Those Bogus “Bible Codes”
The idea that certain pieces of literature are characterized by numerical codes that smuggle important messages to those who are able to decipher them, has roots that reach far back into antiquity. Within the past few years, interest in this issue has emerged again — with considerable sensationalism.
At ancient Khorsabad, a wall was supposed to have been constructed according to the numerical value of the name of Sargon the king.
Generally, the mystical use of numbers is traced to the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras (c. 569-500 B.C.), who founded a cult based upon the idea than numbers were basic to nature, and that any phenomenon could be explained in terms of numbers (see John J. Davis, Biblical Numerology, Baker, 1968, pp. 125ff).
There may be a reflection of this ideology in the Jewish apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon, written by an unknown Alexandrian Jew in the late 2nd century B.C. (or later). A passage in that work states that God “by measure and number and weight” ordered all things (11:20).
Certain ancient Jewish writers attempted “exegetical wizardry” by the mystical use of numbers. For example in the Hebrew Talmud (B. Shabbat 70a), Nathan interprets the statement “these are the words” (in Exodus 35:1) in the following fashion. The Hebrew is eleh haDebarim, which is supposed to signify thirty-nine different categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. “Thirty-nine” is derived “from the numerical equivalent of eleh — thirty-six — plus two for the plural form debarim and one more for the definite article ba” (Jacob Neusner, William S. Green, Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, Hendrickson, 1996, p. 245). The absurdity of such a procedure is evident on the very face of it.
In the post-apostolic age, some of the “Church Fathers” were mesmerized by the mystical use of numbers. Others, however, opposed such speculations as a fanatical misappropriation of the sacred text (see Irenaeus – c. A.D. 130-200, Against Heresies, II.XXIV).
In Medieval times theologians began to imagine that they had discovered symbolic meanings in numbers. And while there is some basis to believe that occasionally numbers are used as symbols (e.g., “seven” in the book of Revelation), the mystical numerologists went much too far with their baseless views.
The Modern Resurgence
Within the last decade, highly publicized claims about mysterious numerical codes, hidden within the Bible texts, have heightened curiosity concerning this topic.
In the early 1990’s, some Israeli mathematicians contended they had discovered certain “letter codes” in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). Exploiting these claims, Michael Drosnin, a popular journalist (formerly affiliated with The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, produced a book that was titled, The Bible Code (Simon & Schuster, 1997). This volume quickly made the best-seller lists. The publisher boasted: “For three thousand years a code in the Bible has remained hidden. Now it has been unlocked by computer — and it may reveal our future.”
The following year, Grant Jeffrey, a popular “prophet of hysteria” of the “millennial-mania” community (who holds an “honorary doctorate” from Louisiana Baptist Theological Seminary), published a volume called, The Mysterious Bible Codes (Word, 1998), which made equally outrageous claims. Significantly, though, Jeffrey dismissed Drosnin’s efforts as not representative of “legitimate Bible Code research” — though his own procedure is as bizarre as his competitor’s, and they utilize some of the same ridiculous examples for “proofs.”
As mentioned above, Drosnin’s work alleges that secret Old Testament messages, hidden for centuries, have now been unlocked by means of computer technology. The “discovery” was touted as a phenomenon that “may change the world.” Supposedly, these obscured messages were prophetic in nature, foretelling such events as World War II, the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the exploration of the Moon. Reputedly, the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy, the Watergate scandal, the Oklahoma City bombing, the exact date of the beginning of the Gulf War, and the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin also have been “decoded.” (See Note below.)
The Methods Employed
Oddly, in order to find these coded messages, one must go here and there in the books of the Torah (Law), making a “skip search” to assemble the coded words. A “skip search” attempts to frame terms by looking at sequential letter-occurrences, e.g., every 10th letter, 20th letter, 3,000th letter, etc., until a pattern seems to appear. The sequence can go forwards, backwards, up or down — even diagonally — in the computer-generated text, until the coveted “match” is located.
For example, the message about the great “economic collapse” of “1929,” it is said, must be located in the records of both Exodus and Deuteronomy, while “Holocaust,” “Japan,” and “1945” must be assembled from the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Jeffrey’s work expands upon Drosnin’s, supposedly unraveling messages that are “encrypted” in both the Old and New Testaments, and involving an even greater variety of prophetic names and events.
For instance, in connection with the Gulf War, coded messages in Genesis and Numbers reputedly contain the names George Bush, Norman Schwarzkopf, and even Peter Arnet, the CNN reporter! Allegedly, there are other detailed prophecies, including such events as the Oklahoma City bombing, and the death of Princess Diana!
Consider, for example, Jeffrey’s claim about the Oklahoma City bombing. He asserts that by sequencing certain letters in the context that begins in Genesis 34:18, and continues through 44:4, one can locate the following encoded words. “Oklahoma” and “terror” are in (35:5); “Murrrah” — the name of the Federal building is in (36:8), while “building” is in (36:24). “Slaughtered” and “death” are in (35:7). The name “Timothy” is (44:4), while “McVeigh” is back at (34:21). Then “day 19” is found at (32:13), while “ninth hour” is in (34:18). The phrase, “in the morning” comes two chapters later (36:10).
The only surprise is that one doesn’t find Timothy McVeigh’s Social Security number, or phone number, in the prophetic-mix!
Jeffrey argues that these are evidences of the divine origin of the Bible. Yet, disagreeing with Drosnin, he affirms that one cannot discover these “prophecies” to see into the future; he can only decode them after the fact! That is directly the opposite of the biblical position. The prophet Isaiah challenged the pagans of his day:
“Declare the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods” (Isa. 41:23).
Such outlandish claims are more inclined to produce infidels than believers! The Scriptures do not need this sort of “hocus-pocus” apologetics for verification.
Responses to the “Code” Claims
Responses to these fabulous claims have been swift and devastating. For example, some of the world’s foremost mathematicians have disputed Drosnin’s theory (and, by implication, Jeffrey’s as well). One document, signed by 55 scholars, all of whom hold the Ph.D. degree, states:
“There is a common belief in the general community to the effect that many mathematicians, statisticians, and other scientists consider the claims [of Drosnin and the Israeli scholars upon whom he relied] to be credible. This belief is incorrect. On the contrary, the almost unanimous opinion of those in the scientific world who have studied the question is that the theory is without foundation” (See: Mathematicians’ Statement on the Bible Codes).
Critics of the “Bible Code” theories point out that if one has a substantially lengthy text, and he does enough computer searches, if he can go anywhere in any direction in the text, he can “find anything.” Professor Don Foster of Vassar College, who specializes in using computers to analyze ancient texts, says that code searchers, employing the same techniques, could secure the identical results from “a telephone directory” (John Barry and Adam Rogers, “Seek and Ye Shall Find,” Newsweek, June 9, 1997, p. 66).
In 1997, in defense of his methodology, Drosnin issued this challenge: “When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in ‘Moby Dick’ I’ll believe them” (Barry/Rogers, p. 67).
Be careful about making rash challenges!
Professor Brendan McKay, of the Department of Computer Science at Australian National University, accepted Drosnin’s challenge. Running computer searches similar to those employed by Drosnin, he scanned the text of Moby Dick. By the Drosnin/Jeffrey method, he was able to construct “prophetic” messages foretelling the deaths of Abraham Lincoln, Indira Gandhi, Rene Moawad, Leon Trotsky, Martin Luther King, Sirhan Sirhan, John F. Kennedy, and Princess Diana! Must one now conclude that Moby Dick was inspired of God by means of the pen of Herman Melville?
McKay even found a “prophetic” utterance of the future grotesque murder of Michael Drosnin himself! See The Demise of Drosnin on McKay’s web site.
So much for Drosnin’s arrogant challenge, and for Grant Jeffrey’s boast that this coding business reflects the “signature of God.” Incidentally, Jeffrey’s book originally sold for $21.99; now the volume has been dumped on the market by Christian Book Distributors for $4.99.
For a kindly but devastating critique of Jeffrey’s work, see the book, Who Wrote The Bible Code?, by Randall Ingermanson, Ph.D., (Waterbrook, 1999). Dr. Randall suggested that Jeffrey’s “scholarship” was very sloppy; he ran his own “code” checks on three Greek texts of the New Testament (the Textus Receptus, the Byzantine Textform, and Nestle’s Twenty-sixth edition), and “found no evidence of a Bible code in the New Testament.”
These weird “code” theories bear no relation to the valid evidence found in genuine biblical prophecy. When God wanted to reveal who would issue the decree, releasing Israel from Babylonian captivity, he called Cyrus by name — some three centuries before the monarch’s birth (Isa. 44:28 — 45:1). He did not need to “encode” the message.
Note: Michael Drosnin claims that after he discovered the coded message predicting Prime Minister Rabin’s impending death, on September 1, 1994 he flew to Israel to warn the dignitary. Subsequently, on November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated. An interesting question is this: Did Drosnin think he could somehow thwart this “prophetic message,” purportedly given three thousand years earlier?
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.