Why Did Some People in the Bible Live So Long?

By Vexen Crabtree 2012 Jun 19


The names and ages of the long-lived plus related verses
Adam930Gen. 5:5
Eve940?
Seth912Gen. 5:8

Enos905Gen. 5:11
Kenan910Gen. 5:14
Mahalalel895Gen. 5:17
Jared962Gen. 5:20
Enoch365Gen. 5:23
Methuselah969Gen. 5:27
Lamech777Gen. 5:31
Noah950Gen. 9:29, Qu'ran 29:14
After the flood:
Shem600Gen. 11:10-11
Arpachshad438Gen. 11:12-13
Salah433Gen. 11:14-15
Eber464Gen. 11:16-17
Peleg239Gen. 11:18-19
Reu239Gen. 11:20-21
Serug230Gen. 11:22-23
Nahor148Gen. 11:24-25
Terah205Genesis 11:32
Sarah127Gen. 23:1
Abraham175Gen. 25:7
Isaac180Gen. 35:28
Jacob147Gen. 47:28
Joseph110Gen. 50:26
Job240Job 42:10-17
Levi137
Kohath133
Amaram137Exo. 6:20
Moses120
Aaron123Num. 33:39
Joshua110Joshua 24:29
Unsorted
Jehoiada1302 Chron. 24:15
Cainan?
Esau147?
Ishmael137
Laban130+
Deborah130+
Miriam125+
Rebecca120+

1. How and Why Did Some People in the Bible Live So Long?

The person in the Bible who lived the longest was Methuselah who in Genesis 5:27 is said to have lived to an astounding 969 years old, although, that was still only a few more years than Jared who lived to 962 (Genesis 5:20). In Genesis 6:1-3 the Bible says that mankind's life is (without godly intervention) 120 years, but Psalm 90:10 says that Human life proceeds to 70 years old, or "even" through strength to 80. The Bible, especially in Genesis, describes many people living for hundreds and hundreds of years, although, rarely is there any detail to flesh out what those people done for all that time - their lists of wives and children are comparable to other people who lived normally long lives. Later books of the Bible make some assertions as to what allows people to live longer; Proverbs 9:10-11 and 10:27 say that fearing God prolongs life, and Exodus 20:12 says the same of honouring your father and mother.

It is worth noting that Adam, who was the first human being, according to Genesis, lived for 930 years (Gen. 5:5) even though God said anyone who ate the apple would die the same day (Gen. 2:17). Some argue that this means die spiritually, but it seems that to make this argument you have to believe that Adam and Eve are in hell, or at least, not in heaven. If they are in heaven, and, they lived for hundreds of years after eating the apple, it is quite untrue to say that they died on the day of their scrumping adventure.

The contradictions between Genesis 6:1-3 and Psalms 90:10, between Gen. 5:5 and Gen. 2:17, have led many to consider the whole idea of the extended longevity of early Biblical characters to be symbolic of their influence rather than to mean their actual physical lifespans.

Others have argued that the unbelievable lifespans of some early Biblical-era men is due to their holiness and virtue, their proximity to God1, or due to their uncorrupted genes. In other words, once sin was introduced and it was inherited by children, the state of humankind's genes got progressively worse, causing reduced lifespans. There is serious real-life evidence against these lines of reasoning:

Mistranslations

Christian apologists have tried to make some sense of the some of the millennium-long lives stated in the Bible.

However, applying these ideas results in yet more absurdities such as people fathering children when 3 years old (in the first case), or as young as 5 years old according to Donald Etz's scheme. And, in Gen. 1:14-16 the Bible already notes the difference between lunar and solar cycles. It is highly unlikely that translators somehow managed to make that mistake everywhere else!

There are many parts of stories that are not open to simple mistranslation. Deut. 34:7 specifically notes how when Moses died he was not showing any signs of aging and Job 42:16 says Job saw four generations of his own progeny. Longevity was often part of the story and not a feature of mistranslation.

2. Lack of Longevity in the Qur'an

The Qur'an was authored much later than the Bible, and in the time it was written ideas of longevity were forgotten or rejected by society. Hence, there is no talk of persons living for hundreds and hundreds of years in the Qur'an, except, for Noah (Nur), in Qur'an 29:14, who is said to have stayed with his people for 950 years, although it is arguable that "stayed with his people" merely means revered as a figurehead.

The verse that always comes up when discussing longevity in the Qur'an 36:68, "And he whom We grant long life - We reverse him in creation (weakness after strength). Will they not then understand?" [Mohsin Khan translation - hover over the link for another translation]. This is perhaps related to why the Qur'an does not endorse longevity amongst its heroes, because, it states that the long-lived amongst us suffer weakness (some translations read worse, more like destitution). I would be surprised if many apply such a condemnation to Moses, who is, it seems, an exception.

3. The Cause of Biblical Long Life: Cultural Heroes

All cultures surrounding Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Persian Empire had cultural stories featuring people (heroes and anti-heroes) who lived to amazing ages. Zahkak of Iranian / Persian mythology (appearing in the Avesta) lived to a thousand years old, and many of the most ancient Sumerian kings are said to have lived tens of thousands of years. Such mythological ages were not introduced in to the Bible by accident of translation, they were simply part of the general mythology of the era and location in which the Books of the Bible were written. In all cultures, as time went by, such daft ages were no longer believed in, hence, why all the later Biblical heroes lived for increasingly normal (but still exaggerated) numbers of years.

4. Sociological Data on Life Expectancy Versus Religion 2

Christians are not the only ones who once claimed that longevity amongst believers was a sign that their religion was true - although we have seen that Muslim proponents have not made that claim. The author of "Zen - The Religion of the Samurai" (1913), Kaiten Nukariya, states quite confidently that "history proves that most Zen masters enjoyed a long life in spite of their extremely simple mode of living"3, and also explains the long-lasting influence of Zen in China and Japan and elsewhere. Although it is hard to examine claims that are made for history so long ago, we can look at the world now and see if people's religions affects their long-term health. Unfortunately, the results do not come out favourably for the religious.

Scattergraph of longevity and religiosity by country

Source: Gallup (2009) and UNHDR (2011)4

Only countries that are still very religious have low life expectancy of below 65, and, all countries that have lost religion, or are losing it, have great life expectancy (over 65). There are only two countries that have a religiosity rate over 60% who have life expectancy of over 80yrs. The USA typically skews statistics like this, as it is the only highly developed country with high numbers of people who consider religion to be important in their lives (65%), and, also suffers from relatively seriously health problems compared to other rich countries. But it isn't enough of an outlayer to buck the trend. On average those who are born in countries that are not very religious enjoy 10 years longer life. Of all the countries that have life expectancy of over 80 years at birth, their average religiosity rate is merely 41.7%. Some statistics in some countries (USA show that religious people in those countries have better health than their neighbours, however, it seems if the religious increase in numbers too much, national life expectancy will tend to be found to be much lower. In other words, mass-religiosity is bad news for longevity. As general medical science and advanced technology is tied in with good health as well as lack of poverty, there are a multitude of reasons as to why religion might be negatively correlated with long life. The only sure thing is that when the author of Proverbs 9:10-11 and 10:27 said that God-fearing folk live longer, he hadn't anticipated the rise of mass secularisation!

Read / Write Comments

By Vexen Crabtree 2012 Jun 19
Last Updated: 2013 Apr 11
http://www.holybooks.info/longevity.html

References: (What's this?)

Book Cover

The Koran. Translation by N. J. Dawood. Penguin Classics edition published by Penguin Group Ltd, London, UK. First published 1956, quotes taken from 1999 edition.

The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]

Nukariya, Kaiten. Professor of Kei-O-Gi-Jiku University and of So-To-Shu Buddhist College, Tokyo.
Zen - The Religion of the Samurai (1913). Subtitled "A study of Zen philosophy and discipline in China and Japan". Amazon digital edition. Produced by John B. Hare and proofread by Carrie R. Lorenz.

United Nations
Human Development Report (2011). This edition had the theme of Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All. Published on the United Nation's website at hdr.undp.org/.../HDR_2011_EN_Complete.pdf (accessed throughout 2013, Jan-Mar). UN Development Program: About the Human Development Index.

Footnotes

  1. Josephus Antiquities of the Jews Book 1, Chapter 3 makes such arguments.^
  2. The scattergraph has been updated from 2002 to 2009/2011 data and the associated text rewritten. Added to this page on 2013 Apr 11.^
  3. Nukariya (1913) Introduction pages. Kindle edition digital location 110-11. Added to this page on 2013 Apr 04.^
  4. Gallup (2009) on gallup.com/poll/142727/.... The survey question was "Is religion an important part of your daily life?" and results are charted for those who said "yes". 1000 adults was polled in 114 countries. Life Expectancy statistics come from United Nation's Human Development Report (2011).^

© 2013 Vexen Crabtree. All rights reserved.

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