FAQ: Vowel Play in Code Translations?

We received this letter from a subscriber earlier this year:

I was glad to discover your site recently, as I have a question on Hebrew and the Bible Codes. I have a friend who is a Hebrew and Greek professor at a Christian seminary, and below was his response to my query on what he thinks of the Bible Code controversy. Not knowing any Hebrew myself, I wondered what a "believer" in the Bible Codes, who understands Hebrew and the Codes research, might say in response to his comments below. Do you or someone you know have a good response to his comments? Thanks for your help!

    Why does the New Testament not "work" in relation to the supposed "codes" but the Old Testament does seem to work? The answer is simple, and it is the presence of vowels in the Greek which are not part of the Hebrew consonantal text.

    As soon as you remove the vowels from anything, you have endless possibilities of interpretation, and this is the fallacy in the whole Bible Code issue. In English, for example, TH WRD F GD could as easily be read as The Weird if Good or The Word of God. It gets worse when letters are run together, so that GDSNWHRE can be God Is Nowhere, God is Now Here, Goods Now Here, Gouda Sinew He Are, Go Do Sin Where, Good Sin Whore, etc. So also with the Hebrew consonantal text if vowels are left out—the proverbial Bible as a "nose of wax" comes strongly into play with the Bible Code nonsense once you allow any possible vowels to fill in the blanks.

    On the other hand, the Masoretic scribes did add marks to indicate the proper vowels which should be associated with each letter. But if these clearly correct vowels were considered equally a part of the Hebrew text by the Bible Code people, their entire case would collapse, since all their claims no longer would make sense. And all Hebrew scholars understand that the vowels are considered as implicit parts of the Hebrew text, even if not printed in synagogue scrolls; so it will not do to claim that the Bible Code can feel free to ignore them. Basically each letter of the Hebrew text must be taken with its implicit vowel if the Bible Code people want to claim any credibility. They won't do this because it simply won't work.

    On the other hand, were one to remove all vowels from the Greek text of the NT, the same "Bible Code" phenomenon could exist, since without vowels, almost anything could be made out of any combination of consonants based on a computer counting letters at equidistance intervals. I'll bet my name is in the consonantal Greek NT, and it
    probably crosses a path that reads "Bible Code Debunker."

    Bottom line, there is absolutely nothing in the Bible Code to warrant even a second glance, and this applies whether you read Drosnin or Satinover, or the self-proclaimed "Christian expert" Grant Jeffrey (all of which I would avoid, since they don't know what they are talking about).

Here is our answer:

In response to the comments of the seminary professor, I would first point you to the "Just the FAQs" column from the April 2002 issue of Bible Code Digest:

Q: Isn't it true that you can find whatever you want as a Bible code because there are no vowels in Hebrew?

A: This is a line of thinking that has been put forth by various critics of Bible codes. In particular, it is the foundation of the arguments against the codes put forth by Phil Stanton, The Bible Code, Fact or Fake? (1997, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL). In making this argument, it is noted that for two consonants in English, several words can be formed by inserting the various possible vowels in between. For example, from S and N, one can suppose that this could be any one of eight different words: sane, seen, seine, sin, sine, son, soon or sun.

It is true that Hebrew is a very terse language without vowels. But the argument that this makes it an ideal vehicle for extracting codes that appear substantive, but in actuality are only the wish fulfillment of the person searching for something, is actually way overdone. The implicit assumption in Stanton's arguments is that Hebrew would offer as many opportunities to form truly different words from the same pairs or triplets of consonants as is true in English. This assumption, however, is inaccurate and misleading.

It doesn't matter whether one believes that Hebrew was a language created by God or by people. Neither potential language creator would design a language that lent itself to as much ambiguity and confusion as would be the case if each pair or triplet of consonants represented as many different words. Or, as would be the case if all possible vowel combinations were allowed from a different language with five vowels (such as English).

The author of a language without vowels would naturally want to have each grouping of consonants have only one or two possible distinct meanings. This is much less than would be the case for corresponding examples from a group of consonants in English. In our above example, a more accurate parallel to Hebrew would be that the pair of consonants (SN) would likely stand for only one or two distinct words.

To typically have any given short string of consonants stand for more than a few unrelated things would be to create a needless level of ambiguity and confusion. As an example, the two Hebrew letters, Sheen-Noon, are listed in a Hebrew dictionary as having the following possible definitions: ivory, tooth, prong, jag, dent and tine. Now some of these words are obviously quite similar or related in meaning, and which one was meant would likely be evident from the context in which they were found. Contrast to our English example above, where there are eight different possible words that SN could represent, and all of them are clearly quite different and unrelated in meaning.

So we see that this argument of the skeptics, though intuitively appealing at first, lacks the real substance that its proponents would like it to have.

Now some specific comments on the professor's arguments.

The professor starts by pointing out a feature of Hebrew that is quite different from that of English, i.e., that there are no vowels. He then switches to implicitly assuming that Hebrew is very much like English when he uses some amusing examples from English that are very largely not applicable to Hebrew.

I must also disagree with the professor's third paragraph, which begins with the sentence, "On the other hand, the Massoretic scribes did add marks to indicate the proper vowels that should be associated with each letter." It is not true that just one specific vowel marking is associated with each Hebrew letter. Early texts of the Hebrew Bible did not include vowel markings, in part because the vowels were understood since specific vowels were assumed for each specific word, which appeared as a string of two or three or four consonants. The vowel markings were added later as an aid to those who might be slow in recalling which vowel markings should be associated with a specific word that appears as a string of consonants. Granted, it is also true that the vowel markings were added to reduce the possibility of ambiguity in those limited number of cases where a given set of consonants could be taken to represent two different words, and it was possibly not clear from the context which of those words was intended.

The professor ends that paragraph with a repeat of his incorrect assumptions: "Basically each letter of the Hebrew text must be taken with its implicit vowel if the Bible Code people want to claim any credibility. They won't do this because it simply won't work." It is hard to see how the professor could believe that all Bible Code researchers are that stupid about Hebrew since most of them are Israelis who know Hebrew quite well.

This is not to say that there isn't some truth in the professor's examples in his second paragraph. In the process of working with an unbroken string of consonants and with the freedom to insert spaces at will, there are many situations where ambiguity exists. This fact, however, doesn't invalidate all Bible codes, but instead is supportive of the fact that the "translation" of a given code is quite subject to alternative interpretations and therefore is not reliable in its specific content.

This presents a serious problem for those code advocates who believe that it is possible to confidently make predictions using codes, but it presents no problem at all to code supporters such as BCD. We maintain that the real purpose of codes is not to impart new information or truth but to merely serve as a form of authentication of the super-human authorship of the Hebrew Bible.

All that said, it is simply not true that "as soon as you remove the vowels from anything, you have endless possibilities of interpretation." The possibilities are actually quite limited, though they do exist with some frequency.

Ed Sherman


Hebrew Without Vowels

By Nathan Jacobi

The debate between the "Hebrew expert" and Ed Sherman is quite amusing from the perspective of anybody with fluent knowledge of the language. The debaters, displaying little or no knowledge of the language, discuss the role of vowels in Hebrew by discussing the irrelevant issue of what would happen to English if the vowels were dropped. In this respect there is no similarity between the two languages. While in English the vowels are essential letters of the language, in Hebrew they are not letters, only markers serving as an auxiliary tools while one studies the language. To this day these marks are used only by young school children or adults starting the study of Hebrew.

The statement that by dropping the vowels you have endless possibilities is sheer nonsense, and demonstrates that little knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge. With the aid of grammar and context Hebrew, being compact and accurate in nature, easily takes care of some possible ambiguities, as correctly pointed out by Ed Sherman in his concluding paragraph. Is the "expert" unaware the Bible, Talmud, all of Jewish literature, history, literature, law, culture, etc., have been formulated by the version without vowels? Common sense and basic grammar have saved the day during the last few millennia.

An interesting example is the well-known 22-letter Jesus code in Isaiah 53. Four of its seven words read "Mei-al Yeshua Shmi Az," meaning ‘Over Jesus My Name Is Mighty’. Instead, one "critic" read it as "Ma-al Yeshua Shmi Eiz," meaning ‘Jesus has betrayed, my name is she-goat,' which is nothing short of absurd. Only modest knowledge of the language is required to eliminate these "brilliancies," that are grammatically correct, but logically nonsensical.

The bottom-line comment that "Drosnin, Satinover, and Grant Jeffrey don’t know what they are talking about," only indicates that our "expert" is actually pointing the finger at himself.

One interesting point brought in this discussion is whether the NT contains codes. The truth is that we do not know. Taking the two best Hebrew translations, one into Biblical Hebrew, and the more recent modern Hebrew translation by the Bible Society in Israel, might shed some very interesting light on this issue.

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