Biblical Lifespans

How did people live to be that old?

By Deane Barker

In the Old Testament, several people are stated to have lived almost 1,000 years. Is this literal, figurative, or a mistake?

One theory says that a simple translation error caused months to be counted as years. If someone was said to have died at 950 years, it was really 950 months, which is 79 years old, which makes more sense.

However, that doesn’t always work, because some men in the Bible are said to have fathered children before they were 100, which doesn’t survive the “just divide by 12” solution.

BioLogos, which a foundation that seeks to reconcile faith and science, claims that the ages were actually reported for symbolic value, and dips deep into numerology:

[…] sometimes numbers were used like we use them today, as the way of counting and measuring – like in this receipt for sale of a slave and a building from about 2500 BC. But other times in the ancient literature numbers are used numerologically. That is to say, a number’s symbolic value could be used to convey mystical or sacred meanings rather than just its numerical value

They have some esoteric analysis of Biblical ages they claim proves the numbers were selected arbitrarily, rather than naturally.

For example, they claim that all of the reported ages end in 0, 2, 5, 7, or 9. However, this isn’t totally true (see the list of ages below), and also, many ages weren’t actually reported, they are calculated. Several people are said to be X years old when they fathered a child, then they “lived another Y years,” and we did some math to come up with their age. I think it’s reasonable to say that the numbers aren’t exact – they could easily be off by a year.

(There’s also the simple fact that timekeeping in Biblical ages might not have been perfect. Are the ages in the Bible from an omniscient God or from unreliable human oral tradition?)

But, assuming there was no translation error or symbology, and humans actually lived to those ages, how is this possible?

A key point is that somewhere around the time of the Great Flood, there was a considerable drop in reported lifespans.

  • Noah is said to have lived to 950 years
  • Shem, his son, only lived 600
  • Arpachshad, his grandson, lived to 438
  • Peleg, his great-great grandson, lived to 239

And so on, until the average lifespan settled to about what we see today.

There are several theories –

  • Some Creationist accounts get ironically scientific, claiming that Noah had a genetic mutation, and there was necessary inbreeding after the Great Flood, and this brought ages down. They note that the decline in ages follow an “exponential decay curve,” which would be seen in this scenario.

  • Another explanation is that the Great Flood fundamentally changed the world’s physical environment, which become less conducive to long life and thus shortened lifespans.

  • Yet another explanation is similar to the mutation argument. It says that Adam and Eve were genetically perfect, and designed to essentially live forever. When they committed the Original Sin, they were sentenced to mortality. As the generations progressed, and subsequent humans got further and further away from the original couple, mutations developed and lifespans dropped.

Of course, there’s no definitive answer here. Just a lot of theories.

Why I Looked It Up

In a Bible Study group, we were discussing Genesis, and the concept of Biblical inerrancy. The subject of lifespans came up (among many other things), and I decided to do a little research.

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