Biblical Criticism

There is an argument against the validity of Torah codes based on biblical criticism. The argument is centered on the premise that there have been transmission errors and this causes a difference between the Torah text that we have today and the one that was given on Mount Sinai. These purported transmission errors would delete some characters, add some characters, or substitute some characters. The effect of this would be to destroy whatever codes had originally been present in the Torah of Mount Sinai. Therefore, whatever Torah codes have been purported to be discovered in our time, must be nothing but a chance occurrence.

Richard Taylor writes:

The biggest single fallacy to be found in the Bible code theory has to do with its perception of the condition of existing manuscripts and printed editions of the Hebrew Bible. Without exception as far as I can tell, Bible code advocates have a view of the textual transmission of Biblical materials that is unrealistically optimistic. The Bible code theory necessarily presupposes an extremely stable transmission process for the OT text. The discovery of encoded messages is ex hypothesi determined by mathematically precise skips of letters (i.e. ELSs) in a text that must be assumed to have little or no disturbance as a result of scribal error. However, if the precise wording of the text is at places questionable due to the vicissitudes of the copying process, the hope of finding encoded messages by such a method is so seriously compromised as to be rendered impossible.

Some Bible code advocates seem oblivious to the realities of textual criticism in this matter. Drosnin, for example, with incredible naivete claims that "all Bibles in the original Hebrew language that now exist are the same letter for letter." This simply is not true. Other Bible code advocates in theory concede the damaging effect of textual variation, although in practice they proceed as though it were not applicable. For example, Grant R. Jeffrey, who espouses the value of the Bible code for validating the divine origin of Scripture, admits that ". . . even a minor change of spelling or choice of words would totally destroy the precise sequence of Hebrew letters that reveals these hidden words coded at evenly spaced distances throughout the text of the Torah. (Richard A Taylor, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dec 2000, pp. 619-636.)

Professor Jeffrey Tigay of the University of Pennsylvania writes:

Whatever the purpose for which they use the alleged codes, their proponents depend on the assumption that the text of the Bible on which they base them is universally accepted among Jews and is completely identical to the original text. It is essential for them to insist on these points because the code consists primarily of finding words formed of letters that are equidistant from each other -- ELSs. What turns these words into messages, or at least meaningful patterns, is the fact that when the text of the Torah is laid out in a grid whose dimensions are determined by the size of the ELS that forms these words, they appear unexpectedly close to, and sometimes even intersect in crossword fashion with, other words -- either real words (with no letters skipped) from the Biblical text or other words formed of equidistant letters. This makes it obvious why proponents of the codes must assume that their text is accurate down to the very last letter, for if the spacing between letters in a "message" or in some meaningful pattern formed by equidistant letters is changed by even one letter, the equidistance, and hence the message or pattern, is destroyed.

The edition of the Hebrew Bible used by the decoders is the popular Koren edition, published in Jerusalem in 1962. It is distinguished by its beautiful Hebrew font. But the history of the Biblical text shows that without special pleading it is practically inconceivable that this text, or any other known text of the Torah, is identical to the original text, letter for letter. While there was an ideal of an unchanging text, identical in all copies, this ideal was not achieved in practice as far back as manuscripts and other evidence enable us to see.

It is not that we lack good texts. All forms of the Tanakh used today are forms of what is known as the Masoretic Text, abbreviated "MT," named after the medieval scholars (the Masoretes) who labored for several centuries to produce the most accurate text they could. The MT in use today is based on Masoretic manuscripts of the ninth and tenth centuries C.E., themselves based on older manuscripts. It has been largely unchanged since late Second Temple times (ca. the third century B.C.E., as reflected in the earliest of the Dead Sea scrolls from Qumran). But although the text has been largely unchanged, there is a large number of variant readings, most of which do not materially change the meaning of the text, but drastically affect the number of letters it contains. In fact, in the oldest complete manuscript of the entire Bible, Leningrad Codex B19A which was finished in 1009 C.E., the Torah has some 45 letters more than the 304,805 of the Koren edition. Furthermore, the text of the 3rd century B.C.E. was itself several centuries younger than the original, which was composed over the preceding several centuries -- mostly between the thirteenth and seventh centuries B.C.E., though some books of the Bible were composed a few centuries later. In the centuries between the composition of the Biblical books and the early Masoretic text of the third century, many changes had befallen the text.

These changes are primarily of two types: spelling differences and other types of textual variants. The differences in spelling involve the way the text indicates vowels. As is well known, the Bible contains two different systems for indicating vowels. The fullest and most precise of the two consists of vowel "points" (nequdot), various configurations of dots and lines which stand for the different Hebrew vowels. This system, introduced in the Middle Ages, is used today in printed Bibles where it is superimposed on the older system, the one used in synagogue scrolls. The older system uses the consonants א, ה, ו, and י to indicate certain similar groups of vowels (e.g. ו represents u and o; י represents i and long e); when functioning as vowels these letters are called vowel letters or matres lectionis (Hebrew 'immot qeri'ah), literally "mothers of reading." These letters are not used with perfect consistency. "David," for example, can be written דוד or דויד and "Shomer" can be written שמר or שומר. Spelling with the vowel letter is called "full" spelling," and spelling without it is called "defective" (the latter term does not imply anything erroneous). The use of the vowel letters is attested in the oldest known Biblical manuscripts, the Dead Sea scrolls from the third and following centuries B.C.E., though not always in exactly the same places where they are used in the Masoretic Text of today. Moreover, archaeological evidence indicates that this system of spelling developed gradually; the evidence available indicates that it was not developed until after the time of Moses. The adoption of this system naturally affected the text of the Bible and the number of letters it contains.

It is interesting that the logic of these arguments makes unstated and unwarranted assumptions. Let us examine this argument in detail. First the argument, without stating it, assumes that the Torah text was given by Hashem on Mount Sinai. Then the argument asserts that there have been transmission errors and concludes that these transmission errors would make impossible any of the original encoding to have survived. The argument admits, without stating it, that there was a miracle, an un-natural event, not part of the natural cause and effect mechanism in which Hashem gave the Torah on Mount Sinai. The argument then assumes that it was this text in which the codes occur. There is no compelling reason for this assumption. We can make an alternative argument that the miracle that occurred on Mount Sinai was that Hashem, who is omniscient about all events past, present, and future, gave a text which when modified by the purported transmission errors has the encodings that Hashem intended for us to find in modern times.