The Pre-Flood Lifespans–Scientifically Plausible?

“Methuselah was 187 years old when he fathered Lamech. Methuselah lived 782 years after the birth of Lamech, and he fathered sons and daughters. So Methuselah’s life lasted 969 years; then he died.” 

Genesis 5:25-27

It seems well beyond belief, doesn’t it? Humans living for centuries rather than merely decades is a concept far removed from our sphere of experience. The long lifespans, recorded in Genesis 5, have often been the subject of skeptics’ ridicule, theologians’ discomfort, and average believers’ head-scratching. Did people really live that long? How is that even possible?

Before getting into the scientific discussion, I’d like to point out that the Genesis genealogies are not the only ancient record of long lifespans prior to a great deluge, followed by shorter post-flood lifespans. Archaeology has revealed non-biblical texts that echo Genesis 5. For instance, The Weld-Blundell Prism (circa 3000 B.C), is just one of several artifacts that bears striking parallels to the biblical account. It is a clay cuneiform prism inscribed with  records of eight ancient Sumerian kings leading up to a flood, and a succession of kings thereafter. Here is an excerpt that begins with the last pre-flood king:

“Then Sippar fell and the kingship was taken to Suruppak. In Suruppak, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 18,600 years. One king; he ruled for 18,600  years.

Five cities; eight kings ruled for 385,200 years. Then the Flood swept over.

After the Flood had swept over, and the kingship had descended from heaven, the kingship was in Kis. In Kis, Gisur became king; he ruled for 1200 years.”

Obviously, the lifespans recorded in this list are much longer than those in the Genesis records. I offer this example because it is quite striking that another ancient culture documented the same trend: long life spans–a great flood–shorter life spans. Skeptics have alleged that Scripture simply borrowed from ancient mythology, but that inference is very poorly substantiated. (I’ll have to save that for a future post. In the meantime, I refer you to the work of Dr. Edwin Yamauchi.)

In addition to archaeological corroboration, there is evidence from science that lends credibility to the concept of extremely long lifespans. The scientific details related to aging are still not fully understood and in fact, the more insight researchers gain in the area of senescence (the science of aging), the more plausible the Genesis 5 lifespans become.

The least speculative evidence comes from the field of biochemistry. Although researchers do not have comprehensive knowledge of senescence, they have discovered that certain biochemical processes in living cells apparently contribute to the aging process. One example is the mechanism our cells use for converting oxygen from its highly reactive, toxic form to a harmless form. During this process, the oxygen goes through intermediate forms called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are actually more toxic than the preliminary form of oxygen. Enzymes and other compounds within the cell act as buffers to protect the cell from the damaging effects of the ROS, but these enzymes are not expressed at high enough levels to protect the cells for a long period of time. Therefore, cell contents are eventually damaged, and the cell begins to age. Experiments on organisms such as nematodes (roundworms), in which the cell’s antioxidant defenses were artificially fortified, have resulted in a 40% increase in nematode life expectancy. Researchers believe that the human life span could be augmented by similar pharmacological intervention.

Another example from biochemistry is the discovery that caloric restriction promotes longevity. Studies have shown a 40% extension of life expectancy for a broad range of organisms whenever calorie intake is reduced by 30-70%, as long as a nutritious diet is maintained. It turns out that caloric restriction increases the activity of an enzyme called sirtuin. Whenever food intake is reduced, the cell enters an energy-poor state, causing an increase in sirtuin activity. Through a subsequent series of biochemical processes, the organism’s genome is stabilized, which limits the wear and tear that happens to DNA during metabolism; thus, aging is delayed. Incidentally, it has been found that a compound found in grapes and red wine–resveratrol–is an effective sirtuin activator.

It is not yet known whether or not these and other biochemical manipulations for extending the cell’s lifespan could have a synergistic effect and eventually be combined to produce an even more dramatic impact on life expectancy. However, increasing knowledge about the chemical activities in the cell that play a significant role in senescence makes the alteration of lifespans scientifically plausible. If human intervention can make an appreciable impact upon the aging process, to be sure an omnipotent Creator has ultimate control over mankind’s biochemistry.

8 thoughts on “The Pre-Flood Lifespans–Scientifically Plausible?

  1. While I think the perspective from biochemisty is itself interesting, I think it’s a dead end for explaining the life spans of ante-deluvian patriarchs and kings. The serious literature on these kings lists has shown pretty convincingly that the symmetry and consistency of patterns across the various lists (Sumerian, Hebrew, etc) is predicated on mathematical and/or astronomical data.

    In other words, the chronologies and lifespans listed in these ancient texts are not chronological in the sense that the modern mind is prejudiced to think about the significance of time and duration, but were more than likely produced for political and/or religious purposes which would support the cultus surrounding the dynasty during which the texts were composed.

    Kenton Sparks, in his excellent Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible, helpfully paints this picture. He shows how the chronologies of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 (age at birth of first son, remaining life span, and total life span) all end with a particular digit: 0, 2, 5 or 7. (For example, Adam was 130 when his first son was born, lived another 800 years, and lived a total of 930 years….all ending with 0’s). It’s been calculated that for this pattern to occur across all 10 patriarchal listings is something on the order of 4.50 X 10-11. Given the known penchant of ancient writers to imbue certain numbers and patters with religious/political significance, perhaps it’s less likely that these are the actual ages/life spans of these figures, and more likely that the ages/spans assigned to them have some mathematical/astronomical significance.

    Additionally, when comparing the patriarch list in Genesis 5 to the Sumerian Kings List, there are other striking similarities. For example, in each list, the 7th patriarch/king listed (Enoch in the Hebrew text, Enmeduranki in the Sumerian text) has a unique experience with the deity–Enmeduranki ascending to heaven, and Enoch walking with God and “was no more”.

    I think what this shows is that there were common idioms (or straight-up borrowing) within ancient literature that these peoples employed in their religious/historical texts. While the modern mind seeks to validate or invalidate the historicity of the “events” which are recorded in these texts, I think it’s worth asking whether or not these texts are meant to be read this way at all. If they are not, then we do a great disservice to the text by imposing our hermeneutical prejudices upon it.

    • I’m completely open to the idea that the ages and the genealogies themselves may not represent literal ages and chronologies, but rather have theological significance. However, the various theories I’ve read for alternatives fall short in one way or another. For instance, some have suggested dividing the numerical ages by 12. This leads to absurdly young ages for fatherhood. Some have suggested that the ages have nothing whatsoever to do with biological age, and are wholly symbolic. This is, in my opinion, problematic for Genesis 6:3. For me, the bottom line is that there is at least some kind of connection with biological age, and the flood judgment affected this in a dramatic way.

    • What about Sparks suggestion of the mathematical significance? In other words, the values are not meant to correlate to any real age (as dividing by 12 or some other number might), but are mathematically precise in their own right?

      Re: Genesis 6:3, one could easily marry this with a more symbolic/numerological reading by ascribing this entry to an editorial “bridge” between the ante- and post-deluvian genealogies. Like the pre-dating SKL, the biblical genealogy begins with a creation myth, has long ante-deluvian ages, and is interrupted by the flood. Moreover, if these texts, which are generally attributed to the exilic/or post-exilic Priestly source, it would not be surprising how the Hebrew author has become so acquainted with Mesopotamian traditions, which became a template of sorts for crafting the Jewish account of pre-flood history.

    • I think Sparks’ idea is viable, but it doesn’t necessarily rule out a (at least indirect) connection to biological age. My opinion is that’s the only way to preserve the best interpretation of 6:3. I ascribe to complete Mosaic authorship, though I recognize that he likely drew from other ancient records.

  2. @existdissolve, The statistic that you give above is not correct. Of each set of three, only two of the values can be independent. The third is determined by the other two. i.e. Each set of three numbers forms an equation x + y = z. x and y are independent variables in the expression, but z is dependent.

    Each of the values is supposed to end in 0, 2, 5, or 7. This is messed up by the age of Methusaleh at his death, 969. However, if we go only with the two lists of ages at birth and additional years, then the pattern holds.

    Since the statistic is based on one of these four digits being the last digit in each number, we are free to pick any of the four. This gives four chances in ten, or two chances in five of that digit being randomly chosen. So, for two lists of ten, we have a 2/5 chance of picking from the list. The chance that all twenty numbers are randomly chosen in this manner is (2/5) to the 20th power, or about 1.1 x 10E-8. This is about 250 times more likely to occur by chance.

    If we were to instead use age at death and one of the other numbers, then the ending digits are 0, 2, 5, 7, and 9. This additional digit changes the odds for a number to end in one of these to 1/2. This in turn changes the statistice to (1/2) to the 20th power, or about 9.5 x 10E-7.

    You make a good point about needing to determine if a text is meant to be understood literally. However, far too many people have come to the immediate conclusion that it could not be meant to be literal. Many of these do so because they assume a priori that God does not exist and that the text must be mere myth.

    Many others believe in God, but believe that the text is not to be taken metaphorically. Yet, this view is often held without exploring what the rest of the Bible (OT and NT) say about the text of Genesis chapters 1-11. Specifically, how does Jesus deal with these texts? He treats the events as real. Please note, I am not saying that Jesus directly addressed the ages of the patriarchs. He did not. But, Jesus addresses as literal the Great Flood and the destruction of Sodom in Luke 17. The force of His discourse there would be greatly diminished if the events were only mythical. i.e. In the passage, He was talking about the time of His return. If these events are mythical, then what of the Second Coming? Of course, this argument is for Christians.

    • Re: the calculation, I won’t argue with you. I was merely quoting from a scholarly, published work on the subject…if the figure is wrong, I’m willing to accept that.

      On the subject of literality, I take an agnostic view. A “literal” interpretation of the text, on its own merits, is simply that which the original authors intended. So if the original authors were deliberately writing mythic literature, then a mythic interpretation would, in fact, be a literal rendering of the text. However, given that we don’t really have insight into the motivations and intentions of the original authors (outside of the typical usage of similar literature from around the same time period), it’s quite impossible to establish anything outside of assumptions.

      Furthermore, I disagree with using the presumed way in which Jesus interpreted portions of the Old Testament. First of all, as you rightly point out, it is definitely incorrect to cast a handful of Jesus’ statements about specific portions of these writings, and make them apply to the whole without qualification. Regardless of one’s assumptions about the origin of the Scriptures, it is undeniable that the dozens of books were composed by an equal (or probably) greater number of authors, from different time periods, religious perspectives, and political affiliations. That the distinct bits of literature across this large corpus need to be taken on their own merits would seem to go without saying.

      Secondly, on a purely academic level, it is a huge mistake, I think, to base analysis of the events/myths/whatever of the OT on what one presumes that Jesus thought about the texts. That is an unnecessary and (frankly) irrelevant prejudice which will invariably lead one toward particular conclusions about either the nature of the text, the character of Jesus, or both. If one is really interested in a literary analysis of the texts, I think that’s a poor starting point, and one which will a priori lead to a particular set of conclusions.

      Finally, I would take some issue with your negative evaluation of myth. What is the problem, precisely, with something being “only mythical?” Such a perspective seems to reflect the unwarranted prejudice of the modern mind toward objectivity and historicity, even though the fundamental incarnations of these ideals is precisely impossible on the very grounds by which this same mindset seeks to establish them. Perhaps if we could recapture the meaningfulness of “myth” within life, the often alien world of the Scriptures would be much more integral to how we live, think, and believe.

  3. @Jason–Thanks for the article–interesting read. I think the discussion of the numerology behind the Sumerian Kings List is quite fascinating.

    A few parts of the author’s argument seem a bit weak, though.

    First, he (quite rightly) traces the various editorial phases through which the Sumerian Kings List went in its lifecycle of composition…and does so quite without reservation or caveat. Yet in the same breath, the author does not discuss what is mostly like a very similar process through which the narratives in Genesis when as they were composed, edited, revised, etc. during the history of the Jewish people. Why? My assumption is that the author presumes a singular, Mosaic authorship, and so conveniently ignores this important point of scholarship, even though he has already assumed the same framework for the non-biblical corollary. But such is the nature of presuppositions.

    Second, the author conveniently glosses over any serious discussion of the dating of either writing in order to not have to deal with the sticky questions of which came first, and which potentially borrowed from the other (and I am assuming that one did, in fact, borrow heavily from the other). Moreover, he does not deal seriously with the question of textual relevance within the historical context. E.g., which is more likely, that the Jewish author(s) borrowed from the well-established Sumerian dyanastic writings, or that the Sumerians borrowed from a mostly obscure, isolated kingdom with a much less-well established religio-political architecture? This, of course, is making the gigantic assumption that the Jewish texts/oral traditions would have even been composed at the time of the writing/editing of the Sumerian Kings Lists.

    Third, I’m not sure how the assumed greater “precision” of the Jewish text argues against the Jewish text being composed with the Sumerian text in mind. The difference in numerology could be just as easily explained by the religio-political mindset in which the editor was operating. That is, the Jewish writer might have borrowed the general outline (number of heroes, extreme age lengths), but tweaked the numbers, names, and other details to fit the purposes of the narrative which the writer wished to communicate. Given the number of flood stories, creation myths, and other similarities which litter ancient writing, it’s obvious that such borrow-and-modify approaches were common, so the possibility should be at least countenanced.

    Fourth, I’m not sure that the ages of the patriarchs are “more realistic” than those of the Kings List. 900+ years is still an impossibly old age, so the difference between 900 years and 36,000 years is not “realism,” but merely the level of hyperbole.

    Finally, the initial claim the similarity between the numerology in the two lists does not, IMO, do anything to establish the “historicity” of the patriarchal account. This claim is based on the author’s unfounded assumption that the Genesis list predates the Sumerian list; but if this assumption is cleared away, the only thing established by the similarity is the fact that one of the lists more than likely borrowed its structure and numerology from the other.

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