Last week Scot McKnight posted on the genealogies in the book of Genesis and why he doesn’t believe the immense ages of the patriarchs should be taken literally. I’ve written a bit about the issue, spelling out the various factors involved in a little more detail. Since I’ve been working off-blog on ancient chronology matters, I figured I’d share my thinking with you.
Establishing the Text
First, there are differences in the lifespans and ages at which one patriarch “begot” the next, depending on whether one follows the Masoretic Text, Samaritan Pentateuch, or Septuagint. Furthermore, Josephus gives dates that generally follow the Septuagint, but in at least one instance prefers the Masoretic Text and in a few places is quite unique. For a basic overview, see “Biblical Chronology and Dating of the Early Bible” by Curt Sewell and “Biblical Old Testament Chronology.”
The data may be summarized as follows:
|BEFORE THE FLOOD|
|Gen.||Patriarch||Age at Begetting||Remaining Years||Total Lifespan|
LXX A: 187
LXX B: 167
LXX A: 782
LXX B: 802
|AFTER THE FLOOD|
|Gen.||Patriarch||Age at Begetting||Remaining Years||Total Lifespan|
Jos: 110 (Arphachsad
born 12 years after the
|3||Cainan||LXX: 130||LXX: 330||LXX: 460|
LXX A: 79
LXX B: 179
Jos: 120 (? Text says
“Nahor begat Haran“–is
this a copyist’s error?)
LXX A: 225
LXX B: 125
LXX A: 304
LXX B: 304
Another factor, as may be seen above, is the presence of an additional name in the LXX that is not found in any of the other texts. Cainan is placed between Arphachsad and Shelah. In the LXX, Cainan begat Sala at age 130 and lived a total of 460 years. Cainan’s right to inclusion is established for Christians by his presence in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus (Lk 3:36)—a reading attested by Sinaticus, Vaticanus, and indeed almost the entire textual tradition. Although he is not mentioned in the Masoretic Text, the Samaritan Pentateuch, or Josephus, he is found in the pseudepigraphal book of Jubilees and, according to Polyhistor and Theophilus of Antioch, in the chonology of Demetrius (3rd century BC).
In general, it is easier to explain how a name was dropped from the original text than to explain a name getting added. On this point at least, the weight of the evidence would seem to favor his inclusion. It therefore raises the possibility of additional “gaps” in the genealogical record, and suggests that the numerical information in the LXX should be given due consideration.
The Presence of Gaps
Second, it is highly likely that there are gaps in the genealogical data, as has been noted by conservative scholars for over a hundred years. William Henry Green’s seminal article “Are There Gaps in the Biblical Genealogies?” appeared in Biblitheca Sacra in 1890! (See also here).
Why would there be gaps in the genealogies? A generation might be skipped for any number of reasons. Most obviously and mundanely, the genealogist simply may not have had the necessary data to include every generation. Another rather mundane explanation may be that a person’s father died young, perhaps even during the child’s formative years. In that case, a man might be reckoned “the son” of someone who was actually his grandfather. It must be noted, of course, that in Hebraic thought one’s “father” need not be one’s immediate male ancestor—any male ancestor up the line can qualify for that title. That is why Matthew can call Jesus both “son of David” and “son of Abraham.”
Gaps might also exist in the service of some greater numerical pattern. For example, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is arranged in three sets of fourteen generations (Adam to David, David to the Exile, and the Exile to Christ). This phenomenon may be related to the numerical value of the name David, the sum of whose Hebrew letters (d-w-d) add up to fourteen. Although less often suggested, Luke’s list of seventy-seven names might have been intended to represent eleven sets of seven names each. According to Metzger, Luke’s genealogy
Similarly, the Jewish Seder Olam Zuta (6th century AD?) organizes the data from the biblical genealogies from Adam to King Jehoiakim into five sets of ten generations each. By any of these approaches, it might have been deemed desirable to omit mention of less noteworthy ancestors in the service of some mnemonic or symbolic arrangement. One might also suggest that the redactor(s) of Genesis intentionally “skipped” generations in their genealogies in order to place Lamech (ch. 4) and Enoch (ch. 5) in the culturally significant number seven position in their respective lists, and to arrive at an even ten-generation span from Adam to the flood (ch. 5) and from the flood to Abraham (ch. 11).
In terms of the Genesis genealogies, one easily perceives a stylistic element at work in the treatment of numbers. For example, in Genesis 4 the descendants of Cain are listed in seven generations, with the seventh patriarch (Lamech) being the father of three sons. In Genesis 5, the descendants of Seth come to ten generations, with the tenth patriarch (Noah) also being the father of three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Finally, in Genesis 11 there are ten generations—from Shem to Terah in the LXX text or from Noah to Terah in the Masoretic and Samaritan texts. Terah, of course, was also the father of three sons: Abraham, Nahor, and Haran.
Another variation on the presence of gaps in the genealogies comes from Harold Camping in Adam When? Camping suggests that, with a few exceptions where a direct father-son relationship is required by the text, the lifespans of the patriarchs line up so that the years of one patriarch begin when the years of the previous patriarch end. In other words, the first of Enosh’s 905 years begins with the last of Seth’s 912 years, and so on. It is not at all certain that this is the correct way to read the text. At any rate, it arrives at dates that are far too early for both the creation of Adam (11,013 BC) and the Flood (4990 BC).
Third and most controversially, there is the question of whether the incredible lifespans attributed to the early patriarchs are to be taken literally or figuratively.
Theory 1: Face Value Reading
Of course, the only acceptable reading for the most conservative is a face value assertion that the patriarchs did in fact attain the tremendous ages the Bible describes. The challenge then is to account for the gradual diminution of lifespans noted after the Flood.
- Some attribute the change to the growing pervasiveness of sin in the postdiluvian world.
- Others, who represent the majority among contemporary Young Earth Creationists, assert that changes in the physical environment after the flood is the culprit. This explanation is usually coupled with assertions of reduced metabolic rates in the earliest patriarchs and perhaps a healthier human genome.
- Another recent explanation is derived from an interpretation of Genesis that makes Adam and Eve not the first human beings per se, but the first humans to live in a direct covenant relationship with God. They thus appeared rather recently in the course of human history (some time in the Neolithic period). By this theory, the extreme lifespans of Genesis 5 and 11 pertain only to the direct descendants of Adam. The remainder of the human race had lifespans normal for people of their era. The lifespans of these descendants of Adam gradually diminished through generations of intermarriage with humans outside the Adamic line.
The advantage of these approaches is that it is simple to understand and upholds a high view of Scripture. The distinct disadvantage is that it runs contrary to all that is known of human longevity in the prehistoric period. For example, W. J. MacLennan and W. I. Sellers have detailed much of what can be known on this subject in “Ageing through the Ages.” While MacLennan and Sellers concede that calculating the age of adult bones is more problematic than that of children and adolescents, the margin of error is in the range of a decade or so—not centuries! They conclude that, by using a variety of techniques of measurement simultaneously in a multifactorial equation, an approximate age can in fact be determined.
For the Neolithic period, here are some pertinent figures
- At the Neolithic town of Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia, life expectancy has been calculated at 34 years for men and 29 for women.
- The average Neolithic lifespan was 30-35 years (or more often 32-35). This represents a small increase of 3-5 years over figures for the Mesolithic.
- By way of comparison, an analysis of 170 Neolithic skeletons from a rock shelter in France indicated that the group had a life expectancy of between 25 and 28 years (MacLennan and Sellers).
MacLennan and Sellers conclude: “From the Palaeolithic to the late Mediaeval period the mean life expectancy of humans increased from between 20 and 30 years to 30 to 40 years. Exceptions are that kings, aristocrats and other wealthy individuals lived almost as long as current political, professional, and commercial leaders.”
Many Young Earth Creationists theorize that reduced metabolic rates in distant past would cause human bones to look much younger than they actually are. Thus, they might produce measurements within the expected ranges for human lifespans of the periods, but in fact be older by a factor of ten or more. This and similar theories are nothing but special pleading of the “heads I win, tails you lose” variety. If the bones of a centuries-old human can be produced, it proves the literal reading; if they cannot it proves that environmental conditions were vastly different in primeval times! This renders the contentions of the literalists beyond the possibility of falsification, and thus beyond the bounds of science.
It would seem that the only way to preserve a literal reading of the patriarchal lifespans is to limit them to a tiny minority of the human race—the theory of a recent Adam. Such a “special race” possessing lifespans of nearly 1,000 years would most fittingly be called “sons of God” (or “sons of the gods”) by other mere mortals. This of course would tie in to Nachmanides’ theory that the “sons of God” of Genesis 6:1-4 were humans who possessed somewhat more of the divine image than the more ordinary “daughters of men.”
Theory 2: Eras of Tribal Ascendancy
Some appeal to a supposed practice in Arabian genealogies and family histories of a whole clan being represented as a single individual. This practice is cited in passing here, but I have yet to find additional confirmation. Sometimes appeal is made to Acts 7:16, where the name Abraham may refer to the clan or family of Abraham but cannot refer to the patriarch himself: he was already dead at the time of the financial transaction referred to, which was actually conducted by his grandson Jacob according to Genesis 33:19 and Joshua 24:32.
David Rohl suggests this possibility in Legend (Century, 1998). He claims, for example, that the statement “Adam lived 930 years” should be taken to mean “Adam’s tribe or dynasty endured for 930 years.” That Seth, for example, was a son of Adam need not mean any more than that he was a descendant of Adam–perhaps a grandson or great-grandson.
Bruce Vawtner in A Path Through Genesis (Sheed & Ward, 1956) likewise suggests,
Both the Hebrews and Sumerians/Babylonians knew that many more than ten generations had elapsed during these periods. To bridge over the enormous gaps in time, therefore, both of them assigned tremendous ages to the few names that they possessed. While the Babylonians simply set down astronomical figures, none of them under twenty thousand years, the Hebrew author has been comparatively moderate, and above all, he made his ten generations serve a religious purpose.
This reading would preserve the overall reliability of the numbers in Genesis 5 and 11 (excepting for possible gaps) without committing one to accepting the lifespans literally. The disadvantage comes in those instances where real family relationships are clearly involved, most notably with Noah and his sons and Abraham and his immediate descendants.
Theory 3: Mistranslation or Scribal Error
The existence of three separate textual traditions immediately alerts us that there are some problems with the transmission of the numbers in Genesis 5 and 11. One possibility appeals to conventions of rendering numerals in Sumerian cuneiform. The cuneiform symbol for 100 was first used for 10. If the ages of pre-flood patriarchs were originally recorded in this form of writing, a later scribe may not have been aware of the symbol’s original meaning and inadvertently multiplied their ages by a factor of ten. Using the LXX ages of begetting, this renders very believable lifespans, with patriarchs begetting in their late teens or early twenties and living on average around ninety years.
The cuneiform mistranslation theory works well with the pre-flood patriarchs, but breaks down in the postdiluvian period, where even using the LXX figures patriarchs begin begetting in their early teens and living, by the end of the period, only into their twenties before meeting their demise. In other words, if mistranslation accounts for the extreme ages of the pre-flood patriarchs, the ages of the post-flood patriarchs can only be explained by appealing to an entirely different form of mistranslation! On the whole, this does not seem credible, and at any rate I am not aware of any theory as to the nature of this second form of mistranslation.
Theory 4: Symbolic Use of Numbers
This theory assumes that the numbers in the text have a symbolic rather than a literal meaning. Pett in particular has discussed the development of numeracy in the Ancient Near East and the use of numbers in the earliest biblical texts (“The Use of Numbers in the Ancient Near East and in Genesis“).
Pett has marshalled the evidence for the rise of numeracy in approximately the same time and place as the rise of literacy, namely, in Sumeria at the end of the third millennium. Before this point, it is highly unlikely that ancient peoples would have used numbers in ways that we are accustomed to doing in our modern, scientific age. In this period, counting was in its earliest stages of development and numbers often had qualitative rather than quantitative significance.
In Sumerian folk-literature, only the numbers 3 and 7 were ever used, both signifying completeness. In many preliterate cultures, counting only proceeds as far as three. The Sumerian words for “one,” “two,” and “three” are also used for “man,” “woman,” and “all”–pointing to a time when the entire world could be numbered as me, my wife, and everybody else. In several ancient languages, the word for “three” also means “many.”
The number 5 was used in Sumeria for calculating the fallen after battles, suggesting a “more” historical setting than the myths and rituals where 3 and 7 predominated. In Egypt, the number 5 became predominant, also with connotations of completeness (cf. the number of fingers on one hand).
As counting and numeracy developed, seven also came to symbolize completeness, often of a divine sort. This phenomenon likely comes from an early time when one could number the fingers of one hand, and then had to rely on memory to add six and seven to one’s repertoire.
Early significance was also given to 10 (ten fingers) and its multiples, especially 40 (one of the earliest known Sumerian number signs) and 60. The Sumerians eventually settled upon a sexigesimal (base-60) counting system, but for many centuries it existed side by side with a decimal system. Another early Sumerian number sign denoted 15, which may be understood to be the sum of 3 + 5 + 7.
How does all of this apply to the lives of the patriarchs? Even if the symbolic approach is deemed valid, some possible lines of interpretation are admittedly more convincing than others. Some require such convoluted mathematical gymnastics as to be clearly incorrect. But what can we observe? First, we must note the pervasive use of numbers ending in 0, 5, or 7. Even if the numbers are accepted as generally correct (either for individual lifespans or eras of tribal ascendancy), they are likely rounded off and not exact. In the LXX, most of the pre-flood patriarchs lived after begetting for 700 years plus another figure of symbolic significance: 7 (Seth), 15 (Enosh), 40 (Cainan), or 30 (Mahalaleel). Enoch, who is associated in Jewish tradition with the promulgation of a solar (365-day) calendar, lived to be 365 before God “took” him. Lamech’s total age of 777 (Masoretic Text) seems especially significant.
Some numbers end in 2 that can be derived from the addition of 12—another important number especially in Hebrew thought. For example, Jared begat Enoch at age 162, which may work out to 100 + 50 + 12 (or perhaps 70 + 70 + 10 + 12). Some other numbers end 4 that can be derived from the addition of 7. For example, Eber begat Reu at age 34 (Masoretic Text), which may perhaps represent 10 + 10 + 7 + 7. The number 17 (10 + 7) shows up in several places in the lives of the later patriarchs (Joseph was 17 when he was sold into Egypt; Jacob lived in Egypt the last 17 years of his life).