Extreme longevity in Genesis
Extreme longevity in Genesis is a problem found in the Jewish Book of Genesis where characters are described as living excessively long lives. The longest is Methuselah at 969 years, but other characters also have exceptionally long lives including Noah at 950, Adam at 930, Seth at 912, and so forth. However, these extreme ages taper off after Noah. Noah's son Shem lives to be 600, his son Arpachshad lives to 438, and the number continues to decrease until, by the time we get to the end of the book, Joseph lives only 125 years. Characters from the Book of Exodus also have ages which are excessive for the time, but not to the extreme of early Genesis. For example, Moses lives 120 years, Aaron to 123, Joshua to 110, etc.
Sources for the age of the characters in Genesis span the entire book. I won't list them all, but here are a few examples:
- When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Adam lived 930 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:3-5 NIV)
- When Methuselah had lived 187 years, he became the father of Lamech. And after he became the father of Lamech, Methuselah lived 782 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Methuselah lived 969 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:25-27 NIV)
- After the flood Noah lived 350 years. Altogether, Noah lived 950 years, and then he died. (Genesis 9:28-29 NIV)
There is no archeological evidence of ancient people living extremely long lives and no biological method by which this could be possible. The only independent historical source for the extreme ages in the Book of Genesis is the book itself. Other books which include extreme longevity for Genesis characters, like the Book of Jubilees (c. 155 BCE), are not independent because they use Genesis as a source.
There is at least one other ancient writing which suggests patriarchs lived especially long lives, the Sumerian King List, which predates Genesis by centuries and has some of its kings living thousands years. However, this is completely unrelated to the men listed in Genesis.
Evangelical Christians interpret the ages listed in Genesis literally, and some apologists even go as far as concoct supernatural or pseudoscientific explanations:
Some claim that early people had purer DNA which would allow them to live longer. Of course, longevity is largely a product of the lengths of telomeres which are renewed at each birth and have nothing to do with the "purity" of DNA.
Another claim is that there was a thick vapor canopy around the earth which protected people from harmful radiation from space, but during Noah's flood, it was dumped onto the earth as rain, and so people began to experience the harmful radiation and died earlier. Assuming the vapor canopy were the equivalent of very thick dense clouds, it would block out all of the sun's light before it stopped high-energy rays. Also, if it did somehow block harmful radiation and then suddenly disappeared, people would have immediately started dying off rather than slowly decreasing in age over several generations.
A less pseudoscientific, but more magical explanation, is that Adam was immortal prior to eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but Yahweh cursed his disobedience with the loss of immortality, which slowly became more apparant across generations. Of course, this doesn't explain why Noah and Methuselah, who were born generations later, outlived Adam, or why modern science has been able to apparently reverse Yahweh's curse and double the average human lifespan in less than a century.
Some people have suggested that the ancient calendar from which these numbers were derived were based on lunar months (about 28 days) rather than solar years. If this were the case, Methuselah, more-realistically, would have lived into his 70s. However, this doesn't explain why the ages decrease toward normal values near the end of the book, and it causes logistic problems for those men who had children in their 30s!
Another suggestion is that the numbers don't represent the age of the patriarch, but lengths of time until the next notable patriarch. Thus, Methuselah didn't live 969 years, but rather 969 years had passed until the time of Lamech. Thus, Lamech wasn't Methuselah's son, but rather his great-great-great-grandson. Such gaps would exist because a culture without writing couldn't keep detailed records of thousands of names, but could remember the significant heroes. Also, this hypothesis doesn't have a problem with the decreasing ages, because the gaps would be expected to get smaller as the lineage neared the time Genesis was written and memories were clearer.
Another explanation is that the people who wrote Genesis actually believed that their ancestors were superhuman and simply lived especially long lives. This seems more likely when taken into account the extreme longevity found elsewhere in Middle Eastern antiquity. In the Sumerian King List, which predates the oldest parts of Genesis by over 1,000 years, many kings supposedly lived for several hundred years, and, for those really ancient kings, even thousands of years.
Regarding extreme longevity in Genesis, we have only one source, much of it is written in the form of fables and allegory, and the claim disagrees with biology. For these reasons, I do not accept it as factual.
There is also a problem with trying to establish specific ages since the various sources of Genesis often disagree on the values. For example, Shem's son Arpachshad is listed as living until the age of 438 in the Masoretic Text, but until 465 in the Septuagint. Likewise, Methuselah's age at various milestones jumps around for various sources:
|Source||Source Date||Age At Son's Birth||Remainder of Life||Age At Death|
|Masoretic Text||c. 900 CE||187||782||969|
|Codex Alexandrinus||c. 420 CE||187||782||969|
|Codex Vaticanus Graecus||c. 310 CE||167||802||969|
|Samaritan Pentateuch||c. 1200 CE||67||653||720|
These changes are probably the result of copy errors cropping up over time. Unlike words, where it is easy to infer an ambiguous letter based on where it appears in a word, numbers cannot be inferred in such a manner. Of course, despite each source having a different value, none of the sources suggest realistic ages for the characters.
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longevity_myths#Hebrew_Bible - Wikipedia.
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genealogies_of_Genesis - Wikipedia (Genealogies of Genesis).