively short time taken to complete the paper, some addresses had changed when I went back to double check some information. Internet addresses often seem to be a "moving target"! Consequently I cannot guarantee that all addresses will remain current during the "life expectancy" of this paper! However, if you find an address for any source is no longer current, you may be able to locate a new address using the AltaVista search engine. I would appreciate advice of any updated addresses you discover.
(1) “Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of
Genesis” by Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg
(2) Cracking God's Code - Maybe the Lord Did Write the Bible. By Benjamin Wittes
(3) Quoted from :-
“A Caution Concerning the Torah Codes” by Uri Marcus
(4) Qabbalistic Word Manipulation
(5) Harold Gans - “Back To the Future”
(6) Public Statement By Harold Gans
(7) Uri Marcus - “A Caution Concerning the Torah Codes”
(8) Public Statement by Doron Witzum
Public Statement By Eliyahu Rips
(9) "The Bible Code" by Michael Drosnin, pp. 14,18,57,79,103.
Weidenfield and Nicholson, London, 1997
(10) The Meru Foundation
(See also Secrets Of The Hebrew Letters, by Cynthia Gage
(11) Report on new ELS tests of Torah, 29 May 1997
Dror Bar-Natan, Alec Gindis, Aryeh Levitan, Brendan McKay
The New ELS Tests - A Rejoinder” , July 16, 1997
Dror Bar-Natan, Alec Gindis, Arieh Levitan, Brendan McKay
(12) Letter from Prof. Menachem Cohen
Faculty of Jewish Studies, Department of Bible Studies, Bar-Ilan University
(13) Cracking God's Code - Maybe the Lord did write the Bible.
By Benjamin Wittes
(14) One Day Jewish Discovery Seminars
(15) Jesus Codes:Uses and Abuses
By: R.Daniel Mechanic (In consultation with Doron Witztum and Harold Gans)