The Torah: Down for the Count?

Making a big media splash this week (Time, Newsweek, The Charlie Rose Show) is journalist Michael Drosnin’s new book, The Bible Code, which asserts that God’s authorship of the Bible is demonstrated by a series of encoded messages found in its pages. Drosnin contends that embedded ciphers in the Five Books of Moses predicted the Rabin assassination, the Gulf War, and the stock market crash of 1929. (For more background, see SLATE’s article from March, “Cracking God’s Code.”)

Finding what appear to be extraordinary messages embedded in texts is actually easy. What makes The Bible Code compelling is that it is tethered to genuine scientific research. In 1994, math professor Eliyahu Rips and two colleagues used computers to search for the names of famous rabbis and their dates of birth encoded in the book of Genesis and control texts. Astoundingly, they found the rabbis and dates in Genesis in a manner highly unlikely to have been due to chance. The experiment passed rigorous peer review and was published in the prestigious academic journal Statistical Science. Some Orthodox Jews took the experiment as proof that God did, indeed, write the Torah. We at SLATE were intrigued, too.

So it’s with not a little pang of regret that we report that there’s bad news about the Good News. As The Bible Code gains national attention, the credibility of the original Statistical Science paper appears to be crumbling. A group of mathematicians skeptical of the original findings recently revealed the results of their own debunking experiments. An Australian math professor named Brendan McKay, one of the researchers, has also identified what he calls “a number of severe mathematical problems” with the original experiment. McKay and an Israeli mathematician are planning to submit a systematic critique of the Rips paper to Statistical Science.