A Review of The Bible Code Myth|
An edited reprint of an article from the July 2001 Digest.
In 2001, Michael S. Heiser released a self-published tome, The Bible Code Myth. Heiser is a Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages scholar at the University of Wisconsin. He appeared on Art Bell's late-night radio show (June 12, 2001), and argued that code researchers are basing their findings on faulty text.
Heiser's studies (for his doctoral dissertation) have convinced him that the Hebrew Bible being analyzed for codes today is a collection of writings that evolved through the centuries, yielding the Tanakh we have today, a set of books that bears little resemblance to its beginnings.
In a pleasantly readable narrative, Heiser, an evangelical Christian, presents and demonstrates the problems of letter-by-letter transmission of the Old Testament over the millennia, given changes in script, spelling, word order and grammar. He briefly describes multiple textual versions of the Torah, a historical fact confirmed by analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He points out the political and socio-religious pressures that caused one text to emerge as the accepted choice over competing texts. He looks at variations in the text that continue practically up to the present day. And he accuses code "practitioners" of bending the Hebrew to make their findings work, while pointing out that there is a great deal of religious discrimination going on between Christian and Jewish researchers.
Apparently, the author's appearance on the Art Bell program had less to do with his Bible code skepticism than with another interest. According to his biography posted on Art Bell's website, "Heiser is an expert on angels and divine beings in ancient Semitic texts. Besides his formal academic training, Mike has had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, particularly the UFO phenomenon. He is uniquely qualified to write on the intersection of ufo-logy with ancient texts and mainstream western religions." If, as this bio claims, Heiser entertains the potential validity of UFOs, the purported sightings of which are never repeatable, it is curious that he so vehemently rejects all Bible codes out of hand, even though some code clusters clearly defy chance as an explanation and can be repeatedly verified.
It seems that Heiser apparently worships a small God. He does not tackle the issue of an omniscient Encoder, one who exists outside of time and has the ability to bypass all of the problems of human error in textual transmission. Such an Encoder could easily have placed the codes into the Hebrew text as it would exist at the end of the 20th century, and in a form of Hebrew that He knew we would be using in the year of our Lord, 2001 A.D. And Heiser does not address the significance of massive code clusters when he, like other skeptics, argues that "inspired" codes may also be found in books like War and Peace, Moby Dick, etc.
The short history of the Bible code controversy has been characterized by premature and unfounded leaps to conclusions by both code skeptics and code proponents. To an extent, this is very understandable. The world at large demands a bottom line, and so each spokesman, after conducting his or her own investigation, is obligated to provide a summary conclusion, whether or not the data is conclusive. We at the Digest have not been immune from that temptation.
Among the various tacks that spokesmen have taken, one is particularly difficult to comprehend. It is that of the code skeptic who claims a strong belief in an omnipotent, omniscient God, but who then tries to confine God into a box that the skeptic has defined. In terms of Bible codes, they say that if God hasn't done things the way the code skeptic has predetermined, then God hasn't encoded anything at all. This approach is more than a bit like the man who says, "God, if you are real, prove yourself by striking this tree with lightning in the next ten minutes." In religious jargon, this practice is called "testing God," and it is denounced in Exodus 17:7, Deuteronomy 6:16 and Matthew 4:7.
Now code skeptics who don't believe in God won't care about whether or not they are "testing God." What is harder to understand are skeptics who clearly profess a Judeo-Christian belief in God and then proceed to tightly specify the box into which God's activity must conform for it to be "acceptable." Somehow it seems a bit brazen for a finite man to place exacting demands on an infinite God, and when God doesn't comply, the finite man flunks God.
The box into which textual critics try to stuff God is pretty confining. If God had encoded the Bible, their logic goes, it would have been done entirely through the original manuscripts of each original author. Anything changing the original manuscript will therefore dilute and corrupt the embedded code. Clearly, there are so many differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the texts currently used by code researchers that it is unlikely that any original codes would still be present. Therefore, the whole code phenomenon is a hoax.
While this theory is plausible, it is hardly the only way God could have encoded the Hebrew Bible. He would certainly be capable of finding a way around all the changes in spelling conventions and the copying errors down through the ages, so that the current versions of the Tanakh used by code researchers would still retain most of the intended codes. One is reminded of the humbling words of God in Isaiah 55:9: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
It would seem that the thinking of some skeptics runs along a different track, where it is thought that God created the world and then walked away from it, leaving it to work out life on its own. For skeptics who have invested years of their lives studying ancient texts of the Bible and how they have evolved and changed over the centuries, the whole world revolves around whether something agrees or does not agree with the dictates of this field of study. Since Bible code research is taking place within texts of the Bible that they consider unutterably flawed, there is no way that they are going to consider the possibility that God could nimbly transcend this highly specialized world in miniature and make their arguments irrelevant. Call it scientific myopia. It's the same affliction that the establishment of 400 years ago suffered from when evaluating the claims of Galileo that the universe did not revolve around the earth.
There is also the argument that the medieval scribes who finalized the versions of the Masoretic text, the foundation for the text used by code researchers today, were not divine, and that, therefore, any changes they made to the text would have further messed things up. This is a curious perspective to take since the Tanakh itself describes numerous instances where God used even pagans (and talking donkeys) to accomplish His purposes. So if pagans could do that, why could not medieval Jewish rabbis who were striving to follow God?
On the other hand, we are not about the business of evaluating the possible validity of codes on the basis of blind faith. Just to say that God could do anything He wanted to and so therefore He did it is clearly an assertion based only on belief. There is so much that code researchers could present that might look impressive, but that in reality is just simple coincidence. We need to be diligent in carefully distinguishing between the likely and the improbable. That is one of our primary missions. And that is one of the reasons we are grateful to Brendan McKay, et al., for setting forth the Hanukah cluster as a reminder that Drosnin-type code clusters may well be fluff.
Consider for the moment just one alternative way that the Hebrew texts searched by current code programs could be largely or entirely correct. Medieval scribes likely tried to refer to the best sources at their disposal, and some of their sources may well have exhibited spelling conventions close to or identical to those in the original manuscripts. Since the Dead Sea Scrolls date to about 100 B.C., which is centuries after the original manuscripts, they may well exhibit spelling conventions quite different from the original versions. So it is certainly possible that those scribes intentionally (or unintentionally) brought their final versions into close conformity with the original versions.
Consider another possibility: The original manuscripts didn't contain much encoded material, since not many people were going to be searching the earliest manuscripts for codes. Nevertheless, a capable God could guide the closing stages of the transcription process so that the version(s) used today would include intended codes. Obviously, such conjectures would only be plausible if substantive evidence of encoding were available today. There is ample evidence of that.
How awkward it must be to believe in a conflicted God, one who is omnipotent on one hand, but severely limited on the other, i.e., when it comes to preserving the most sacred texts for their intended purposes.
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