Grant R. Jeffrey, Toronto: Frontier Research Publications, Inc., 1996. 275 pages. $13.95, paper.
A few years ago, the movie Field of Dreams popularized the expression, If you build it, they will come.” Perhaps the slogan should now be revised to, “If you write it, they will believe.” Grant Jeffrey’s The Signature of God seems to have become one of the more talked-about books among certain Christians. One subject treated by Jeffrey, the so-called “Torah codes,” has been the subject of numerous articles, seminars and online conversations on the part of Christians, Jews, and agnostics alike.
One never likes to write a review of a book that has little redeeming value. But given the popularity of Jeffrey’s book and the fact that some of his discussion parallels similar matters being raised in the Jewish community, it needs to be said: The Signature of God is an irresponsible book. It is characterized more by errors of fact, non-sequiturs and unsound scholarship than by anything helpful.
Basic Errors of Fact Across Many Subject AreasThe word “Masoretic” is said to derive from the Hebrew for “wall” or “fence” and to relate to the concept of placing a fence around the law (p. 14). In fact the word relates to the Hebrew for “tradition.” (1) In a discussion of computers, RAM and ROM are said to reside on a hard drive (p. 164); neither resides there. “Precisely seven colors” in the spectrum merge to form white (p. 238); this is “precise” only if the colors are delineated in advance. In reality, an infinite number of colors are located along a spectrum.
Poor and Outdated ScholarshipJeffrey relies undiscerningly on suspect secondary sources. He continually refers to outdated and unauthoritative writers. It is odd that much of his discussion of archaeology cites long-discarded conclusions by 18th and 19th century travelers rather than the generally recognized conclusions of known archaeologists. So for example:
(1) There are spurious claims of archaeological finds.
Jeffrey claims that the ruins of the Tower of Babel exist today at the site of Borsippa and that an inscription by Nebuchadnezzar directly relates to the Babel incident. But a more authoritative source, the New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, remarks that “Some have identified the vitrified remains of the tower at Borsippa…with the abortive structure of Genesis 11, but this suggestion lacks all proof.” (2) Moreover, “Claudius Rich, as other travelers had done, imaginatively identified the ruin of Birs Nimrud with the Tower of Babel…” [emphasis mine] (3)
(2) There is poor handling of historical documents.
The writings of Josephus contain a highly disputed passage that mentions Jesus in a quite favorable light, even calling him “the Messiah”—which is in fact too favorable to Jesus for a non-Christian author such as Josephus. Many Jewish and Christian scholars therefore understand the passage to be a modification of an original statement written by Josephus, altered by Christian scribes in order to make it seem that Josephus held an opinion closer to that of Christians than he actually did. This “modification” view is held by many evangelical Christians as well as a good number of mainstream Jewish scholars. Yet on pages 92-93, Jeffrey cavalierly dismisses anyone who disagrees with his own view that the passage is original with Josephus. At the same time, he glosses over the difficulties in his own conclusion.
On page 95 Jeffrey cites the targums but his citation proves nothing. He claims that the targums “contain information about the coming Messiah although the biblical passage itself did not contain the name Messiah.” The implication is that the targums somehow provide corroborating evidence for the validity of the Christian or New Testament viewpoint. He cites “another Targum” to Exodus 12:42 (without stating which targum) which states that the Messiah goes forth from “Roma.” And where is this “Roma”? Jeffrey quotes from a 19th century writer according to whom “Roma” is a village near Nazareth. Actually, according to the new scholarly Aramaic Bible series, “Roma” is Rome. This misuse of the targum implies that it can be relied on for “evidence” about Jesus. The targums can indeed have great value in showing parallels to the way the New Testament understands the messianic prophecies. But in stating that the targums give “information” about the Messiah not present in the Bible, Jeffrey inadvertently nearly accords the targums the status of being divinely inspired.
Jeffrey’s treatment of the Dead Sea Scrolls has problems as well. A scroll describing a so-called “Pierced Messiah” made headlines in recent years as a debate ensued as to whether or not the scroll referred to a Messiah who would die. With several years of study behind them, many Jewish and Christian authorities now believe that this conclusion was premature and erroneous. Rather, many are of the opinion that the scroll refers not to a pierced Messiah or leader but to a piercing one who is victorious in battle. The vowel-less Hebrew can be read either way and we must rely on the context to reach the proper conclusion. In any event, even if the text did refer to a pierced Messiah, the scroll is not a report of Jesus—Jeffrey actually suggests (p. 100) that the scroll writer recognized Jesus as the Messiah whose death atoned for sins! He only cites Robert Eisenman, who first promulgated the theory of the pierced Messiah; he fails to cite, among others, Edwin Yamauchi (an evangelical) or Geza Vermes (a non-Christian Jewish scholar) who take a different view.
This scroll has generated so much discussion that it is worth quoting from a recent book by Edward Cook:
Even if Eisenman and Wise’s translation is correct, it would refer to the death of the Messiah in battle, not to his crucifixion or atoning self-sacrifice.…Virtually all scholars are agreed now that Eisenman and Wise’s interpretation is very likely wrong. The phrase “they put to death the Prince of the Congregation” should probably be understood as “the Prince of the Congregation put (or shall put) him [i.e. the enemy leader] to death.” Geza Vermes points out that the text seems to be presented as a fulfillment of the messianic prophecy from Isaiah 11:1-5, which contains the phrase “with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” The word translated “slay” is the same word translated “put to death” in the fragment. It is more logical to assume that the prince is portrayed as slaying the wicked rather than the other way around. (4)
Jeffrey talks about a scroll that uses the phrase “Son of God” (pp. 100-101). But he ignores the fact that the phrase already had an Old Testament history and suggests that the scroll writer was quoting from Luke. Jeffrey makes irresponsible statements about the scrolls that fail to prove his conclusions that they validate the New Testament. Rather, as Edward Cook has written, “this [Qumran] text is too ambiguous to be available to enlighten us about messianic interpretation at Qumran…[The text] probably does not refer to a Messiah, or even to a good person.” (5)
(3) Jeffrey jumps on the “Torah Code” bandwagon.
In 1994, Israeli mathematicians Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg published a statistical study of the Book of Genesis. (6) Their conclusions, based on what they called “Equidistant Letter Sequences” (ELS), have since been widely cited and discussed. The authors claim to have found within Genesis the names of thirty-two Jewish sages selected from The Encyclopedia of the Great Men in Israel, paired together with their dates of birth or death. According to their claims, there is statistical significance to these patterns such that the name/date pairs are not merely random.
The three might as well have been running a holiday sale at Macy’s for the stampede that has resulted. In the wake of their study, not only Orthodox Jews but numbers of Christians have rushed to seize on the phenomenon of “codes” as a proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration. Jewish groups like Aish ha-Torah have been offering seminars, lecturing widely on the subject to Jewish audiences in order to “prove” the divine inspiration of the Torah from an Orthodox standpoint, seeking to bring Jews to Orthodoxy. (7) Some Christians have embraced the same conclusions as evidence of the inspiration of Scripture, while still others claim to have found “Yeshua”—Jesus’ name in Hebrew—encoded in the Old Testament as evidence that he is the Messiah.
There are numerous problems with the conclusions of what I will call the “Torah Code movement,” by which I refer to those who embrace the phenomenon as real, confirmed and meaningful. Some in the Torah Code movement are more knowledgeable about mathematics and statistics; some are not. Because this aspect of Jeffrey’s book has caught the popular imagination by storm more than anything else in his book, I will address it at greater length.
One: The theory is based almost entirely on the one study by the three Israelis. Their methods and results have not been examined in sufficient detail by other statisticians nor has the experiment been properly replicated. Some have claimed the fact that the study was published in a “peer-reviewed” journal as an affirmation of the conclusions; in fact it only indicates that the research is serious but in no way minimizes the need for confirmation or correction.
Two: The conclusions popularly expressed go far beyond anything claimed by the original researchers. See the sidebar on page 6 for one of the latest examples of such conclusions.
Three: Let’s say that, in fact, certain patterns actually do exist and can be properly verified. The phenomenon still requires an explanation. It begs the question to state that the only conclusion is that God was the author of the Scripture. Someone who disbelieves in God might as well conclude that super-intelligent aliens wrote the Bible. In fact, two misstatements are found throughout Jeffrey: that the existence of the codes “proves” the existence of God and inspiration of Scripture, a non-sequitur; and that the codes “describe” future people and events. In fact, isolated names are found, but not descriptions of people or events.
Four: Even apart from rigorous testing by other statisticians, data that count against meaningful patterns have not been handled in the same way. For instance, the codes were found in Genesis but not in Isaiah. One Orthodox Jewish writer explained that this is so because the Torah claims a degree of inspiration that Isaiah does not. But one might also find this to count against the theory.
Five: Based on alleged codes, contradictory claims can be and have been made for the inspiration of not only the Torah but also the New Testament. In fact, Jeffrey devotes Chapter Eleven of his book to citing another “researcher,” Yacov Rambsel, who has allegedly found “Yeshua” encoded in the Old Testament, especially in the messianic prophecies. (8) How can it be that “codes” prove Orthodox Judaism as well as New Testament Christianity?
Six: The Torah Code movement detaches the text from the intention of the author(s). Even though Jeffrey denies that the codes provide “messages” (he claims they only provide proof of inspiration), he and others undercut this caution. The codes carry no contextual meanings. The bare word “Hitler” found encoded has no context. It makes no statement. The proponents of the codes therefore have to find a context. For instance, various words that have to do with the French Revolution, such as the Bastille and the French national anthem, are said to be found in Genesis chapters 39-41, which contain the account of Joseph’s imprisonment in Egypt. The codes are thus said to fall within portions of Scripture that in some way “match” the content of the codes. But given no expressed intention of the author, it remains for the imagination of the researcher to affirm that the codes “match” the context. In a normal text, the author and his world provide the context. In this case, the imagination of the researcher provides the context. This is deconstructive and private exegesis, not a search into the meaning of the text.
Seven: While everyone is so preoccupied with “hidden” meanings—where is the concern about the not-so-hidden message of the Bible?
Eight: In discussing the Aish ha-Torah Discovery Seminars, Jeffrey uncritically remarks (p. 219) that “numerous agnostic Jews have returned to their religious roots in orthodox Judaism as a result of their exposure to this incredible evidence of God’s inspiration of the Scriptures.” Apparently for Jeffrey it is a good thing for agnostic Jews to become Orthodox Jews (apart from the erroneous description of Orthodox Judaism as the “religious roots” of Jews). Perhaps for Jeffrey this is as good as Jews coming to believe in Jesus when they discover “Yeshua” in the Old Testament. What is to stop someone from swallowing the Aish ha-Torah and Rambsel approaches whole and concluding that all religions lead to God, since both appear to have evidence encoded within the text?
Some have claimed, with validity, that Jeffrey’s and Rambsel’s popularizations fail to use proper statistical methodology and fail to do justice to “legitimate” codes research. That is true, but it does not mean that the Israeli statisticians were necessarily right. Currently there is at least one scientist, Brendan MacKay of Australia, who is preparing a response and critique of the original codes research. As a recent New York Times article said in regard to the publication of the original Witztum-Rips-Rosenberg study:
Dr. Robert E. Kass, the executive editor of Statistical Science when the article was published and the head of the statistics department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said Tuesday that the publication of articles in the journal does not automatically mean they have been scientifically checked. “We hope that the material in them is correct,” he said, “but we also try to publish pieces that are amusing to a wide variety of statisticians.” (9)
The latest information and best critiques of the “codes” research is not found in print but on the Internet. If you have access, both of the following are valuable resources:
The e-mail discussion list TCODE. Unfortunately, it appears that subscription to this list has recently been limited and the TCODE folks are referring those interested to http://www.prophezine.com as an alternative. However, in the event the TCODE list opens back up, those who wish to subscribe might still send an e-mail message to Lori Eldridge at [email protected] or else to Frank Moldonado at [email protected]. The discussions here keep very much in touch with the latest developments.
“Mathematical Miracles in the Qur’an or the Bible?” which is part of the “Answering Islam” web site prepared by Jochen Katz. This page includes numerous links to other sites on Bible numerology and Torah codes. Additional material from Brendan MacKay is at his own site In Search of Mathematical Miracles page.
Some years ago, a book was published entitled, “How to Lie With Statistics.” Pending further research by those knowledgeable in that field, any claims made on behalf of “codes” must be regarded as unproven at best (when made by statistical researchers) and misleading and harmful at worst (when made by those who don’t know statistics but write as if they do). As to Jeffrey’s book in particular, it is a re-hash of discredited ideas, unauthoritative scholarship, and unpersuasive arguments that sound credible only because of his rhetoric and triumphal tone, not because of the facts. When it comes to numbers, he loves to snow the reader with the”odds of this happening” argument. Arguments from the odds can sound impressive to many people whether or not they prove anything or represent anything significant.
Certainly the book has moments of more sober apologetics, such as when he discusses archaeology from the period of the Kings. But Jeffrey’s mishandling of traditional apologetic topics (e.g. the evidence for Jesus) and his headlong, undiscerning rush into “codes” means that this book should be avoided by Christians seeking to learn reasons for their faith. The arguments here are irresponsible and potentially injurious to the younger and less discerning believer. The validity of God’s word does not depend on our finding hidden codes. Christians and non-Christians alike would do well to focus on the normal meaning of text as God and the human authors intended it to be read.
Shortly after this review was written, a new book had just been published entitled The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997). Preceded by much media fanfare, including full-page newspaper advertisements and plans for TV talk shows, this trendy new book only underscores the need for caution and clear thinking in the area of “Torah codes.” A May 30 Reuters report reads, “Trumpeted with full page advertisements in publications such as the New York Times, ‘The Bible Code’ has been snapped up in Hollywood by Warner Brothers, which sees it as a perfect vehicle for those who like their ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ flavored with large doses of Nostradamus-style predictions.”
The Bible Code goes far beyond the claims of the Israeli mathematicians. Among other claims made by Drosnin, we are told that the Torah predicted the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Drosnin thinks the Torah “codes” can in fact be used to predict future events.
A short review of Drosnin’s book by Harold Gans, a retired mathematician formerly with the U.S. Department of Defense, dated June 3, 1997, appeared online in the TCODE mailing list. Gans’ sober conclusion should be nailed to the walls in the homes of many people:
“A plethora of books have appeared over the last several months, concerning the codes. Unless the work is reviewed by qualified scientists or mathematicians, the reader accepts such a book at his own risk.”
- To be fair, perhaps Jeffrey knew Rabbi Akiva’s statement that “masoret is a fence for the Torah” in Avot 3:13; but though the Masoretic text might function as a fence, that is not the meaning of “masorah.”
- New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, edited by Edward R. Blaiklock and R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), “Babel, Tower of.”
- Ibid., “Borsippa.”
- Cook, Edward. Solving the Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls: New Light on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 161.
- Ibid., p. 170.
- “Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis,” Statistical Science 9:3 (1994): 429-38.
- Lest the reviewer be taken to task on this statement, an online remark from Sam Fink on the TCODE mailing list: “Aish HaTorah does not hold `Codes seminars.’ Aish HaTorah gives privately funded one or two day Discovery seminars whose purpose is to encourage assimilated Jews to re-examine the beauty of their own heritage. Codes is only one small part of the Discovery Seminar.” Whether or not the codes form the primary component of the Discovery seminars, one imagines that for many they form the most convincing part.
- Rambsel, Yacov A. Yeshua: The Name of Jesus Revealed in the Old Testament. Toronto: Frontier Research Publications, Inc., 1996. The foreword—misspelled “forward” on the cover—is by Grant Jeffrey.
- “New Book Claims Code in Bible Predicts World Events,” by Frank Bruni. In the METRO edition of the New York Times, May 29, 1997, page B6, as cited in the TCODE e-mail list, article by Brendan MacKay, May 30, 1997.