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Reason and Revelation Volume 40 #8

Can I Trust the Numbers in Genesis 5?

[EDITOR’S NOTE: AP auxiliary writer Dr. Rogers is the Director of the Graduate school of Theology and Associate Professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University. He holds an M.A. in New Testament from Freed-Hardeman University as well as an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Hebraic, Judaic, and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.]

The numbers in Genesis 5 have long raised challenges for readers of Scripture. The most obvious problem is with the surprisingly long lifespans recorded of ancient humanity. Many moderns simply find it difficult to believe anyone could live for 900 years! So that raises questions about the basic credibility of the Bible, or at least of the primeval history (Genesis 1-11).1 But Genesis 5 presents a more nuanced issue that does not appear obvious to readers of the Bible in modern translation. Because the standard modern-language versions translate the Masoretic Hebrew text primarily if not entirely, modern readers have no idea that the ancient translations vary quite strikingly in the numbers they provide. Before we begin our analysis of the situation, we might offer a brief word on the nature of the evidence. Then we will address the textual variations in Genesis 5.

The Masoretic Hebrew Text

The Hebrew Bible is extraordinarily ancient. The earliest parts were composed according to internal evidence as early as 1400 B.C. and the most recent around 430 B.C. This means the recovery of any original manuscript is all but hopeless. Indeed, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was a remarkable peek into fragments of the biblical text as old as the third century B.C. However, not enough remains from the Dead Sea Scrolls for us to compile a complete Hebrew Bible.2 This means we are reliant on the Masoretic Text. The Masoretic Text is very close to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls in many cases, and was probably standardized among the rabbis after the time of the New Testament. One confirmation is Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Hebrew Bible (A.D. 390-410), which reflects with few significant variants the Masoretic Text.

The Septuagint

The “Septuagint” is the name assigned among ancient authors to the Greek translation of the Old Testament, although this is a misnomer. The term septuaginta in Latin means “70,” and the number comes from the 2nd-century B.C. Letter of Aristeas which reports that 70 Jewish translators (or 72) were sent from Jerusalem to Alexandria, Egypt for the purpose of translating the Pentateuch. Ptolemy II (reigned 283-246 B.C.) requested the translation because he wanted the best books in the world contained in the library of Alexandria. Aristeas, however, speaks only of the Pentateuch (not the rest of the books), and modern scholars find Aristeas’ narrative fanciful and unreliable (the Hebrew scroll from which the Septuagint was translated was written with letters of gold, for example). It is now widely believed that the entirety of the Old Testament was translated into Greek sometime between the third and first centuries B.C. although we do not know where, why, and by whom.

The Samaritan Pentateuch

The Samaritan community (which still exists today) produced its own Pentateuch, which is the only part of the Hebrew Bible it regards as sacred. Like the Masoretic Text, whose earliest manuscript dates to the 10th century A.D., the Abisha Scroll is the earliest preserved text of the Samaritan Pentateuch, and it dates no earlier than the 12th century A.D. It is commonly claimed that 6,000 differences exist between the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Masoretic Text, but most of these are spelling variations and other minor variants. The Samaritan Pentateuch does, however, include explicit information that squares with its own theology against traditional Jewish doctrine, such as a command to worship on Mount Gerizim (cf. John 4:20). The Dead Sea Scrolls sometimes support readings that match the Samaritan Pentateuch in contrast with the Masoretic Text (although about a third of these match the Septuagint as well). This suggests that the Samaritan community sometimes preserves an ancient Hebrew recension3 transmitted in no other textual tradition.

Comparing the Evidence

The three textual traditions we have discussed all receive support from different manuscripts and biblical quotations found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, although the Masoretic Text is clearly the most dominant. Therefore, it is important for scholars to compare and contrast the ancient evidence in order to arrive at the earliest text. Much of the time such comparisons yield clear results. But in the case of Genesis 5 it is more complicated. The textual traditions disagree in many cases. The situation is further complicated by the unfortunate fact that the biblical manuscripts discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls yielded no information sufficient for analysis in relation to the numbers of Genesis 5.

Table 1 offers a quick glance at the three texts. I take the Masoretic Hebrew as standard. Differences from the Masoretic Hebrew are noted in bold.

Person

Masoretic Hebrew4

Septuagint

Samaritan
Pentateuch5

Adam

130 + 800 = 930 years

230+ 700 = 930 years

130 + 800 = 930 years

Seth

105 + 807 = 912 years

205 + 707= 912 years

105 + 807 = 912 years

Enosh

90 + 815 = 905 years

190 + 715= 905 years

90 + 815 = 905 years

Kenan

70 + 840 = 910 years

170 + 740= 910 years

70 + 840 = 910 years

Mahalalel

65 + 830 = 895 years

165 + 730= 895 years

65 + 830 = 895 years

Jared

162 + 800 = 962 years

162 + 800 = 962 years

62 + 785 = 847 years

Enoch

65 + 300 = 365 years6

165 + 200= 365 years

65 + 300 = 365 years

Methuselah

187 + 782 = 969 years

167 + 802 = 969 years

67 + 653 = 720 years

Lamech

182 + 595 = 777 years

188 + 565 = 753 years

53 + 600 = 653 years

Several observations are in order. First, note that the Masoretic Hebrew and the Samaritan versions are largely in agreement. In only three places do we find discrepancies (Jared, Methuselah, and Lamech). Second, note that the Septuagint never agrees with the Samaritan version. This suggests no textual relationship between the two. It is true that the Septuagint agrees with the Hebrew version in its entirety only once. However, in every case except one, the disagreements concern the lesser numbers (the age of the patriarch at the birth of his first child plus the number of years from that point to his death). The Septuagint’s totals of the patriarchal lifespans are identical with the Masoretic Text (except with Lamech). Third, note that the ancient versions do not solve the alleged problem of the extreme ages of the patriarchs. The three differences in the Samaritan Pentateuch do in fact reduce the ages of three patriarchs, but is it any more believable that Methuselah, for example, lived to the age of 720 as opposed to 969?

How Did the Textual Corruption Occur?

A quick scan of the chart above obviously invites the question of textual corruption. All the texts cannot be right since they disagree. So which one is right, and how do we know? This question is impossible to answer with certainty, but perhaps we can offer a tentative explanation of how the corruption may have come to be.

First, according to our most ancient evidence (from Egypt and Babylonia), numbers were written pictographically. That is, numbers were symbols. This should not seem strange to us since the modern Arabic numerals are also symbols (1,2,3, etc.). Most ancient Near Eastern systems simply used tally marks for the first nine numbers (1= |, 2 = ||, 3 = |||, etc.). So to count 1–9 one needed simply to count tallies. The symbols change from there but the principle remains the same. In Hieroglyphic, for example, ⊓ is 10, but ⊓⊓ 20, ⊓⊓⊓ 30, and so on. The symbol changes again at 100, but the pattern repeats. Although symbolic variations exist among the various Near Eastern languages, the basic principles pretty well hold. This means by simply miscounting symbols, a scribe could be off by factors of 10 or even 100.

Most of the variations in the table above between the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text can be accounted for by a single scribe miscounting a single symbol. Of the Septuagint’s 17 differences, all but five can be attributed to miscounting a symbol for 100. This is a reduction of the variation over 70%! Although the numerical writing system does not account for every difference, it greatly reduces the number of variants.

Second, even after numbers are spelled in full, they remain subject to corruption in ancient manuscripts (not just the Bible). For example, no one today writes “one thousand and five hundred and eighty-seven.” Reading that number is much more confusing than reading “1,587.” Likewise, in ancient Hebrew one reads “two ten years and nine hundred years” in Seth’s case (912 years). Even assuming the numbers were initially transcribed accurately from the original, they could easily have been corrupted in the later manuscript tradition. The fact that the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint reflect greater variation toward the end of the patriarchal list may indicate scribal fatigue. The need to copy laboriously one number after the other may help to explain some of the problems in the transmission of numbers in Genesis 5.

Which Text Do We Believe?

While all ancient evidence of the text of Scripture is important, not all evidence is to be weighed equally. As a Greek translation, the Septuagint is one step removed from the Hebrew it translates. Since we do not have the manuscripts from which the Septuagint was translated, we cannot always know when the Septuagint reflects a different Hebrew text or when the translator(s) has made a mistake. The Samaritan Pentateuch has the advantage of being a Hebrew text that traces its lineage back to a very ancient textual tradition. But the Masoretic (or proto-Masoretic) Text is far more prominent among the Dead Sea Scrolls than the Samaritan version. This indicates the Samaritan tradition may be based on a fringe text considered inferior by the majority of Jews. Finally, the judgment of basically all English Bible translators since Jerome is not likely to be wrong. They have elected not to follow the Septuagint or the Samaritan Pentateuch for good reason. It is for good reason that the Masoretic Text is taken as the standard base for virtually all mainstream translations of the Old Testament.

Conclusion

The reader must keep in mind that all discussions concerning scribal errors and variations among manuscripts of the Bible may leave the impression that the text has been so corrupted that we cannot know God’s Word. This misimpression is understandable since textual criticism tends to focus on alleged problems of transmission and to ignore the remarkable accuracy with which the Bible has been copied. Hebrew scholar Bruce Waltke stresses that “in every era there was a strongtendency to preserve the text,”7 and that about “95 percent” of the Old Testament text is sound.8 If Waltke is correct, then textual critics deal only with about 5% of cases, and most of these involve problems that are easily solved.

I will conclude with an illustration. I can consult with many medical doctors, all of whom have legitimate education and licenses. But when it comes to a rare medical condition, surely I do not assume all doctors speak with equal authority. I respect the opinions of every medical professional, but I go to the Mayo Clinic for a reason: the treatment is generally regarded as better. The doctors are better educated and better able to diagnose and treat rare conditions. The numbers in Genesis 5 happen to be a rare case. It is unusual to find so much textual variation in the ancient evidence. In order to “heal” the differences in the text, I prefer to consult the textual tradition that is (1) oldest and (2) with the longest track record of trustworthiness. The Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch are valuable textual traditions that ought to be respected. But they do not deserve the weight accorded the Masoretic Text. So, in the case of the numbers in Genesis 5, we cannot explain every variant (although we can give reasonable explanations for most). And all the numbers are extraordinarily high, at least from a modern perspective. Yet the Masoretic tradition deserves to be followed. You can trust your English translation.

Endnotes

1 See Appendix 2 in Creation Compromises (2000), (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, second edition), pp. 357ff., http://apologeticspress.org/pdfs/e-books_pdf/cre_comp.pdf.

2 On the Dead Sea Scrolls see Justin Rogers (2019), “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible,” Reason & Revelation, 39[11]:122-125,128-131, http://apologeticspress.org/apPubPage.aspx?pub=1&issue=1307.

3 A “recension” is a critical revision of an earlier text.

4 Most mainstream translations of the English Bible follow the Masoretic Hebrew closely.

5 I translate the Masoretic text and the Septuagint myself. I take the translation of the Samaritan Pentateuch from Benyamin Tsedaka, ed. (2013), The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah: First English Translation Compared with the Masoretic Version (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

6 All the ancient versions explain Enoch’s rather modest age as a result of the fact that “God took him” (i.e., he did not die).

7 Bruce K. Waltke, “How We Got the Hebrew Bible: The Text and Canon of the Old Testament,” pp. 27-50 in The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, and Interpretation, edited by Peter W. Flint (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001; the exact reference quoted here is found on p. 47).

8 Bruce K. Waltke, “Old Testament Textual Criticism,” pp. 156-86 in Foundations for Biblical Interpretation, edited by David S. Dockery, Kenneth A. Matthews, and R. Sloan (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994; the exact reference quoted here is found on p. 158).

 




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