Understanding Bible Codes and Ciphers

Bible Codes, also known as Equidistant Letter Sequences (ELS), are words and phrases that can be found in the text of the Jewish Bible (the Christian Old Testament) by taking letters that are separated by an arbitrarily defined distance from each other within the Hebrew text. This notion of Bible Codes has been popularized by the American journalist Michael Drosnin, who has authored several books on the topic. In a recent episode of the podcast Peeranormal, Semitic languages expert Michael S. Heiser and his panel discuss the notion of Bible Codes, and Heiser calls attention to many serious problems with using Bible Codes as a method of exegesis. One of the most glaring issues with this technique is the fact that the Bible Codes depend on the use of a single, standardized Hebrew text of the Bible. However, there are many variant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, and the choice of the Leningrad Codex (the text generally used in Bible Code research) is ultimately arbitrary. The notion of equidistant letter sequences has also been called into question by statistical probability studies (see here and here).

It seems that the legitimacy of equidistant letter sequences has been adequately refuted by modern academic analysis, so rather than continue to criticize it, I would like to examine some other “Bible Codes” that I think are much more interesting because, unlike equidistant letter sequences, many scholars agree that they may be authentic.

Gematria (Heb. גמטריא)

One type of Bible code you should know about, called Gematria (Heb. גמטריא), is the assignment of numbers to letters so that each word has a number that consists of the sum of all its letters. The number assigned to a given letter corresponds to the placement of the letter in the language’s abecedary. So, in English Gematria, the alphabet would be assigned numbers in the following way: A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, D = 4, E = 5, etc. One place where many scholars agree that the Biblical writer made use of Gematria is in John 21:11, where Peter is said to have caught 153 fish in a single net. There have been many propositions concerning the significance of the number 153, including several suggestions that it is meant to signify the Gematria of an important word. One suggestion is that the number 153 is anticipating Jesus’ reference to Peter growing old latter in the pericope (John 21:18), because the ‘consonantal spine’ of the Greek word for ‘old’ (γ-ρ-ν) adds up to 153:

Gamma (γ) = 3

Rho (ρ) = 100

Nu (ν) = 50

It has also been argued that the number 153 refers to the sum of the Gematria of the Hebrew phrase “Sons of God” (בני האלהים), a phrase that finds its Greek equivalent (τέκνα θεου) in John 1:12. Thus, the fish could serve as a metaphor for the children of God, a metaphor that Jesus uses elsewhere (Matthew 13:47f).

Another place where scholars see use of Gematria is in Revelation 13:8, when the author (a man by the name of John, though probably not the Apostle) invites the reader to “count the number of the beast,” which is “six hundred and sixty-six” or “six hundred and sixteen” depending on which manuscript one reads. The reader is also told that the number is “of a man” and “of his name.” Scholars believe that this is a reference to Nero Caesar, because the name Nero Caesar can be spelled two ways in Hebrew, one spelling equal to 666 (נרון קסר) and the other equal to 616 (נרו קסר) in Hebrew Gematria (see here).

Atbash (Heb. אתבש)

One other fascinating Bible code is called Atbash (Heb. אתבש), which is a type substitution cipher where each Hebrew letter is replaced with a different Hebrew letter. In atbash, the first letter of the alphabet is replaced with the last latter, the second with the second-to-last, and so on. In English, the key to this cipher would look like this: A = Z, B = Y, C = X, D = W, etc. Atbash is mostly used for place names in the book of Jeremiah, although Scott B. Noegel submits that the presence atbash was used in other ways as well. The most common examples of atbash include the name Sheshak (ששך) which is believed to be an atbash of Babylon (בבל) (Jeremiah 25:26, 51:41), and “Lev Qami” (לב קמי) as an atbash of Chaldea (כשדים) (Jeremiah 51:1).

One needs only to observe the complex chiasms and parallelisms in the Bible to recognize that its authors were poetic geniuses. It should therefore come as no surprise that they may have deployed codes to communicate their messages as well. However, when reading about these types of literary devices, its important to keep in mind that scholars still debate when and where a certain type of poetic or other literary method is being employed. It’s hard enough to agree on the meaning non-encrypted narrative and poetry, how much difficult it is with codes and ciphers! The best advice I can offer is to keep a critical and open mind, and stick to information that is peer-review by the experts.


Comments, curses, and blessings welcome!

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