The Alleged “Bible Code”

It may seem strange and crazy now, but back in the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of orthodox Jewish techies were interested in something they called the “Torah codes.”

The claim was that God had encoded information into the text of the Hebrew Bible that could not have been known by the human authors of the Bible.

Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg published an article in 1994 in the refereed journal Statistical Science which created a huge controversy because it claimed to detect encoded information that was very unlikely to be there by random chance. (The usual odds quoted were 1 in 62500.)

A journalist, Michael Drosnin, published a best-selling book in 1997, The Bible Code, which claimed that the Israeli military used these alleged codes to gain a military advantage during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Drosnin, who does not believe in God, suggested that time-traveling space aliens were responsible for these “codes.” This was probably not the highest peak in gullibility in the 1990s, but it comes close.

A psychiatrist, Jeffrey Satinover, wrote a best-selling book not long after, Cracking the Bible Code, in which he presented the case that the Torah encodes an essentially infinite amount of material. He based this on a statement made by the famous Jewish rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo (commonly called the “Vilna Gaon”). Satinover quotes him as saying, “All that was, is, and will be unto the end of time is included in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.” Satinover further quotes him as saying, “…and not merely in a general sense, but including the details of every person individually, and the most minute details of everything that happened to him from the day of his birth until his death; likewise of every kind of animal and beast and living thing that exists, and of herbiage, and of all that grows or is inert.”

Naturally, a lot of people were skeptical of these alleged codes, as they should be. Spectacular claims like these require solid evidence. A large number of people got involved. By far, the biggest contributor was Brendan McKay, an Australian mathematician who put in enormous efforts to expose errors in the alleged Bible code. In the US, Caltech mathematician Barry Simon (an orthodox Jew) wrote several influential articles attacking the codes.

I got interested in the codes and wrote a book in 1999 on the subject, Who Wrote The Bible Code? which was published by WaterBrook Press, a Christian division of Random House.

I was not particularly interested in responding to the work of Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg, since I felt that Brendan McKay and Barry Simon had already given all the response necessary.

And I don’t think any mathematician ever took Michael Drosnin’s claims seriously, because time-traveling space aliens seemed to me to be just too silly for words.

But Jeffrey Satinover’s extravagant claims seemed to me be testable, precisely because they were so extravagant. If there’s a near-infinite amount of information encoded in the Torah, then surely that enormous pile of information should be detectable using general principles, right? So in my book, I explained a set of computations I had done that tried to measure the amount of excess information that might be encoded in the Torah (using ideas from information theory). The idea here is that all normal texts contain some finite amount of information and you can measure it. So I wanted to measure the excess information, above and beyond what you’d normally expect. I found that it was very small (not statistically distinguishable from zero). So my opinion is that there is no compelling evidence for a Bible code that contains enormous amounts of information as described by Satinover.

My publisher was unable to typeset the mathematical equations in my book, so they asked me to make them available as a PDF document here on my web site. If you’ve read my book and are looking for the mathematical appendices, this PDF file is what you’re looking for.

I’m no longer much interested in the subject. In my view, the Bible code was a bit of weird science that could have been interesting, but turned out not to be.

I don’t have a philosophical objection to the codes. After all, I’m a Christian. Therefore, I believe in God. And if you believe that God exists, then it follows that he might conceivably have created a code for us to find. 

But I don’t see any reason to believe he did, and there are some serious literary reasons to think he didn’t. For more on those, check out the work by Michael Heiser, who earned a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Languages from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Years ago, I had a number of discussions by e-mail with some of the codes proponents in the US. Of these, the most interesting was Robert Haralick, who is a pioneer in computer vision. He’s certainly one of the world’s leading experts in pattern recognition in images. I consider him an outstanding scientist and I wish that more of the codes proponents were like him.

Dr. Haralick is an orthodox Jew and seems to believe that the Torah codes are real, although it’s hard to pin down his exact level of belief. He has continued to work on the “Torah code hypothesis” and his website uses proper scientific language to discuss the topic. If you’re interested in the subject, his site is probably the best place to begin, since he is a working scientist and thinks like one.

At one time, I had quite a few pages on my website with various articles and book reviews on the Bible code. However, I consider it a dead subject now, so when I moved my website to a new technology years ago, I didn’t transfer the old content. I think hardly anyone cares anymore.

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