Adam Lived to Be 900? Maybe, but Our Shorter Life Spans Tell Us More Than We Might Like to Admit

blog6-9-2016I 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 should we understand these references? There are many theories that have tried to explain the claimed longevity. Some propose a mathematical corrective, but this leads to other inconsistencies such as certain patriarchs apparently begetting children while still children themselves. Another theory is that the ages of the patriarchs are actually just indications of their influence or family line, but then things don’t add up chronologically when considering 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 today. I cannot prove that the patriarchs 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. I think it is best just to accept that they did.

Many scoff when I articulate this solution. 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’s crazy or impossible?” The answers usually range from the glib to the more serious, but here are some common ones:

  1. They didn’t know how to tell time the way we do today. 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., by 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.
  2. 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 healthier 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 the modern tendency to think that no one in the world has ever been smarter or healthier than we are. We surely do have advanced technologies today, 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 many ways in which we live out of sync with the natural world.
  3. Those long years just symbolize wisdom or influence. OK, fine, but what is the scale? Does Adam living to the age of 930 mean that 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 120. In other words, we can’t just propose a nebulous scale indicating influence or wisdom without some further definition of what the numbers actually mean.
  4. 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 before the age of 100, 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 some animals than for others. So there is a mystery to the varying longevities of living things, even those that are closely related. Perhaps the ancients had what amounts to preternatural gifts. (A preternatural gift is one that is not supernatural (i.e., completely above and beyond our nature or ability) but rather 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 accepting the long life spans of the early patriarchs at face value.

There is perhaps a theological truth hidden in the shrinking lifespans over the course of time in the Old Testament. Scripture links sin and death. The day they ate of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were warned that they would die (Gen 2:17). Yet they did not drop dead immediately. And although they died spiritually in an instant, the clock of death for their bodies wound down much later. As can be seen in the list of lifespans of the patriarchs (see above), as sin increased, lifespans dropped precipitously, especially after the flood.

Prior to the flood, lifespans remained in the vicinity of 900 years. Immediately afterward, they dropped by about a third (Noah and Shem only lived to be 600), and from there the numbers plummeted even further. Neither Abraham nor Moses even reached the age of 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. Perhaps that’s why I’m not too anxious to try to disprove the long lifespans of the patriarchs. 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!

How or even whether the patriarchs lived to be more than 900 years old 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.

30 Replies to “Adam Lived to Be 900? Maybe, but Our Shorter Life Spans Tell Us More Than We Might Like to Admit”

  1. This is an excellent article and helpful. My wife, sister and I are reading this very section of Genesis this week!

  2. Good article Msgr! God said it, I believe it, and that settles it. It is unfortunate that, in this post-Darwinian time, we dare to apologize for God- that He did not really mean to tell Moses that Adam lived 900 years, that He was not speaking literally because it does not fit with what we observe. The life span of the Patriarchs is insignificant next to Transubstantiation. How can we believe this if we can’t believe the age of the patriarchs.

  3. Here’s an approximation of the dates, according to the Bible and matching it up with the “12 weeks” of world-history, according to the Book of Enoch (which is where the quotations below come from). It all matches up very nicely, assuming, as I do, that each of those “weeks” represents not 7 days but 700 years. Notice, too, below, that Noah & Lamech appear in the Sumerian Kingslist.

    Person Total Age at Birth/ Death/
    life beget- Start End
    length ting year year

    1st week of Enoch 700 4025 3325
    Adam 930 130 4066 3136
    Seth 912 105 3936 3024
    Enos 905 90 3831 2926
    Cainan 840 70 3741 2901
    Mahalaleel 895 65 3671 2776
    Jared 962 162 3606 2644
    Enoch 365 65 3444 3079
    Methusaleh 969 187 3379 2410

    2nd Week of Eoch 700 3325 2625
    Lamech (=”Meskalamdug” in Sumerian kingslist) 777 182 3192 2415
    Noah (=”Mesh-ki-ang-Nuna”; “Mesh” = “king”) 950 500 3010 2060
    ********Flood**********(Noah 600 yrs old)***********************2807 2807
    Shem 600 100 2510 1910

    3rd Week of Enoch 700 2625 1925
    “Afterwards, in the 3rd week, during its completion, a man of the plant of righteous judgment shall be selected; and after him the plant of righteousness shall come forever.”  
    Arpachshad 438 35 2410 1972
    Shelah 433 30 2375 1942
    Eber 464 34 2345 1881
    Peleg 239 30 2311 2072
    Reu 239 32 2281 2042
    Serug 230 30 2249 2019
    Nahor 148 29 2219 2071
    Terah 205 70 2190 1985
    Abra(ha)m 175 100 2120 1945
    Isaac 180 60 2020 1840
    Jacob 147 91(?) 1960 1813

    4th Week of Enoch 700 1925 1225
    “Subsequently, in the fourth week, during its completion, the visions of the holy and the righteous shall be seen, the order of generation after generation shall take place, and an habitation shall be made for them.”  
    Joseph 110 39(?) 1869 1759
    ***********Egyptian Captivity*******************430 430 1830
    Moses 45* 45 1400
    * -(After exodus) – 125 total
    Joshua 110 110 1355 1245

  4. Thank you, Father, this is an excellent example of sound exegesis, that doesn’t automatically discard a straightforward historical interpretation, but examines it from the viewpoint of both reason and faith.

    One comment, in regard to the reasoning that the patriarchs couldn’t have lived so long because people nowadays don’t. As a geology undergrad, I was taught that “the present is the key to the past,” without also being taught that this is strictly a philosophical construct. It’s one lens through which to view the past, but it’s not the only possible way by any means, and has led many geologists to overlook evidence of catastrophic events in the past, such as the Missoula Flood.

    I’ve come to believe that there is a lot of evidence for a global catastrophic flood, such as fossil boneyards, continent-wide planation surfaces, and gorges cut through mountain ranges. It is wildly implausible that the scale of the processes we see operating now upon the earth could have caused these features. Combined with the ever-increasing discoveries of preserved organic material that’s supposed to have survived tens to hundreds of millions of years, and of C-14 in dinosaur bones and other materials that are again supposed to be far older than the half-life of C-14, there’s a lot of evidence supporting a straightforward historical interpretation of the Genesis account.

    To paraphrase your words, Father, I can’t prove that there actually was a global flood, but the evidence against it is far from unassailable.

  5. Sorry. It took away all my formatting. The 4 columns above were respectively labeled:
    (1) Total life length
    (2) Age at beget-ting
    (3) Birth/start year
    (4) Death/end year

  6. If you want to know what it was really like back then, you read the first 100 pages of the visionary Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich’s Life of Christ Volume 1, which is spectacularly consistent with extra-biblical historical sources, though deliberately diverging from them on occasions. She says that the pagan magic back then was beyond what you would ever believe. People would walk up walls, exert power at a distance, foretell the future, and magically see things happening hundreds of miles away. Compared to all this, small wonder, then, if people lived long.

  7. Thank you so much Msgr. Pope for this timely article. I breathed a sigh of relief after I read it. It’s good to know there are some Catholics who take the Patrich’s ages at face value. This is something I have always never doubted and have tried to defend whenever I can. I had tried looking at it from different angles but the literal sense makes the most sense. By the way, what I also subscribe to is that the reason for the long ages AND the huge sizes of the pre-flood animals is because of a much higher oxygen content in the atmosphere at that time. The ‘water’ mentioned in scripture above the earth (vapour canopy probably) could be the factor for the high oxygen content. I maybe going off topic here and I know you may disagree but I also believe that the universe is much younger than is touted by popular science (less than 10000 years old) and that the creation days were actually 6 solar days. This is also something I have tried reading from all possible angles and again, the literal sense makes the most sense.

    God Bless

  8. I used to believe that sin only affects our spirit, not our body. But that view is being challenged as I am growing in faith, and now I think our sinful/virtuous life could also reflect in our bodies. Have you had any thoughts/articles on that subject ?

  9. An interesting piece of trivia is that the Sumerian Kings List has a similar pattern, only further exaggerated. The earliest Kings reign for thousands of years, the most recent Kings reign for 10-20.

  10. This is a great article. I totally agree. Now I live and China and have learned about a Chinese man named Li Qingyun who lived to be 256. There were government records to prove it. Sin destroys the temple of God, that is the body. God gave us a body. It is a gift. He wants us to be healthy, but sin prevents it. Thank you, Msgr.

  11. Good points. The ages themselves have real theological significance. I like the idea of a “creeping mortality” where the wages of sin are slowly doled out, not necessarily in terms of genetics, but experientially. Death enters the world gradually as its implications are more deeply embedded in human life. This has implications for how we read salvation history. There is a thick line separating Adam from Noah, the patriarchs from Moses, Moses from David. Rise in mortality coincides with re-proposal of covenant.

    See Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis — according to the genealogy of Gen 5, there was a period in which the first nine generations—from Adam to Lamech [years 874-930]—were all alive together. The death of Adam, followed by the taking up of Enoch, begins an entirely new era of human history, in which the the curse of mortality (Gen 2:17) is finally realized. Kass: “This may well be the purpose of reciting the entire genealogy in all its numerical detail: to prepare the wisdom-seeking reader to learn, in the sequel [Gen 6 ff, i.e. Noah, etc.], how human beings react to the discovery of their unavoidable finitude. For with the death of Adam, and after nearly a millennium of “immortal” human existence, natural death has entered the human world.” . . . “Noah, born in 1056, is the first man born into the world after Adam dies. Noah is therefore the first man for who could have no direct contact with the first man and, therefore, with the living memory of the Gsden of Eden and the prospect of immortal life. Noah is the first man who enters the world in which death is already present, who grows up knowing about death, knowing he must die. For Noah, unlike his predecessors, mortality is received as part of the human condition: thus Noah (not Adam or Cain) is the prototype of the self-consiouly mortal man. . . . These facts may explain, in part, why Noah would, uniquely, later find grace in the eyes of the Lord.”

  12. Adam and Eve were created perfect, they would never die. They probably never became ill. Maybe it took 900 years for a perfect body to die. As sin took its toll on the human soul the body started to become ill and our lifespan got shorter and shorter. The lifespan of about 70 years seams to stabilize at about the time of David.
    We believe that “the wages of sin is death”, but sin may also results in illness. The disciples believed that illness is the punishment for sin. “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9. 1-2)

  13. I can’t say that the patriarchs couldn’t have lived so long but am open to a non literal meaning. The story of Cain and Abel shows they had agriculture,so how does that mesh with humans living thousands of years before in Neolithic times? Perhaps the Flood threatened early man before migrating out of Africa. The ancient writers wrote in a style very different from modern genres. My point is that the spirit of these oldest scriptures is what God wants for us to receive.

  14. Interesting article. There is another popular theory about this out there that claims the ages of the patriarchs in the Bible are similar to old ages referenced by other ancient tales in other cultures around the same time period in history (and not necessarily directly in regards to influence or family line). So, not to be taken literally. Do you have any thoughts about that?

  15. Thank you Monsignor. That one has bedeviled me for, well for my entire life. And this is the best answer I have ever heard. I forget this sometimes but I think that one of the best things about being Catholic is that we are allowed to just let some things be mysteries. It is very liberating. Thank you.

  16. The fourth argument is an appeal to recency fallacy. An example being, “Modern athletes can’t reproduce the feats of Athens’ warriors, so the warriors’ feats must be exaggerated.” This doesn’t mean or imply ancient aliens, nuclear wars, or anachronism are real (since such things have been both debunked and lack evidence); rather, it means and implies that we still don’t know everything about the past.

    That said, the ages of Saint Adam and of the Table of Nations are not to be taken literally, for four reasons:
    1) The two creation accounts are symbolic, symbolizing Israel’s origins and God’s relations with Creation (Wisdom 10:1-3 and Catechism 337, 362, 375, and 396).
    2) The Table of Nations is symbolic, symbolizing Israel’s ancestry and God’s humbling of mankind (1 Chronicles 1:1-27 and Catechism 56-57).
    3) The age of Methuselah exceeds Adam, and one cannot say “He was blessed by God/He was a very holy man, that’s why he didn’t die younger than Adam” because that is the fallacies of cherry picking and evading the evidence.
    4) God saying man’s years will not exceed 120 is symbolic, being part of a symbolic account of man’s wickedness (Genesis 6:1-4).

    1. Doesn’t this assume everything is symbolic and then argue that the ages of Adam and the table of nations are not to be taken literally because all the accounts from whence they are taken are symbolic? Isn’t that the fallacy of begging the question?

  17. If a year was thought to be a month: then to live for eighty years would be equal to 900 ‘years’ – 80 x 12 ‘months’. And that is quite a drop from the seven ‘days’ it took to ‘create the world’…I can’t imagine that span of time in ‘months’, or ‘years’, ….let alone ‘minutes’…

  18. If they lived closer to the equator maybe seasons and therefor years were not as pronounced. Nonetheless months or moon cycles moon were easily measured… Maybe, just maybe Adam’s 930 was actually 930 divided by 12 or 78 years. Still pretty good in a era with no doctors…

  19. According to the commentary provided by Fr. Leo Haydock in the Douay-Rheims Bible, God so willed the patriarchs to have an incredibly long life so that they may fill the earth with progeny. As you stated, the sins of the world preceeding the Flood resulted in a drastic reduction in man’s lifespan.

  20. What if the opposite is true? Perhaps Adam lived so long because he was the gravest sinner of us all? His long life may have been a curse. Long life is only a gift if all your loved ones are with you. Besides, your theory just begs another question: Why does “collective sin” effect some more than others? Surely it should effect everyone equally? But it doesn’t. Otherwise we wouldn’t have sweet six year olds with leukemia, while there are miserly 96 year olds in the world who seem to live forever, thanks to all their money. If anything, there’s a correlation between money (i.e. the “devil’s dung”) and long life.

  21. I greatly enjoyed your article. I would make one correction though. According to Gen.7:6, Noah was 600 years old when the flood came upon the earth. Then according to Gen.9:28-29,it says,” After the flood Noah lived 350 years. All the days of Noah were 950 years and he died.” It’s still a good article with lots of “food for thought”. God bless you.

  22. Msgr. Pope, it surprised me that you did not mention that there was no reason for Adam and Eve in their sinless state to die. On one of Marcus Grodi’s shows, a guest mentioned that there may have been another chromosome back then that was destroyed by a particular stellar explosion (I forget which one). After that, our life spans diminished gradually. Your explanation makes the most sense to me because it offers a biological-preternatural explanation that conforms to reason.

  23. Sorry, but I find this article approach totally childish. Why do you think the human being has no intelligence to find the truth? Has there ever been a discovery of human or not human fossil remains showing clues of long life spans as 900 years. Being religious does not mean to remain ignorant.

  24. Dear Father,
    This is very interesting and I want to add something I know. I am a Buddhist and in several discourses by Lord Buddha mentioned human life span ranges from 120000 years to 10 years and now we are in descending period towards 10 years. Reason for age reduction is the bad behavior of people. after age get to 10 years people practice good things again and gradually life span increases again.
    At the time of Buddha many lived up to 120 years but now we cannot find 120 aged person

    So i believe age of Adam 930, Seth 912 and other in the Bible is true. Also similar long life evidence can be found in Sumerian kings.

    So we should not discard these historical points

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