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The Bible, Science, and the Ages of the Patriarchs

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

INTRODUCTION

As one reads through the Bible, on occasion he is confronted with statements, situations, or events that, at first glance, seem to be either impossible or improbable—when viewed from a distinctly modern vantage point. One good example of such an occurrence might be the statements of Scripture regarding the ages of several of the Old Testament patriarchs. Genesis 5 records that prior to the Flood, people typically lived for hundreds of years, with the average age of the antediluvian patriarchs (excluding Enoch, who was taken to his reward without dying) being 912 years. As Leupold observed, “At once we are struck by the longevity of these patriarchs; all except three lived in excess of nine hundred years. It is useless to attempt to evade this fact” (1942, 1:233).

Leupold’s observation that it is “useless to attempt to evade” the clear statements of Scripture regarding the long life spans of the patriarchs is correct, of course, in the sense that no one can deny that the Bible attributes long ages to many of the ancient patriarchs. The Bible specifically states that Adam, for example, lived 930 years (Genesis 5:5), Methuselah lived 969 years (Genesis 5:27), etc. However, as Leupold himself discussed in his two-volume Exposition of Genesis, some have suggested that while the Bible says these old worthies lived to be vast ages, that is not what it means. In other words, while the biblical statements themselves on these matters are clear, their meaning is not.

This is the case, we are told, because it is a matter of record that men today (obviously) do not live to be centuries old. Thus, some have suggested that the biblical record is unacceptable and therefore needs to be “fixed” or “explained” to bring it more into line with modern scientific facts on these matters, and to make its message palatable to people of our day and age. What recourse is available, then, to the person who discovers that there is a disagreement between plain, historical statements of Scripture and modern scientific pronouncements?

First, one might simply acknowledge that the Bible is inspired of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and as such is accurate in its renderings. If such a person has studied the matter(s) at hand, and is assured that his understanding of Scripture is accurate, he will revere the Word of God as just that—the Word of God—and will accept its teachings as trustworthy, in spite of modern-day claims to the contrary. Second, of course, a person might merely dismiss the biblical record as little more than ancient folklore—worthy of about as much admiration and reverence as, say, Aesop’s fables. Such an attitude rejects biblical claims of inspiration, and instead does obeisance to current scientific or philosophical pratings. Third, one might—from all outward appearances—claim to accept the Bible as speaking accurately and truthfully on whatever matters it addresses, all the while in reality compromising its teachings on a variety of subjects. Thus, while such a person pretends to respect the Bible as God’s Word, he instead is sowing seeds of compromise. Generally, this is the person who waits to see what “science” has to say before making any determination on the matter. Then, if science is at odds with the Bible, the Scriptures must be “corrected” to fit the scientific data or interpretations. We never are told that science must correct its view, only the reverse—viz., the biblical record must be altered to fit currently prevailing scientific data.

DOES THE BIBLICAL RECORD OF THE
PATRIARCHS ’AGES NEED TO BE “FIXED”?

It is my intent here to examine and discuss the spirit of compromise exhibited by those in the third group mentioned above. There are a number of notable examples of such compromise, any one of which is illustrative of the attitudes portrayed. Two such examples will suffice.

In 1990, Ronald F. Youngblood edited a book titled The Genesis Debate, in which various areas of Scripture were discussed by disputants on both sides of an issue. Chapter eight of that volume discusses the question, “Did people live to be hundreds of years old before the Flood?” In that chapter, Duane L. Christensen first advocated the view that the biblical record simply cannot be accepted as it is written. He then suggested a number of methods that could be employed to “fix” the text so as to resolve what he considered a serious discrepancy between biblical statements and current scientific knowledge (Christensen, 1990, pp. 166-183). Christensen’s assessment was that these numbers are, to use his words, “excessively large,” scientifically unverifiable, and therefore, quite simply, unacceptable.

In the June 1978 Does God Exist? journal that he edits, John Clayton addressed the patriarchs’ ages in an article on “The Question of Methuselah.” He suggested:

One of the most frequently asked questions that we receive in our lecture series is “How did men live so long during early Biblical times?” The Bible indicates ages of 969, 950, etc., years for early men. From a scientific standpoint we cannot verify this figure. By studying the bones of the oldest men we get ages of ten to thirty-five years usually, and only rarely an age as high as fifty (1978a, 5[6]:11, emp. added).

The point made by both Christensen and Clayton is that from a scientific standpoint, the patriarchs’ ages as given in the Bible cannot be verified. In the September 1978 issue of his journal, Clayton commented:

One final difficulty that this relates to is the attempts made by some to nail down specific historic dates to Biblical events of great antiquity. The ages of men in the past cannot be answered with great accuracy (1978b, 5[9]:9, emp. added).

Why can the ages of men in the past not “be answered with accuracy”? Is it because the Bible is unclear on its statements regarding these men’s ages? No, the biblical statements are both clear and unambiguous. The simple fact of the matter is that neither of these two writers is willing to accept the biblical testimony because allegedly there is no scientific evidence. In an April 20, 1987 letter to a gentleman in Wyoming who had written to ask him about this very point, Mr. Clayton wrote:

It is a fact that there is no scientific evidence that people lived to be hundreds of years old. It may just be that we haven’t found the right bones, but most bones of ancient men turn out to be twenty or thirty years of age and none have [sic] been found, to my knowledge, older than eighty years old. For this reason, I have tried to point out that there are many possible ways in which the extreme age of Methuselah might be explained... (p. 2, emp. added).

The absence of scientific evidence substantiating the Bible’s claims for the ages of the patriarchs is why Clayton cannot bring himself to accept those ages. Think for just a moment how radical this position really is. What “scientific evidence” do we possess that “proves” the virgin birth of Jesus? Since science cannot prove that such an event ever occurred, should an alternate explanation be sought? This line of reasoning could be expanded almost endlessly. Since science cannot “prove” Christ’s bodily resurrection, the parting of the Red Sea, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and hundreds of other such occurrences, then must these events—which remain both scientifically unverified and unverifiable—simply be dismissed in the same way these two authors suggest that the patriarchs’ ages be dismissed?

Furthermore, there is another aspect to this question that needs to be explored. Aging is a metabolic process. Various species appear to be “programmed” for death within a given age range. Fleas, for example, live for about five years. Dogs live for an average of around fifteen years. Humans, on the other hand, can live upwards of seventy, eighty, ninety, or even a hundred years. Fleas never reach such an age; their genetic package will not allow it. In an article titled “Decreased Lifespans: Have We Been Looking in the Right Place?” that he authored for the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, Carl Wieland commented on this matter as follows:

Barring accidental death, one-celled organisms are potentially “immortal.” A bacterial cell reproduces by dividing into two where there was one, those two then become four, and so on. Why then do multicelled organisms die? Individual human cells in tissue culture divide some fifty times and then stop—some sort of pre-programmed genetic limit is reached. Human tumor cells, on the other hand, can be propagated indefinitely by division—the DNA mechanisms for pre-programmed cessation of division appears to be lacking or damaged in such cancer cells.

In multicellular organisms, once damaged and worn cells can no longer replace themselves, death is only a matter of time as the function of whole organ systems deteriorates. So even without accidents or disease there is a programmed “upper limit” on our age, which appears to be 120 years or so....

I suggest that our ancestors simply possessed genes for greater longevity which caused this “genetic limit” to human ages to be set at a higher level in the past.

Suggestive evidence in support of this is the fact that in some other organisms (for example, fruit flies), it has been shown that changes in average life spans can be bred into or out of populations.…

If this suggestion has merit as the major (if not the sole) cause of great pre-Flood ages, then the obvious question is how some of these longevity genes were lost. The human population went through a severe genetic bottleneck at the time of the Flood—only eight individuals. The phenomenon of “genetic drift” is well known to be able to account for “random,” selectively neutral changes in gene frequencies which may be quite rapid. Also, loss of genes is far more likely in a small population....

It is also likely (if not more so) that genes coding for lesser longevity arose by mutational degeneration, with their frequency of possession rising as time passed. At the moment, too little is known of the exact mechanics of the way in which cells are programmed to die in order to offer more specific suggestions (1994, 8[2]:139-140, emp. added, parenthetical comments in orig.).

What if, in the past, human metabolism was much slower? What would be the end result? Gerald Schroeder, in his book, The Science of God, addressed such questions.

There are terrible mutations that upset the delicate aging process. Progeria speeds up the aging process almost tenfold, causing a teenager to die with the body of an old person. Within the realm of possibilities is the reverse process, slowing aging tenfold. It would be surprising but not inconceivable that manipulation of a flea’s genome might allow it to live ten times longer than normal, thus reaching the age of fifty years. After all, several animals species live even longer than fifty years. The fact that no animals currently reach the long ages associated with pre-Noah biblical persons does not preclude the possibility that this potential exists within our genome.

If human metabolism was slower and life spans were longer during the pre-Noah period, fossils would not indicate this. The slower metabolisms would result in fossils that appear to have formed from younger individuals (1997, pp. 202-203, emp. added).

In a fascinating article published in Science Digest some years back (“How Your Bones Tell Your Age”), Frederic W. Nordsiek observed:

Bone is hard and cannot grow from the inside out as can soft tissues like skin or muscle. Therefore, for example, each of the long bones of the arms and legs at first consists of two bones, with a growing section in between them. After growth is finished, these pairs of bones fuse together.... Human bones continue to fuse together right up to advanced old age (1960, 47[5]:17-18, emp. added).

Consider all of these scientific facts collectively, and you will see how they demolish arguments like those from Christensen and Clayton which suggest that “there is no scientific evidence that people lived to be hundreds of years old.” Observe what happens when the scientific facts of the matter are interpreted properly.

We know—scientifically—that: (1) aging “is a metabolic process”? (2) the process is indeed controlled by a “pre-programmed genetic limit”? and (3) “human bones continue to fuse together right up to advanced old age.” If people at that distant point in human history possessed slower metabolism rates (an extremely reasonable suggestion, considering the condition of the world in which they were living at the time—see Dillow, 1981), and if the human genome contained genes for greater longevity, then the patriarchs could have lived to vast old ages, and the slower metabolisms would result in fossils that appeared to have formed from much younger individuals. In short, scientists actually could be in possession of—could be staring at in their laboratories—bones from people who had lived to ripe old ages, and they never would know it! Thus, the allegation that “most bones of ancient men turn out to be twenty or thirty years of age and none has been found older than eighty years old” (to use Clayton’s exact words) means absolutely nothing in light of the actual scientific facts concerning human aging.

And surely the question must be asked: Why do the great ages of the patriarchs need to be “explained” in the first place? Why not simply accept the biblical record as it is written? In his June 1978 article on Methuselah, John Clayton provided the answer to that question as he discussed several possible ways to “explain” the patriarchs’ ages. He wrote:

The first possibility is that God miraculously changed man’s life expectancy. There is no discussion of such a miracle in the Bible, but many miracles occurred during the creation which are not recorded in Genesis I. This may well be the answer, but since no skeptic would accept it we’ll consider some other possibilities (1978a, 5[9]:11, emp. added).

This is incredible. First we are told that because there is “no scientific evidence,” the great ages of the patriarchs therefore must be “explained.” Second, we are told that since “no skeptic would accept” a particular view on these matters, “other possibilities” need to be explored. What a sad commentary on how Mr. Clayton, and others like him, view God’s inspired Word. It brings to mind the comment of biblical scholar Edward J. Young in his book, Studies in Genesis One:

What strikes one immediately upon reading such a statement is the low estimate of the Bible which it entails. Whenever “science” and the Bible are in conflict, it is always the Bible that, in one manner or another, must give way. We are not told that “science” should correct its answers in the light of Scripture. Always it is the other way around (1964, p. 54).

The question, then, no longer becomes, “Does the Word of God affirm it?” but instead “Can science confirm it?” As Wayne Jackson observed:

Whenever such people read the Scriptures, they do so with an eye cast back over their shoulder to see if science agrees; and whenever science asserts that which is different from what the Bible says, in desperation they are ready to append, delete, stretch, or constrict the sacred narrative to make it conform to the latest notions of the scientific community (1978, 14:14).

SUGGESTED METHODS FOR “FIXING”
THE AGES OF THE PATRIARCHS

Exactly how do Bible critics suggest that the patriarchs’ great ages be “explained”? Several methods have been offered, among which are the following.

Ages Determined by Counting Years as Months

Some have suggested that men’s ages were not determined in ancient times as they are today. For example, John Clayton wrote:

The guess that appeals to this writer is that the methods of measuring age are not the same today as they were when men lived so long.... We also know that many cultures use the moon as a measure of age (such as many American Indian tribes). If Methuselah were measured on such a system his age would be 80 years, plus the time till he became a father. This doesn’t change anything as he would still be phenomenally old—especially for the day in which he lived, but it would give a modern comprehension of how such an age was calculated (1978a, 5[6]:12, parenthetical item in orig.).

Old Testament scholar John J. Davis addressed this suggestion in two of his books. In the first, Biblical Numerology, he observed:

The most common method of escaping the problem connected with these large numbers is to make “year” mean a shorter period such as a month. This view, however, finds no support at all in the Biblical text for the term “year” is never used in this manner in the Old Testament. In addition to this textual weakness, there is a serious chronological problem that is raised by such a view. In Genesis 5:6 we are told that Seth begat Enos when he was 105 years old. If “years” in this text really means “months” then this verse would propose that Seth had a son when he was only about nine years old! (1968, p. 58; see also Borland, 1990, p. 171).

In his second work, Paradise to Prison, Dr. Davis suggested: “There seems to be no reason to regard the names and ages of the individuals in this chapter as other than fully historical.” Why so? The reason is simple. It would be difficult for someone to believe a person (e.g., Seth) could beget a child when he was only nine years old, but, as Davis pointed out, “Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, and Enoch would have been fathers at even younger ages” (1975, p. 106, emp. added). Frederick Filby discussed this solution in his book, The Flood Reconsidered:

This we reject completely, as not only can it be shown to be absolutely wrong, but it makes more difficulties than it solves. Enoch, we are told, had a son, Methuselah, when he was sixty-five. If we divide by twelve he had a son when he was 5.4 years old! (1970, p. 21).

John Clayton has complained that skeptics never would believe that men lived to the vast ages ascribed to them in the Bible. One cannot help but wonder if these same skeptics would find it any easier to believe that Enoch—to use Dr. Filby’s example—produced a child when he himself was barely over five years old!

The Bible itself makes a clear distinction between the length of years and months, thereby eliminating the critics’ suggestion that perhaps men’s ages were counted via “moons” (i.e., months), not years. In Genesis 8:13 it is recorded: “And it came to pass in the six hundred and first year, in the first month....” Moses apparently understood the difference between a month and year. Why do the Bible’s critics have so much difficulty in distinguishing between the two?

The Bible similarly presents compelling evidence to eliminate the idea that men’s ages should be divided by 12 in order to arrive at an accurate figure for the number of years they actually lived. Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16). Divided by 12, this means that the patriarch was just over 7 years of age at the birth of his first child, and Sarah was just under 6 when she first gave birth! Further, Abraham must have died at the “good old age” of a shade over 14 (Genesis 25:7-8)! As it turns out, the critics’ attempts to “fix” the Bible create a worse problem than they sought to solve.

Ages Counted from Birth of First Offspring

Another suggestion offered in response to the patriarchs’ vast ages is that these ages appear larger than normal because “some primitive people measure their age not from the time of their birth, but from the time they produce offspring, or are accepted as an adult in the community in which they live” (Clayton, 1978a, 5[6]:12). In other words, the figures presented in the Bible are too large because they have not yet been “adjusted” (i.e., shortened) to allow for the true age—calculated from the time of the birth of the first offspring, or from the time a person was recognized as an adult.

Two things may be said regarding this idea. First, there is not a scrap of evidence that the ages of the patriarchs were counted only from the time of the birth of their firstborn. It is one thing to speculate on such, but another thing entirely to prove it. Where is the critics’ evidence that the patriarchs’ ages were treated in such a manner? Second, the Bible deals a deathblow to this suggestion when it specifically mentions men’s ages before they produced offspring, eliminating the idea that their ages were not calculated prior to that event. Genesis 12:4 says: “And Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed out of Haran.” Once again, the critics’ attempts to “fix” the inspired text have made their last condition worse than their first.

Ages Represent not Individuals, but Dynasties

In the late 1800s, as opposition to the Bible grew and skepticism in general increased, theologians sought ways to make the Bible conform to the claims of Darwinian evolution and uniformitarian geology. While liberal theologians were working diligently to insert vast ages of geological time into the biblical text, somewhat ironically, they simultaneously were working to remove the vast ages of the patriarchs from that same text.

One novel way to do that was to offer the idea that the names in the genealogical lists (specifically those mentioned in Genesis 5 and 11) were used to refer to entire dynasties, clans, or tribes, and only rarely to actual individuals. Borland has explained what this would accomplish:

This would mean that when the Adam clan had exercised dominion for 130 years, a person was born in the Adam clan who eventually either ruled or was the progenitor of the Seth clan. The Adam clan continued to be powerful for an additional 800 years, and then perhaps the Seth clan took over or perhaps there was a gap before the Seth clan exerted its authority for 912 years (1990, p. 174, emp. added).

There are a number of serious problems with this view. First, advocates of the “dynasty” idea cannot remain consistent, because even they are forced to admit that certain names in the lists cannot represent only a clan, but instead must represent individuals. Noah and his sons must have been real individuals, because they were on board the ark. Abraham must have been an individual, not just a dynasty, because he was the father of the Hebrew nation. If these are recognized as individuals, why should not the others be considered as such?

Second, as Leupold commented: “The attempt to let the personal names represent tribes shatters on the clear statement of how old each father was when he begot a son. A complete generation is not thus brought forth within a tribe” (1942, 1:233). Borland commented: “The notation of the age at which a father begat a particular individual (a son) eliminates the tribe concept...” (pp. 174-175). One does not speak of a “dynasty” producing a son, and then give an age for such an occurrence.

Third, in order for this strained interpretation to be acceptable, one has to read the biblical record with a large dose of imagination and a small dose of common sense. For example, when the text says that Eve bore Cain and Abel, everyone recognizes that it is speaking of individuals because one of them (Cain) slew the other (Abel). Yet, when Eve bore Seth, suddenly a distant dynasty is under discussion. Furthermore, how would an advocate of this strange theory deal with the fact that in many instances in the Old Testament, specific brothers and sisters are mentioned? Dynasties do not have brothers and sisters. Borland addressed this aspect in great detail, and gave numerous biblical examples establishing that individuals, not dynasties, are under discussion (pp. 175-176). The idea that the patriarchs’ ages are so large because their names represent tribes or dynasties is completely without merit, and should be rejected.

It is not uncommon for those who refuse to accept the patriarchs’ ages at face value to suggest that the numbers must have some great “theological meaning” attached to them. Time and again I have heard or seen just such a statement. But, when pressed on exactly what that theological meaning might be, supporters of such an idea are at a total loss to offer any explanation. Christensen was forced to admit:

It is probably not possible to recover the key to the theological meaning of the numbers and ages in Genesis 5 and 11, at least in detail. Nonetheless it seems likely that the numbers are not to be taken as simply historical report (1990, p. 180).

In other words, while he cannot explain what the numbers do mean, he does know what they do not mean. They are not to be taken as literal or historical.

But why not? That is exactly how the Bible writers accepted them. Examine this remarkable statement from Moses’ pen. In Genesis 47:9, Jacob, speaking to Pharaoh, said: “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty years: few and evil have been the days of my life, and they have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage.” Notice the point that Jacob was making. He was 130 years old, yet he stated that even at that great age, his days had not reached “the days of the years of the life of my fathers.” If he was 130 years old, and yet he had not reached the age of some of the patriarchs who preceded him, just how old would “his fathers” have been?

Isn’t it remarkable how well the biblical record fits together? And isn’t it wonderful that it can be trusted and accepted, without the kind of “sleight of hand” tricks on which its critics have to rely in order to make their false theories attain some degree of respectability?

REFERENCES

Borland, James A. (1990), “Did People Live to be Hundreds of Years Old Before the Flood?” The Genesis Debate, ed. Ronald F. Youngblood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker). [Borland answers in the affirmative.]

Christensen, Duane L. (1990), “Did People Live to be Hundreds of Years Old Before the Flood?” The Genesis Debate, ed. Ronald F. Youngblood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker). [Christensen answers in the negative.]

Clayton, John N. (1978a), “The Question of Methuselah,” Does God Exist?, 5[6]:11-13, June.

Clayton, John N. (1978b), “The History of Man’s Time Problem,” Does God Exist?, 5[9]:6-10, September.

Clayton, John N. (1987), Personal letter to Mike Christensen of Laramie, Wyoming, pp. 1-2.

Davis, John J. (1968), Biblical Numerology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Davis, John J. (1975), Paradise to Prison—Studies in Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Dillow Joseph (1981), The Waters Above (Chicago, IL: Moody).

Filby, Frederick A. (1970), The Flood Reconsidered (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Jackson, Wayne (1978), “The Age of Methuselah,” Christian Courier, 14:14-16, August.

Leupold, H.C. (1942 reprint), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Nordsiek, Frederic W. (1960), “How Your Bones Tell Your Age,” Science Digest, 47[5]:17-18, May.

Schroeder, Gerald L. (1997), The Science of God (New York: Free Press).

Wieland, Carl (1994), “Decreased Lifespans: Have We Been Looking in the Right Place?,” Creation Ex Nihilo, Technical Journal, 8[2]:139-140.

Young, Edward J. (1964), Studies in Genesis One (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed).




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