The Bible Code
The Bible Code
Reviewed by John A. Tvedtnes
The so-called Bible Code study conducted in Israel stimulates frequent questions.
Several articles and a book have resulted from the 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 God
inspired even the very wording in the Pentateuch.
Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians alike have hailed the study as
support for the divine authenticity of the Bible, which many of them hold to
be inerrant and complete. They point out that most of the Bible Code researchers
are statisticians, not theologians. Of late, some Latter-day Saints have been
impressed with the code research, and it is their interest that prompts my examination
of the methodology used and the problems involved.
The idea of a hidden code in the Bible was first introduced in a 1988 note
published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society and written by three
Israeli statisticians from the Jerusalem College of Technology and the Hebrew
University.1 A follow-up article by the same authors appeared in 1994 in a refereed
journal,2 Statistical Science.3 An editorial note by the journal’s editor, Robert
Kass, noted that “the paper is . . . offered to Statistical Science readers
as a challenging puzzle.”4 Several other scholars supported the study. Among
these were five mathematicians (one from Yale University and two each from Harvard
University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem) who, in 1988, issued a public
statement endorsing the work. Other supporters included researchers at Johns
Hopkins University and the U.S. Department of Defense. A summary of the research
appeared in 1995 in Bible Review.5
In 1997 the Bible Code was popularized in a book by journalist Michael Drosnin,
who followed developments and interviewed the original researchers.6 The book
reached a much wider audience and introduced the research to the layman. About
the same time, the code concept came under fire from critics. Chief among these
were two Bible scholars whose critiques were published in the August 1997 issue
of Bible Review.7 I shall return to their comments later.
In order to evaluate the code study, one must first understand how it was
conducted8 The researchers developed a computer program that takes the Hebrew
text of Genesis, then skips over a specified number of letters, printing out,
for example, every fifteenth letter. These are then placed in a matrix, usually
a rectangular box, in which the letters forming the words are adjacent to each
other on a horizontal plane. If, in the matrix, there are other words in close
proximity, running horizontally, vertically, or diagonally (much like word searches
in game books readily available in the United States), the connection is considered
significant, provided the words “fit” together or make some kind of sense. The
words formed by this method are, in and of themselves, unimportant since the
laws of chance would produce valid words from time to time using the computer’s
methodology. But when the researchers find several related words within the
same matrix, they feel they have demonstrated their point. One of their most
important finds is the name Yitzhak Rabin (reading vertically) in close proximity
to the words “assassin will assassinate” (reading horizontally). This, they
suggest, is an ancient prophecy about the assassination of the well-known Israeli
The 1994 study involved a search of the book of Genesis for the names of the
thirty-four most prominent Jewish men from the ninth through nineteenth centuries,
including standard abbreviations of famous rabbis on the list. They paired these
with the dates of birth or death of these men, who lived long after Genesis
was written. They claimed that each of the names was found in close proximity
to an important date in the individual’s life. They further claimed that the
process did not work on various other books, such as the Samaritan version of
the Pentateuch, biblical texts outside the Pentateuch, or Tolstoy’s War and
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 (or sometimes every thousandth letter) is picked. The researchers claim
that, statistically, the intersection of related words cannot be chance occurrences.
Examples include the proximity of the name of the king of Judah, Zedekiah, with
his real given name Mattaniah (see 2 Kings 24:17).
However, this methodology is fraught with several problems. One involves the
nature of the Hebrew text. No definitive version of the books Genesis through
Deuteronomy exists. Though a standard text is used in the synagogue, different
ancient manuscripts vary in their readings. For example, among the Dead Sea
Scrolls different versions of the book of Exodus vary widely. The omission or
change of even a single word or letter can affect the results of the computer
search. The code researchers have relied on a specific edition of the Masoretic
Hebrew text (MT). Problematically, however, the MT was formulated in the centuries
after Christ, and the earliest MT manuscript dates to the ninth century AD.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, on the other hand, are a millennium older.
Another question deals with orthography. Some words have more than one possible
spelling in the Bible and, in fact, are spelled differently in various manuscripts
of the same passage. 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 a computer search.
But the coup de grace came when two Bible scholars examined the Bible Code
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
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 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” (p. 24). 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 9 June 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,” which one might connect to the 1980 assassination of former
Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza. The other has “Igandhi” in a vertical
line intersected by a horizontal line reading “thebloodydeed,” which brings
to mind the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. 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! A Web site at cs.anu.edu.au/~bdm/dilugim/moby.html
cites the various “Assassinations Foretold in Moby Dick” and includes the Moby
Dick prediction of the death of Princess Diana. But even Robert Louis Stevenson
predicted the princess’s death and that of President Kennedy in his Treasure
Island, as can be seen by the examples posted at www.nsli.com/ . . . /torah.
The truth is, however, that with enough permutations, one can find such “prophetic”
messages in any lengthy text. A Greek Orthodox priest of my acquaintance, using
the Bible Code software, found the name Joseph Smith (written in Hebrew characters)
several times in the book of Genesis. I wonder how the many evangelical Christians
who have bought into the Bible Code business would react to this kind of information—or to the fact that Orthodox Jewish researchers have found the names of many
medieval rabbis, alongside their birthdates.
Not content to use the Bible Code software packaged with Drosnin’s book, some
enterprising soul has come up with software that can help search the Bible in
Hebrew, Greek, and English.9 To buy into this idea, one must acknowledge that
God built the original code in Hebrew but made provision for Greek and English
translations in which the code would also work. But given the large number of
Web sites on the Bible Code, it seems unnecessary to make such a purchase.10
Perhaps the strangest of these Web sites is run by a Latter-day Saint who
believes that the real Bible Code is in gematria, in which each letter is assigned
a numeric value (this late use of the Hebrew alphabet did not exist in Old Testament
times).11 He and his followers take the numeric value of each letter in a word,
add them together, then look up that number in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance
of the [King James] Bible to see what word they find. (Evidently, they are oblivious
to the fact that Strong could have arranged his words a bit differently and
still been within his own parameters.)
But his method goes beyond just the Bible. This group also uses telephone
numbers, street addresses, zip codes, and even Social Security numbers to make
predictions. Using this method, the owner of the site claims that his own marriage,
including the size of the ring he bought for his bride and its price (plus his
own Social Security number and the house he bought just prior to his marriage)
have all been predicted. He has a number of followers on his message board,
and it is clear from the traffic there that these people believe that anything
and everything has not only been foreseen by God but that God has made use of
the telephone directory and virtually every book ever published to encode messages
for us to decipher. This being the case, all of the “Moby Dick” arguments seem
to fall on deaf ears. I find it particularly ironic that the ideas held by this
group of Latter-day Saints smack of predestination, which conflicts with the
church’s concept of the agency of man.
Meanwhile, the May 1999 issue of Statistical Science, the journal that published
the original study five years earlier, included a refutation by four statisticians,
who wrote that “despite a considerable amount of effort, we have been unable
to detect the codes.”12 The issue is still being debated in print and on a number
of Web pages. One of the more impressive of these is a denunciation of the Bible
Code by a growing list of mathematicians from around the world, some of whom
accept the Torah (Genesis through Exodus) as inspired scripture but reject the
concept of a hidden code.13
My recommendation to Latter-day Saints is to stick to what the prophets—ancient and modern—have told us about the future and not rely on this latest
- Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg, response to D. J. Bartholomew,
“Probability, Statistics, and Theology,” Journal of the Royal Statistical
Society, series A, 151/1 (1988): 173-74.
- Refereed journals ask one or more scholars in the relevant field to review
or referee an article prior to publication to ensure that it meets scholarly
- Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg, “Equidistant Letter
Sequences in the Book of Genesis,” Statistical Science 9/3 (1994): 429-38.
- Ibid., 306.
- Jeffrey B. Satinover, “Divine Authorship? Computer Reveals Startling
Word Patterns,” Bible Review 11/5 (1995): 28-31, 44-45.
- Michael Drosnin, The Bible Code (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997).
- The articles were published together with an editorial preface entitled “The
Bible Code: Cracked and Crumbling,” Bible Review 13/4 (1997): 22. The
articles are Ronald S. Hendel, “The Secret Code Hoax,” 23-24;
and Shlomo Sternberg, “Snake Oil for Sale,” 24-25.
- The term equidistant letter sequences or ELS was first noted in 1958 by a
Rabbi Weissmandel before computers were available to most people. The Israeli
statisticians acknowledge their indebtedness to Rabbi Weissmandel, whose observations
prompted them to investigate the phenomenon using a computer program.
- One can order the software online at www.biblecodes.com. Web sites given
in this review were valid as of October 2002.
- It is not feasible to insert here all the Web sites on the subject. One
of the more prominent is www.biblecodecritic.com.
- See www.greaterthings.com/Word-Number.
- For the full article with an impressive bibliography, see Brendan McKay,
Dror Bar-Natan, Maya Bar-Hillel, and Gil Kalai, “Solving the Bible Code
Puzzle,” Statistical Science 14/2 (May 1999): 150-73.
- See www.math.caltech.edu/code/petition.html.