Bible codes, also known as Torah codes, are words, phrases and clusters of words and phrases that some people believe are meaningful and exist intentionally in coded form in the text of the Bible. These codes were made famous by the book The Bible Code, which claims that these codes can predict the future. All of these claims are strongly denied by skeptics and many religious groups.
The primary method by which purportedly meaningful messages are extracted is the Equidistant Letter Sequence (ELS). To obtain an ELS from a text, choose a starting point (any letter) and a skip (a number, possibly negative). Then, beginning at the starting point, select letters from the text at equal spacing as given by the skip. For example, the bold letters in this sentence form an ELS for the word SAFEST. (The skip is -4. Spaces and punctuation are ignored.)
Often more than one ELS related to some topic can be displayed simultaneously in an ELS letter array. This is produced by writing out the text in a regular grid, with exactly the same number of letters in each line, then cutting out a rectangle. In the example below, we show part of the King James edition of Genesis (26:5-10) with 33 letters per line. ELSs for BIBLE and CODE are shown. Normally only a smaller rectangle would be displayed, such as the rectangle drawn in the figure. In that case there would be letters missing between adjacent lines in the picture, but it is essential that the number of missing letters be the same for each pair of adjacent lines.
Arrange the letters from Genesis (26:5-10) in a 33 column grid and you get a word search with “Bible” and “code”. Myriad other arrangements can yield other words.
Although we have shown examples in English texts, Bible codes proponents usually use a Hebrew Bible text. For religious reasons, most Jewish proponents use only the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Additionally, since the English translation–of which there are hundreds of versions to choose–is not the original text of the Bible, this would require one to believe in the design of the English language or translation–either through the influence of an omniscient entity, or through careful construction– so that ELS as complex as that found in the Hebrew Torah would be present in that translation. This would apply to all translations, regardless of language, in which complex ELS could be found, as well as to any other texts containing such examples. The other alternative would be to admit that ELS of the complexity claimed by Bible code proponents are not as rare as is believed.
As far as is known, the 13th century Spanish rabbi Bachya ben Asher was the first to describe an ELS in the Bible. His 4-letter example related to the traditional zero-point of the Jewish calendar. Over the following centuries there are some hints that the ELS technique was known, but few definite examples have been found from before the middle of the 20th century. At this point many examples were found by the Slovakian rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl and published by his students after his death in 1957. Nevertheless, the practice remained known only to a few until the early 1980s, when some discoveries of an Israeli school teacher Avraham Oren came to the attention of the mathematician Eliyahu Rips at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Rips then took up the study together with his religious studies partner Doron Witztum and several others.
Rips and Witztum invented the ELS letter array and used a computer to find many examples. About 1985 they decided to carry out a formal test and the great rabbis experiment was born. This experiment tested the hypothesis that ELSs for the names of famous rabbis could be found closer to ELSs of their dates of birth and death than chance alone could explain. The definition of “close” was very complicated, but roughly two ELSs are close if they can be displayed together in a small rectangle. The experimental result suggested very strongly that the Bible codes phenomenon was real.
The great rabbis experiment went through several iterations but was eventually (1994) published in the peer-reviewed journal Statistical Science. Although neither the Editor nor the referees were convinced by it, neither could they find much wrong with it, so the paper was published as a “challenging puzzle”.
Witztum and Rips also performed other experiments, most of them successful, though none of them were published in journals. Another successful experiment, in which the names of the famous rabbis were matched against the places (rather than dates) of the famous rabbis, was conducted by Harold Gans, an employee of the United States National Security Agency.
The Bible codes became known to the public primarily due to the American journalist Michael Drosnin, whose book The Bible Code (Simon and Schuster, 1997) was a best-seller in many countries. Drosnin’s most famous success was to predict the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, using (so he claimed) the Bible code. Opponents claim that in the political atmosphere of the time, predicting the fact that Rabin would be assassinated with no additional details is hardly impressive. In 2003, Drosnin published a second book on the same subject.
Practice of the Bible codes also spread into certain Christian circles, especially in the United States. The main early proponents were Yaakov Rambsel, a “Messianic Jew” (or a Jew that believes Jesus was the Messiah) and Grant Jeffrey. By 2000, most books and most web sites devoted to the codes were produced by Christians.
The primary objection advanced against Bible codes of the Drosnin variety is that similar patterns can be found in books other than the Bible. Although the probability of an ELS in a random place being a meaningful word is low, there are so many possible starting points and skips that many such words are expected to appear. Responding to an explicit challenge from Drosnin, who claimed that only the Bible could yield ELS, Australian mathematician Brendan McKay found many ELS letter arrays in Moby Dick that contain ELSs related to modern events. Other people, such as US physicist Dave Thomas, found other examples in many texts. In addition, Drosnin had used the flexibility of Hebrew orthography to his advantage, freely mixing classic (no vowels, Y and W strictly consonant) and modern (Y and W used to indicate i and u vowels) modes, as well as variances in spelling of K and T, to wrench out the desired meaning.
Code proponents respond by claiming that the ELS letter arrays appearing in the Bible are better in some way than those appearing in other books. They also like to hypothesize and investigate new types of codes to stay ahead of criticism. However, in the absence of an objective measure of quality and an objective way to select test subjects, it is not possible to positively determine whether any particular observation is significant or not. For that reason, most of the serious effort of the skeptics has been focused on the “scientific” claims of Witztum, Rips and Gans.
In 1999, McKay, together with mathematicians Dror Bar-Natan and Gil Kalai, and psychologist Maya Bar-Hillel, published a paper in Statistical Science which they claim provides an adequate refutation of the earlier paper of Witztum and Rips. Their main points were:
The data used by Witztum and Rips was a list of Rabbi names in Hebrew. The Hebrew language is somewhat flexible as far as name spelling goes, and each Rabbi has several different appellations (aliases and nicknames), so special care should be taken as to how to choose the particular names searched for. So their result could be explained by claiming the data was not collected properly. From the paper: “…the data was very far from [being] tightly defined by the rules of their experiment. Rather, there was enormous “wiggle room” available, especially in the choice of names for the famous rabbis”.
There is indirect evidence that the data were not, in fact, collected properly; that is, the choice of names and spellings was somehow biased towards those supporting the codes hypothesis.
Attempts at replicating the experiment failed to achieve the same result. From the paper: “A technical problem that gave us some difficulty is that WWR have been unable to provide us with their original computer programs. Neither the two programs distributed by WWR, nor our own independent implementations of the algorithm as described in WWR’s papers, consistently produce the exact distances listed [by WWR]”.
There has been a continuing debate on these claims. (See the web pages cited below)
The experiment of Gans has also received critical attention. Several attempts at replicating it, designed by mathematician Barry Simon, gave negative results. Finally, a committee at the Hebrew University, comprising both codes proponents and skeptics, ran two replications using outside experts to compile the data. Both replications failed to find the phenomenon that Gans’ original experiment claimed to find.
As of 2003, there are still a few university scientists who support the codes. The main two are Eliyahu Rips (see above) and Robert Haralick (an electrical engineer at the City University of New York). However, the overwhelming majority of scientists who have looked at the claims reject them.
Info from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_code