BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
Science & Nature: TV and Radio Follow-up

BBC Homepage

In TV & Radio

Contact Us

You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV & Radio Follow-up > Horizon
Possible codes in the Bible
BBC Two, Thursday 20 November 2003, 9pm
The Bible Code
Coming Up
Horizon reveals what really went wrong on the Space Shuttle Columbia. BBC Two, 27th November, 9pm.

The Bible Code - transcript

NARRATOR (Dilly Barlow): Michael Drosnin has written a best selling book which predicts the end of the world in three years time. His information comes from a secret code hidden in the Bible.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: World War, atomic holocaust and end of days are all included in the Bible with the same year 2006. We may have less than three years to save our world. That is the warning encoded in the Bible.

NARRATOR: What makes Drosnin’s predictions unusual is that he claims to have serious scientific backing. He’s either stumbled on one of the most important discoveries ever made or he and the millions of people who take him seriously have got it badly wrong.

NARRATOR: This week Horizon puts the Bible Code to the test.

NARRATOR: Five years ago, Michael Drosnin sealed three extraordinary predictions in an envelope and gave them to a top Manhattan lawyer for safekeeping.

LAWYER: There it is.

NARRATOR: In 2003 he opened it.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: The warnings that are most clearly stated in the code are (a) the world will face global economic collapse starting in the Hebrew year 5762. 2002 in the modern calendar. We know that one came true. (b) this will lead to a period of unprecedented danger as nations with nuclear weapons become unstable and terrorists can buy or steal the power to destroy whole cities. After 9/11 no one doubts it. And then of course there's the most terrible of the three predictions, god help us if this one comes true. The danger will peak in the Hebrew year 5766, 2006 in the modern calendar. The year that is most clearly encoded with both world war and atomic holocaust.

NARRATOR: He says the predictions need not come true, they’re a warning to the world to change its ways. The basis for it all is a code which he says has been found in the Bible. What makes it extraordinary is that it appears to be backed by scientific evidence.

NARRATOR: Michael Drosnin is not the first person to claim to have found hidden messages encoded in the Bible. For thousands of years people have believed that behind the surface text are coded messages containing extra information. In the middle ages Jewish mystics scoured the Old Testament for concealed meanings. Isaac Newton the greatest scientist of his age devoted more than half a century to looking in the Bible for hidden references to Armageddon. Yet few outside religious circles have ever taken the idea of coded messages in the Bible seriously. That was until an exceptional man came along.

NARRATOR: In 1968 when Russian tanks invaded Czechoslovakia Eliyahu Rips was a gifted young student of mathematics in Latvia. As demonstrators around the world took to the streets, Rips made an extraordinary personal protest.

PROF ALEX LUBOTZKY: Rips went to a public square in Rigaput a gasoline on himself and burned himself. To call the attention of the world to this evil act of the Soviet empire.

NARRATOR: Rips was sent to a Soviet psychiatric hospital, a common punishment for political protestors. There with time on his hands he worked on a mathematical problem that was to amaze the academic world.

PROF STEPHEN MILLER: When Rips was in prison he had the idea to work on a famous unsolved problem called the dimension subgroup conjecture. This had been a problem which westerners thought they had solved, in fact there is a published paper in one of the best journals by very esteemed famous people claiming to have solved this conjecture and given a proof of it. When he was in detention he had no paper to work with so one of the guards actually got him some pencil and a little piece of toilet paper. Using only this he was able to refute the greatest minds in the land. He showed this conjecture is actually false even though all the experts thought that they had proven it was true. This turned the subject on its head.

NARRATOR: After two years Rips was released and allowed to emigrate. He arrived in Israel with a reputation as a man of unshakeable integrity and as a brilliant theoretical mathematician.

PROF ALEX LUBOTZKY: Rips is an extraordinary mathematician and not just an outstanding mathematician, there are many outstanding mathematicians but he’s world star I mean Oxford and Cambridge would be delighted to have Rips as a professor there.

NARRATOR: It was now in Israel that Rips was introduced to the world of the Bible codes. One well known form of code found in the Bible is called a skip code.

PROF STEPHEN MILLER: Skip codes involve a different way to read a text than we normally do, usually we read one letter at a time, the first letter, the second letter and the third letter and so forth. But with a skip code we might start with the third letter and then skip ahead ten to the thirteenth letter and then to the twenty third letter and so forth and maybe that would spell out a new word jumping ten letters at a time. Here’s an example, there’s a sentence here that says my way of showing a skip code is encrypted in the very words I put down here. Let’s take the first letter and jump every 14 and make that red. It’s very hard to read as it is written here you can see the letter m-a-r-y–h-a-d, it’s not so legible. So to make it look nicer and to understand it better, what we usually do is we break the line before each red letter. So now we have each line starting with the red letter and now the red letters are in a column and it’s very easy to read. Mary had a little lamb.

NARRATOR: One of these simple codes particularly caught Rips’ imagination. It appears at the beginning of the Torah, the Jewish Bible which is made up of the first 5 books of the Old Testament.

PROF ELIYAHU RIPS: When we started with the first T in the book of Genesis, in fact it comes in the first verse, in the beginning God created heaven and earth. Starting with the first t and taking every 50 letters, the word Torah appears.

NARRATOR: Exactly the same pattern appeared in the second book of the Torah, Exodus, again starting with the first T and skipping 49 letters. The word Torah appears.

PROF ELIYAHU RIPS: It was enough to me to be most intrigued to think something very interesting might go on.

NARRATOR: Rips began to employ a computer programme that could search for skip codes like this at enormous speed. He could have had no idea where it would lead. Rips and his colleagues now came across messages nobody had ever found before. One of them is known as the Chanukah code. Chanukah is an important religious festival in Judaism and the word Chanukah is written as a skip code going backwards.


PROF STEPHEN MILLER: Another important name associated with Chanukah is the Hasmonean dynasty, there word in here Hasmonei. That’s the Hebrew word for Hasmonean’s that’s also a skip code. So these two names and concepts are very closely linked, not only in the story of Chanukah but also in proximity here as skip codes within the text of the Torah.

NARRATOR: To Rips the implications of the code were breathtaking, the Torah had been written down some 3,000 years ago. The events described in the Chanukah story took place some 2,000 years later. If this really was a message then it had been encoded in Genesis thousands of years before the events it described. This was no longer just a word game, the Bible codes were seeing into the future.

NARRATOR: Then Rips stumbled on a message which seemed to confirm this extraordinary power in a very personal way. It was January 1991, the first Gulf war was imminent and Israel was tensed for an Iraqi attack, the big question was when would it come.

PROF ELIYAHU RIPS: It was in the early January and the tension was very high and in fact it was increasing. Friend showed me a table with a code on which was says Saddam Hussein.

NARRATOR: Near this was a second piece of information.

PROF ELIYAHU RIPS: The most important thing that through this we have actually a Hebrew date, in fact it says fire on the 3rd of Shevat which in this year it was on January 18th.

NARRATOR: The code seemed to be predicting an attack on January 18, could it possibly be right. Two weeks later Rips got his answer. In the early hours of January 18, exactly as predicted Iraqi missiles hit Israel. Rips sitting at home with his family will never forget it.

PROF ELIYAHU RIPS: There was a midnight alert and we all rushed in the sealed room and put our gas masks on us. There was of course a sense of horror of all this event.

PROF ELIYAHU RIPS: Nevertheless I recall I was overfilled with a sense of the scientific joy, the codes worked, just think about it, when you analyse in the proper way the letters in an ancient book that exists for thousands of years, is able to tell about such a major present event as a missile flying right at your head.

NARRATOR: Eliyahu Rips is a rigorous scientist, he now wondered was it all just a coincidence or could he find serious scientific evidence for the code? Rips had noticed that what characterised the Bible code messages was that the information appeared as a cluster of related words. What he needed was a way of determining whether this clustering was significant or accidental. Rips had heard of research suggesting that the names of famous Rabbis might be encrypted in the Bible close to their dates. He decided to build an experiment around them. An expert was asked to provide a list of 32 Rabbis paired with their dates of birth or death. All had lived long after the Bible had been written. Then Rips searched Genesis for each pair.

PROF ELIYAHU RIPS: For each of the resulting pairs of a name and date we checked in the book of Genesis. As we see here an example on this table the name of the Holy Or HaHaim comes together with the date of his death which is 15th of Tammuz. So there is a close meeting between the date and the name.

NARRATOR: Rips now constructed a complicated geometrical formula to quantify how close these clusterings were, he called these the measure of compactness or closeness.

DR LYNDA WHITE: What they do is they consider Sage A and date 1 and then they take a page of text. Sage A might look like that. Date 1 might be something like this. What they do is define a distance or a measure of closeness, physical closeness in the text between these two and there are the distances for each of these pairs going down, with 32 in all.

NARRATOR: Rips then hypothesised that if the Rabbis and their dates had been deliberately encoded in the Bible then the measures of compactness would be smaller than in a random list of names and dates. So for comparison he jumbled up the names and dates and generated almost a million randomly paired lists and searched Genesis for these. The result seemed absolutely conclusive. The average measure of compactness was much smaller in the real list than in more than 999,000 random lists.

NARRATOR: Rips now calculated the odds against this happening by chance, they were 62,500 to 1. One of the best mathematical minds in the world seemed to have found strong scientific evidence that there really are codes in the Bible that can see into the future.

PROF ELIYAHU RIPS: Really in your face was just this something an incredible living miracle and it was a very strong feeling that I cannot, I cannot forget, now gradually one gets used to it yes even one can be used to miracles.

NARRATOR: Rips and his team sent their extraordinary findings to Professor Robert Kass. Kass is a statistician who then ran a prominent statistical journal. He didn’t believe for a moment that the results could be right.

PROF ROBERT KASS: I had it sent out to referees. I assumed that the referees would find the flaw rather quickly and that would be the end of the story. Well that’s not what happened.

NARRATOR: The referees could find no fatal flaws in the analysis. Kass took the relatively unusual step of sending it out for further scrutiny.

PROF ROBERT KASS: I sent it to a third referee and the third referee had very specific suggestions for additional analysis that the author should do. The authors did those additional analyses and the referee said I think this will end the story but when the authors did the additional analyses it in fact the effect persisted and at that point the referees really said they were baffled, they didn’t for a moment believe it but they couldn’t see what was wrong.

NARRATOR: Kass had no choice but to publish it.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile in New York another man was also looking at the codes. Michael Drosnin is a successful investigative reporter, he’s worked in the past for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He considers himself a man who deals in facts not fortune telling. In the early 1990’s he heard about Rips’ work and went to see him.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: I thought that I would be out of there within an hour, certain that this was all fantasy. Instead I spent a week with Dr Rips and at the end of the week I was certain he was on to something real.

NARRATOR: Drosnin returned to New York, taking with him a copy of Rips’ computer programme. For months he tested it out, message after message appeared.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: I looked for events that had already happened, the Kennedy assassination. President Kennedy appeared once encoded in the Bible, then I saw the next three letters in Hebrew told of his assassination. It said “to die”.

NARRATOR: He looked for other things, he found references to President Clinton’s election, the first moon landing, the Watergate scandal and the Oklahoma City bombing. Then he came across a message that would change his life.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: I was looking for the names of world leaders, I typed in the name of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, it was encoded once and crossing his name in perfect Hebrew it said ”assassin that will assassinate”. Just like in a crossword puzzle Yitzhak Rabin going down, assassin that will assassinate crossing his name.

NARRATOR: Drosnin checked with Professor Rips to see whether the combination of words could be accidental. He calculated that the odds were 6,000 to 1 against it being chance. Within a week Drosnin was in Israel with a warning.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: I’m an American. Thank you.

NARRATOR: There he wrote a letter to Rabin.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: I have uncovered information that suggests your life is in danger, we should meet in confidence.

NARRATOR: But Rabin wouldn’t see him. Then a year later, almost exactly 12 months after Drosnin’s prediction Rabin was gunned down by an Israeli extremist.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: I remember this so well, I actually sunk to the floor and it wasn’t the fact that Rabine had been killed, that was not the shock, as great a shock as that was. The shock was that the Bible code was real. I had believed it in my head or I never would have warned the prime minister, but I didn’t believe it in my heart, I didn’t believe it in my gut and at that moment I did.

NARRATOR: In 1997 Drosnin published a controversial book on the Bible codes. It was a runaway hit. It was soon after this that he came across the three apocalyptic predictions that would come to dominate his life. Economic collapse, world instability and nuclear holocaust in 2006. For Michael Drosnin it was time to warn the world.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: I don’t know what to do, give me your advice, Shimon Perez asked me to call and arrange the meeting with him for this week.

NARRATOR: Drosnin has had meetings with Israeli intelligence, the Pentagon and some political leaders.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: The suggestion that is encoded in the Bible is that terrorism could actually bring on the destruction of our entire world. I think there's a very good chance that President Bush will meet with me, he’s religious and sincerely so. He believes in prophecy so this will not be difficult for him to accept.

NARRATOR: He knows it sounds incredible but Drosnin is so confident he’s right that some years ago he issued a challenge: When my critics find in advance a message about the assassination of a Prime Minister encrypted in Moby Dick I’ll believe them. He was about to encounter someone who would challenge the very existence of the codes.

NARRATOR: Brendan McKay is an expert in advance probability theory. He’s been investigating mathematical mysteries for almost 30 years. He decided to take up Drosnin’s challenge. He bought a copy of the 150 year old American novel Moby Dick and using a search programme similar to Rips began to comb it for hidden messages. The results were at first glance remarkable.

BRENDAN MCKAY: Here by way of comparison we have Mr Drosnin’s example of Yitzhak Rabin and assassin who will assassinate, compare that to Moby Dick, here we have Kennedy k-e-n-n-e-d-y and underneath his name he writes “he shall be killed”.

NARRATOR: There were also references to more recent events.

BRENDAN MCKAY: Here you see in a vertical line the words “lady Diana” and across very near to her name it says “mortal in these jaws of death”. Even that much would be interesting but there's very much more in this picture. Here for example we see the word “Wales”, Princess of Wales, together with the word “royal” r-o-y-a-l, also in the same picture the name of her boyfriend Dodi appears many times, I’ve marked two of them and finally the driver of the car Henri Paul, his name just here we have Henri and Paul.

NARRATOR: McKay has made it very clear these are not statistically significant messages, all they show he says is that you can find things that look extraordinary even messages that seem to see into the future if you look for long enough in a big enough text.

BRENDAN MCKAY: What’s really going on of course is that the computer can search in so many ways, millions or hundreds of millions of ways that even though any particular pattern is unlikely, it’s going to find something sooner or later.

NARRATOR: But Drosnin will have none of it, he claims that there are two critical differences between his and McKay’s findings. Nobody else has ever found anything like his Rabin prediction, a forecast made before the event occurred. Moreover he says each one of his findings has been shown to be statistically significant. They are not chance clusterings of words.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: It is absolutely true that if you're a fool looking for nonsense in the Manhattan telephone directory you can find it and if not in the Manhattan telephone directory in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Take a big enough text and it is true you will find anything at all encoded with equal distance skip sequences, everyone understands that. What you will not find in any book except the Bible is related accurate information encoded in a statistically significant way every single major encoding is mathematically significant.

NARRATOR: This is the core of Drosnin’s argument. McKay is merely playing word games, each one of Drosnin’s findings has been checked by one of the world’s great mathematicians.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: I am only a journalist but I have checked every important finding with Dr Rips, I could not be more rigorous because he is a meticulous Mathematician and one of the world’s great mathematicians. He agrees the statistics are solid.

NARRATOR: But as McKay examined Drosnin’s findings, he thought he saw a flaw. Rips is a brilliant mathematician, but he is not an expert in statistics. It’s a very different science. To get a figure recognised by statisticians you need to follow a rigorous statistical procedure.

BRENDAN McKAY: In order to actually give a statistical significance to a Bible code type finding it’s essential that you specify in advance what it is that you have to find in order to be successful and you specify the way in which this experiment’s results will be analysed and without such a formal experiment the numbers are simply meaningless, they’ve got no statistical value.

NARRATOR: In other words to get a scientifically meaningful statistic you need to state in advance exactly what you're looking for. That is not how Drosnin works. He specifies a name like Yitzhak Rabin, but he does not specify in advance any other phrases he would regard as significant. He did not, for instance, specify, assassin that will assassinate. This lack of precision in his search criteria vastly increases his chances of finding something that appears to be significant.

BRENDAN MCKAY: He puts in words and he looks for interesting things, he doesn’t have a pre-specified notion of what’s going to be accepted. He’s just looking for something that’s interesting and the concept “something that’s interesting” is not sufficiently precise scientifically that you can determine the probability of it or not.

NARRATOR: But Drosnin defends his statistics to the hilt and what’s more he’s backed by the findings of Professor Rips.

MICHAEL DROSNIN: What no-one can do is what Dr Rips has done with the code in the Bible. He’s consistently found accurate related information encoded in the same place against odds that any mathematician would agree are beyond chance.

BRENDAN MCKAY: Which is the probability that when you take a random pairing…

NARRATOR: McKay now shifted the focus of his attention. He joined forces with a group of Hebrew speaking scientists to take a closer look at Rip’s original Rabbis experiment. The one that seemed to offer scientific evidence for the existence of the codes. Like others before them, McKay and his colleagues couldn’t significantly fault the statistics. Rips had clearly stated in advance precisely what he was looking for. But then they took a closer look at the data. The names and dates of the Rabbis, it was now that they found something intriguing. Rips’ original experiment had been based on the names of 32 Rabbis, but there were more than 32 possible versions of their names.

BRENDAN MCKAY: Of course there is nothing strange about having many names, President Bush is also called, W or George W Bush or the President of the United States and many other things. So it’s quite a normal thing to have many names, having multiple spellings was also a normal thing in the middle ages when these great Sages lived.

NARRATOR: Some of the Rabbis had more than a dozen versions or spellings of their names.

BRENDAN MCKAY: We found that only some of these names and some of the spellings were used and we wondered why this particular selection of names was used and in particular we wondered whether there was some process in the way that the names were selected that biased the result in favour of a positive outcome.

NARRATOR: In short could the experiments extraordinary result be caused by the particular versions of the names that had been fed into the computer? Would different versions give a different result?

NARRATOR: To test the idea, McKay asked a qualified expert to draw up a new list. It contained the same Rabbis but some of their names in different though equally valid versions. He then re-ran the experiment. There was absolutely no statistically significant clustering of names and dates. McKay now began to wonder. There's a well known phenomenon in statistics called tuning an often unconscious process in which data can be subtly reshaped in a way that can influence the result. Could this explain Rips extraordinary findings? If so, it would undermine the scientific basis of the Bible codes.

NARRATOR: Professor Rips has a reputation as a man of unimpeachable integrity. He says he took great care to ensure his experiment was not tuned.

PROFESSOR RIPS: The data was collected independently by a respected scholar Professor Havlin who did it without any knowledge of how it will affect the result of the experiments and he certifies this.

NARRATOR: Professor Havlin himself has confirmed this. Yet for the critics this is not enough. What Rips is claiming is hard scientific evidence for what amounts to a miracle. Such an extraordinary claim they say requires an extraordinary level of proof.

BRENDAN MCKAY: In order to establish that a miracle happened it is incumbent on the scientist to eliminate very thoroughly any other possible explanation.

NARRATOR: What was needed to convince the doubters was an experiment that nobody could question.

NARRATOR: In the late 1990’s a committee in Jerusalem tried to run just such an experiment, it included Professor Dror Bar-Natan, a man profoundly sceptical about the existence of the codes and Professor Rips. They agreed to set up an experiment which would search Genesis to see whether the names of the Rabbis used by Rips were encoded in close proximity to the names of the cities they’d lived in. After months of wrangling over how to compile the data, they agreed to run an experiment using two lists, one compiled according to guidelines favoured by Rips, the other by the sceptics. Again to minimise any danger of tuning, they handed over the actual selection of the names to independent experts.

PROF DROR BAR-NATAN: In fact the committee members themselves except for one did not know who the experts were and the experts did not know how the data they were collecting was to be used. So they couldn’t have introduced any bias and we couldn’t have influenced them in any way.

NARRATOR: Initially both sides declared themselves happy with the procedure. It was meant to be the definitive Bible codes experiment, but the proceedings and results have never been published. We decided to re-run it.

NARRATOR: Horizon asked two senior academics at London’s Imperial College, one of the worlds top science universities to re-run the analysis. Dr Lynda White is a statistician specialising in the design of experiments. Dr Dan Moore is a mathematician and computer expert. We obtained a copy of the two lists used by the committee and asked Professor Bar-Natan to confirm that they were the ones used.

DR DAN MOORE: Now we’re going to load the data for the experiment into the computer, we’re going to drag across first the source for Genesis. There it is on the floppy disk and we’ll copy it across to the computer. And now we’ll drag the Rip’s list of words onto the computer. Now we’ll run the experiment.

NARRATOR: The experiment was run on two computers, one for each list. First the computers located the names of the Rabbis and their cities, then they measured how tightly they clustered together. The so-called measure of compactness. Finally they calculated whether this clustering was statistically significant. The original Rips Rabbis and dates experiments had found the odds against those clusters being accidental were 62,500 to 1. Would the committees rabbis and cities experiment come up with a result as significant as this? After 3 hours, the results were ready.

DR LYNDA WHITE: Rips original experiment gave us odds of 62,500 to 1. When we did our experiment we had two lists, we had the sceptics list and we had the Rips list. The odds for the sceptics list turned out to be 2 to 1 against, much smaller than Rips’ original odds. In very simple terms this represents a chance of about 1 in 3 that the clustering is accidental. So no evidence at all for hidden codes. When it came to the Rips’ list we get odds of 2 to 3 which again putting it simple represents a chance of just over 50% that the clustering is accidental. So when we look at these two together there is absolutely no evidence at all, absolutely none that there are hidden codes here.

NARRATOR: One experiment is never accepted as proof in science, however the only Bible code experiment involving both sides of the debate had failed to show any evidence of their existence. But this, perhaps inevitably, is not the end of the story.

NARRATOR: Professor Rips, even though he’d agreed to the procedure argued that the independent experts employed to select the data had made so many factual and procedural errors the experiment was fundamentally flawed. One other member of the committee agrees with him.

PROF ELIYAHU RIPS: They did an unbelievably bad job, there was thousands of errors of various kinds of the data with omissions of many places etc, so there was enough errors to account for the negative result.

NARRATOR: Yet according to McKay even the number of errors they claim are not sufficient to explain such a negative result.

BRENDAN MCKAY: In order to produce results so negative as these experiments produced, the experts would have had to make not only a few mistakes here and there. They would have had to get most of the data wrong and it’s simply inconceivable that serious experts could make so many mistakes.

NARRATOR: The wrangling is likely to go on. Rips and others have conducted new experiments which claim to provide further evidence for the existence of the codes. But none have been published in properly reviewed scientific journals. At the root of it all is one very simple problem, nobody has yet devised an objective scientifically rigorous way of investigating the codes that’s universally accepted. In all the experiments, somebody has to make a subjective choice about what data to use and then somebody else can say, you got it wrong. Yet the claims are so extraordinary sceptics say the science has got to be absolutely rock solid. Until it is, they may feel justified in doubting whether science can ever be used to support the existence of the Bible codes.

NARRATOR: One man however has no doubts. Michael Drosnin is still determined to save the world from the coming holocaust. And he’s still hoping to catch the ear of George Bush.

Back to top of page

Science Homepage | Nature Homepage
Wildlife Finder | Prehistoric Life | Human Body & Mind | Space
Go to top

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy