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Volume 3 No.
1 October 2000
Hidden "Codes" in the
by David Maas
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
"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.
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:
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).
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,
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).
Bibles in the original Hebrew language that now exist are the same letter for
letter" (Michael Drosnin, The Bible
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,
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.
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").
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:
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,
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.