Bible Codes

Martin Gardner had a column in Scientific American that ran for years and years, in which he would discuss various mathematical and scientific oddities.

One item he discussed years ago is the concept of the Bible codes that became popular with the 1997 publication of The Bible Code, a best-selling book by Michael Drosnin. A sequel came out in 2002, with others by additional authors popping up like mushrooms. Every so often I still get questions about it.

Drosnin’s book is based on the technique described in the paper “Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis” by Eliyahu Rips, Doron Witztum and Yoav Rosenberg of the Hebrew University in Israel published in 1994. The Equidistant Letter Sequence (ELS) works this way: choose a starting point (in principle, any letter) and a skip number. Then, beginning at the starting point, select letters from the text at equal spacing as given by the skip number.

Gardner, like many critics, pointed out some problems with this technique. To perhaps oversimplify it, the supposed patterns found by using ELS are not a whole lot different than our normal human tendency to find patterns in other chaotic systems—as in seeing a dog in a cloud formation, or imagining a man in the patterns of craters and lava flows on the moon, or the recognition of the face of Jesus, as imagined by Renaissance painters, in a tortilla.

In his column, Gardner pointed to an example of this sort of thing in what’s called the Kruskal Count. That’s a mathematical principle first noted by the mathematician Martin Kruskal in the 1970s. He applied the technique to a card trick he invented, but it also works for words in a text. He noticed that if you take any text, where the number of words in it is significantly larger than the number of letters in the longest word, it is probable that any two arbitrarily started word chains will intersect at a keyword.

Gardner suggested doing this with the first three verses of the Bible, Genesis 1:1-3, reproduced below from the 1611 translation of the Bible commonly known as the King James Version:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

So let’s do a Kruskal Count. Select one of the words in the first verse. Any word. It doesn’t matter. Next, count the number of letters in that word. Got it? Now, count forward that number of words (ignore the verse numbers and punctuation). Then count the letters in that word that you landed on. Then count forward again from that second word however many letters you found in your second word. Repeat this process until you get to the third verse. What word did you end on? If you followed the procedure properly, no matter which of the words you pick in the first verse to begin your count, you will land on the word “God” when you get to verse three.

Using the ELS system that Drosnin talked about in his best selling book, researchers have been able to pull things out of any number of random texts. Australian mathematician Brendan McKay used Drosnin’s techniques with the novel Moby Dick and was able to generate sequences that related to modern events, including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He also found a code relating to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, containing the assassin’s first and last name, the university he attended, and his motive. He was also able to find evidence of the 911 terrorist attacks on New York in some of the songs of the rapper Vanilla Ice. Given that most people would not imagine either Moby Dick or rap music to be divinely inspired, it makes it seem such discoveries in the biblical text are simply what they are: happenstance.

Another big problem with the Bible codes phenomenon, besides the demonstrably random character of it, relates to the nature of the biblical text itself. For the ELS phenomenon to work, it assumes that the text of the Bible is precisely the text as it came from the hand of the original authors. But given that the biblical text has been copied and recopied by hand dozens and even hundreds of times, it should come as no great shock to anyone that no two copies of the ancient manuscripts are identical. And although the bulk of the differences between the copies are spelling differences and the sorts of typos one would expect from years and years of recopying, those are just the sorts of errors that would be completely destructive to any code hidden on the basis of counting letters. If God really wanted to hide a coded message in a text, using one dependent upon counting letters in something copied over and over by hand would not be the way to do it. I assume that God is not an idiot and knew all about the way manuscripts would be handled over the centuries.

Finally, it seems to me a bit peculiar to be hunting for some hidden, secret code from God. I think most people are having enough trouble just trying to understand—and put into practice—the obvious meaning of His words on the page: like “love your neighbor as yourself.”

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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