Though not as popular an idea as it once was, the Bible Code still has adherents and many of the theological and hermeneutic issues used to support it persist to promote other faulty systems of approaching the Scriptures. The Bible Code (AKA the Torah code) is the theory that God, being the author of Scripture, inserted a code for us to decipher today. There are essentially two different views held by proponents of this code. Both view the supposed codes in the Bible as pointing to future events. The first group believes that we can only recognize these codes that point to future events after the events have happened. To these people, the Bible Code is an evangelistic tool that can be used to show the divine nature and authenticity of Scripture. The second group goes further and says that we can harness the codes to predict, and even prevent, future events. For this group, the Bible Code gives us warnings of what is to come as well as the opportunity and responsibility to change the current course of history.
If it is true that God has left us secret messages in the Bible to be decoded then we have a significant tool as well as a significant task. If, however, no such code exists then many are consuming their time with fanciful and idle theories and employing falsehoods as an evangelistic tool.
Putting it to the Test
In 1994, peer-reviewed scientific journal Statistical Science published a study called Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis1. In the article, Doron Witzum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg (WRR), three Orthodox Jews, share the results of their “Great Rabbis Experiment.” We will take some time to briefly go over the experiment. At the outset of this section it is important to mention two things. First, the Bible Code theory did not originate with WRR. In fact, it has been rabbinic tradition in some capacity for centuries prior. This study, however, was one of the first statistical and peer-reviewed attempts of finding a Bible Code and the results were impressive. Second, this will be an over-simplified description of the experiment. For a more in-depth look at what exactly happened see the studies in the footnotes.
In this experiment, these three men tested Equidistant (or equal-distant) Letter Sequences (ELS) in the book of Genesis with astonishing results that seemingly prove a Bible Code. ELS’s work by taking a text, starting at a specified letter, and then selecting letters at equally spaced intervals. For example:
Paul sang a lullaby. Meh.
Here, there is a distance of four. Every four letters one is selected and, putting them together, we have the word: Psalm.
The experiment took the entire book of Genesis (in Hebrew) and removed all spacing. This text was then put into a grid format. A computer searched the text to find if great rabbis from Israel’s history in conjunction with either their birth date or death date were found in the book of Genesis using ELS’s. If these leaders were found to be in the text we could conclude that the Scriptures predicted them long before they ever existed and thus point to the divine nature of the text.
This experiment used six control texts to test. The purpose of a control in an experiment is to ensure that the item being tested has results that cannot be attributed to mere chance. If the controls had the same result as the item being tested then it is unlikely that the effect actually occurs. Controls used in this experiment were:
- R: Letters of Genesis permutated randomly
- W: Words of Genesis permutated randomly
- V: Verses of Genesis permutated randomly
- U: Words within each verse of Genesis permutated randomly
- I: Book of Isaiah
- T: Hebrew edition of War and Peace
WRR chose how great a distance they wanted in their ELS’s, in other words, how many letters they would skip before selecting another letter. Along with this, they had to decide on starting points and lengths for their ELS’s. They then determined what would be considered “close proximity” to see if the dates were actually related to the names. The picture to the right has two words (read backwards) found in ELS’s that are considered related because of their close proximity to one another despite the fact that they are not in the same sequence. Likewise, if the computer found a name on the list with their dates in “close proximity” then it was deemed to be a successful find.
Results from this experiment were absolutely astonishing. The Hebrew text of Genesis had a much higher success than any of the other texts by a long shot. In his paper on the topic entitled A Mathematical Look at the Torah Codes2, Pieter Trapman puts the results of the test performed by WRR in layman’s terms: “The probability that this phenomenon could occur by chance is less than 0.002%” (p. 2; emphasis mine). Anyone can admit that these are very impressive results.
Putting the Test to the Test
Despite these impressive results, experts have shown how the experiment was flawed in its approach and how these flaws effected the outcome. The biggest hit to the project came in 1999 when Brendan McKay, Dror Bar-Natan, Maya Bar-Hillel, and Gil Kalai (MNHK) published Solving the Bible Code.3 This study detailed a recreation of the experiment above, however, MNHK addressed and fixed issues that they found in the approach of WRR. When the tests were done correctly they found much less impressive results. Listed below are just some of the issues found with the experiment.
- Errors in rabbi selection
- Incorrect or disputed dates of rabbis
- Inconsistency in decision making
- Evidence of systemic bias
- Rabbi names in close proximity to wrong dates (see image to the right).4
- Flawed null hypothesis
Subsequent research done after WRR’s experiment makes it clear that the initial experiment was deeply flawed. Other statistical experiments have been done to show the Bible Code effect. Unfortunately, these too are shown to have similar deficiencies.
In the Public Eye
Journalist Michael Drosnin published his best-selling book, The Bible Code in 1998.This book (of which there are currently two sequels) contains the entirety of WRR’s paper and uses the experiment to posit that the future can be predicted and prevented. This book rocketed the Bible Code into the hands of the average person and was instrumental in the idea gaining so much traction. Using the codes, Drosnin predicted the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.
0n September 1, 1994, I flew to Israel and met in Jerusalem with a close friend of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin… I gave him a letter which he immediately gave to the Prime Minister.
“An Israeli mathematician has discovered a hidden code in the Bible that appears to reveal the details of events that took place thousands of years after the Bible was written…The reason I’m telling you about this is that the only time your full name Yitzhak Rabin is encoded in the Bible, the words ‘assassin that will assassinate’ cross your name.”
On November 4, 1995, came the awful confirmation, a shot in the back from a man who believed he was on a mission from God, the murder that was encoded in the Bible three thousand years ago.5(cover)
Unfortunately for Drosnin, the majority of his other predictions do not come true.6 Predictions like the one above are vague, mistranslated, and were likely to happen anyway.
It should further be noted that the authors of WRR and other advocates of the Bible Code have publicly denounced Drosnin’s usage of the Bible Code as well as his method of finding and pairing words.
For me, it was a catalyst to ask whether we can, from a scientific point of view, attempt to use the Codes to predict future events. After much thought, my categorical answer is no. All attempts to extract messages from Torah codes, or to make predictions based on them, are futile and are of no value. This is not only my own opinion, but the opinion of every scientist who has been involved in serious Codes research.
Mr. Drosnin’s book is based on a false claim. It is impossible to use Torah codes to predict the future. I myself…investigated thoroughly the question of predicting the future. I reached the conclusion that it is impossible. I saw this through experimentation and also as a simple point of logic.
While Drosnin’s approach is decried by more reputable proponents of the Bible Code, his ideas remain the focal point for many that believe in it.
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Having discussed scientific and statistical aspects of the Bible Code, we will now turn to four theological problems with it.
Theological Issues No. 1: The Nature of Inspiration
Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis used Genesis as its test text because it is in the Torah (here referring to the first 5 books of the Old Testament). To many Orthodox Jews, the Torah is inspired differently from the rest of their Biblical canon. The Torah, in their tradition, was given by means of dictation. This is why the book of Isaiah is used as a control. Orthodox Jews believe that Isaiah is inspired, but not the same way the books of Moses are.
When describing the idea of the divine inspiration of the Bible, you may have heard the analogy that "the writers of the Bible were the pens that God used to write His Word." While this analogy may be helpful in some ways, it is ultimately incomplete. The analogy sees the Bible as being delivered by a dictation method, as though there is no human element to the words we find in Scripture, but this is not the case. We see the human element clearly in the Bible, for example, when Paul asks his audience for his cloak (2 Timothy 4:13) or when he shows how greatly distressed he is for his lost brethren (Romans 9:3-4).
The human element of Scripture does not negate its perfect teachings and divine inspiration. The bible is "God-breathed" and yet it maintains an element of man. This is best explained by Peter:
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 2:20-21 ESV, Emphasis mine)
The authors of Scripture are carried along by the Spirit to deliver the message the Lord intends for us to have. Their humanity in no way effects the truthfulness of that message.
Interestingly enough, though all five books of the Torah are thought to be equally inspired and dictated by God to Moses, the Great Rabbis Experiment only "works" in Genesis.
One of the most important theological objection is that the phenomenon does not appear in the other books of the Torah. It is totally unclear why Genesis should have an other status than the other four books. One may even expect the same properties for the text, because the whole Torah is believed to be dictated by God9 (Trapman, p. 5).
We are not given any indication in Scripture that one book of the Bible is more or less inspired than another. Each are perfectly and wholly inspired by God. Furthermore, in various prophetic books we get even more explicit descriptions of the authority of the words of the prophets as the word of God. Consider Ezekiel 3:1-7 and Revelation 10:1-11.
Theological Issue No. 2: The Nature of Transmission
Many Christians are unaware of the issues surrounding textual transmission, the copying of the Bible as it is passed down from generation to generation. For thousands of years scribes had the painstaking job of copying texts word-for-word by hand. Scribes were extremely meticulous but the process was not without error. A letter may get mixed up, a scribe might accidentally skip a line, and marginal notes might be mistakenly copied into a text. This is why many of our Bibles today have footnotes at the bottom of the pages that say "manuscript x says this." There are textual variants between the manuscripts in our possession so we have to use means of textual criticism to figure out what belongs.
Errors in the transmission, however, do not negate perfection in the original autograph, nor do they negate God's guiding hand in its delivery to us today. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy10 affirms this:
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.
We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant. (p. 5)
Proponents of the Bible Code presuppose that the text used is without transmissional error. The conductors of this experiment used the Masoretic Text (MT). These texts are a group of Hebrew manuscripts of the Torah, however, they are not the only family of manuscripts we have, for example we also have the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. Bible Code advocates must presuppose that the MT is a perfect transmission of the text. If even one letter is displaced the code can not be reliable for the purposes of a Bible Code.
In his book The Bible Code Myth11, Michael Heiser addresses a Bible Code advocate's usage of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Heiser compares these verses in the MT to other manuscripts and finds 115 textual variants (p. 49) . He also addresses many variants in the Torah. The Masorites (scribes of the MT) even make mention of variant discrepancies in their own notes!
The existence of textual variants should not scare us. The vast majority of variants are simply a letter or punctuation. There are a few bigger chunks where we see variants but those are rare and easy to recognize through textual criticism. The Bible remains the Word of God and our highest standard of authority. The reason that these variants effect the validity of the Bible Code is because the otherwise insignificant change in a letter makes massive changes to the outcome of ELS's, however, these variants have no bearing on the beliefs of God's people.
Theological Issue No. 3: The Purpose of Scripture
We were given the Scriptures for many reasons. Paul tells us that the Scriptures make us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" and that it is useful "for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:14-17). God gave us His Word in order that we might understand and receive salvation through Jesus Christ. For this, we need to know who God is, who we are, what our natural dreadful condition and fate is, how we are separated from God, and how Jesus provides an opportunity for us to be reconciled to Him. It shows us the Gospel. It also shows us how we ought to live as a result of our faith in Jesus, if we are in Him. Because of this, we must consider the purposes that a Bible Code would serve the main and clear goals of Scripture. In this regard, I echo the thoughts of Trapman12:
As a Christian I believe that the Torah is a divine text, and each person should know what is in these five books... But I cannot figure out one single reason why God should give some code in the Torah. (p. 25)
Many use the Bible Code to point to the divine authenticity of Scripture. It is argued that our hyper-scientific and skeptical age needs this kind of proof. God, being aware of this need, provided a mathematical way to prove its correctness. However, this is built on faulty premises and goes beyond the scope of the purposes for the Bible. People reject the Scriptures because they reject God and that rejection is based on their sinful nature, it is not based on a lack of evidence (Romans 1:18-20). This becomes remarkably evident when we consider that Michael Drosnin, the man who literally wrote the book on the Bible Code does not believe in God.
The Word of God has been under attack since the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1), and yet it prevails. Attacks against the Scriptures have existed throughout the ages and through each generation, God has used the same means to authenticate his Word: the Holy Spirit. Far from opening avenues of proof for the unbeliever, the Bible Code delivers new dilemmas that the Christian (or Jew) would be required to defend. God's people recognize His word as authoritative as a result of the Holy Spirit working in them. The Church is divided over issues of the messages of the text itself, adding in another dimension of "decoding" is unnecessary and unwise. Furthermore, given the vast evidence against the Bible Code, using it as an evangelistic tool is dishonest and easily dismissable. On this point, Trapman says13:
I think that Jews as well as Christians are not allowed to use the codes for outreach purposes. The scientific proofs for the code are not convincing and I think it is not allowed to use any argument that is uncertain for this purpose. (p. 25)
Theological Issue No. 4: Statistical Divination
Seeking out predictions to the future are expressly forbidden by the Scriptures. We have scores of verses that show God's people being disallowed to practice divination (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). By using the Bible Code to attempt to predict the future, we transgress the very commands that we are given in it.
It may be argued that the Lord makes predictions of the future to his prophets and that the Bible is the Word of God, therefore, the Bible Code is the means by which He communicates His predictions. This cannot be the case though as it negates God's entire practice of revealing future events. The Lord has established a pattern of revelation and the Bible Code is a complete deviation from that pattern with no instruction from God that such a pattern would or should be used by His people. Furthermore, we are told to seek Him, not mathematic equations:
And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? -Isaiah 8:19; Emphasis mine.
We are to inquire of God Himself and not concern ourselves with fortune-telling or predictions. These are used to raise up fear in our hearts and drive us further away from what the Word of God says by distracting us with fanciful means of divination. The fact that this form of divination has a mathematic algorithm makes it no less forbidden to us.
The Word of God is the perfect tool for knowing God and all that He has done for us despite our wickedness. Far be it from His people to twist and pervert that Word to serve their own purposes and neglect His straight-forward teachings.
- Witzum, Rips, & Rosenberg. "Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis." Statistical Science. Vol. 9, No. 3, 1994. https://projecteuclid.org/download/pdf_1/euclid.ss/1177010393. Accessed July 28, 2018.
- Trapman, Pieter. "A Mathematical Look at the Torah Codes." November 19, 2001: p2. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/01d3/18c8bfb4956c361c2176970cf1ca6447023a.pdf. Accessed July 28, 2018.
- McKay, Bar-Natan, Bar-Hilell, & Kilai. "Solving the Bible Code Puzzle." Statistical Science. Vol. 14, No. 2, 1999. https://projecteuclid.org/download/pdf_1/euclid.ss/1009212243. Accessed July 28, 2018.
- Tigay, Jeffrey H. "The Bible 'Codes'--A Textual Perspective." October 13, 1999. https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~jtigay/codetext.html. Accessed July 30, 2018.
- Drosnin, Michael. "The Bible Code" Touchstone. April 7, 1998: Cover.
- Bar-Hillel & Margali. "Madness in the Method." December 1999. https://www.dartmouth.edu/~chance/teaching_aids/books_articles/Maya.html. Accessed July 28, 2018.
- Rips, Eliyuh. "Public Statement by Eliyuh Rips." http://www.torah-code.org/controversy/rips_statement.pdf. Accessed August 13, 2018.
- Witzum, Doron. "Public Statement by Witzum Doron." http://www.torah-code.org/controversy/witztum_statement.pdf. Accessed August 3, 2018.
- Trapman, p5.
- "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy." International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. October 26-28, 1978: p5. http://www.danielakin.com/wp-content/uploads/old/Resource_545/Book%202,%20Sec%2023.pdf. Accessed July 30, 2018.
- Heiser, Michael. "The Bible Code Myth." Blind Spot Press. June 15, 2017: p49. http://www.michaelsheiser.com/Bible%20Code%20Myth.pdf. Accessed July 30, 2018.
- Trapman, p25.
- Trapman, p25.