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Don Stewart :: Did the Ancients Live as Long as the Bible Said They Did?

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Don Stewart
In the Book of Genesis we find long life-spans recorded for many of the people who lived. For example, in the fifth chapter of Genesis we are given the ages of the people who lived after Adam and Eve.

So all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died . . . So all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years and he died . . . So all the days of Methusaleh were nine hundred and sixty-nine years; and he died (Genesis 5:5,8,27).

Before the Flood, the Bible records people living many hundreds of years. Apart from the ones just mentioned, the Bible records Enosh lived 905 years, Cainan lived 910 years, Mahalaleel 895 years, and Jared 962 years. The average age of those men listed in Genesis 5 is 912!

After The Flood

In addition, the Bible speaks of people after the Flood as living for a long period of time. Though the ages diminish after the Flood, they still lived for a long period of time. For example Abraham lived 175 years (Genesis 25:7) Isaac lived 180 years (Genesis 35:28), Jacob lived 147 years (Genesis 47:28), Joseph 110 years (Genesis 50:26), Moses lived 120 years (Deuteronomy 34:7). Are these ages to be understood literally?


There are some who have attempted to make these ages only figurative. There are those who have attempted to explain the extended lengths in which people lived before the Flood in a non-literal sense.

Among the alternative explanations is that the great ages are either: (1) ages of clans not individuals (2)) based upon different means of calculating years.

Clans Or Tribes

Some see the years listed in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 as literal years but not with reference to individuals. Though they do admit that certain of the names do belong to individuals, the references are primarily to clans or tribes rather than persons. For example, the Adam clan ruled for 130 years until a person was born who eventually ruled the Seth clan. The Adam tribe continued to rule for another 800 years until the Seth clan, the next clan listed, began its 912 year rule. Some students believe there may have been lengthy gaps of time between the completion of the rule of one clan and the beginning of the rule of the next clan.

1.Biblical Support

The Bible does sometimes speak of a group of people by the name of an individual. For instance, in the Book of Judges (chapter 1) the text speaks of Judah and Simeon as individuals, And Judah said to Simeon his brother (Judges 1:3). However in this context they clearly represent tribal units. Therefore, we may have an example of this in Genesis where the names represent dynasties rather than individuals.

2.Eliminate Long Ages

This dynastic view would eliminate the need of trying to explain the long ages of the people that lived before and after the Flood. In addition, with the supposed lengthy gaps in the genealogies, it would push the date of the creation of man much further back in time. This would make it more in line with the views of modern science.

Problems With Dynastic View

There are, however, many problems with arguing that the names in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 represent clans or dynasties rather than individuals.

1.Names Of Individuals

To begin with, we know that certain of the names mentioned in the genealogy do belong to individuals. Adam, Seth, Enoch, Lamech, Noah, Shem, and Abraham are specifically singled out as individuals. If these names represent individuals, then why should we believe the other names refer to clans or tribes? Those who consider the other names to refer to dynasties have the burden of proof on them.

2.Cain And Abel Were Individuals

Cain and Abel, the first two sons of Eve, were obviously individuals. Seth, on the other hand, is supposed to represent some dynasty that was to arise in the future. The obvious sense of the passage is that Seth was a third son of Adam and Eve-no different from Cain and Abel.

3.Reads As History

The text reads as a personal history of individuals. It not only mentions the particular son in the line, it also says that sons and daughters were born to that son.

4.Ages Given

Furthermore, the age of the father is given when he produces the particular son that is named. This fact alone seems to eliminate the tribal concept.

The fact that nothing is mentioned with regard to the personal history of some of the names in the genealogy (e.g. Enosh, Cainan, Mahalaleel) should not be taken to prove they were clans rather than individuals.

Therefore, the view that the names represent tribes, dynasties or clans rather than individuals does not have much support.

Different Method Of Calculating Years

Some have thought the high amount of years is due to a different method of calculating years. It has been argued that the ages were given in lunar months rather than solar years. The results of doing this are nonsensical. Adam would have fathered Seth at age eleven and Enoch would have only been five when he fathered Methusaleh!


The historic view, that the early humans lived for long periods of time, can be maintained. The natural way of reading the text in Genesis 5 is that each name mentioned was of an individual who fathered a son who himself, in turn, fathered a son.

1.Taken As Literal

There is nothing in Scripture that would have us believe that these ages were to be understood as anything but literal. Simon Peter stated that the world was different before the Flood.

By which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water (2 Peter 3:6).

2.New Testament

In the New Testament, Luke treats the line of people from Adam to Noah in the same manner-as literal people. There is no convincing evidence that this genealogy, or any other genealogy recorded in Scripture, is doing anything but recording historical facts. Every biblical example where the age of an individual is recorded is written as history. This is true whether it be the age of a king of Judah at his accession to the throne, or the three instances where Luke records the age of the Lord Jesus (Luke 2:21,2:42;3:32).

3.Long-Time Belief

Furthermore, the idea that the Patriarchs lived for long ages has been believed for the last three thousand years. It is only in recent times that these ages have been challenged.

4.Other Ancient Accounts

It is interesting to note that other ancient cultures contained examples of longevity among their people. Old Testament scholar Merrill Unger writes concerning these other ancient accounts.

It has been customary for critics to treat the longevity of the pre-Flood patriarchs as obviously legendary or mythical. According to the Weld-Blundell Prism, eight antediluvian kings reigned over the lower Mesopotamian cities of Eridu, Badtibira, Larak, Sippar and Shuruppak; and the period of their combined rule totaled 241,200 years (the shortest reign being 18,600 years, the longest 43,200). Berossus, a Babylonian priest (3rd century B.C.) lists ten names in all (instead of eight) and further exaggerates the length of their reigns. Other nations too have traditions of primeval longevity.
Attempts to correlate Berossus' ten kings with the ten patriarchs have failed. However, the names as presented by the Sumarian King List and Berossus evidently represent a corrupted tradition of the historical facts as preserved in Genesis 5, beside giving extrabiblical indication of the greater length of human life before the Flood (Merrill Unger, The New Unger's Bible Handbook , revised by Gary N. Larsen, Chicago: Moody Press, 1984, p. 36).

5.Future Long Life Spans

We should not think the ages of the patriarchs as something remarkable when we find that people will again live long life spans in the future. Scripture tells us that in the future there will be people who will enjoy long life spans on earth.

No more shall an infant from there live but a few days, nor an old man has not fulfilled his days; for the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years shall be accursed (Isaiah 65:20).


Though some interpreters have attempted to view the genealogies in Genesis as non-literal ages of individuals there is good reason to accept the ages of those living before and after the Flood in a literal manner. The reasons are as follows:

1.It is the natural reading of the text and is consistent with the rest of Scripture.

2.It has been the historic view of both Jewish and Christian commentators of Genesis.

3.The genealogy of Genesis 5 clearly seems to speak of individuals rather than clans or tribes.

4.Other ancient civilizations record long life-spans for their leaders.

5. Future life-spans will also be in the hundreds of years.

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