Hidden messages in Scripture?
Published: 25 August 2011 (GMT+10)
Throughout Christian history, people have looked for hidden messages in Scripture. Sometimes this took the form of allegorical interpretation, where the historical meaning was secondary to the higher ‘spiritual’ meaning. Sometimes numerology played into it. Apocalyptic literature has been especially subjected to a ‘magic decoder ring’ hermeneutic, as people have speculated for 2,000 years who the Beast is, and when Jesus will return. Any book talking about a ‘hidden message’ in Scripture or a ‘Bible code’ is guaranteed to be a best-seller. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a best-seller because it challenged the plain meaning of Scripture by introducing a ‘hidden’ element (as well as his revisionism about the Canon—see the articles under What about the claims of The Da Vinci Code?).
The first ‘hidden message’ hermeneutic
The first people to claim that there was a message beyond the plain words of Scripture were the Gnostics. They claimed that there was a higher message in Scripture that only the enlightened could understand (their name comes from γνῶσις gnōsis, the Greek word for ‘knowledge’). There is evidence that some form of proto-gnosticism developed within the lifetime of the apostles—John especially seemed to fight against a form of gnosticism in his epistles.
The Gnostics denied the physical resurrection, and depending on the variety, some denied that God ever really became human. To the extent that Christ still existed in gnosticism, salvation wasn’t through Him, but through the true knowledge which enabled people to escape the physical world. Probably to counter some form of this belief, in John’s first epistle, he adapts his prologue from his Gospel to reassert the physical nature of Jesus who, he says, “we looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1).
John dismantles the core beliefs of this heresy—Jesus was a physical person, and the thing from which humanity needs to be saved is sin, not ignorance. Some scholars think that the proto-Gnostics misused John’s Gospel to develop their heresy, which included giving new meaning and significance to key terms in that Gospel; and that John in his epistle is now reclaiming the language they’ve co-opted in order to argue strongly against their views.
This form of interpretation is not usually associated with heresy, as those who use it do not usually deny the plain meaning of Scripture. Rather, they assert that it is of secondary importance to the ‘spiritual meaning’ of the text.
As F.F. Bruce noted: “If commentators are not content to confine themselves to the literal and surface meaning, their symbolic interpretations are likely to reflect their own mode of thinking rather than the evangelist’s intention.”1 He gives the example of Origen’s interpretation of the Samaritan woman’s five husbands (John 4:18) as the five senses, “by which the human soul is governed before it comes to faith in Christ, although elsewhere he [Origen] takes them to mean the five books of the law, which the Samaritans acknowledged as canonical.”
When a text’s plain meaning is neglected in favor of an allegorical interpretation, it can be used to teach practically anything the interpreter wants to use it for. It also means that important historical questions are overlooked, as in practice allegory always tends to gloss over difficulties of harmonization, etc. For instance, if the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple is interpreted allegorically, it makes no difference whether it happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as in John, or near the end as in the Synoptics (or, the solution I prefer, if there were two separate cleansings of the Temple, one at the beginning and one just before the end).
The important difference between the allegorical interpretations of some of the early Christian interpreters and various heresies is “the insistence that all interpretation must conform with ‘the analogy of faith’—this apostolic expression (Rom. 12:6) being understood of ‘the faith’ in its objective sense, as the body of accepted church doctrine.”2 In other words, an allegorical interpretation could not contradict something that was plainly taught in Scripture; for instance, the Church Fathers would reject as invalid an allegorical interpretation which taught salvation through works, or which denied the deity of Christ. But other than this rule, it is hard to tell the heretical allegory from the orthodox.
The primacy of the plain meaning
Some early church fathers taught a plain meaning. For example, in the 4th century, Basil the Great taught:
“I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel” [Rom. 1:16].”3
But others resorted to more and more fanciful allegorizing. It was not until the late 15th century that Colet and Erasmus broke from tradition and started teaching the biblical text “in terms of its plain meaning as seen in its historical context.”4 In the 16th century, Martin Luther insisted: “We must keep to the simple, pure and natural sense of the words, as demanded by grammar and the use of language created by God among men.”5 Commenting on Genesis, Luther wrote:
“He [Moses] calls ‘a spade a spade’, i.e. he employs the terms ‘day’ and ‘evening’ without Allegory, just as we customarily do … we assert that Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e. that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit.”6
While Catholics were the first to realize that Scripture must be interpreted by the plain meaning, it was the Reformation scholars who took the idea to its logical conclusion with their doctrine of sola scriptura. Scholars have taken the basic principles of grammatical-historical interpretation and refined them, and using them we can find out what the author intended, and what would have been communicated to the original audience given the cultural context.
The ‘magic decoder ring’ of theistic evolution
One of the principles of the Protestant Reformation was that the Bible should be interpreted in the plainest sense, informed by the context and genre of the passage. But the method of interpretation employed by theistic evolutionists more closely parallels allegory. It actually goes further, though, because at least allegory affirmed the historical meaning of the text, even if it was subsumed beneath the theological meaning, while theistic evolutionists deny that the first several chapters of Genesis have any correspondence to events which actually happened. Instead, they use the ‘magic decoder ring’ of modern science to read into the text meanings that totally escaped previous generations.
Symbolism and numerology in Scripture
Everyone realizes that there are some symbolic sections in Scripture—for instance, Revelation and the Old Testament apocalyptic passages in Ezekiel, Daniel and others are filled with imagery. That is, what the authors saw in the visions was symbolic. The visions communicated truth, but not always in a literal way (though they could, and sometimes did). The New Testament has examples of allegorical parables (such as the Parable of the Soils, for which Jesus gives an allegorical interpretation), and Paul interprets Hagar and Sarah allegorically in Galatians—but without denying the historical nature and content of the accounts.
There are also symbolic numbers in the Bible. Many recognize that the majority of the numbers in Revelation have symbolic meaning (as is typical in apocalyptic writing), and numbers such as 7 and 12 in Scripture often have symbolism behind them—the former representing completeness since Creation Week was 7 days (6 days of creation plus 1 day of rest) and the latter the twelve tribes of Israel, or sometimes in the New Testament the twelve apostles. But if a number has a special significance, that will be plain from the context—sometimes 7 is just 7. And sometimes plain multiples of a number can have significance; it is possible that the 144,000 in Revelation (12 x 12 x 1,000) is symbolic of the complete people of God for instance. But again, such significance based on multiplication or addition must be clear from the context. To use a ridiculous example, one would not say, “The boy had 5 loaves and 2 fish—this adds up to 7, which is a special number of completeness.”
Bible codes—distraction from the main message
If we believe that there are codes hidden in Scripture, we may become so caught up in trying to find them that we neglect the plain meaning of Scripture, just as the allegorical interpretations of Scripture invariably took precedence over the historical meaning.
It also poses a problem for the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture (that Scripture was written to be intelligible to its contemporary audience). If I discover a new ‘Bible code’, what I’m essentially saying is that I have uncovered a revelation from God that God’s people couldn’t have known—for over 3,000 years since the first books of Scripture were written.
Many of the Bible codes, if applied consistently, give unbiblical messages. For instance, one of the best-known ‘Bible codes’ can allegedly predict some future events, but it also says things like “Mohammed is the Messiah” and “Yeshua is not the Messiah”. Clearly, God would not inspire a code that contradicts the plain message of Scripture. And it is unclear whether any of these codes represent phenomena that wouldn’t be apparent in any piece of literature of sufficient length.
Bible codes have an especially notorious track record when it comes to predicting end times events. Pretty much every unpopular religious or political figure has been called the Antichrist at some point, and there is a 2,000-year track record of wrong predictions for the date of the Second Coming.
Stick to what’s inspired
The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture states that God has revealed in Scripture everything necessary for faith and practice. This by itself should stop wrongheaded attempts to divine hidden messages in Scripture—we don’t need them, what’s revealed in the plain words is enough. There’s no need for ‘magic decoder ring’ hermeneutics; at best, it’s a distraction from what should be our focus, and at worst, it is directly contradictory to the plain meaning of the text.
- F. F. Bruce, “The History of New Testament Study” in New Testament Interpretation: Essays in Principles and Methods, I. Howard Marshall, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 21–59, p. 23. Return to text.
- Bruce, ref. 1, p. 28. Return to text.
- Hexaëmeron IX:1. Return to text.
- Bruce ref. 1, p. 30. Return to text.
- Quoted in Bruce, ref. 1, p. 31. Return to text.
- Martin Luther; in: Pelikan, J., Ed., Luther’s Works, Lectures on Genesis Chapters 1–5, 1:6, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1958. Return to text.