Ecker's Little Acre

Reflections on Life and Other Stuff

by Ronald L. Ecker

September, 2000 (rev. June, 2002; March, 2003)

The Bible Code Hits a Bumpy Road

Rabbi Michael Weissmandel, a Czech-born Torah scholar and Czech resistance leader who rescued thousands of Slovak Jews during the Holocaust (see Abraham Fuch's The Unheeded Cry), was also a gifted mathematician. Applying math to the Masoretic text (the textus receptus or "received text" of the Hebrew Bible), Weissmandel found that it contained some "equidistant letter sequences" (ELSs) or equally spaced letters--for example, every other letter--that spell meaningful word-pairs in close proximity to each other. The rabbi found these hidden word-pairs specifically in the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses.

Imagine, for example, "T-I-T-A-N-I-C" hidden in a line of text in Genesis, the seven letters spaced at three-letter intervals. Then imagine, at three-letter intervals in a line above, below, or running diagonally through that line, the letters "S-I-N-K-I-N-G." (The rabbi didn't find that particular combination, but you get the idea.) Would this be just a striking coincidence? An incredible prophetic feat? God having fun?

Rabbi Weissmandel, who died in 1957 (back when folks had no PCs and software to play with--Bill Gates was only a toddler), had no way to determine if the word-pairs or ELSs he had found were a random phenomenon or if they were statistically significant enough to warrant the mindboggling conclusion that they were somehow deliberately embedded in the Hebrew text.

Rabbi Michael Weissmandel

Then along came Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg. Not a law firm, but a team of mathematical statisticians who put computers to work on the Hebrew textus receptus with its ELSs. In 1994 they published their remarkable findings, in a paper entitled "Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis," in the peer-reviewed journal Statistical Science. They reported searching in Genesis for the names on a long list of Jewish rabbis (the list based on the length of articles about the rabbis in a biographical reference book) from the 9th to the 19th centuries, and the researchers found all of the names in Genesis, each one found paired with the year of the rabbi's birth or death in close proximity in the text. The paper concluded that this phenomenon was not due to chance. The authors didn't have to say any more, namely that such pairings in Genesis, involving rabbis who lived centuries after the text was written, were beyond the capacity of any human being to devise.

When I first read about this incredible phenomenon in a Bible Review article in 1995, I thought that this was a bestselling book just waiting to happen. And it did--Michael Drosnin's book The Bible Code came out in 1997 and became an immediate bestseller. Controversy was also immediate. In his book Drosnin, a non-statistician, went far beyond the original work of the researchers (who have publicly disassociated themselves from the book and its conclusions). Among the things Drosnin found biblically encoded were Edison inventing the light bulb, Shakespeare producing "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," and Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. Most notably Drosnin recounted how he found encoded in the Hebrew text the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and how he warned Rabin before the 1995 assassination occurred.

To skeptics attacking his methods and claiming that this and other so-called Bible codes are a product of chance, Drosnin issued a challenge: "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them." Mathematician Brendan McKay promptly did just that: he found the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi encoded in Moby Dick (I-G-A-N-D-H-I diagonally intersecting T-H-E-B-L-O-O-D-Y-D-E-E-D), not to mention the murders of Abraham Lincoln, Leon Trotsky, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Yitzak Rabin, and--Michael Drosnin!

From Brendan McKay's "Assassinations
Foretold in Moby Dick!"

But what about the rabbi experiment in that peer-reviewed 1994 Statistical Science paper by Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg? Former Statistical Science editor Robert Kass has stated that the intent of the journal in 1994 was not to give the paper, by its publication, "the scientific stamp of approval," but rather to present it to other statisticians as "a challenging puzzle." To solve that puzzle would have taken more time and energy than the peer reviewers could, or wished to, expend. Kass himself suspected early on that the paper's authors "may have subconsciously biased their results by selectively reporting their findings." And that is basically the conclusion of McKay and colleagues who in 1999 published a paper in the same peer-reviewed journal, demonstrating that the rabbi experiment was "fatally defective." The methodology used in the rabbi search allowed for "tuning" and thus deviated from strict protocol. As a coauthor of the 1999 paper puts it, in the rabbi experiment there was "enough wiggle room to produce whatever you want."

As for Drosnin's book, there is a reason, says McKay, that all the stuff that Drosnin so deftly (and profitably) dredged from the biblical text looks impressive: "The number of possible things to look for, and the number of places to look, is much greater than you imagine." No wonder, then, that Drosnin now has another book out, Bible Code II.

Actually a red flag about the rabbi experiment should have gone up immediately based on that textus receptus business. The Masoretic text may be old and respected, but the fact is that the original biblical text in which the Bible Code was presumably embedded no longer exists in uncorrupted form. As Richard Ostling has noted, "The oldest surviving manuscripts include slight variations, any of which would throw off computer test results."

As for encrypted biblical messages now being found anyway by various Jewish and Christian believers, the Bible codes are no more remarkable than the above-mentioned Moby Dick findings. And I would be remiss not to mention some impressive research by computer whiz Don Steinberg. Using a codebreaking computer procedure similar to that of Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg, Steinberg found not only the Rabin assassination, but boxer Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield's ear, and even the complete sentence "O. J. did it"--encoded in a Microsoft software license agreement!

Steinberg's conclusion? "Whenever powerful computers, large documents, and people with a whole lot of free time are involved, anything is possible."


Drosnin, Michael. 1997. The Bible Code. New York: Simon & Schuster.

_____. 2002. Bible Code II: The Countdown. New York: Viking.

Ecker, Ronald L. 1996. "The Scholar's Tale," note 2. The Evolutionary Tales: Rhyme and Reason on Creation/Evolution, Rev. ed. Palatka, FL: Hodge & Braddock.

Ingermanson, Randall. 1999. Who Wrote the Bible Code?: A Physicist Probes the Current Controversy.. New York: WaterBrook Press.

_____. n.d. Bible Code Page. World Wide Web.

Institute of Mathematical Statistics. 1999. Bible Codes Mystery Explained. Sept. 8 press release.

McKay, Brendan. 1997. Assassinations Foretold in Moby Dick! World Wide Web.

McKay, Brendan; Bar-Natan, Dror; Bar-Hillel, Maya; and Kalai, Gil. 1999. "Solving the Bible Code Puzzle." Statistical Science. May issue.

McKay, Brendan, and Friends. 2000. Scientific Refutation of the Bible Codes. World Wide Web.

Ostling, Richard N. 1999. "Statistics Crack 'Bible Code'." Associated Press, September 10.

Satinover, Jeffrey B. 1995. "Divine Authorship?" Bible Review 11(5):28-31, 44-45.

_____. 1998. Cracking the Bible Code. New York: William Morrow & Co.

Steinberg, Don. 1997. "Computers Expose Shocking Truth!", July 16.

Thomas, David E. 1997. "Hidden Messages and the Bible Code." Skeptical Inquirer, Nov./Dec.

_____. 1998. "Follow-Up: Bible-Code Developments." Skeptical Inquirer, March/April.

Witztum, Doron; Rips, Eliyahu; and Rosenberg, Yoav. 1994. "Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis." Statistical Science 9(3):429-438 (abridged).

Copyright 2000-2003 by Ronald L. Ecker

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