First century Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews — Book I wrote: “Now when Noah had lived three hundred and fifty years after the flood, and that all that time happily, he died: having lived the number of nine hundred and fifty years. But let no one, upon comparing the lives of the ancients with our lives, and with the few years which we now live, think, that what we have said of them is false; or make the shortness of our lives at present an argument that neither did they attain to so long a duration of life: for those ancients were beloved of God, and [lately] made by God himself: and because their food was then fitter for the prolongation of life, might well live so great a number of years. And besides, God afforded them a longer time of life on account of their virtue, and the good use they made of it in astronomical and geometrical discoveries…”
Recently, I became aware of a discussion between a Christian and an atheist about the longevity of biblical figures. The atheist was incredulous that the Christian believed that someone could live for 800 years.
“Lol 800 years? Really?” the atheist asked, “800 years? Science which surrounds you every day. What you used to reply to this post, brought to you by science means nothing? But you read in some ancient fairytale text that someone lived 800 years and you believe it?”
It seems, though, that the Bible is not the only ancient text that has listed life spans of more than 800 years. Ancient writings from many cultures have listed life spans that most modern people (including myself) find unbelievable. Could the dating be misunderstandings in translation, or maybe the numbers are merely symbolic? Is it possible that there are arguments that leave the historian wondering whether the human lifespan has actually decreased so significantly over thousands of years?
One theory is that in the ancient Near East, the understanding of a year was different than our concept of a modern calendar year. Perhaps a year meant an orbit of the moon (a month) instead of an orbit of the earth around the sun (12 months). If we extrapolate, while it brings the age of the biblical figure Adam down from 930 to 77 at the time of his death, it also means he would have fathered his son Enoch at the age of 11. And Enoch would have only been 5 years old when he fathered Methuselah.
Similar inconsistencies arise when we adjust the year figures to represent seasons instead of solar orbits. Carol A. Hill in her article “Making Sense of the Numbers of Genesis,” published in the journal “Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith” in December 2003 noted, “Numbers [in Genesis] could have both real (numerical) and sacred (numerological or symbolic) meaning,”
In both Genesis and in the 4,000-year-old Sumerian King List—which lists the reigns of single kings in Sumer (ancient southern Iraq) as exceeding 30,000 years in some cases—there is a steady decline in lifespans. Genesis and the King List differentiates between pre-flood and post-flood reigns. The pre-flood reigns are significantly longer than the post-flood, though even post-flood lifespans are shown to be several hundred years. In the Bible, we see a decline over the generations from Adam’s 930-year life, to Noah’s 500 years, to Abraham’s 175.
In ancient China, accounts of super-centenarians were also commonplace, according to many texts. Acupuncturist Joseph P. Hou, Ph.D., wrote in his book “Healthy Longevity Techniques”: “According to Chinese medical records, a doctor named Cuie Wenze of the Qin dynasty lived to be 300 years old. Gee Yule of the later Han dynasty lived to be 280 years old. A high ranking Taoist master monk, Hui Zhao, lived to be 290 years old and Lo Zichange lived to be 180 years old. As recorded in the The Chinese Encyclopedia of Materia Medica, He Nengci of the Tang dynasty lived to be 168 years old. A Taoist master, Li Qingyuan, lived to be 250 years old. In modern times, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor, Lo Mingshan of Sichuan province, lived to be 124 years old.” According to Guinness World Records, the greatest fully authenticated age was Jeanne Louise Calment who lived to 122 years and 164 days. At the writing of this blog, Holocaust survivor Mr Israel Kristal of Haifa, Israel, is the world’s oldest person at the age of 112 years and 287 days.
Someday we’ll know, but for now, skeptics as well as believers are left either to believe what ancient records have to say about astonishing lifespans, or to consider the accounts as exaggerations or misunderstandings. For many, though, if we were created to live for eternity (Gen 2:16-17), an earthly existence of less than a millennium is actually a drop in the bucket.