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Did Noah Really Live to Be 950?

February 16, 2017

I occasionally get questions about the remarkably long lives of the patriarchs who lived before the great flood. Consider the ages at which these figures purportedly died:

  • Adam – 930
  • Seth – 912
  • Enosh – 905
  • Jared – 962
  • Methuselah – 969
  • Noah – 950
  • Shem – 600
  • Eber – 464
  • Abraham – 175
  • Moses – 120
  • David – 70

How should we understand these references? Many theories have been proposed to explain the claimed longevity. Some use a mathematical corrective, but this leads to other pitfalls such as certain patriarchs apparently begetting children while still children themselves. Another theory proposes that the purported life spans of the patriarchs are 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 life spans of the patriarchs at face value and just accept it as a mystery: for some reason, the ancient patriarchs lived far longer than 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 to be that old. 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’s crazy or impossible?” The answers usually range from the glib to the more serious, but here are some common replies:

  1. People didn’t know how to tell time accurately back then. 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). They 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 today. They certainly knew what a day, a month, and a year were by the cycles of the sun, moon, and 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 more healthy ways than we do today. Perhaps the gene pool later became corrupted in a way that it was not back then. There are many 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 than we are. While we surely do have advanced technologies, we also have things that 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. It is also quite possible that the strains of disease and viral attacks have become more virulent over time.
  3. Those long life spans just symbolize wisdom or influence. OK fine, but what is the scale? Does Adam living to 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 a mere 120? In other words, we can’t just propose a 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 false simply because it doesn’t comport with today’s experience? To live to be 900 is preternatural, not supernatural. (Something preternatural is extremely extraordinary, well outside the normal, but not impossible.) In other words, it is not physically impossible in an absolute sense for a human being to live for hundreds of years. Most people 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 some 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.

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. Although they died spiritually in an instant, the clock of death for their bodies wound down much later. As the age listing 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 (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. Perhaps that is why I am not too anxious to try to disprove the long life spans of the patriarchs, for what we know theologically is borne out in our human experience: sin is life-destroying. This truth is surely made clear by 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 life spans are something we fittingly discover in a world of sin. God teaches that sin brings death, so why should we be shocked that our life span has decreased from 900 years to about 85? It is what it is. It’s a sad truth about which God warned us. 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 such advanced ages 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.

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Comments (24)

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  1. Nick says:

    The ages are symbolic because people did not live that long before, during or after the Flood. We have empirical evidence of people’s lifespans in history:
    – Jeanne Calment, 112 years (1997 AD)
    – Terentia, 103 years (6 AD)
    – Socrates, executed at 70 years (399 BC)
    – Hammurabi, 60 years (1750 BC)
    – Iry-Hor, 64 (~3100 BC)

    Iry-Hor lived around the time when ships were invented, so Saint Noah would have lived around about 4000 to 3000 BC, the time when rafts and other marine vessels were being invented, since Noah knew about ships – he did not ask the Lord what an ark was.

    However, even if one believed Noah lived at an earlier time because one believes the ark was not a ship but a raft or even a box, Homo sapien and Neanderthal fossils show early humans lived to be around 20-40 years of age. So centuries before Noah, the human lifespan was not even in the 100’s.

    Early human lifespans:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/science/11obneanderthal.html
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/magazine/who-lives-longest.html?_r=0
    https://amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/proceedings/Finch1561.pdf

  2. Luisa Zorraquin says:

    I recently attended a conference by a profesor from Singularity University (California). His name is Jose Luis Cordeiro. He assured the audience that in a few decades, people are no longer going to die. We will be inmortal (SIC). As a proof the told us that scientists at Methuselah Foundation have developed “inmortal cells”. Rats are now able to live the equivalent of 300 hundred human years in good health. At the end, people were clapping like mad…

  3. connie says:

    If a Virgin could conceive a Child by the power of the Holy Spirit…
    If a Savior, who was crucified, could be raised from the dead by the power of God..
    Then, those individuals could certainly have lived those extraordinarily long lives!

    • Brian D Kelly says:

      Bravo Connie

    • Sl says:

      I get what you’re saying, but the Incarnation and the Resurrection are supernatural events. A long life span does not have to be supernatural–it could just have been, as Father says, that there were differences in lifetimes before and after the Flood. Could have been due to an increase of ionizing rays in the atmosphere, or a buildup of mutations–there could have been a number of factors, but none of them were necessarily supernatural.

  4. Praful says:

    I believe the early patriarchs lived very long. When God created man, he created him perfect. When sin entered, death came in and it reflected in both the physical and the spiritual world. Man died spiritually that moment and physically, he started aging and eventually died. We know that scientifically our human genes are degrading with each generation over time. In Genesis 6:2-6, due to the wickedness of men, God limits the number of years a man walks to 120 years. I personally feel this is to put a limit on the no of sins and consequently judgement man would have to suffer.

    http://thetruthwins.com/archives/scientists-discover-proof-that-humanity-is-getting-dumber-smaller-and-weaker

  5. JMC says:

    Excellent article! Looking at it in this light, instead of in the symbolic manner I was taught, I suspect those preternaturally long lives may have been a lingering aftereffect of the original immortality with which Adam and Eve were gifted before the Fall – especially since the Bible tells us that there came a time when God specifically decreed that man would no longer live so long. Even after that, the numbers came down only slowly, over the generations. (It might even be an argument for the possibility of evolution as the Church permits us to believe – i.e., guided by God’s hand (or, as Darwinists call it, “Intelligent Design” ;D). In any case, it certainly extended the length of the procreative portion of their lives, definitely a plus in the early days of humanity. There are actually, now that I look at it through this new lens, a lot of practical reasons for those long lives. Truly food for thought!

  6. Sergio Almeida says:

    Maybe the answer is on this verse, what God said to Noah: “And God said: My spirit shall not remain in man for ever, because he is flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years” (Gen 6,3). Being so after the Flood the lifespan of the man turn into no more than 120 years.

  7. Father Ryan Erlenbush says:

    Msgr, What a refreshing article on this topic! May I ask, do you preach this as a possibility, or just present it in a speculative way in writing? I ask because I am often unsure how bold to be on these topics in sermons (it seems easier in daily Mass than on a Sunday, though). In your opinion, is it acceptable to discuss this kind of question and present your answer in the context of the Liturgy?

    Another note — St Jerome assures us that Melchizedek is actually Shem (St Thomas also seems to agree in his Commentary on St Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews). The timing works, if Shem really lived to be that old.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      I do preach this, but I indicate that there are differing views. I also share the view that Shem and Melchizedek are connected.

  8. Brian D Kelly says:

    “After this Joseph brought in his father to the king [pharoah], and presented him before him: and he blessed him. [8] And being asked by him: How many are the days of the years of thy life? [9] He answered: The days of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty years, few, and evil, and they are not come up to the days of the pilgrimage of my fathers. [10] And blessing the king, he went out.” (Gen 47:7)

    After the flood, the atmosphere changed to a higher level of hydration (H2O) or so I read in some work defending Genesis. More water in atmosphere means faster rate of decomposition of matter. Not that we should not just take Genesis like children, as the saints did (in general, Augustine had the six days as six periods). Jacob knew and believed that his fathers lived much longer than he would. Moses wrote by inspiration and translated tradition. Two Gospels give us Our Lord’s genealogy, as the sons of Israel no doubt kept the record of their tribe of origin. Even the prophetess Anna has her tribe (Aser) given in Luke. Saint Paul was of Benjamin. The Jews knew these things.

    • Father Ryan Erlenbush says:

      St Augustine didn’t exactly hold that it was six periods, rather in his mature thought (De Genesi ad Litteram) he is very clear that the world was created all in a single day. This is a position which St Thomas considers entirely plausible in the Summa, though he doesn’t come down fully on either side — whether six days or one day.

      St Augustine thinks the six “days” were really six “manners” or “ways” or “stages” by which the angels came to understand the work of creation — but that this work actually occured in one historical day (ie 24hrs).

  9. Matt says:

    I suspect they lived that long because the earth was a very different place before the flood. They atmosphere and the vegetation and everything. That is also why God gave man permission to eat the animals after the flood but not before. Because the green plants no longer provided the nutrients they would need so they would have to eat animals. Notice that right after the flood the ages over the people started going down.

  10. SD Pastor says:

    To quote Lord Elrond from J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, “The blood of Numenor is all but spent.”

  11. Antoinette says:

    These biblical figures probably lived less than a hundred years. I doubt they broke months into a 12 month year. But probably considered seasons, body changes and attributed an age to these men. The ages implied longevity compared to the population in general.

  12. Rebecca says:

    St. Augustine, in The City of God, Book XV, very convincingly contends that the ages in the Bible are correct. He disposes of all the contrary speculations.

  13. Mark P. says:

    Monsignor,

    Your last few posts about Genesis have been great. This is one of the things we need more of as Catholics – teaching on the Scriptures, on our rich history going back to the beginning of Creation, through the patriarchs, the history of Israel, and then to Christ and the apostles. Also, in my opinion, the watering down and demythologizing of Scripture has been one of the greatest causes of the loss of faith over the last few decades. We need to learn to not only read Scripture, but to defend it.

    But, thank you for your posts. I personally need to take a break from reading the various Catholic news sites with stories about Cardinals talking about climate change, diocesan newspapers claiming Jesus would have marched alongside women promoting abortion, and Catholic groups attending George Soros-funded community events. What those things have to do with our salvation, I don’t know. I think returning to a study, respect, and awe of Scripture is fundamental to our spiritual growth. So, thank you for actually teaching us something. Sorry to say, but lately much of the “upper leadership” is just echoing things previously said by political or secular left- and right-wing causes. We transcend all of that. We are not just a religious arm of the UN. And to me, one of the best and easiest ways to understand this is to read Scripture daily, and taking in the mystery of our faith just as you said – at face value. God Bless.

    • Brian D Kelly says:

      Amen, Mark. You may like to read Bishop Bossuet’s “Continuity of Religion”. It is an easy read and extremely educational, especially on the Old Testament types, etc. with a literal view of Genesis.

  14. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Noah was the same age as Jack Benny when he died. 39.

  15. Salonsar War says:

    When reading Genesis — the literal sense makes the most sense. Thank you Monsignor for your refreshing views on Genesis — we Catholics need it.

  16. Salonsar War says:

    Before the Flood, there were the waters ‘above’ the earth. That extra amount of moisture meant a good amount of oxygen in the atmosphere at that time. Which provided ample reason for the long ages, for men to be giants (skeletons of 12 – 13 ft as evidence) and the huge animals that roamed the earth then (lots of evidence from the giant skeletons, fossils of such animals). Of course, secular textbooks will use the term ‘pre-historic’ period whatever that means.

  17. Phill G says:

    If you do an actual timeline, using the age data given by the writer of Genesis, you will see amazing accuracy. EVERYONE, with the exception of Enoch, Noah and his family died at the time of the flood, with Enoch being “taken” by God, showing that God did not want him to die in the flood.

    I personally think this is too accurate to be mathematical inaccuracies or misguided errors.

  18. Beth says:

    I agree with you Msgr. Pope on the ages being accurately recorded 🙂

    And just wanted to add a comment I heard from a priest regarding the creation account: At the wedding at Cana, Jesus changed the water into wine. The wine was created was PERFECTLY AGED. Since God can do anything, He could have created the universe in an instant in the same way, aged to perfection. Just a thought.

    Blessings to you!