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The Alleged "Bible Code"

It may seem strange and crazy now, but back in the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of orthodox Jewish techies were interested in something they called the "Torah codes." 

The claim was that God had encoded information into the text of the Hebrew Bible that could not have been known by the human authors of the Bible. 

Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg published an article in 1994 in the refereed journal Statistical Science which created a huge controversy because it claimed to detect encoded information that was very unlikely to be there by random chance. (The usual odds quoted were 1 in 62500.)

A journalist, Michael Drosnin, published a best/selling book in 1997, The Bible Code, which claimed that the Israeli military used these alleged codes to gain a military advantage during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Drosnin, who does not believe in God, suggested that time/traveling space aliens were responsible for these "codes." This was probably not the highest peak in gullibility in the 1990s, but it comes close.

Naturally, a lot of people were skeptical, as they should be. Spectacular claims require evidence. A large number of people got involved. By far, the biggest contributor was Brendan McKay, an Australian mathematician who put in enormous efforts to expose errors in the alleged Bible code. In the US, Caltech mathematician Barry Simon (an orthodox Jew) wrote several influential articles attacking the codes.

I got interested in the codes and wrote a book in 1999 on the subject, Who Wrote The Bible Code? which was published by WaterBrook Press, a Christian division of Random House. In the book, I explained a set of computations I had done that tried to measure the amount of information of any sort that might be encoded in the Torah. I found that it was very small (not statistically distinguishable from zero), and my opinion is that there is no compelling evidence for a Bible code.

My publisher was unable to typeset the mathematical equations in my book, so they asked me to make them available as a PDF document here on my web site. If you've read my book and are looking for the mathematical appendices, this PDF file is what you're looking for.

I'm no longer much interested in the subject. In my view, the Bible code was a bit of weird science that could have been interesting, but turned out not to be. 

I don't have a philosophical objection to the codes. I believe it's reasonably likely that God exists, based on a number of philosophical arguments, but I don't think anyone can prove it. (Of course, there are some weighty arguments against the existence of God, but on balance, I don't find them as compelling as the arguments in favor.) 

In philosophy, it's very difficult to prove anything with certainty. Most philosophical ideas can't even be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Generally, you have to decide where you think the weight of evidence takes you. For me, there is good but not certain evidence that God exists.

Assuming God exists, he might conceivably have created a code for us to find. But I don't see any reason to believe he did, and there are some serious literary reasons to think he didn't. For more on those, check out the work by Michael Heiser, who earned a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Languages from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Years ago, I had a number of discussions by e/mail with some of the codes proponents in the US. Of these, the most interesting was Robert Haralick, who is a pioneer in computer vision. He's certainly one of the world's leading experts in pattern recognition in images. I consider him an outstanding scientist and I wish that more of the codes proponents were like him.

Dr. Haralick is an orthodox Jew and seems to believe that the Torah codes are real, although it's hard to pin down his exact level of belief. He has continued to work on the "Torah code hypothesis" and has a web site in which he uses proper scientific language to discuss the topic. If you're interested in the subject, his site is probably the best place to begin, since he is a working scientist and thinks like one. 

At one time, I had quite a few pages on my web site with various articles and book reviews on the Bible code. However, I consider it a dead subject now, so when I moved my web site to a new technology, I didn't transfer the old content. I doubt anyone much cares anymore.


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