The innerrantists are at it again, referring to the so-called “Bible Code” studies conducted in Israel as evidence that the text of the Bible remains as it was revealed directly by God thousands of years ago. Several articles and a book have resulted from the “Bible Code” study, which purports to demonstrate that hidden in the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch–the first five books of the Old Testament–are prophecies of future events. The researchers suggest that, because only God can know the future, this is evidence that even the very wording in the Pentateuch was inspired by God.
Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians alike have hailed the study as evidence for the divine authenticity of the Bible. They point to the fact that most of the “Bible Code” researchers are statisticians, not theologians, which gives them some neutrality when it comes to religious matters.
In order to evaluate the study, one must first understand how it was conducted. The researchers developed a computer program that would take the Hebrew text of the Bible, then skip over a specified number of letters, printing out, for example, every fifteenth letter. These would then be arranged in a “matrix,” usually a rectangular box, in which one could search for words, much like in game books readily available in our country. The words can be read horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. The words formed by this method are, in and of themselves, unimportant. It is when the researchers find several related words within the same matrix that they feel they have demonstrated their point. One of their most important finds is the name Yitzhak Rabin (reading vertically) and the words “assassin will assassinate” (reading horizontally) within the same matrix.
The “prophecies” that can be found using this method vary according to how many letters are skipped. Thus, a lengthy Bible passage could, theoretically, produce more than one such message, depending on whether each tenth, eleventh, or twelfth letter is picked.
There are several problems with this methodology. One is that the definition of proximity of the various words is rather arbitrary because of the matrix design. Another involves the nature of the Hebrew text. There simply is no single version of the books Genesis through Deuteronomy. Though there is a standard text used in the synagogue, different ancient manuscripts vary in their readings. For example, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are several different versions of the book of Exodus that vary widely. The omission or change of even a single word can affect the results of the computer search.
We then have the question of orthography. Some words have more than one possible spelling in the Bible and, in fact, are spelled differently in in the same passage in various manuscripts. Originally, some Hebrew letters were used only to represent the semivowels y and w, as well as h, but were later used to also denote vowel sounds (i, o or u, and a). This led to misreadings in some later manuscripts that would also affect the results of the computer search.
But the coup de grace came when the “Bible Code” issue was examined by two Bible scholars in the pages of the August 1997 issue of Bible Review. Ronald S. Hendel of Southern Methodist University entitled his review “The Secret Code Hoax.” Rabbi Shlomo Sternberg, who teaches mathematics at Harvard, called his article, “Snake Oil For Sale.”
Examining the question of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Sternberg noted that “the computer found that if you skip every 4,772 letters, the name Yitzhak Rabin is embedded in the biblical text. In other words, there is a yod, the first letter of Yitzhak, followed by 4,772 letters later by the second letter of his name, and so on. This means that if you print out the letters of the Hebrew Pentateuch (using the Koren edition) in rows 4,772 letters wide, the name Yitzhak Rabin will appear in a vertical column.” To Sternberg, this stretched credulity too far.
Sternberg also took up the challenge launched by the principal “Bible Code” researcher, Michael Drosnin, in an article published in the June 9, 1997, issue of Newsweek, in which he said, “When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick I will believe them.” Sternberg asked an Australian mathematics professor, Brendan McKay, “to search Moby Dick for such encrypted messages. He found 13 ‘predicted’ assassinations of public figures, several of them prime ministers or presidents or their equivalents.” Two examples appear in Sternberg’s article. One has a message reading, “Pres – Somoza – dies – he was shot – gun.” The other has “IGandhi” in a vertical line intersected by a horizontal line reading “thebloodydeed.” Using the same reasoning for Sternberg’s study as that employed by the “Bible Code” researchers, we would have to conclude that God also dictated Moby Dick and that Herman Melville was a prophet! The truth, however, is that with enough permutations, one can find such “prophetic” messages in any lengthy text.
Unfortunately, some Latter-day Saints have bought into the “Bible Code” nonsense and I frequently get questions on the subject. Some even want to run the program on the text of the Book of Mormon to prove its authenticity. Some critics have challenged us to do just that, believing that the test will fail and thus prove that while the Bible is divinely-inspired, the Book of Mormon is manmade. None of them has stopped to consider the fact that the “Bible Code” studies were done on the Hebrew text, not on a secondary English translation, and that performing such a test on the English Book of Mormon would prove nothing. Still, in view of the fact that Moby Dick has proven to be “prophetic,” I suspect that even the English version of the Book of Mormon would provide some interesting results. But I have better things to do than waste my time with this kind of nonsense.