What’s harder than finding a needle in a haystack?
Proving there isn’t one.
In 1997 Michael Drosnin created a sensation with “The Bible Code.” The book claimed that evenly spaced letter sequences in the part of the Hebrew Scripture known as the Torah – the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy – predicted future events like World War II and the Kennedy assassination.
A few years later, a team of statisticians produced a definitive refutation of “The Bible Code” in a dense journal article. The Torah was Drosnin’s haystack; his purported code was the needle. To prove there was no hidden code took a long time and a lot of work.
A pastor named Carl Gallups of Hickory Hammock Baptist Church in Milton, Fla., has produced a video claiming that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. The end product of his chain of reasoning is that when Jesus said in Luke 10:18, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from the heavens,” the phrase “lightning from the heavens” in Aramaic would have been the sound of “Barack Obama.”
The video uses a smattering of Hebrew hocus pocus, with references to Strong’s Hebrew Concordance to make it sound official. Its inaccuracies are numerous. Even if Jesus’ words, translated back into Aramaic, did sound anything like “Barack Obama,” I would take this as a meaningless coincidence.
The most obvious non-linguistic mistake is the confusion of the “antichrist” with Satan. The only references in the Bible to “antichrist” are in the epistles of 1 John and 2 John. These texts describe a human being, not a supernatural being. In the New Testament, Satan is consistently treated as a supernatural being.
The linguistic argument takes advantage of a point of potential confusion. The Hebrew and Aramaic word for “lightning” would typically be transliterated as “baraq.” It is pronounced just like Barack Obama says his first name.
However, Barack Obama’s first name is actually related to a different Hebrew word, which would be transliterated as “barak” and means “bless.” This root word is common to many Semitic languages, including Arabic, which is why Barack Obama’s Muslim grandfather gave the name to his son, Barack Obama’s father, who passed it on to him. The problem with this word in this form is that it does not sound like his first name.
The letter represented by the “k” in this form of the word would produce more of a soft, scraping “k” sound, rather than the hard “k” with which Barack Obama pronounces his name. While his first name means “bless,” not “lightning,” the word for lightning is closer in sound to the pronunciation of his name. One of the few things the video gets right is that if Jesus said this particular Aramaic word for “lightning,” then it would have sounded like Barack Obama’s first name, but this is a coincidence.
The argument concerning Barack Obama’s last name does not even have this thin veneer of truth. It makes use of the Hebrew word “bamah,” which means “height” or “hill” or “mound.” This is where the video’s deceptive shift away from Aramaic to Hebrew is most important.
Early in the narration, it rightly claims that Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, but half a minute into the four-minute video, Aramaic is mentioned for the last time. The argument is entirely about Hebrew after that. This was necessary because, while Hebrew and Aramaic are closely related languages, Aramaic does not use the word “bamah” in the same way that Hebrew does.
Aramaic occasionally uses the word “bamah” for a “high place,” but it is not the word that the Aramaic translation of Isaiah, from around the time of Jesus, uses for “heights” in Isaiah 14:14. In Hebrew, Isaiah 14:14 does refer to the “heights of a cloud,” using “bamah,” but the most logical interpretation of this phrase is that clouds appear to have mounds or hills just like the earth does, and this refers to a high spot on a cloud.
Worse yet, the Greek word that Luke 10:18 uses for “heaven” is the common “ouranos.” If there was a Hebrew saying of Jesus in the background of this, it would have used the word “shamayim” for “heaven(s).” An Aramaic saying would most likely have used the related word “shemayin,” or possibly “rum.”
The video’s use of the Hebrew conjunction to produce the first syllable in Barack Obama’s last name is pure hocus pocus. The Hebrew and Aramaic conjunction “from” is “min.” The saying in Luke 10:18 uses the consistent Greek equivalent “ek.” Replacing this with the Hebrew conjunction, which can be pronounced on the front of a word as “u” but never “o,” makes no sense whatsoever.
There is one further theological problem with this reconstruction of Jesus’ saying in Luke 10:18. All 21 uses of the word “baraq,” or “lightning,” in the Hebrew Scripture associate it with God: as part of a theophanic vision (Exodus 19:16 and Ezekiel 1:13), as a tool used in creation (Psalm 77:19 and Job 38:35) or as God’s flaming sword of judgment against enemies (Deuteronomy 32:14 and Ezekiel 21:15).
It’s not surprising that ancient people, who had no concept of electrical charges, would have seen lightning as the flashing sword of a god. For Jesus to have used this word to talk about Satan seems unlikely. This would have been an attribution of godlike power to Satan, not a description of his downfall.
If Jesus had said the words that sound like “Barack Obama” or “Barack Ubama,” his listeners who understood Hebrew would have understood him to be saying something like “I saw Satan fall like lightning and a hill.” Those who understood Aramaic, but not Hebrew, might have heard something close to the same thing, or they might not have understood him at all. If Jesus said something in Hebrew or Aramaic that meant “lightning from the heavens,” it would have sounded more like “Baraq min hashamayim (or hashamayin),” but even this is problematic.
This video ends with an insidious lie: “Disclaimer: This film is not to declare that BHO is the antichrist. It is only a statement of fact concerning the use of certain Hebrew words in relation to the words of Jesus. The correlations are striking. Thus, the production of the film.”
The video has presented one or two facts, combined with many falsehoods and half-truths. Those involved in making it are guilty of bearing false witness against their neighbors. I suspect these people do not like Barack Obama and they disagree with some or all of his policies, which is fine. Perhaps they can use this disagreement as a justification to violate one of the Ten Commandments and bear false witness against him, as they have done by claiming Luke 10:18 identifies him as Satan or the Antichrist.
But claiming that somebody said something they did not say is also bearing false witness, so those who made this video, and anyone who uses or distributes it without naming it as a lie, is bearing false witness against Jesus, too. I might also add that only cowards build an argument, claim the absolute truth of all its premises and its reasoning, then refuse to stand by its conclusions.
Returning to haystacks that may or may not contain needles, I cannot prove that Jesus never said anything bad about Barack Obama. I can only refute one false claim at a time, as I have done with this one.
What I do know is that Jesus said things like “Love your enemies,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” This is the “hay” of what Jesus taught us. Why don’t we make some progress on those things before we start looking for imaginary needles?
Mark McEntire is associate professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.