Bro. Jack Robinson is a lecturer in statistics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. This month’s comments are prompted by the occasional Christadelphian use of the work of Ivan Panin to prove the inspiration of scripture. As Bro. Jack points out, we should not use Panin’s work to this end. – Editor
Almost two years ago, Michael Drosnin’s book the Bible Code attracted a lot of media attention. Although his “biblical discoveries” could not have been “revealed” until the computer age, for centuries curious men have expended considerable effort searching the scriptures for various coded messages from God. Reflecting on the “success” of Drosnin and others, we can only sorrow that they wasted so much time “discovering” ambiguous if not trivial messages. How much better it would have been for them to have spent their time concentrating and applying the Bible’s outward message to their lives. Their superficial familiarity with a coded scripture text has gained them but a moment’s fame, instead of a share in the promises to Abraham that we seek.
Panin and his work
While these recent efforts have gained some headlines and our attention, Drosnin was not the first to claim the Bible contained a hidden code. In 1882, Ivan Panin immigrated to the United States and eventually to Ancaster, Ontario, from Russia. In 1890, he claimed to have made a startling biblical discovery. It was not about hidden Bible messages, rather it was about numerical patterns that he said permeated all inspired scripture but not other literature. Panin publicized his discoveries in the New York Sun (Nov. 19, 1899), in a letter to the editor entitled: “The Inspiration of the Scriptures Scientifically Demonstrated.”
The patterns Panin discovered in scripture involved chiefly the number seven. Had he placed an emphasis on almost any other number, it is doubtful if anyone would have paid attention to his “discovery.” His emphasis on seven made his claims seem more believable because of the prominence of the number seven in the plain text of scripture, especially the increased frequency in the Revelation.
Yet consider that although numerical patterns of seven are very numerous in the scriptures, those based on lesser numbers would be expected to occur with even greater frequency. One out of three features examined could be expected to yield a pattern of threes, while only one out of seven would be expected to yield sevens. (For example: in every verse the total number of words is divisible by 1; in every other verse it is divisible by 2; in every third verse you would expect the words to be divisible by three, 3,6,9,12; in every fourth verse by four, 4,8,12,16; etc.). Consider then a sample of the evidence Panin advances for the inspiration of scriptures. Also bear in mind that for every seven features he inspects, one would be expected to succeed (i.e., involve a multiple of seven).
An example from Matthew 1
Matthew 1:18-25, is a passage about the birth of Christ. Panin informs us (we can check for ourselves, he says, though his calculations are complex and subjective) that this passage (in Greek) contains 161 words, or 23 sevens (feature 1), which occur in 105 forms, or 15 sevens (feature 2), with a vocabulary of 77 words, itself 11 sevens (feature 3), with the sum of its figures 14, or 2 sevens (feature 4), divided between the units and tens by seven (feature 5) etc. Eventually after enumerating ten features involving the number seven, Panin says this is sufficient to establish that there is a numerical design embedded in the Greek text (i.e. sufficient evidence to consider the passage inspired).
Most of these features are difficult for an amateur to check. The number of words refers to the Greek words; classification into vocabulary, forms and figures require a knowledge of Greek, and compilations of this data are subject to the investigator’s discretion. Thus, the ordinary reader cannot verify any but the simplest feature of the reported pattern of sevens. Moreover, Panin warns the reader that there are many pitfalls into which the inexperienced handler of Bible numerics is likely to fall. In particular, to verify any but the simplest of features requires the authentic Greek text which Panin himself published: The Numeric Greek New Testament (1934).
Although Panin is correct in restricting the investigation to the original Greek, the necessity of a set vocabulary (his) again gives him a high profile in identification of features involving vocabulary words. Oddly enough, the vocabulary he arrives at for the NT contains 5,304 words (not a multiple of 7) while Strong lists 5,523 words (789 sevens) in his Strong’s Concordance. Thus to begin the layman must decide which is the true vocabulary (Panin’s or Strong’s).
Examining the Old Testament evidence
For the Hebrew things are no better. Take for example the opening words of scripture (necessarily given in English).
Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
In Hebrew this verse contains 7 words (feature 1) that have 14 syllables (feature 2) and 28 letters (feature 3). Words containing the subject and predicate have 14 letters and the last four words the object (feature 4). This time Panin persists until he has discovered 25 features (some rather exotic) involving seven. To Panin this outcome was absolute proof of its inspiration.
How was Panin able to find 25 features in such a short passage? The answer is that he probably examined many more and reported only those that succeeded. Theoretically to find 25 he need only to have examined a total of 175 features since by chance one in seven would succeed. Counting any feature of seven he finds (the number of possibilities is large) he is certain to succeed in finding ten features with any passage of reasonable length. Finding the 25 features of Genesis 1:1 would not require an unreasonable effort for someone so convinced that God had purposely placed the pattern of sevens in inspired text. In fact, in 40 years, Panin was able to cover a lot of the scriptures and he produced some 40,000 pages of numeric notes.
Panin’s findings would be more striking if what he found in each verse followed the same pattern. Yet Genesis 1:2 contains 52 letters (not a multiple of 7) and he fails to find many of the features belonging to the pattern of Genesis 1:1. Should we then conclude Genesis 1:2 is not inspired or did God set out a different numerical pattern in verse two? Since Panin had so many features of seven to choose from, he would quickly find his self-imposed ten features of seven in almost any verse.
Going too far
Eventually Panin’s research led him to claim that numerics (as he called it) was capable of establishing whether or not any passage of scripture was inspired. The proof Panin said was based on the fact that inspired scriptures contained so many patterns of seven that the probability of it happening by chance was extremely small. Not a page, paragraph or sentence in the whole Bible, he said, fails to show elaborate numeric designs. Yet what he found was not all that impressive since frequently to find ten patterns of seven, a sufficient number to claim that it was inspired, it required investigating approximately 70 features.
What is extremely objectionable about Panin’s methodology is that he multiplies reciprocals of numbers together to obtain what he claims are the probability of the features he finds occurring by chance. Thus if there are seven words in a verse (feature 1) and 14 syllables (feature 2) the chance of this happening is 1/7 x 1/7 = 1/49. So if 10 features are discovered, Panin suggests the odds of this occurring is 1/282,475,249; furthermore Panin suggests that these odds (less than one in a hundred million) are sufficient to establish the text as inspired.
As a result of applying false assumptions, the probabilities obtained by Panin are considerably lower than the actual probabilities (if in fact we are justified in using the term probability in Panin’s context and especially with God’s word). Thus what Panin perceives to be irrefutable evidence for inspiration because of the low probability of the features he identifies, are not nearly as improbable as he would have us believe. If they were this improbable, it would be fair to ask how he found them in the first place. Since he found so many, they must be common and a little common sense tells us that one in seven features he examined would be a multiple of seven.
An everyday example
For example, when I began to write this article I was sitting in a blue chair (1 of 28 – 4 x 7 – chairs in our house – feature 1) on a Tuesday (one of 7 days in the week – feature 2). Counting the dogs, there were seven present (feature 3). There were 14 light bulbs in the room (feature 4). The computer used for word processing this article had 28 normal sized keys in the upper two rows (feature 5). So according to Panin’s reasoning, if I wanted to continue finding a sufficiently large list of features of seven (he says 10 is enough), the probability of my writing this article under these “unusual” circumstances would be extremely small. No one I know would consider this analysis to be a convincing argument, yet Panin’s analysis of Bible numerics has much in common with the above.
Reaching wrong conclusions
Panin is convinced, however, that this method works and even states the following in his Introduction to The Numeric Greek New Testament page xxix: “The reader may now be prepared to be told that not a single question can be raised about the text of the Bible but can be settled by Bible numerics. Thus, in the absence of punctuation in the manuscripts, numerics alone give certainty where the contents leaves in many cases the proper place of a comma doubtful.”
Panin illustrates his “magic” using a passage from Luke: “Verily I say unto thee to day thou shalt be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). By placing the comma after “thee,” Panin finds an unusual pattern of sixes, elevens and nineteens in the phrase “today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” However, if the comma is placed after “today,” the absence of any numeric pattern enables Panin to say the comma must be placed after “thee.” For one who believes in heaven going this would undoubtedly be the “right” answer. For those who put their faith in the promises to Abraham, this is yet another indication that Panin’s numeric method can’t be trusted.
There are many reasons to regard this type of searching of God’s Holy word as a waste of time and perhaps even blasphemous. Nowhere do the scriptures suggest that a study of numerics can enrich our faith or establish inspiration. Instead they make the claim directly: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16).
Surely Paul would also have mentioned the use of Bible numerics to Timothy if it were of any value.