Religious texts of the world have always held a deep sense of allure, fascination, and mystery, and mankind has for centuries pored through them trying to glean some meaning to their existence from them, studying their teachings and looking for hidden contexts and interpretations behind what they have to say. It is telling that even thousands of years after they are written we study them and dissect them, scouring their pages for the answers we seek. Yet, in addition to finding meaning in what is written, there are some who look for literal hidden messages embedded in the text in the form of codes that are often claimed to have been put there by God.
The idea that there are secret codes and information hidden within the Bible is nothing new, and has been going on in some form for centuries. In as early as the 13th century rabbi Bachya ben Asher had been finding messages hidden in the Hebrew Bible, or Torah, and in later years there were various attempts to decipher hidden messages within the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, notably by the famed inventor Isaac Newton. In the 1940s and 50s it gained some attention through the work of Rabbi H.M.D. Weissmandel, who believed that there was secret information hidden within the Torah, that could be gleaned through the use of “skip codes,” which are basically a type of encoded series of letters in manuscripts which are separated by a particular number of other letters that can be strung together to spell out words. This basic premise would be picked up by other researchers and mathematicians, who also became convinced that there were secret encrypted codes buried within the Torah and the Old Testament, with the idea emerging that these were actual messages from God and could even tell the future, and the means for figuring it all out began to evolve.
The main method developed over the years for deciphering these supposed codes in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament is called the Equidistant Letter Sequence method, or ELS. The way it supposedly works is basically the same as the “skip codes,” in that letters in a sequence will be separated by a certain number of spaces within the text. If one knows the precise number of spaces to skip in any given passages, they can supposedly take those separated letters and isolate them to link them together to form new words and messages that have been hidden there. It is sort of like a sophisticated word search, and words are often put together in arrays, lining up horizontally, vertically, or diagonally within texts to form these mysterious messages.
Although some variant of this basic technique has been around for centuries, it remained rather obscure until the 1980s, when mathematicians Eliyahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, looked into these codes and did a formal study of them in 1985, which came to be known as the "Great Rabbis Experiment.” They would go on to claim that they had derived various biographical information and birth and death dates concerning various rabbis encoded into the Old Testament centuries before any of them had even been born, and also insisted that their findings were beyond explainable by random statistical chance. Rips would declare in the study, “the only conclusion that can be drawn from the scientific research regarding the Torah codes is that they exist and that they are not a mere coincidence.” The study would go on to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Statistical Science, but of course the idea of prophetic messages from God hidden in the bible was bound to generate plenty of skepticism and controversy, and it did.
More experiments would be carried out by other researchers, such as those conducted in 1997 by Harold Gans, former Senior Cryptologic Mathematician for the United States National Security Agency, who was skeptical at first but also found that there was indeed information encoded within the Bible that was beyond the scope of mere coincidence or random chance. However, the one who would truly popularize the notion of Bible Codes and launch them into the public consciousness was an American journalist and author named Michael Drosnin, who in 1997 released a book on the matter called The Bible Code, which would take the world by storm and become a massive, smash hit best seller.
Drosnin had become interested in the concept of Bible codes after speaking with one of the authors of the paper, Eliyahu Rips, in Israel in 1992. He became rather obsessed with the idea of these encrypted codes from God, and spent a large amount of time pouring through the pages of the Old Testament looking for such messages, which he believed could be used to predict the future. He would claim to have found a veritable treasure trove of such hidden information, the most well-known of these being his prediction of the imminent assassination of Israeli politician, statesman and general Yitzhak Rabin, which he warned Israeli officials of, yet they did not act on it and Rabin would be assassinated in 1995. Drosnin claimed to have found information on many assassinations in the Bible, including those of Robert F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Anwar el-Sadat, and others.
These aren’t even the weirdest of Drosnin’s claims and information and predictions from the Bible codes. Drosnin was convinced that the Hebrew Bible could be used to tell the future that he insisted that Israel was using Bible codes to gain an advantage over their enemies, notably during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He also claimed that he had found predictions buried in this ancient text on Thomas Edison and his discoveries concerning electricity and the light bulb, Newton’s work on the principles of gravity, the Nazi Holocaust, the Pearl Harbor attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Gulf war, and even a failed prediction of World War III breaking out in 1996, another wrong one about a cataclysmic earthquake that would wipe out Los Angeles in the year 2010, as well as some mysterious world-ending apocalypse that was supposed to occur between 1998 and 2006, among many others. To make it all even more bizarre, Drosnin claimed to not even believe in God, and instead theorized that these messages had all been implanted into the Bible by aliens from outer space.
Considering that you are still here reading this and that there has been no World War III or extinction level event you can see that this was all incredibly hit or miss, and Drosnin gained an intense amount of criticism for his work, including none other than the very mathematicians who had supposedly established these codes in the first place, Rips and Doron Witztum. They were quick to distance themselves from Drosnin’s work, despite the fact that it was ostensibly based on their own, because they thought he was overzealous with his predictions and warping their findings. They basically saw him as a crackpot, and although they stood by the existence of these codes they did not believe that these codes could be used to spontaneously predict the future, instead saying that the codes only worked when looking back through the past in hindsight, when the searchers specifically knew what they were looking for. They would say of Drosnin’s work:
It is literally impossible to make future predictions based on codes. Mr. Drosnin's book does have some examples of codes that are statistically significant, and some that aren't, and the problem is that any layman reading that book will have no way of making a distinction. I don't think the code makes predictions. I think it reveals probabilities. so I can't say what will happen in the next five years. Also it is not a crystal ball – you can't just ask the Bible to tell you about tomorrow or next year. You can only find what you know how to look for – you must have some idea of what you're looking for.
Other criticism quickly followed as well, with many experts decrying the methods used to come up with these predictions. The sticking point for most was suspicions that the Bible codes were inherently hogwash to begin with. The criticisms are numerous, the main one being that this is simply finding patterns in randomness, and that anyone can find any kind of message they want if they stare at some text and pick it apart for long enough. Drosnin could have just been seeing what he wanted to see. Drosnin responded to this by challenging others to find the same kinds of codes using his system in Moby Dick, which was actually taken up by mathematician Brendan McKay, who also found the same kind of patterns in randomness within it. Nevertheless, Drosnin stuck by his assertion that only the Bible held the true codes.
Another criticism is that there is also the fact that the Hebrew Bible is not necessarily in the same words and form that it was centuries ago, and has gone through a great number of revisions and versions, so how is it that these spacing of words would reveal the same coded messages now as they supposedly did back then? Drosnin was further accused of mistranslating Hebrew words to fit his own needs and twisting meanings to seem more mysterious. And how does that work if people make predictions and messages out of English translations of a book that was originally worded in Hebrew? Wouldn’t that essentially destroy the code if it is using ELS methods? Then of course there is the fact that many of Drosnin’s predictions were just plain wrong. Throw in talk of space aliens and it is understandable that there should be some skepticism towards his work and Bible codes in general. Nevertheless, Drosnin would amazingly write two more books on the matter, called The Bible Code II: The Countdown, (2002) and The Bible Code III: Saving the World (2010), all of which are littered with wrong predictions to the point that one critic lamented, “If you are laying bets based on Drosnin, you had better be willing to bet on all possible outcomes.”
Despite skepticism and backlash, there are many proponents who think there is something to it all. Drosnin’s work has taken on a life of its own, and other books have followed as well, with many of them going on to be best sellers. For instance, there is Cracking the Bible Code, by psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, in which it is claims that there is infinite knowledge contained within the codes and that “All that was, is, and will be unto the end of time is included in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.” There is also more recently the 2014 best seller by Timothy Smith called The Chamberlain Key, described as “the Da Vinci Code on steroids, but it's true.” In addition to these books there are many people who have continued on with this work on Bible codes, claiming to have found countless messages and predictions, ranging from a U.S. war with China to the revelation of Elvis Presley’s death, to the Roswell UFO crash, and all manner of truly outlandish conspiracy theories. It is clear that although these codes are now largely dismissed by scientists they are still very much going strong and the debate and controversy surrounding them are not over. So what is going on here? Random chance, misguided grasping for answers, or messages from God or even aliens? The debate goes on.