I sometimes get questions about the remarkably long lives of the patriarchs who lived before the great flood. Consider some of their reported ages when they died:
- Adam 930
- Seth 912
- Enosh 905
- Jared 962
- Methuselah 969
- Noah 600
- Shem 600
- Eber 464
- Abraham 175
- Moses 120
- David 70
How to understand these references? There are many theories that have tried to explain the claimed longevity. Some try to introduce a mathematical corrective, but this leads to other pitfalls such as certain patriarchs apparently begetting children while they are still children themselves. Another approach is to say that the “ages” of the patriarchs are actually just indications of their influence or family line. But then things don’t add up chronologically with eras and family trees.
Personally, I think we need to take the stated ages of the patriarchs at face value and just accept it as a mystery: for some reason, the ancient patriarchs lived far longer we do in the modern era. I cannot prove that they actually lived that long, but neither is there strong evidence that they did not. Frankly, I have little stake in insisting that they did in fact live that long. But if you ask me, I think it is best just to accept that they did.
This solution, when I articulate it, causes many to scoff. They almost seem to be offended. The reply usually sounds something like this: “That’s crazy. There’s no way they lived that long. The texts must be wrong.” To which I generally reply, “Why do you think it is crazy or impossible?” The answers usually range from the glib to the more serious, but here are some common replies:
- They didn’t know how to tell time the way we do today. Well, actually, they were pretty good at keeping time, in some ways better than we are today. The ancients were keen observers of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. They had to be, otherwise they would have starved. It was crucial to know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to hunt (e.g., the migratory and/or hibernation patterns of animals through the seasons). The ancients may not have had timepieces that were accurate to the minute, but they were much more in sync with the rhythms of the cosmos than most of us are. They certainly knew what a day, month, and year were by the cycles of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars.
- They couldn’t have lived that long because they didn’t have the medicines we do today. Perhaps, but it is also possible that they didn’t have the diseases we do. Perhaps they ate and lived in more healthy ways than we do. Perhaps the gene pool later became corrupted in a way that it was not back then. There are just a lot of things we cannot possibly know. The claim about our advanced technology (medicine) also shows a tendency of us moderns to think that no one in the world has ever been smarter or healthier than we are. Our modern times surely do have advanced technologies, but we also have things that potentially make us more susceptible to disease: stress, anxiety, overly rich diets, pollutants, promiscuity, drug use, and hormonal contraceptives. There are lots of ways in which we live out of sync with the natural world.
- Those long years just symbolize wisdom or influence. OK fine, but what is the scale? Does Adam living to 930 mean he attained great wisdom? But wait, David wasn’t any slouch and he only made it to 70. And if Seth was so influential (living to 912) where are the books recording his influence such as we have for Moses, who lived to be only In other words, we can’t just throw a scale out there indicating influence or wisdom without some further definition of what the numbers actually mean.
- Sorry, people just don’t live that long. Well, today they don’t. But why is something automatically assumed to be false simply because it doesn’t comport with lived experience today? It is not physically impossible in an absolute sense for a human being to live for hundreds of years. Most humans today die short of 100 years of age, but some live longer. Certain closely related mammals like dogs and cats live only 15 to 20 years. Why is there such a large difference in life expectancy between humans and other similar animals? There is obviously some mysterious clock that winds down more quickly for certain animals than for others. So there is a mystery to the longevity of various living things, even those that are closely related. Perhaps the ancients had what amounted to preternatural gifts. (A preternatural gift is one that is not supernatural (i.e., completely above and beyond our nature or ability to do) but rather one that builds on our nature and extends its capabilities beyond what is normally or currently experienced.)
So I think we’re back to where we started: just taking the long life spans of the early patriarchs at face value.
There is perhaps a theological truth hidden in the shrinking lifespans of the Old Testament. The scriptures link sin and death. Adam and Eve were warned that the day they ate of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would die (Gen 2:17). But they did not drop dead immediately, and though they died spiritually in an instant, the clock of death for their bodies wound down much later. As the chart above shows, as sin increased, lifespans dropped precipitously, especially after the flood.
Prior to the flood, lifespans remained in the vicinity of 900 years, but right afterward they dropped by about a third (Noah and Shem only lived to 600), and then the numbers plummeted even further. Neither Abraham nor Moses even reached 200, and by the time of King David, he would write, Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong (Ps 90:10).
Scripture says, For the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Indeed they are, especially in terms of lifespan. And perhaps that is why I am not too anxious to try to disprove the long lifespans of the patriarchs. For what we know theologically is borne out in our human experience: sin is life-destroying. And this truth is surely writ large in the declining lifespan of the human family.
Does this prove that Adam actually lived to be more than 900 years old? No. It only shows that declining lifespans are something we fittingly discover in a world of sin. Since God teaches that sin brings death, why should we be shocked that our lifespan has decreased from 900 to 85 years? It is what it is. It’s a sad truth that God warned us about. Thanks be to God our Father who in Jesus now offers us eternal life, if we will have faith and obey His Son!
So how or even whether the patriarchs lived past 900 is not clear. But what is theologically clear is that we don’t live that long today because of the collective effect of sin upon us.
34 Replies to “Did the Patriarchs Really Live to Be 900 Years Old? Perhaps, but Here’s Why We Do Not”
Starting with Noah, we started to eat animal flesh. Perhaps this made a difference. See Genesis 9: 2-3. My children and I learned about this change from Seton Home Study School lessons.
Great article, Monsignor! It is getting bookmarked and referred to often. Thank you.
The ages, names, and table of nations are symbolic. For example, Saint Adam’s name, his age and his alleged stature of 100-1000 feet tall (though his alleged stature is folklore, not Dogma) are not literal but symbols to show the first man’s importance in creation. Since Saint Adam is part of a bigger symbolic story – the two stories of creation – it’s no surprise that his age and name would also be symbolic.
Saint Adam was historical, but presented symbolically, much like how Christ’s Temptation is symbolic: He was really tempted in the way that He and the Evangelist show us in Scriptures, but the three temptations symbolize all the temptations to sin against the Theological Virtues. Here’s what the Church teaches about the creation stories’ symbolism:
Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine “work”, concluded by the “rest” of the seventh day.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 337)
The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. the biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 362)
The Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language . . . teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original “state of holiness and justice”.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 375)
The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 396)
Maybe. These are all attested theories you present but with problems of their own. Your quoting of the Catechism is gratuitous since it applies only the early Chapters of Gen and does not mean that every detail is allegorical. All that said, my point is really more to indicate that the spiritual connection of sin and death is a more fruitful way to see the matter.
By the way the objections to the longevity of the patriarchs I present in the article are not serious scholarly objections, but intended more to show the bias of we moderns that I encounter more in parish settings.
“These are all attested theories you present but with problems of their own.”
Yep. We have not yet dived deep enough into Christ to know for sure.
“Your quoting of the Catechism is gratuitous since it applies only the early Chapters of Gen and does not mean that every detail is allegorical.”
The spiritual sense of the Scriptures includes allegory, but I know what you’re saying.
“All that said, my point is really more to indicate that the spiritual connection of sin and death is a more fruitful way to see the matter.”
“By the way the objections to the longevity of the patriarchs I present in the article are not serious scholarly objections, but intended more to show the bias of we moderns that I encounter more in parish settings.”
Said bias is common. Even the Rabbis many years before Jesus’ Coming had to deal with it.
You say in the comments that the objections you presented are not serious scholarly objections. Consider this more serious objection: (1) since science and faith point at the same truth, we ought not to dismiss things that we actually do know (as opposed to suggesting out of ignorance that we must be better because we’re more modern); (2) using science, we can date cave paintings in Europe to at least 30,000 BC using multiple techniques (eg: carbon dating of material found nearby; dating the pigments used; dating the rock formations that have since grown nearby); (3) if you take the ages and chronology of the Patriarchs at face value as you suggest, you get a date for the first human at around 5000-10,000 BC. Therefore, we have a contradiction.
There are two problems I see with continuing to advance the “Face Value” argument in light of this contradiction – (1) one must reject the overwhelming body of scientific evidence, and (2) one must declare it to be a mystery as you have. The problem with the second of these is, it is not a “mystery” in the same sense that the burning bush or the Eucharist is a mystery. I can imagine what it would be like for a man to live to be 900 (even if I can’t explain how), I cannot imagine what it would be like for a bush could burn and not be consumed.
I think the point we need to highlight in order not to come off as anti-science to the wider culture is what you started to get at toward the end of your article: that Adam died at the age 900 is not something to be excited about, that Christ the New Adam died at Calvary is.
No your own argument fails in many respects. Just adding up the begats and lifespans is not so simple. Further, biblical history, recorded history and anthropological history need not be exclusive or identical. There can be overlap. The “face-value” argument here is that the issue need NOT be resolved. Just take it for what it is worth. Don’t obsess. The Bible is teaching a truth that the wages of sin ins death. No need to use this to oppose or endorse science. Put down your weapons please.
There are no weapons here, only what is meant as constructive criticism.
I certainly don’t obsess about this. As a Catholic who works as a software engineer, what I do obsess about is how we communicate the Faith to people like those I interact with: usually either atheistic or apathetic to religion, with a training primarily in science. I would ask that you consider how an article such as this would be received by such a group as you continue your evangelization efforts.
I also think there are a few problems with James’ reasoning… (caveat: I am also a software engineer!). (a) Have you considered that the patriarchs’ ages are definitely not random numbers — that they seem to follow a familiar decay pattern? See http://www.worldwideflood.org/general/noahs_age.htm
(b) Have you really looked into all the details of carbon dating and such? Are you aware that a “heretic”, name of Velikovsky, wrote to the inventor of carbon dating, name of Libby, to confirm that for carbon dating to be valid, the amount of water in the earth needed to be constant — and that Libby confirmed? [This tidbit may also be online on Wikipedia and others.] Does the evidence for a global Flood show that this premise is probably untenable for the time span prior to the Flood?
(c) how do you know that something is “Truth”? Does “scientific evidence” qualify as such?
Scripture is inerrant (see Providentissimus Deus). Of course they really lived that long. Period. 🙂
I think you might be misinterpreting the inerrancy, the concept does not exclude allegory
Is it possible, that in those times, the years then are not the same as now?
They might have fewer months to make up a year. That would increase age and time. Who’s to say that God’s day is 24 hour. Maybe a day to him is a million years.
These early patriarchs we’re humans created right after the creation of the world. Since the universe is expanding, the velocity of that expansion, in their time was much greater, which means that although they lived, say 70 years, those years translate into 900 years as measured by the length of a time interval during bible’s recording. So there is nothing unusual here: time dilation as noted by Einstein basically stretched out their “normal” life span into these long years.
If Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Life, then the lingering effect of that could have bumped up the lifespans all the way to when they got to be what they are today. Also, the last novelty intrinsic to the species was having a king put over the people. The time of the last novelty roughly corresponds to the time when lifespans got to be what they are today.
the garden of eden was allegorical.
Maybe. Bu the map is pretty specific, bordered by four rivers. two and likely three of which we know today
If you live to be 900 years or thereabouts I suppose you would get very good at what you do, as in herding flocks. And imagine having the wisdom of several generations about you on a daily basis. What a lovely mystery.
I recall an old story that death was a gift given to us as eternal life on this earth was just too painful to endure. The painful effects of sin have certainly multiplied over time, so you can see the parallel in this logic. The same theme is also picked up in the “only the good die young” mantra.
In the end though, why does it matter? Whether I live another 50 years or 50 seconds is irrelevant. I must always live my life in a way that I can present it before the Lord whenever he calls. Preoccupation with our time on this earth is a tool of the devil. We must be vigilant and spend our time living the way Jesus told us to. ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.
What’s interesting is that Adams age is 70 years shy of one thousand years or one day to God. While David a foreshadowing of Christ lives 70 years. A coincidence, I think probably not.
In Genesis 6 we read that the Lord said,”My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
This was at the time when the Nephilim were on the earth, and also, the “Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”
It seems like the Lord shortened man’s life span because man was wicked, and therefore 120 years was enough.
Two interesting discoveries I believe that would tend to support the view that the ages of the patriarchs given in scripture are likely to be true, are as follows:
1) That harmful mutations, rather than the beneficial one’s our benighted Darwnist bitter-enders invoke, as well as entropy generally, have been found to increase with the passage of time.
2) That Troglodytes had much larger physiques and presumably healthier constitutions than modern man.
God had a purpose for most of them, why could he not allow them to live that long to fulfill their purpose?
Most of their purposes was to promote and teach God’s message. God is in charge, He can do whatever he wants even if it is not normal to ordinary human beings.
They needed to populate the world too, hence they had a bit longer time to accomplish that.
Quick note: the Bible doesn’t give Noah’s age at death. It says he was 500 before his sons were born, and 600 when the flood began.
Sin peaked at the time of the Flood which indeed caused the Flood in the first place which means that the scale of sin doesn’t determine mankind’s lifespan.
Longevity declined rapidly after the Flood to 1/4 of that before the Flood which explains that the cause of the change must be found around the Flood itself.
It is said that cosmic radiation ages the body and perhaps even deteriorates the genetic material in the body. So was there a change in the amount of cosmic radiation penetrating the earth after the Flood?
In Genesis chapter 1 we read:
“Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky.”
And later about the Flood we read:
“On that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.”
It seems there was a layer of water vapor out in the atmosphere which burst and fell onto the earth and flooded it. The point is that there seemingly was a protective layer which may have blocked or deflected cosmic radiation and which both caused much higher temperatures on the earth than today and protected mankind’s genetic material from aging as fast as after the Flood.
The change in longevity before and after the Flood is so significant that it the cause of it can only be found around around the Flood itself.
Sin causes death as Scripture says but it doesn’t determine mankind’s overall lifespan as seen with the longevity before the Flood when sin peaked as never before perhaps until the present time.
Prior to the Flood the rate of decomposition of matter was much slower due to less humidity in the atmosphere, etc. etc. So much for carbon dating, right? In the Old Testament we have seven days a week, about 12 months a year lunar cycle etc. Their dating was about the same as ours, the Jews adding a month every four years to keep up. Ergo 969 “years” for Methusala is 969 years. This is whole problem with Catholics accepting the lie of evolution and millions and millions of years for “whatever.” God does not need millions of years to produce a tree. The chicken came before the egg. Evolution requires more of an act of “faith” to believe in than the simple truth of Genesis.
In our modern scientific sophistication we think we know everything, when in reality we know very little. The Bible IS the Word of God, and we must accept that Word exactly as it stands.Be patient Modern science will eventually catch up.
I have no problem believing the literal word of the Bible.
God sets the age of mankind. If God wanted Adam and others to live so long, it does kind of explain the generations that were needed to populate the earth after life was first created.
Today, we seem to question the absolute power that God has in creation and since we don’t have the mind of God, we can only speculate finitely. It’s easier to just believe in the word of Bible and take God as a pretty awesome Father.
As an indicator that sin has shortened our lives from of old, Isiah 65:20 speaks of a time in the future where God will once again intervene. Someone to die after a hundred years will be but a child, and a sinner living only a hundred years will be accursed.
The premise that our lifespans are decreasing because of sin doesn’t jive with current increase of average lifespan compared with that of a few centuries ago. Especially considering that sinfulness is at an all time high.
ON a related note, who bore Cain’s children in the land of Nod after he killed Able? His unnamed sister? Or were Adam and Eve created from “human-like” creatures who dwelt nearby? Did God breathe “life” into them which created an immortal soul? (Did Cain’s wife have an immortal soul?)
the Bible says our years 70 or 80 for those who are strong. We have not significantly added to this, perhaps 5 year on average. So I don’t think your critique holds.
Mankind didn’t keep birth certificate records back then. Did the aging process just stop for hundreds of years for these people? Did other people besides the patriarchs also live for hundreds of years? Were women giving birth at 500 years old? Archeology tells us humans did not live for hundreds of years in any era. The person writing the Scripture was making a symbolic number for the ages. Numeric symbolism is very common throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Does archeology says this? Where. Also does archeology have a clear window to the antediluvian period?
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