Some Problems With Bible Codes

There has been much talk recently regarding the Torah or Bible codes.  Although at first it may have seemed that there was something special about what was found, a closer study shows that there is really not much to it.  Unfortunately, whilst computer programs have made it relatively easy for anyone to search the Scriptures for hidden 'meanings', the plain text of Scripture is receiving less and less attention by the world at large.

The search for secret codes in the Scriptures is not new; in the last century men 'discovered' hidden codes in the Greek and Hebrew text.  Understanding what was discovered may help us understand better the dangers of the latest search methods using PCs and Bible Code programs.  Why should we waste time on ambiguous codes when convincing proof of inspiration is abundant in the plain text of the Scripture? Our personal conviction of the inspiration of Scripture will grow proportionally to the effort we spend in examining it.

Ivan Panin

I first heard of codes and patterns to be found in the Bible about thirty years ago when a young brother handed me a booklet called The Wonderful Numberer.  The booklet was a summary of the work of Ivan Panin, who had concluded that what he had found in the Bible proved that it was Divinely inspired.  Long before the computer made finding complex patterns of letters routine, Panin searched the Scriptures looking for patterns of sevens.

Ivan Panin had emigrated to the US in 1882 from Russia.  In 1890 he claimed to have made a startling Biblical discovery.  It was not about hidden Bible messages; rather it was about numerical patterns that he said permeated all the inspired Scripture but not other literature.  Partin publicized his discoveries in the New York Sun (19 Nov. 1899) in a letter to the editor entitled, "The Inspiration of the Scriptures Scientifically Demonstrated".

The booklet The Wonderful Numberer claimed that Dr Panin was a brilliant mathematician who had spent the greater part of his life compiling mathematical concordances and writing many papers on the subject.  His findings have gained some acceptance in religious circles.

The Seven Pattern in Greek

The patterns, or features, which Panin discovered in Scripture involved chiefly the number seven. Had he placed an emphasis on almost any other number, it is doubtful if anyone would have paid any attention to his discovery. His emphasis on seven made his claims seem more believable because of the prominence of the number seven in the plain text of Scripture, especially in the book of Revelation. Whilst numerical patterns of seven are very numerous in the Scripture text, patterns based on lesser numbers occur even more often. In any list of words you care to examine, one in seven features might be expected to yield a pattern of seven (for example, the previous sentence has 21, or 3 x 7, words), whilst one in two features would be expected to yield a pattern of twos (for example, the previous sentence has 4, or 2 x 2, five-letter words).

Consider for a moment a small sample of the evidence Panin advances for the inspiration of Scripture.  Also bear in mind that for every seven features inspected for some kind of seven Pattern, on average one should succeed (that is, the actual numbers he wants to find are 7 or multiples of 7, such as 14, 21, 28, etc.).

Matthew 1:18-25 is a passage about the birth of Christ. Partin informs us (we can check for ourselves, he says) that this passage (in Greek) contains 161 words, or 23 x 7 (feature 1), which occur in 105 forms, or 15 x 7 (feature 2), with a vocabulary of 77 words, itself 11 x 7 (feature 3). The sum of the two figures making up 77 is 14, or 2 x 7 (feature 4). Furthermore, the difference between the tens (70) and the units and tens (77) is also 7 (feature 5), etc.  Eventually, after finding five more features involving the number seven, Partin says that this is sufficient to establish that there is a numerical design embedded in the Greek text, and that on the basis of this the passage is inspired.

Most of these features are difficult to check. The number of words refers to the Greek words; classification into vocabulary, forms and figures requires a knowledge of Greek; and compilations of these data are subject to the investigator's discretion.  Thus the ordinary reader cannot verify any but the simplest feature of the reported pattern of sevens.  Moreover, Panin warns the reader that there are many pitfalls into which the inexperienced handler of Bible numerics is likely to fall; in particular, to verify any but the simplest of features requires the authentic Greek text that Panin himself published in 1934 and titled The Numeric Greek New Testament.

Oddly enough, the vocabulary he arrives at for the New Testament contains 5,304 words (not a multiple of 7), whilst Strong lists 5,523 words (789 x 7).  Before he can check Panin's work the layman must decide which is the true vocabulary of the New Testament, Panin's or Strong's. This is not easy to decide, since Panin's vocabulary, at least as far as I can discover, is unpublished.

The Seven Pattern in Hebrew

The evidence Panin gives for the Hebrew text is no better.  He uses the opening words of Scripture: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth".  In Hebrew this verse contains 7 words (feature 1), which have 14 (7 x 2) syllables (feature 2) and 28 (7 x 4) letters (feature 3). Words containing the subject and predicate have 14 letters, and words containing the object 14 letters (feature 4).  However, this example is even more extensive because Panin persists in examining it until he has discovered twenty-five features (some rather exotic) involving seven or a multiple of seven.  To Panin this outcome was absolute proof of the inspiration of the verse.

How was Panin able to find twenty-five features in such a short passage?  The answer is that he probably examined many more and reported only those that succeeded.  Theoretically, to find twenty-five he need only to have examined a total of 175 features, since by chance one in seven would succeed.  Counting any feature involving seven that he finds (the number of possibilities is large) he is certain to succeed in finding ten features in any passage of reasonable length.  Even finding as many as twenty-five features in Genesis 1:1 would not require an unreasonable effort.  In fact, in forty years Panin was able to cover a lot of the Scriptures.  It is reported that he produced some 40,000 pages of numeric notes.

Panin's findings would be more striking if what he found in each verse followed the same pattern.  Yet Genesis 1:2 contains 52 letters (not a multiple of 7), and fails to contain many of the features of verse.  Should we then conclude that verse 2 is not inspired?  Or has God set out a different pattern of sevens in verse two?  Since Panin had so many features of seven to choose from, he could always persist until he had found his self-imposed ten features of seven.  In examining the Greek text he often extended the number of features of seven by counting the sum of the Greek letters in words or phrases (each letter of the Greek alphabet was used as a symbol for a number).

Objections to the Method

Eventually Panin's research led him to claim that numerics (as he called it) was capable of establishing that any passage of Scripture was inspired. The proof, Panin said, was based on the fact that all inspired Scripture contains so many patterns of seven that the probability of this happening by chance is extremely small. Not a page, paragraph or sentence in the whole Bible, he said, fails to show elaborate numeric designs. Yet in reality the large number of sevens was not all that impressive, since finding ten features of seven (or its multiples, 14, 21, 28, etc.) in a passage a sufficient number of times to claim that it is inspired requires the examination of approximately seventy features.

What is extremely objectionable about Panin's methodology is that he multiplies reciprocals of numbers together to obtain what he claims are
the probability of the features he finds occurring by chance. Thus if there are 7 words in a verse (feature 1) and 14 syllables (feature 2) the chance of this happening is 1/7 x 1/7 = 1/49. So if ten features are discovered, Panin suggests that the odds of this occurring are 1/282,475,249, that is, less that one in two hundred million, sufficient to establish the text as inspired.

As a result of applying false assumptions, the probabilities obtained by Panin are considerably lower than the actual probabilities. Thus what Panin perceives to be irrefutable evidence for inspiration because of the low probability of the features he identifies is not nearly as irrefutable as he would have us believe. If the features were this improbable it would be fair to ask how he was able to find them in the first place, since investigation of 282,475,249 features at the rate of one a minute would take 537 years. Since he found so many involving seven they must be commonplace, since on average one in seven features is a multiple of seven.

For example, when I began to write this article I was sitting in a blue chair (1 of 28, or 7 x 4, chairs in our house - feature 1) on a Tuesday (1 of 7 days in the week - feature 2). Counting the dogs, there were 7 present (feature 3). Only 1 of the 14 (7 x 2) light bulbs in the room was burning (feature 4). The computer used for word processing this article had 28 (7 x 4) normal sized keys in the upper two rows (feature 5).  According to Panin's reasoning, if I continued finding a sufficiently large list of features of 7 
(he says ten is enough), the probability of me writing this article under these circumstances would be extremely small.  No one I know would consider this analysis to be a convincing argument, yet Panin's analysis of Bible numerics has much in common with the above.

Yet Panin is convinced this method works, and even states the following: "The reader may now be prepared to be told that not a single question can be raised about the text of the Bible but can be settled by Bible numerics.  Thus in the absence of punctuation in the manuscripts, numerics alone give certainty where the contents leaves in many cases the proper place of a comma doubtful".

Panin illustrates this by using a passage from Luke, which we give unpunctuated: "Verily I say unto thee today thou shalt be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).  By placing the comma after "thee", Panin finds an unusual pattern of sixes, elevens and nineteens in the phrase, "today thou shalt be with me in paradise".  However, if the comma is placed after "today" there is no pattern, enabling Panin to say that the comma must be placed after "thee".  If you are one who believes that you have invisible, immortal soul that flies off on the wings of angels to heaven when you die, then this is undoubtedly the 'right' answer.  However, for those of us who put our faith in the promises made to Abraham, and who expect our reward to occur when the Son of Man returns to this earth (to raise the dead) and to inherit the kingdom of God on earth, then this is yet another indication that Panin's numeric method cannot be trusted.

Questionable Value

This type of searching of God's holy Word is surely a waste of time, and perhaps even blasphemous.  Nowhere do the Scriptures suggest that a study of numerics can enrich our faith or establish inspiration.  Instead they make the claim directly: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16).

Surely Paul would have mentioned the use of Bible numerics to Timothy if it were of any value.  Instead we find that Panin's methods have been applied to the Koran, the Book of Mormon and even Poe's poetry, 'proving' their inspiration through an abundant pattern of sevens.  For those who wish to investigate their own or others' writing for such signs of 'inspiration', a computer program is available on the Internet.

Bible codes have much in common with Panin's approach to proving inspiration.  Unusual features are 'discovered' and said to have a low probability of occurring by chance.  It is almost two years since Michael Drosnin's book The Bible Code attracted a lot of media attention.  Although his 'discoveries' could not have been 'revealed' until the computer age, for centuries curious men have expended considerable effort searching the Scriptures for various coded messages from God.  Reflecting on the work of Drosnin and others, we can only sorrow that they wasted so much time'discovering' ambiguous, if not trivial, messages.  How much better it would have been for them to have spent their time concentrating on and applying the Bible's outward message to their lives!  Their superficial familiarity with a coded Scripture text has gained them but a moment's fame, instead of a share in the promises made to the faithful.

Why are so many of us taken in by these ideas?  (I was quite excited when I first heard about numeric and later Torah codes.)  I think the answer can be found in one or more of the following (I forget the source I have adapted these from):

  1. A mystique - in this case Greek or Hebrew letters, or the concept that God might be behind it and we should not question it.
  2. A lack of tools to investigate it ourselves-in this case a lack of knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and likely a weak background in probability theory.
  3. A superficial reading-failure to see exactly what is being done because it is presented mysteriously or not fully explained.
  4. A desire by those who believe the Bible is inspired for additional ammunition to convince unbelievers.
  5. A lack of the necessary time to investigate in depth what we hear about, and a feeling that there are better ways to spend our time.

It is disturbing to see these ideas gaining credibility in our midst.  Some Bible Reading Seminar material that is distributed to our students even promotes Panin's pattern of sevens as evidence of the Bible's inspiration.  Surely this is unwise when there is much better evidence provided in prophecy, or even in the obvious consistency of Scripture doctrinal teaching.  Those who attend our Bible Seminars deserve better proof of inspiration than Panin's sevens or the Bible codes.  There is a real danger that promoting these ideas will weaken rather than strengthen our witness to the inspiration of God's Word.

Source: The Testimony - March 2000
Author: Jack Robinson

Probability theory says that the multiplication rule used by Panin is appropriate only for independent events (coin tossing is a good example).  It should not be applied indiscriminately to all events or else the results will be incorrect and misleading.  Moreover, by choosing a sufficient number of features it is possible to show that almost any set of events is impossible (that is, it has a very small probability of occurring).

Besides omitting his failures, Panin often counts a single feature more than once, and then goes on to extract an incorrect probability. Perhaps he was not a brilliant mathematician after all.  For example, features 3, 4 and 5 of Matthew 1:18-25 are in reality only a single feature (see main text).  Consider that if the vocabulary is 77 words (11 x 7, feature 3), the sum of its figures 7 + 7 must be 14 (feature 4).  Furthermore, Panin has the audacity to count it a third time as feature 5, the difference between the tens (70) and the units and tens (77).

Mathematically, the probability of these three features occurring together is 1 (that is, the result is certain to occur), because the other two features must follow if the number is 77.

Essentially what Panin has done applies equally to Bible code researchers.  By giving a great prominence to their 'successes' they have convinced some that the improbable has happened.  In reality, with so many possibilities the unusual is certain to occur.