* Hovedside Apologeten / Artikler fra tidligere utgaver / Nr.3 2004: Skjulte koder i Bibelen?


Skjulte koder i Bibelen?



Focus on the Kingdom

Volume 3 No. 1 October 2000





Hidden "Codes" in the Biblical Text?

by David Maas



During the last decade the notion that hidden codes are "embedded" in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (OT) has become of great interest to evangelical and some Jewish circles. The idea has grown sufficiently in popularity to spawn over two dozen books (including at least one New York Times bestseller), several commercially available software packages (for "decoding" the codes), a number of television interviews and program episodes about the code, and at least one commercially viable Hollywood movie.

There are different nuances and complexities to this Code depending on which proponent one listens to, but the underlying methodology is quite simple. The Code is referred to as "Equidistant Letter Sequences," or ELS. The theory is that hidden words and sentences can be found "embedded" in the Hebrew text of the OT by counting Hebrew letters at equally spaced intervals. That is, a person can locate certain meaningful words or phrases, such as "hammer" and "anvil," if he examines the letters at sequences that were equally spaced in the Hebrew text. Thus, "if he found the first letter of a significant word such as Torah, and then, by skipping forward seven letters he found the second letter of the word Torah, he would continue to skip forward the same number of letters to see whether or not the complete word Torah was spelled out in the text at equally spaced intervals" (Grant Jeffrey, The Signature of God, 255-256).

The classic example used to demonstrate ELS occurs in Gen. 1:1-5a. Starting with the last letter of the first word of the Bible, the tau roughly corresponding to our "t," and counting forward in intervals of forty-nine characters, one discovers that the Hebrew word for "instruction" or "law" (torah) is spelled out every fiftieth letter (Chuck Missler, The Cosmic Codes, 126-129). We will return to this example in a moment.

The relatively recent awareness of the Code is due to technological advances. Prior to the advent of the modern computer it was extremely tedious to find such "codes" by counting Hebrew characters manually (the basic thought that "hidden codes" of various types exist in the Hebrew text goes back at least to the Kabbalah of medieval Jewish mysticism: Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, 337-343). Yet today computers running appropriate software can quickly scan the Hebrew text and detect a variety of "embedded messages" (several such programs can be downloaded from the Internet). By using computers Code proponents claim to have discovered thousands of words and sentences "embedded" in most or all sections of the OT.

The import assigned to the ELS codes is that their existence "proves" that the Bible, at least the OT, is "divine rather than human in origin" (some Code proponents also claim to have discovered messages "embedded" in the Greek text of the NT: Grant Jeffrey, The Mysterious Bible Codes, 169-179). Because numerous authors wrote the OT over a period of about one thousand years, it is for all practical purposes impossible for thousands of coded messages based on ELS to have been "encoded" in the OT text by human design. Therefore, the argument goes, the only reasonable conclusion is that the Code (and thus the OT) is divine or supra-human in origin.

Scholars of various disciplines have offered a variety of criticisms of the Code. Mathematicians argue that statistically such "codes" or patterns will occur by chance in any text of similar length to the OT, particularly one that includes no vowels as in the Hebrew text (John Weldon, Decoding the Bible Code, 94). Hebrew grammarians point out the liberties that Code proponents take with the consonantal Hebrew text. In biblical Hebrew vowels were not written, only consonants. Vowels were supplied when someone read the text. In many cases which vowels are supplied affects not only pronunciation but also the meaning of a word. For example, the common Hebrew noun for "word" (dabar) is written with the consonants d-b-r, the two vowels (-a-a-) being supplied by the reader. Yet the same three consonants supplied instead with the vowels -e-e- (deber) form a word meaning "pestilence." This and other characteristics of the Hebrew language make it fairly easy to find or force specific meanings into a given string of consonants (Phil Stanton, The Bible Code: Fact or Fake? 35-38). Others point to the failure of Code proponents to consider the thousands of textual variants that exist among the various manuscripts of the OT. Variant readings that add to or delete letters from the Hebrew text, whether or not they change the substantive meaning of a passage, will certainly affect any "Code" based on counting character intervals between letters.

But there is one problem with the Code that completely invalidates it. First we must ask the question: do we today have a version of the Hebrew text that is letter-for-letter the same as the text as originally written?


A Basic Premise

By its very nature the ELS Code demands the acceptance of an essential presupposition, namely that the Hebrew text we have today is letter-for-letter precisely the same as the text originally penned by the various authors of the OT. That is, in order for the Code to work, not only must our present Hebrew text preserve the same number of characters as contained in the original, but the letters also must be in the same order as first written. This necessity is easily demonstrated with a simple example. In the character string "sdwdClko wOqwo dDpo kjEmnx" the word "code" is found by using every fifth letter. However, by simply inserting the single character "e" after the "c" ("sdwdCelko Woqwo Ddpo kJemnx") my "code" now produces the nonsensical word "cwdj." Hence my Code is invalidated by a change of one or more characters. The thesis that today we have a pristine copy of the original Hebrew text is the issue upon which the validity of the Code stands or falls.

Code proponents instinctively understand the necessity of accepting this premise in order for the Code to work. Thus they either state or infer that the Hebrew text we have today has been preserved without change or error since its inception. Note the following comments:

"The three Torahs in use worldwide among the Jews - the Ashkenazi, the Sephardi, and the Yemenite - have only nine letter-level variations total in the entire 304,805 letters of the text!" (Chuck Missler, The Cosmic Codes, 123).

"Details of today's world are encoded in a text that has been set in stone for hundreds of years, and has existed for thousands of years. There is a complete version from 1008 AD that is nearly the same, and fragments of all but one book of the entire Old Testament have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are more than 2000 years old" (Michael Drosnin, The Bible Code, 38).

"Jesus Christ, Himself, affirmed that the actual letters composing the Scriptures were directly inspired by God and were preserved in their precise order throughout eternity" (Grant Jeffrey, The Signature of God, 258).

"All Bibles in the original Hebrew language that now exist are the same letter for letter" (Michael Drosnin, The Bible Code, 194).

"When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, including the complete scroll of Isaiah, the most remarkable aspect was the absence of discrepancies when compared with our current copies of Isaiah. Only a handful of single-letter or punctuation differences were found! It was this rigor that has preserved the remarkable encodings that are still with us today" (Chuck Missler, The Cosmic Codes, 123).

In several of the preceding quotations the key point is missed. The question is not whether all present versions of the Hebrew text are in agreement, but whether or not they preserve the character arrangement as originally written. Due to the work of a group of Jewish scribes known as Masoretes (from which the name of the present Hebrew text, the Masoretic Text, is derived) the Hebrew text we use today was indeed "set in stone" hundreds of years ago. The Masoretes established an elaborate system of regulations governing the copying of OT manuscripts. They also fixed the meaning of words by inserting vowels amongst the consonants. Their efforts were so successful that textual variants between medieval manuscripts and those printed today are rare. However, the work of the Masoretes occurred between approximately 600 AD and 950 AD (Kelley, Mynatt and Crawford, The Masorah of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 15-22). What of the centuries prior to that period? A fundamental goal of the Masoretes was to establish a standard Hebrew text from among at least three competing older textual traditions, each with its own set of variant readings numbering in the thousands if not tens of thousands. Few of these textual variants affected the substance of the OT. Most involved differences of spelling and the like that would, however, affect the number and order of characters.

As to the claim that the Isaiah scroll found at Qumran contained "only a handful of single-letter or punctuation differences," the statement is simply false. Over forty-five hundred spelling variants exist between the Isaiah scroll and the Masoretic Text (Ernst Wurthwen, The Text of the Old Testament, 32). And the claim that the oldest complete manuscript of the OT (1008 AD - Codex Leningradensis [Ibid., 35]) is "nearly the same" as the OT books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls is misleading. As priceless as the scrolls of Qumran are, a complete copy of the OT has never been found. Discovered at Qumran were one complete Isaiah scroll, one almost complete Isaiah scroll, and fragments from all the rest of the OT books except Esther. The majority of the manuscripts found at Qumran were from extra-biblical Jewish writings. There is simply insufficient data upon which to claim that the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that we have in the Masoretic Text a pristine copy of the original text of the Hebrew Bible. Codex Leningradensis is still the oldest complete manuscript of the entire Hebrew OT in existence.


The Key Issue

It is to be remembered that the books of the OT were written over a one thousand year period from approximately 1400 BC to 400 BC. Prior to the advent of the printing press all copies of OT books were copied by hand (Ellis Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism, 37). Regardless of how careful a scribe was errors occurred due to the nature of manual copying. Many (but not all) of the textual variants in both OT and NT manuscripts can be explained as scribal errors. However, a problem more fundamental to the Code than scribal errors exists.

During the period in which the OT was written Hebrew was a living language, an everyday language spoken, written and read by the Israelites. As with all living languages Hebrew underwent orthographic or spelling changes (as well as changes in syntax). The relevancy to the Code is that Hebrew scribes incorporated many such modifications to Hebrew spelling practices into the text of the OT. This was not due to carelessness or a lack of reverence for the biblical books. Scribes were merely keeping the language of the Bible in harmony with current usage. This is no different than "modernizing" the spelling of Old English words from documents authored hundreds of years ago (e.g., changing the second person plural form of the pronoun "ye" to "you").

Hebrew was originally written with a purely consonantal alphabet (Frank Moore Cross, Jr. and David Noel Freedman, Early Hebrew Orthography, 56). No characters existed for representing vowels. All of the earliest books of the OT were written with this exclusively consonantal text. Beginning in the ninth century BC certain consonants began to be used as "helpers" to mark long vowels. That is, a consonant was inserted within a syllable to indicate that a specific long vowel was to be pronounced. This "helper" letter was not pronounced and did not affect the original pronunciation or meaning of a word. It served to communicate to the reader that a long vowel was present. A good example is the name David. In older or archaic Hebrew the name is spelled with the three consonants d-w-d while in later Hebrew the spelling is d-w-y-d. In both cases it is pronounced dawid and both forms occur in the Hebrew Bible. However, in the latter case y (or yod) has been added to indicate a long vowel. Hebrew grammarians refer to the use of a consonant to mark a long vowel as matres lectionis (Latin for "mothers of reading"). Ancient Hebrew scribes incorporated matres lectionis into the biblical text to indicate long vowels. As one preeminent authority on the text of the OT wrote:

"Text transmission prior to 300 BC was also based on a predominantly consonantal spelling. As initially written, most early Old Testament books would have been written in an exclusively consonantal text. From about the ninth century on, certain consonants came to be used to indicate vowels. These 'helping' consonants are called matres lectionis, literally 'mothers of reading.' They were first used to indicate final long vowels (beginning in the ninth century BC) and later (beginning in the eighth century BC) they were also used to indicate medial long vowels. Matres lectionis were subsequently added to the Old Testament text [emphasis added], but not in a completely systematic way" (Ellis Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism, 40).

Complicating the matter is that the dates for the first usage of matres lectionis are approximations. Did the practice begin in the early or late ninth century? Was the practice implemented consistently throughout Israel or did it grow gradually by region? Was there a long transition period to the new spelling method in such a non-technological society? Did a biblical author writing his original text during the ninth century initially use matres lectionis or not? We have no way of knowing the answers to such questions. We know the use of matres lectionis began around the ninth century from non-biblical inscriptions. But did biblical scribes adopt these improvements into the text of the OT as quickly as they came into use in popular literature or at a later date? Such unknowns make any effort to restore the original character sequence of the OT text by removing matres lectionis (and other orthographic changes) from the Hebrew text essentially impossible.

When the earliest books of the OT were originated matres lectionis were not used (Angel Saenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language, 66), yet they occur thousands of times just in the five books of the Pentateuch, the portion of the Bible in which most of the Bible codes occur. To return to our earlier example, in Gen. 1:1-5a at least twenty-one matres lectionis occur within this string of text. None of them were original. Remove them and the "hidden code" torah ceases to exist though the meaning and pronunciation of the passage remain unchanged. Ironically the spelling form used for torah in Gen. 1:1-5a by Code proponents is a later form of torah which uses the letter vav (corresponding to our "w") as a mater lectionis (mater is singular, matres plural) to mark the long "o." Hence Code proponents are using a spelling form of torah (t-w-r-h) which postdates the Mosaic writings rather than the more archaic form (t-r-h) to find "codes" in the very oldest section of the Bible.

Three additional issues further complicate the matter. First, matres lectionis and other orthographic changes were incorporated into the OT text inconsistently. The Masoretic Text is "itself a mixture of orthographic forms from every stage in the history of Hebrew spelling" (Frank Moore Cross, Jr. and David Noel Freedman, Early Hebrew Orthography, 59). Second, which Hebrew consonants were used to mark which vowels changed over time. For example, when matres lectionis first came into use the letter he (h) marked the long "o" but later the letter vav (w) was used as in the Masoretic Text (Ibid., 58). In fact, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls even use two consonants in places to mark a single long vowel such as alef AND vav for a single long "o" (Angel Saenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language, 137), a practice not used in the Masoretic Text. Third, during the rabbinic and Masoretic periods as the Hebrew text was being "set in stone" there were some attempts by scribes out of due reverence to the original text to remove some of the later spelling forms in order to restore the older spelling patterns. However, such efforts were implemented inconsistently and only partially (which is another reason the Masoretic Text displays such a mixture of Hebrew spelling practices throughout).


In Summary

The adoption of matres lectionis into the Hebrew text of the OT by early Israelite scribes is only one of many problems with the popular ELS Code and represents only one of many such changes in Hebrew spelling habits incorporated by scribes into the OT text. My purpose has not been to study exhaustively all aspects of the Code or to present a complete description of the history of the biblical text's transmission, but rather to show one of the key reasons why the ELS Code is invalid.

I believe that the Spirit of God inspired the books of the Old Testament as originally written. Nevertheless, orthographic changes to the text of the Hebrew Old Testament did occur and thousands of textual variants do exist. We ignore such facts at our own peril. The good news is that most of these anomalies affect only spelling (and other minor issues) and have little impact on the meaning of passages. Due to the efforts of textual critics we can be confident that we have a version of the Hebrew text that is generally faithful to the original. Yet the thousands of orthographic changes that affect the number and order of characters make any "Code" based on exact sequences of letters completely void. That Code proponents can find "hidden messages embedded" in the Hebrew text is not disputed. But the only possible conclusions are that they exist either due to pure chance or possibly the Masoretes deliberately rearranged the letter sequences of the Hebrew text to produce the Code. This latter possibility is extremely doubtful, as there is no evidence from any of the Jewish writings of the period to indicate such an effort was undertaken and it would go against everything for which the Masoretes stood.

The problem with Christian "fads" like the Code is that they only serve to further discredit the cause of Christ and Scripture in the eyes of a lost world. Many believers hop on such bandwagons because they seem to offer spectacular evidence for the divine authorship of the Bible. The sensational always makes for an effective sales tool. Yet the Code should warn us of the danger of accepting every new fad and idea uncritically. Perhaps this Christian tendency stems from the subtle evangelical attitude that views Scripture, spiritual catchphrases, sacraments and church traditions almost as if they were magical talismans rather than tools to help lead us to truth. That the Code was not original to the OT text is clear to anyone familiar with the history of the transmission of the Hebrew text. And one does not need to dig too deeply to find the relevant information. Sadly, a number of non-believing critics of Christianity have taken the small amount of time necessary to research this very same data and have posted papers on the Internet ridiculing the Code, which are readily available and free. To these critics such "Christian" fads only substantiate their view that believers are gullible fools easily taken in by fantasies and myths.

Rather than pursuing serious study and unbiased inquiry of Scripture we have many Christians using their computers today to find the "deeper, hidden messages" buried behind the plain text of Scripture. As Allon Maxwell has so aptly put it, many believers are using their computers "for a form of divination" (Allon Maxwell, Bible Digest, 92, February 1999). The human desire to find easy answers and short cuts is as understandable as the appeal of the sensational, but when it comes to the study of Scripture there is no substitute for serious individual research. Unfortunately, the desire to "search Scriptures daily to see if these things be so" scarcely exists in the Body of Christ, at least in North America.

* Hovedside Apologeten / Artikler fra tidligere utgaver / Nr.3 2004: Skjulte koder i Bibelen?