On New Year’s Eve 2016, a friend introduced me to the term bereshit, Hebrew for “in the beginning.” It is the first word of the bible, and is believed by some to contain a secret message concerning the crucifixion of Christ. The bereshit argument is therefore also called the “Jesus in Genesis 1:1” theory.
The theory goes like this: Hebrew letters have special meanings, and when you examine the meanings of the six letters in bereshit (beyt-resh-aleph-shin-yud-tav) they form a sentence: “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.”
I told my friend I was skeptical but would research it, and later came across this graphic and this video (minutes 10:00 to 17:00). Both assert the following meanings or associations of the letters: beyt (house, tent), resh (first person, head), aleph (God), shin (consume, destroy, teeth), yud (hand, arm, works), and tav (covenant, mark, cross). Beyt and resh, when combined, make the word “son.” So the bereshit sequence can supposedly be read “son-God-destroy-hand-cross,” or “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.”
I reached out to some of today’s most respected and renowned Old Testament scholars to determine the merits of the bereshit theory. I also spoke to John E. Kostik, a well-traveled Christian speaker, who created the video. He informed me that proving bereshit theory was as simple as looking up the meanings of Hebrew letters, which have matching Hebrew words. “Bereshit begins with the letter beyt. The Hebrew word for ‘house’ is beyt!”
I remembered a question John Goldingay, professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, posited to me earlier that day: “Why would no one have seen it for thousands of years?” So I asked Kostik why web information on it is relatively sparse and why many pastors and believers don’t know about it. He said that because the original language of Hebrew is not widely known, and because Jewish scholars do not view Christ as the messiah and therefore do not have open eyes, the spread of this knowledge has been limited. I asked for sources on the topic, and Kostik directed me to Jeff A. Benner’s work.
Like Kostik (and myself), Benner is not a professional scholar. He works for an engineering company and lives in a log cabin, but like Kostik studying ancient Hebrew is his passion. He documents his studies on his website, which he dubbed the Ancient Hebrew Research Center. While disappointed not to find a university professor with findings published in peer-reviewed journals, that was the source I was given so I pressed on.
The first task was to see if the ancient Hebrew word for “house” indeed had the same name as the first letter in bereshit.
The definitions below with ancient Hebrew lettering are both from Benner’s site, with a Strong’s Concordance number to crosscheck. Definitions without ancient Hebrew lettering are from Strong’s Concordance alone. Hebrew words are read right to left.
(ba-yit): House. (The structure or the family, as a household that resides within the house. A housing. Within.) Strong’s 1004.
(rosh): Head. (The top of the body. A person in authority or role of leader. The top, beginning, or first of something.) Strong’s 7218.
(a-luph): Chief. (Accorded highest rank or office; of greatest importance, significance, or influence. One who is yoked to another to lead and teach.) Strong’s 441.
(sheyn): Tooth. (Hard bony appendages on the jaws used for chewing food and forming of sounds when talking.) Strong’s 8127/8128.
(yad): Hand. (The terminal, functional part of the forelimb. Hand with the ability to work, throw and give thanks.) Strong’s 3027.
Not pictured (tav): Frowardness (perverse thing) or mark (from tavah, Strong’s 8427). Strong’s 8420/8420a.
These then needed to be compared to the letters themselves. Here are Benner’s descriptions of the early Hebrew letters:
(beyt, today ב): image of a house, tent
(resh, today ר): image of a man’s head
(aleph, today א): image of an ox’s head
(shin, today ש): image of two front teeth
(yud, today י): image of arm and hand
(tav, today ת): image of crossed sticks
You will notice the names of these Hebrew letters are indeed virtually the same as the Hebrew words above. We will get back to this.
Initial problems with the bereshit argument become evident fairly quickly. First, assuming these letters represent the items asserted, bereshit reads “house-head-chief-tooth-hand-mark [or perverse thing].” Benner himself does not include “God,” “consume,” “destroy,” “works,” “covenant,” or “cross” as definitions!
If we open the scope of the meanings to include Strong’s (Exhaustive Concordance), that gives us:
- House (court, door, dungeon, family, forth of, great as would contain, hangings)
- Head (band, captain, company)
- Chief (captain, duke, chief friend, governor, guide, ox; chief is actually not included under a-luph here)
- Tooth (crag, forefront, ivory, sharp)
- Hand (be able, about, armholes, at, axletree, because of, beside, border)
- Mark (very froward thing, perverse thing, desire, signature)
And still the key words are missing. “House-head-chief-tooth-hand-mark” is not all that close to the original bereshit claim. Even skipping Strong’s translations and using only Benner’s, a wide range of secret messages can be conjured. “Family-leader-yoked teacher-tooth-hand-perverse thing” is an equally valid secret message in the first word of the bible!
Key words necessary for the bereshit argument are simply assumed without basis. Aleph, while having to do with leader, has nothing to do with God, as confirmed by my scholars. Notice a noun is transformed into a verb in the conversion of “tooth” to “destroy”! It’s merely “inferring a verb,” says John J. Collins, professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School.
When I raised to John Kostik the fact that these words were missing, he sent me an image that depicted shin standing for destruction in another word, but could not provide a source. “Maybe common sense is to be employed,” he said, adding, “God doesn’t have to source everything through man. God is the source.” I pointed out common sense could also make shin stand for dental hygiene. I did not receive a reply.
You’ll notice “son” is missing here. As explained above, one must combine the first two letters to create “son.” Beyt and resh can join to form the word bar, son (Strong’s 1247). Thus, bereshit can at best be read “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark,” according to Benner’s definitions at least. Or “son-most important-tooth-hand-perverse thing” if you prefer.
Of course, opening the door to letter combinations, rather than moving bereshit closer to validation, can move it farther away. As before, many combinations and words, and thus secret messages, are possible. Beyt-resh-aleph could form bara’ (choose, Strong’s 1254). Resh-aleph could be used for the name Ra. We could combine shin-yud-tav to create shith (to put or set, Strong’s 7896). Yud-tav could form yath (whom, Strong’s 3487). Therefore, “The house of Ra is set” is an equally valid secret message in the first word of the bible, if not superior.
“I actually find this use of the Bible scary,” says Mark S. Smith, professor of Old Testament Language and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary, “because it ends [up] being made into meanings that its creators want, and not what the Bible really says.” A similar sentiment was expressed to me by Michael V. Fox, professor emeritus at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, John Goldingay (“One can prove almost anything by this method”), and Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary (“Sound[s] more like nonsense to me, pressing to [see] what is not there”).
Further, we must be sure to note there are no prepositions or verb tenses with bereshit. My example at best could be “house-Ra-set.” There is no “the,” “of,” or “is.” Same with “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.” There’s no “the” or “of” or “is” or “by” or “his” or “own” or “on.” Where do bereshit believers get any pieces beyond “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark”? One could just as easily assert the meaning “The son isn’t chief until his tooth and hand are marked.” Even if we had “son-god-destroyed-hand-cross” there would still be room to create other narratives, for instance: “My son God destroyed when his hands formed a cross.” He crossed his arms and a city exploded. And of course, even if prepositions and verbs formed a complete “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross” there would remain the possibility that this was first discovered by some first-century A.D. scribe who then invented a story of Jesus to “fulfill the prophesy.” But no matter. While “son-god-destroyed-hand-cross” would be intriguing indeed, “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark” is the best we have.
I reached out to ask Benner if he was a bereshit believer. He replied, “I personally do not believe that secret messages are encoded in specific words of the Bible.”
However, Benner’s website does associate letters with certain meanings. Yet the scholars I spoke to were adamant that ancient Hebrew letters should not be viewed as “standing for” something. Ron Hendel, professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at UC-Berkeley, says of shin, “It’s just a letter of the alphabet. It doesn’t stand for anything except the sound ‘sh.'” This is because ancient Hebrew was never pictographic (where symbols represent things), it was phonetic (where symbols — letters — represent sounds).
Early Hebrew letters (Paleo-Hebrew) came from the older Phoenician alphabet (“phonetic” is not a coincidence), which had 22 letters, all consonants, just like its Hebrew offspring. The Phoenicians lived along the Syrian, Lebanese, and northern Israeli coast, and spread their alphabet across the Mediterranean regions, setting the stage for the development of Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and later English.
In the phonetic Hebrew language the crossed sticks symbol, tav, represented only the “t” sound, as in “toy.” In a similar way, the Greek letter tau makes the “t” sound. English doesn’t generally spell out its letter names, but one could say the English tee makes the “t” sound. There is no evidence that the ox head, the crossed sticks, the man’s head, nor the others were actually used by the Hebrews in a pictographic way, where if one wanted to write the word house one would draw beyt. You had to use letters to form words, like (ba-yit) above. And no one thought the word “house” contained the secret code of “house-arm-mark”! You were simply using three letters to make a “bh” sound, “y” sound, and “t” sound to make a word.
“The letters never really ‘meant’ those things” to the Hebrews, says Molly Zahn, associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, “because the whole point of an alphabet of only a limited number of letters (22 in the case of Hebrew) is to represent sounds, not ideas.” Pictographic languages like hieroglyphics require hundreds — thousands — of signs to be at all useful.
Other societies, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, did use pictographic language for a time (think hieroglyphics and cuneiform), but there is no evidence the Hebrews did. The best evidence points to the first Hebrew writing system being an offshoot of the Phoenician script, which aligns neatly with the evidence that the Hebrew people themselves were an offshoot of the Canaanites, a group that included the Phoenicians.
Now, that does not mean the symbols used by the Hebrews were never used in a pictographic way — they were just never used in a pictographic way by the Hebrews. There is no evidence (“None whatsoever,” emphasized Victor H. Matthews, dean of Religious Studies at Missouri State University) that the Hebrews as an independent people used a pictographic language; they were likely already armed with a Canaanite phonetic language upon their formation. We thus arrive at this question of how it is the names of these Hebrew letters are essentially the same as the words of the everyday objects they were modeled on. This phenomenon has certainly made the bereshit argument seem plausible to some.
If we were to look back in time, before the Hebrews existed, before Phoenicia developed its groundbreaking alphabet, we would likely see the people of the region using pictograms of objects. As Zahn explains, they used the image of an ox’s head to mean an alpu (ox) and a little house drawing to represent a ba-yit. These were eventually used by the first phonetic thinkers to represent sounds, specifically these words’ first syllables, the “ah” and “b” sounds. A drawing of an ox came to represent not an ox but a sound, a letter. It was a sound and letter that would then be used to create a brand new, multi-letter word for ox. That’s the transition from pictographic to phonetic language. Alpu evolved into different forms — aleph (Phoenician, Hebrew), alpha (Greek), alif (Arabic); so did ba-yit — beth (Phoenician), beyt (Hebrew), beta (Greek, today more vita), ba (Arabic), and so on. So it should not be surprising that objects and letters modeled off those objects should have nearly the same names. This is not unique to Hebrew, either. The Arabic word for tooth (sini) looks like سن and sounds, and appears, remarkably like the letter س (sin). The Arabic word for hand (yd) looks like يد and is somewhat close to the letter ي (ya). Other examples in Arabic and other tongues are not difficult to find.
Some will of course, regardless of evidence, argue that the Hebrews, being “God’s chosen people,” invented the pictographs (and/or phonetics) themselves and disseminated them to other peoples. Or that regardless of how biblical Hebrew came about God nevertheless orchestrated events so that whoever wrote Genesis unwittingly put a secret message of Christ’s story in “in the beginning.” That even if an ox head in an ancient language doesn’t mean anything except a sound, we should take it to mean something. But given the evidence it must be concluded that the message could at best be “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark,” which itself is an entirely arbitrary arrangement, leaving out other possible symbol meanings and combinations of words to form new words, simply word choice made by Christians wishing to construct what is not there.
The final verdict on bereshit? To quote Tremper Longman III, professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, “It’s bull.”