Torah Codes ("Bible Codes")? A Non-Expert's Observations

Only a fool believes everything he's told. A prudent man knows the need for proof.
Note: I wrote this letter to a friend who asked me to review the Witztum article as it was originally published. The controversy over the "Torah Codes" has now erupted on the 'web, and I felt this worth sharing, since I made a couple of observations which haven't been offered before. I'm relying on my memory, including years of reading about out-of-the-way subjects.

As a mainstream, non-inerrantist Christian who loves the Bible as the Word of God, I'm sorry to see it used in this way.

Last year I successfully predicted these features of the current debate:

  • The proponents of the "codes" continue to be mathematicians and engineering types, who are not accustomed to using controls in their quest for knowledge;
  • There is a striking lack of controls, i.e., I can find no proponent of the codes who has made the same effort to find codes in secular texts;
  • I could not find a set of figures for the books of Exodus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy generated in the same way that the origin Witztum paper generated its numbers "showing" non-randomness in Genesis.
  • The codes have not generated a reliable list of prophecies for the next two years which have mostly come true.
  • Advocates of the codes are slinging huge quantities of mud. Most unedifying is the war between Christian sectarians, who find Jesus's Hebrew name coded, and their opponents who find it too, but cross-linked to "false prophet". You'll need to find these sites by yourself.
  • Witztum's paper includes a frank statement that his claims offer contemporary, secularized people "a reason to be Jewish." As a Christian, I recognize my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters as fellow-ministers of kindness, decency, and love to the rest of the world. What each of the great world-faiths has to offer speaks for itself -- and it is far more impressive than...

    I am speaking, as I do everywhere else on the 'net, only for myself.

    I do not intend to investigate the subject further on my own. As new information arrives, I'll be glad to include links.

    -- Ed Friedlander MD
    June 1997
    To: --
    From: Ed F.
    Subject: Genesis Codes
    Date: Thanksgiving, 1996

    Thanks for letting me look at the article on alleged codes in Genesis.

    The journal article examines the question of whether Genesis is meaningful text when the letters are shuffled. The scholars used to do a stunt in which you'd stick a pin through a standard edition of the Torah and they'd tell you what letter was pierced the next page. I'd say that's no more of a waste of intellectual energy than memorizing sports scores. With this mentality, it's inevitable that somebody would notice that sometimes sequences of letters on successive pages spelled words. From there, it's only a matter of time before somebody claimed a code.

    I cannot address the math in detail, but the author is looking for evidence of non-randomness in series of equidistant letters. He has probably found it, and I'd be surprised if he hadn't, or wouldn't in any meaningful text.

    The evidence consists of a single table of computer-generated numbers. Low numbers were produced by examining "Genesis". (There are four numbers; while all are low, they were generated by only slight variations on the same technique.) Numbers which appear to be located randomly between 1 and 1,000,000 were generated for "Isaiah", scrambled versions of Genesis, and the Hebrew translation of "War and Peace".

    After spending an hour examining the math, I am still unable to determine how these numbers were generated or what they are supposed to mean. This is unusual for me, since I'm pretty good at math.

    There are a few obvious flaws.

    The procedure has been run at least twice (once before, and once after, inclusion of "War and Peace"). The author must have had time to test "Exodus", "Numbers", "Leviticus", and "Deuteronomy". ("Isaiah", which unlike "Genesis" claims actually to contain portions dictated directly by God, fails the code test.) If the author's thesis is correct, then the other four books of the "Torah" should also yield low numbers. Yet there is no report. Knowing how people like this operate, I strongly suspect that the author has this information, and is withholding it.

    Next, since the numbers were determined using an elaborate computer self-produced computer program, and since programs are notoriously prone to reflect human error, the author should ask someone else to reprogram and repeat independently. This is especially true since he boasts that anyone can repeat the procedure. He has failed to do so.

    The next problem is failure to specify which code was actually placed by the Good Lord. If Witztum's conclusion is correct, then there are all manner of codes based on a host of algorithms. Witztum's next task is to demonstrate that one of these codes gives results that are far more meaningful than the others. Of course he has not done so.

    I am surprised by the existence of P3 and P4, numbers supposedly generated by omitting the word "Rabbi" from a text. I don't remember the word "rabbi" in Genesis (or, for that matter in "War and Peace", where the supposed impact of the word's omission is dramatic), but I'll take the guy's word for it. (If omitting a word which is not in a text changes the rank number generated for that text, the procedure's credibility is zero.) Omitting the word "rabbi" is much more likely to exert an effect if applied to texts from the Talmud. I suspect that the author has run the study again simply to pad his number chart.

    Both with and without "rabbi", a low number is generated. Yet what's curious is this... if "Genesis" is really riddled with codes, why were four (or more, up to a few hundred) out of a million Genesis transmutations (in the best case) more non-random?

    I suspect that Witztum's result is an isolated quirk of numbers or a programmer's error. Ornstein's commentary, though, invites a much less favorable interpretation.

    It's fun to claim, after the fact, that the codes "predicted" Sadat's assassination, and the name of Sadat's assassin. Ornstein states that the codes give the initiates "the ability to predict the future". Note the implication, which is almost certainly false. Is there a publication from before the assassination predicting its details? I bet not.

    What I'll need to see next is predictions for the coming years, made now, and in one place so I can tell later what percentage came true. If Ornstein believes her own claims, this should be possible. Nostradamus's people have published these from time to time, and failed miserably.

    I am familiar with other mystical codes that supposedly predict history, or conceal other secrets.

    You probably know about the codes supposedly found in the Shakespeare texts indicating that Francis Bacon is the real author. The techniques were similar to those used in the article you're given me. A naive person would take these seriously. The refutation came, not from mathematical analysis, but from a genuine scholar who applied the same techniques and found equally-impressive codes indicating authorship by Isaac Newton, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and "Master William Shakespeare, gentleman of Stratford-on-Avon".

    Also, you are surely familiar with Nostradamus. The claim that he predicted historical events was refuted by scholars who pointed out that the major alleged successes were fabrications by Nostradamus's enthusiasts (i.e., Louis XVI was not really captured in Varennes disguised as a monk), and a guy who took as his hypothesis that Nostradamus's prophecies actually applied to the Wimbledon tennis matches. The results were equally impressive for Wimbledon as for world history.

    The claim that marks on the Great Pyramid predicted future history finally went down when a scholar applied the same techniques to markings on the Washington Monument, with the same success.

    I do not want to address the question of whether the authors were conscious of the weaknesses of their work when they published. This is the type of thing that mathematicians and engineers (who don't think about taking elaborate precautions against self-deception) fall for. The naivete of Witztum and company is evident by their failure, in their original work, to use a meaningful secular text as a control.

    I'm going to take the liberty of sharing this with a few friends who may also find it interesting. Again, thanks for letting me see this.

    More on the "Codes"...

    The Witztum article seems to have vanished from the web. The math department at Georgia used to have it online. This publication for the web omits the table comparing results for "Genesis" and the other texts, which illustrates the fact (mentioned above) that a few hundred (out of 1,000,000) random scramblings of Genesis turned out to be less random than God's. The link is now down.
    CompuTorah -- Do-it-yourself software to discover Bible codes, seems to have vanished.
    Eliyahu Rips, mathematician, who believes in the codes, argues they cannot be used to predict the future. From Israel. Link is now down.
    Harold Gans, cryptologist, who believes the codes exist but cannot be used to predict the future.
    Grant Jeffrey, whose site is now down, claims that the codes overthrow the scientific world-view, etc.

    Robert E. Kass, editor of "Statistical Science", repudiates the Witztum article, which he published, and claims he always realized it was bunk.
    Barry Simon -- links include the story of how the Witztum article was published.
    Time Magazine [link is now down] cites some controlled experiments done on other texts. Link is now down.
    Brendan McKay of Australia National U. used the same technique to find codes in "Moby Dick" that predicted the assassinations of Indira Gandhi, Leon Trotsky, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy.
    Codes in "War and Peace". This one got a rise out of Witztum.
    Probe Ministries -- article citing the "Statistical Science" article. Probe Ministries is not noted for liberalism.

    Follow-up: 11/19/99:

    The "Bible Codes" business continues big in those circles where individual pastors compete with one another in pretending to have the Big Secrets and Gresham's law (the bad drives out the good) operates.

    The Witztum article, cited above, has disappeared from the web. This is the one that supposedly has the "statistical proof" that a code exists.

    On the plus side, the business produced The Omega Code, a popular movie based on a literal reading of the Apocalypse of John. Whatever its weaknesses, it presented the clear choice between good and evil to his heroes, Michael York (chose evil) and Casper Van Dien (chose good).

    On the minus side... Whenever organized Christians present the public with something that is obviously untrue (like the Bible Codes), non-Christians may get the idea that the Gospel (heaven and hell, the saving power of Jesus Christ's blood and resurrection, repentance and forgiveness, the power to live a life of humility and kindness in a bad world) is also untrue. Please be careful, fellow-Christians.