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Bible Code

The Bible Code is the title of a book by Michael Drosnin in which he claims that there is a code embedded in the Bible by Abraham's god (AG). The code is revealed by searching for equidistant letter sequences (ELS). The code is called the Bible Code or the Torah Code. For example, start with any letter ("L") and read every nth letter ("N") thereafter in the book, not counting spaces. If an entire book such as Genesis is searched, the result is a long string of letters. Using different values for L and N, one can generate many strings of letters. Imagine wrapping the string of letters around a cylinder in such a way that all the letters can be displayed. Flatten the cylinder to reveal several rows with columns of equal length, except perhaps the last column, which might be shorter than all the rest. Now search for meaningful names in proximity to dates. Search  horizontally, vertically, diagonally, any which way. A group of Israeli mathematicians did just this and claimed that when they searched for names in close proximity to birth or death dates (as published in the Encyclopedia of Great Men in Israel) they found many matches, for example, the date of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was in close proximity to letters spelling out his name. Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg (1994) published their findings under the title of  "On Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis." The editor of the journal commented:

When the authors used a randomization test to see how rarely the patterns they found might arise by chance alone they obtained a highly significant result, with the probability p=0.000016. Our referees were baffled: their prior beliefs made them think the Book of Genesis could not possibly contain meaningful references to modern-day individuals, yet when the authors carried out additional analyses and checks the effect persisted.

That is, the probability of getting the results they did was 16 out of one million or 1 out of 62,500. The authors state: "Randomization analysis shows that the effect is significant at the level of 0.00002 [and] the proximity of ELS's with related meanings in the Book of Genesis is not due to chance." Harold Gans, a former cryptologist at the US Defense Department, replicated the work of the Israeli team and agreed with their conclusion. Witztum  later claimed that, according to one measure, the probability of getting these results by chance is 1 in 4 million. He has apparently changed his mind and now claims that the probability p = 0.00000019 (1 out of 5.3 million).

As further evidence of the statistical significance of their results, the Israeli team analyzed the Hebrew version of the Book of Isaiah and the first 78,064 characters of a Hebrew translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace. They found many names in close proximity to birth or death dates, but the results were statistically insignificant. (The book of Genesis used in their study, the Koren version, has 78,064 characters.)

What does this all mean? To some it means that the patterns in Genesis are intentional and that AG is the ultimate author of the code. If so, should the Book of Isaiah, and any other book in the Bible that fails the ELS test, be dumped? Should we conclude that these statistics verify the claim that the Jews are the chosen people of AG, or that no more names should be added to list of Great Men in Israel unless they pass the ELS test? Unless other religions can duplicate such statistically improbable results, the mathematically minded supernaturalist might well consider them to be imposters. Should we translate all the sacred books of all the religions of the world into Hebrew and see how many great men of Israel are encoded there?

Can a computer really read the mind of AG? Apparently. For on this theory AG dictated in his favorite language, Hebrew, a set of words that are more or less intelligible if taken at face value, containing stories of creation, floods, fratricide, wars, miracles, and so on, with many moral messages. But this Hebrew god chose his words carefully, encoding the Bible with prophecies and messages of absolutely no religious value.

Many, however, are not at a loss at all. Some Christian "creation scientists" claim the Bible Code provides scientific proof of AG's existence. If they are right, they should convert to Judaism. Doron Witztum can't do that, since he is already a Jew. But he has taken the work done on Genesis a bit further than his colleagues. Witztum went on Israeli television and claimed that the names of the sub-camps on a map of Auschwitz appeared remarkably close to the phrase "in Auschwitz." The odds of such occurring, he said, are "one in a million." Some of his students did the math and claim their mentor was off by "a factor of 289,149." Witztum's math may not be as good as his intentions, but it is difficult to see what those intentions might be. Was AG revealing in an odd way that the sub-camps of Auschwitz are in Auschwitz?

Michael Drosnin has written a book based on the ELS study. He claims in The Bible Code (1997) that decoding the Bible leads to the discovery of prophecies and profound truths of a secular nature, not all of which are related to the Jews. Drosnin claims that the Bible is the only text in which these encoded phrases are found in a statistically significant pattern, and that the chance of this being a random phenomenon is unlikely. Using the ELS method, Drosnin claims that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was foretold in the Bible. He also claims that the assassinations of Anwar Sadat and the Kennedy brothers are encoded in biblical ELS.

Not everybody agrees with the Drosnin hypothesis, including Harold Gans, a retired Defense Department cryptologist who corroborated the work of Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg. Gans says that the

...book states that the codes in the Torah can be used to predict future events. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no scientific or mathematical basis for such a statement, and the reasoning used to come to such a conclusion in the book is logically flawed. While it is true that some historical events have been shown to be encoded in the Book of Genesis in certain configurations, it is absolutely not true that every similar configuration of "encoded" words necessarily represents a potential historical event. In fact, quite the opposite is true: most such configurations will be quite random and are expected to occur in any text of sufficient length. Mr. Drosnin states that his "prediction" of the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin is "proof" that the "Bible Code" can be used to predict the future. A single success, regardless of how spectacular, or even several such "successful" predictions proves absolutely nothing unless the predictions are made and evaluated under carefully controlled conditions. Any respectable scientist knows that "anecdotal" evidence never proves anything.*

Dr. Eliyahu Rips, one of the authors of the study that started the Bible Code craze, has also made a public statement regarding Drosnin's Bible Code.

I do not support Mr. Drosnin's work on the Codes, nor the conclusions he derives....All attempts to extract messages from Torah codes, or to make predictions based on them, are futile and are of no value. This is not only my own opinion, but the opinion of every scientist who has been involved in serious Codes research.

Professor Menachem Cohen, a celebrated Bible scholar at Bar-Ilan University, has criticized Witztum et al. on two counts: (1) there are several other Hebrew versions of Genesis for which ELS does not produce statistically significant results; and (2) the appellations given to the Great Men in Israel was inconsistent and arbitrary. Other critics, such as Brendan McKay, have done their own analysis of War and Peace with remarkably different results than those reported by Witztum et al. Many critics, however, have done little more than use ELS to find names, dates, and so on in various books, a feat already known by even the weakest of statisticians to be unremarkable. Drosnin once said, "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby-Dick, I'll believe them." McKay promptly produced an ELS analysis of Moby-Dick predicting not only Indira Ghandi's assassination, but the assassinations of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Yitzhak Rabin, as well as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Mathematician David Thomas did an ELS on Genesis and found the words "code" and "bogus" close together not once but 60 times. What are the odds of that happening? Thomas also did an ELS analysis on Drosnin's Bible Code II: The Countdown (2002) and found the message "The Bible Code is a silly, dumb, fake, false, evil, nasty, dismal fraud and snake-oil hoax."* Does this mean that AG put in a code to reveal that there is no code?

See also divination, cabala, numerology, prophecy, and retroactive clairvoyance.

further reading

reader comments

books and articles

In Search of Mathematical Miracles by Brendan McKay

Thomas, David E. "Hidden Messages and The Bible Code," Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 1997 and "Follow-up Bible Code Developments," SI, March/April 1998.

Witztum, D., E. Rips and Y. Rosenberg. 1994. "On Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis," Statistical Science, vol. 9, no. 3, 429-438.


Shocking Codes found in Skeptic's Dictionary!

Shocking New Codes Found in Drosnin Sequel! by DaveThomas

Codes in the Koran!

Harold Gans' Statement

Report on new ELS tests of Torah (29 May 1997) by Dror Bar-Natan, Alec Gindis, Aryeh Levitan and Brendan McKay

Cracking "The Bible Code" by D. Trull

Torah Codes - Doron Witztum Speaks Out

Torah Code probabilities

Last updated 12-Sep-2014

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