SCP Newsletter, AUTUMN 1997 VOLUME 22:2

The audience sits spellbound in the darkened room, all eyes focused on the slide projected on the glowing screen in the front. The presenter, a cryptologist and former National Security Administration codebreaker, explains that the grid of Hebrew letters being displayed is a portion of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Several of the letters, running in a vertical row down the grid, are circled--the presenter explains that these spell the Hebrew word for "Hitler." The next slide shows the same grid, this time with another group of letters marked with squares. These letters form the Hebrew for "Nazi." The next slide shows the additional coded message, "slaughter," buried in the same Hebrew text. Several more slides are shown, each presenting more details of the "final solution" Found buried beneath the Bible text are "In Germany" with "Nazis" and "Berlin." Even "Eichman," the name of the Nazi exterminator mastermind is there along with, incredibly, "Zyklon B", the name of the gas that he used.

The presenter explains that the odds of these words appearing where they do, in the proximity to each other that they have, are less than 1 in 1000. As slide after slide is presented, the multiplicative odds of all of these codes appearing by simple chance become vanishingly small--until the unavoidable conclusion is reached: this text is no ordinary text--it is a text that has been encoded prophetically with names, dates and places.

It is a text written by a super-human intelligence. The audience sits stunned as the implication fully settles in: they are looking at scientific proof that God exists!

Or are they? The setting is a "Discovery Seminar" presented by Aish HaTorah. For the past several years this Jewish organization has been presenting seminars around the United States to persuade non-believing Jews to re-examine the Jewish faith. The central evidence at these seminars is the so-called "Torah Codes," amazing coincidences of related words found buried in the text of the Torah. In recent years, interest in the "codes" has spread beyond orthodox Jewish circles to discussion groups on the Internet, Christian code-finders, and others. And with the publication of Michael Drosnin's "The Bible Code" in June of 1997, they have become part of the mainstream, the objects of widespread interest, debate, and ridicule. What are the Bible Codes, what evidence is there to believe that they actually exist, and what does it mean if they are real? These are the kinds of questions that we have been receiving at SCP, and these are the issues we will look at in this two part SCP Newsletter article.

The Search for the Code:

In 1992, former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. reporter Michael Drosnin was in Israel gathering information for a story about the future of warfare. It is an article that was presumably never written because, while investigating for his story, Drosnin heard a report about an Israeli mathematician who had predicted the start of the Gulf War, the date that the first scud missiles hit Israel, using a code hidden in the Bible. Intrigued, Drosnin sought out and met Eliyahu Rips, the mathematician. The two began an interesting association, the secular, skeptical Jewish reporter and the orthodox Jewish mathematician. This association would culminate five years later with Drosnin's "The Bible Code," a best-seller since it was released in June of 1997. Drosnin, along with Rips, is now fully immersed in the swirling vortex of one of the world's great ongoing investigative pursuits the search for the 'hidden' meaning of the Bible.

The Bible is, without a doubt, the world's most important physical artifact. It is the centuries-old record of the creator God's message to mankind--the revelation of His plan of salvation running through the whole of human history. That it is routinely maligned, misunderstood, abused, twisted, or simply ignored is not a commentary on its own worth, but a commentary on the generation in which we live. But whether in this generation or previous ones, there has always been a fascination with the idea of using the Bible to find hidden truths--prophetic revelations of things to come. Partly, this is because the Bible is a prophetic work, a living word that holds a wisdom that is beyond our understanding (because it was revealed by a mind that is beyond our understanding).

But there is a difference between searching for prophetic statements in the text of the Bible, and searching for prophetic messages encoded in the text of the Bible. Are there really such hidden messages? The idea that there might be is partly suggested by the text itself. In Daniel chapter 12, for example, we read:

As for me, I heard but could not understand; so I said, "My Lord, what will be the outcome of these events?" And he said, "Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time." (Daniel 12:8-9)

Again, in Revelation, we have the passage about the book which no one was able to open:

And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?" And no one in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth, was able to open the book or look into it. (Revelation 5:1-4)

Do these verses indicate that the book of Revelation, or perhaps the entire Bible, is the sealed scroll? Evidently some have thought so. Issac Newton, for one, is reported to have devoted more of his life to trying to decipher the "hidden meaning" of the book of Revelation than he did to trying to discover the physical laws of the universe. As Drosnin reports, when John Maynard Keynes became provost of Cambridge University, he found a large store of papers that Newton had left there when retiring as provost in 1696. Most of the papers, Keynes was shocked to discover, dealt with Newton's attempts to find the mathematical basis for unlocking the secret text of the Bible (Drosnin 1997, p.21).

Newton was certainly not alone in this belief. In the Rabbinic tradition, for another example, there was a belief that the Torah contained all the information that ever was or ever would be. This belief is traceable at least as far back as the Vilna Gaon, the eighteenth century Rabbi of Vilna, Lithuania who wrote "all that was, is, and will be unto the end of time is included in the Torah... and not merely in a general sense, but including the details of every species and of each person individually, and the most minute details of everything that happened to him from the day of his birth until his death." 1 This belief, which has been appearing in quite a lot of the pro-codes literature recently, is apparently the operative assumption behind the current wave of Bible Codes research.

Breaking the Code?

During the early part of this century, a rabbi Weissmandel in Prague, Czechoslovakia made an interesting discovery that has become the basis of the current "Bible Codes" enthusiasm. Weissmandel noticed that if you take the first "T" in the book of Genesis, skip forward fifty letters, take that letter, skip fifty more, and so on, you spell "Torah" (TORH in Hebrew). Weissmandel called this type of pattern an Equidistant Letter Sequence, or an ELS for short. Weissmandel found that the same "Torah" ELS, with the same "skip" distance of 50 letters, also occurs in the book of Exodus. In Numbers and Deuteronomy, Weissmandel found the Torah ELS backwards (HROT), also at 50 letter intervals. In the Jewish tradition, the first five books of the Bible are known as the Torah--the five books of Moses--or simply as "The Law." They are seen as the most important books in the Jewish Bible. Weissmandel felt that it was fitting that perhaps God had given a stamp of authenticity to this supremely important text by encoding the word "Torah" into it. But Weissmandel was unsure if these ELSs had any real significance, or if they were simply the effects of random chance.

In the years since World War II, the science of cryptography--enciphering and deciphering secret messages -- has taken quantum leaps forward. The computer, along with advances in the science of statistical analysis, allows cryptographers to make and break codes today that could only be dreamed of a generation ago. It was only natural, perhaps, that these techniques would eventually be applied to a search for hidden messages in the Bible. And so it was that over a decade ago Eliyahu Rips, Doron Witztum, and others, started searching the text of the Torah for Weissmandel's ELSs. Today, with computers replacing the laborious manual counting of letters, ELSs of 2, 10, 50, up to thousands of skip spaces separated can be checked with blinding speed and precision. As computing jobs go, searching for ELSs isn't even particularly difficult. First, the entire text to be searched is turned into a single string of characters with no punctuation or spaces. The first five books of the Bible, the Torah, for example, become a single string of 304,805 Hebrew characters. This string is fed to the computer, which searches for the desired ELS.

For example, suppose someone is using a computer to search for the ELS for the word "Torah" in a Hebrew text. The Hebrew word for Torah has four letters, corresponding to the English TORH. The program finds the first instance of "T" in the text, skips a letter, and looks to see if the next letter is "O". If not, it skips to the next letter, and so on, until an "O" is found. The number of letters between the T and the O is the skip distance. The program would then skip this same number of letters forward in the code to see if it finds a "R", and the same distance again to see if it finds an "H." If so, it has found an ELS for the word "Torah." If not, the program can return to the point in the text where it found the first "O", and start searching again for the next "O." The program can continue checking the text in this way, using every T in the text as a starting point for a possible new ELS. Needless to say, with this kind of analysis tool, determining all the ELSs for a word in a piece of text becomes a rather straightforward matter.

Using this technique, Drosnin was able to find his now famous ELS for "Rabin" crossing the phrase "assassin will assassinate," ELSs relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the invention of the lightbulb by Thomas Edison, and most recently, the death in a car crash of Princess Dianna. The big question becomes, "what meaning do these 'code' sequences have?" While the majority of the code-seekers are using Hebrew texts, the truth is, ELSs can be found in any text of sufficient length, regardless of language. The daily newspaper is full of them, so is this article. Simply finding an ELS in a text is obviously not proof that someone deliberately and ingeniously put it there.2

What the Bible code researchers would have us believe is that the ELSs in the Bible are unique--that they appear in patterns that are not found in other texts, patterns that encode meaning--and that they combine in patterns that defy statistical probability. Numbers such as 1 in 1000, 1 in 10 million, or even 1 in 50 quadrillion (see the Grant Jeffrey web site at are being bandied about. This presents an interesting problem for verification--because it is quite difficult to calculate the odds of the kinds of patterns that these researchers claim they are finding. Some patterns involve related word pairs or groups of words related to specific themes, such as the nazi holocaust word groups, or predictions of the date that the Shoemaker-Levy comet would collide with Jupiter. Other patterns involve relationships between the ELS codes and the text in which they are found. For example, Yacov Rambsel, a Jewish Christian, claims that the Hebrew name of Jesus, "Yeshua," is found encoded in most, if not all, of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Calculating odds for these sorts of events is much more complicated than finding the odds of a simple word or phrase showing up as an ELS in a text. In fact, it is probably impossible to determine the odds precisely in many cases.

To date, the most convincing demonstration that meaningful ELS patterns do exist, at least from a statistical point of view, is an experiment carried out by three Israelis: mathematician Eliyahu Rips, physicist Doron Witztum, and computer programmer Yoav Rosenberg. In their now famous "famous rabbis" experiment, Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg took the names of thirty-two well-known Jewish rabbis (selected randomly from a Jewish encyclopedia), along with their dates of birth and dates of death. They then searched for the ELSs of these groupings in the Hebrew text of Genesis, and compared the results with the results from searching for randomized groupings of the names and dates. The result, the Israelis claim, was that the ELSs for the correctly grouped names and dates were much "closer" to each other than those for the randomized sets. The effect that Witztum et al report was so strong that the set of names and dates that were correctly matched up beat out all but 3 of 10 million random combinations! The implication, they claim, is that the rabbis and their dates of birth and death are encoded in the book of Genesis. The results of this study were published in Statistical Science (1994, Vol.9, No.3, 429-438), a U.S. journal dedicated to statistics. The editor of Statistical Science prefaced the publication of the paper with a brief note that stated, in effect, "here is a phenomenon we can't explain; we present it to our readers as an interesting puzzle."

The publication of the "famous rabbis" experiment caused a small ripple of interest in the world of statistics, and prompted the creation of at least one Internet group devoted to discussion of the "Torah Codes." But for the most part, the world of statistics either couldn't be bothered, or refused to touch it. As one university-level professor of math and statistics put it to me: "the concept of using statistics to prove that 'God authored the Bible' is so foreign to most of these people--they want nothing to do with it."

It wasn't until the publication of Drosnin's The Bible Code that the Witztum-Rips experiments gained widespread notoriety. And so it hasn't been until fairly recently that mathematicians critical of the experiment have found it necessary to go public with their criticisms. In the meantime, groups like Aish HaTorah have made a great deal out of the publication of the famous rabbis experiment. It is pointed to as nearly incontrovertible proof that the codes have been 'scientifically' verified. As Drosnin repeatedly pointed out in The Bible Code, no rebuttal to the paper had ever been published. Statistical Science is a peer-reviewed journal, and the ELS paper had to pass through a longer process of peer-review than most articles because of objections by skeptical reviewers--proof, Aish HaTorah and Drosnin claim, that the paper satisfied the requirements of even the most skeptical, cynical scientists. They even point out triumphantly that, in order to satisfy the objections of one reviewer, Witztum-Rips-Rosenberg substituted an original data set of 34 rabbis with a new set of 32 rabbis, again chosen randomly using a different criterion, and still the experiment showed significant results. Incredibly significant results --the odds of getting the level of correlation that they report is nearly 1 in 10 million.

The Priesthood of Math

The results of the famous rabbis experiment sound impressive. Indeed, they are. When I first began researching the codes, I admit I was pretty impressed myself. I have a fairly average relationship with the world of math. As an undergraduate I endured two-years of calculus, and a few statistics classes, all the while telling myself--"I will never use this." I was right. But somehow, nevertheless, we know that math is important, and that those who know how to use it can be relied upon for the soundest judgments, the most reliable information. By math, we sent a man to the moon. By math we determine how the economy is performing, and know whether interest rates should go up a quarter percentage, or down an eighth. By math, we design the next generation of computer processors that will eventually make Deep Thought's chess ability look like child's play, and dwarf our own computing abilities to the point of irrelevance. We live in the world of the number, we trust in the number, but we don't really understand the number. And so, when we are presented with an academic, peer-reviewed, mathematically inscrutable report that "proves" that the Bible is encoded with the names and significant dates of famous rabbis throughout history, we nod our heads and wonder "hmmm, what does this mean?"

The Problem With Statistics

As the saying goes, there are "lies, cursed lies, and statistics." Mark Twain probably didn't say it, but it sounds like he could have. What he did say was "first get your numbers straight, then make them say anything you want." The problem with statistics is that they have an unusual ability to say whatever you want them to say. Perhaps even unintentionally. In my research on the Bible Codes, I have not found any cases of what I feel are researchers intentionally defrauding the public. On the contrary, the world of Bible Codes research appears to be populated with true believers of the first degree. But when true believers are in charge of the numbers, there is a real danger of the numbers coming out in ways that support the cause. The problem is exacerbated when one of the central figures, Eliyahu Rips, is a very high-level mathematician, perhaps even world-class as Drosnin claims. It then becomes necessary to find similarly skilled experts from whom to obtain a (hopefully) neutral counter-assessment.

The highest profile critic of the "famous rabbis" experiment, indeed of the entire Bible Codes phenomenon, is Australian mathematician Brendan McKay. McKay has created a website ( that collects a lot of useful information for evaluating the truth or falsity of the Bible Codes. Notably, McKay shows how the same kinds of 'amazing' ELS patterns can be found in other books such as War and Peace.

In the next half of this article, we will look at McKay's work and the opinions of other mathematicians, who are weighing in on the subject in increasing numbers. We will also look at the Christian response to the Bible Codes phenomenon, primarily in the work of Yacov Rambsel, and the writings of Grant Jeffrey. Finally, we will re-examine some of Drosnin's more spectacular "finds", and look at the infighting that has erupted in the world of the Bible Codes researchers.

TO BE CONTINUED (click here for Part II)


1 As quoted in Jeffrey B. Satinover, Computer Reveals Startling Word Patterns at URL

2 How can we know if an ELS is a random occurrence, or an actual 'code?' This is not nearly as easy a question to answer as might first be imagined, and is currently the subject of raging debate. We will return to this question in the second half of this article, but for now we will simply note two basic principles to keep in mind. First, ELSs occur in all texts, and the longer (more characters) in the text, the greater the probability that there will be more of them. So, for example, it is harder to find an ELS for a word using just the text of the book of Genesis than it is to find an ELS for the same word if you are using the text of the entire Torah Second, ELSs for shorter words will occur more frequently than ELSs for longer words. For example, the probability of finding an ELS for a three letter word in a given piece of text is higher (generally speaking) than the probability of finding an ELS for a five letter word in the same text.

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