What's up with the "Bible Code"?
Dear Straight Dope:
I was raised as a Catholic but over the years have proven to be more of a fan of science and computers. Anyway, I thought I'd get a taste of theology and I picked up several books from different departments in the business. One of them was The Bible Code written by Michael Drosnin, a self-proclaimed skeptic who went on to make some bold claims regarding a code embedded in the Torah (AKA The Old Testament) The "code" is based on ELS or equidistant letter sequencing throughout the document.
Mr. Drosnin was a writer for the Wall Street Journal and claims the existence of this "code" has been confirmed by mathematicians at Harvard, Yale, and Hebrew University. He also claims the existence of code has been confirmed by "a senior code breaker" at the Department of Defense.
The appendix seemed thorough but because the information is in Hebrew (ancient Hebrew if that makes a difference) and the math discussed was well beyond my abilities I cannot confirm it myself. I was wondering if these claims could withstand your scrutiny.
I thought this fad had gone the way of the pet rock, but alas, some myths are hard to put down.
The Bible Code was a book written by Michael Drosnin in 1997, received enormous publicity, and was a (ahem) nine days' wonder. The idea is that there are hidden messages in the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), predictions of the future, that can only be unearthed by computers.
I want to stress at the outset that I have not read the book, on principle. I think it is laughable, and I do not want to be supportive of it in any way, like by paying money for a copy.
But the concept behind The Bible Code is not new. Jewish mystics for the past 2,000 years have held similar beliefs. The thinking is that the Hebrew text of the Bible was dictated, letter by letter, by God Himself to Moses, and so each letter has a mystic symbolism, each word has layer upon layer of meaning, and if we could only decipher the layers of meaning, we would reach spiritual nirvana, or be able to heal the sick, or summon demons, or whatever. Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) and numerology (gematria) all rely on playing word-games with the original Bible text.
What Drosnin (and his predecessor Eliyahu Rips of Hebrew University in Israel) brought that was new was the computer. They basically took the text of the Bible, had the computer spread it out in a row-by-column matrix, and then (I'm oversimplifying) played "word find." And lo! they uncovered amazing predictions, such as the name "Rabin" overlaid with the word "assassinated," the names of many scholarly rabbis, and so on.
Then they claimed to have run statistical tests, indicating that the odds against these hidden messages being pure coincidence were a zillion to one.
So, at bottom, it's a variation on the old theme: the Hebrew text has hidden layers of meaning that depend on each letter being in a divinely ordained spot, and by deciphering the layers of meaning, we can see predictions of the future. Since only the most modern computer technology can read those layers of meaning, the Mind that wrote the text must be far more complex than our computers, meaning that the text could not have been written by human beings (although Drosnin apparently stops one step short of drawing this last conclusion).
OK, let's take a look at the word-find game.
Ancient Hebrew has no vowels and no punctuation. Furthermore, the letters can also represent numbers. Rather than try to teach you ancient Hebrew, let's use English as an example. First, we need to set up a number equivalency, similar to ancient Hebrew, as follows:
A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, D = 4, . . . , H = 8, I = 9, J = 10, K = 20, L = 30, M = 40, . . . , S = 100, T = 200, . . .
Now, let's take some text, let's take our title: The Straight Dope by Cecil Adams. First, we take out all the vowels, and get THSTRGHTDPBYCCLDMS.
Next, we put these 18 letters into a 2 x 9 matrix array, as follows:
T H S T R G H T D
P B Y C C L D M S
With me so far? Now, we play "word find." We look vertically, horizontally, diagonally, slantwise, forward, or backwards to see what we find in the way of words. Notice, right away, the letters "HST" and almost adjacent the letters HM (on the diagonal). Hmmm. Now, numerically by our system, HM would be 48, right? And HST is clearly Harry S Truman, right? And so we have a prediction that Harry Truman won the 1948 election! Astounding! Remarkable! Incredible!
To be sure, The Bible Code is more complex than my simple example, specifying that letters be skipped (take every fourth letter, for instance), rather than adjacent. It also allows rearrangements. If you find that every 17th letter in some section spells out the word "Kennedy," then you rearrange your matrix by 17s, and lo! you find other words like "Dallas" hidden nearby by taking every 5th letter.
The full methodology is summarized quite nicely at the several websites, including one maintained by the Skeptical Inquirer, listed below.
My point is that finding initials and names and dates in an arbitrary "word find" array is not hard. Especially if you're dealing with no vowels, and with numbers equivalent to letters. In a text that is 300,000 letters long, there should be hundreds of such coincidences. And if you can re-matrix as you please, the number of coincidences increases enormously.
So the methodology is suspect from the start. Skeptics have found incredible word combinations ("predictions") in other works (even in English) such as Moby Dick and War and Peace. .
Don't get me wrong. I personally believe that the Torah text has great depth, and layer upon layer of meaning. But not through trivial letter-rearranging, rather through reading and understanding, starting with the plain meaning (which has plenty of depth in itself.) The Pentateuch doesn't need Nostradamus-type magical predictions of the far off future to have meaning. Sadly, humbuggery is always with us, so pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Some websites of interest:
Skeptical Inquirer of November/December 1997 has a thorough review of the methodology and debunk: www.csicop.org/si/9711/bible-code.html
Skeptical Inquirer of March/April 1998 follow up article: www.csicop.org/si/9803/bible-code.html
Article by Brendan McKay (1997) finding political assassinations hidden in Moby Dick (in English, which is harder) using the Bible Code methodology: cs.anu.edu.au/~bdm/dilugim/moby.html