Longevity The Biblical narrative plainly ascribes to many individuals in the earlier history of the race lives far longer than what is held to be the present extreme limit, and we must therefore carefully consider the evidence upon which the general correctness of the numbers rests, and any independent evidence as to the length of life at this time. The statements in the Bible regarding longevity may be separated into two classes those given in genealogical lists, and those interspersed with the relation of events.
I. To the former class virtually belong all the statements relating to the longevity of the patriarchs before Abraham. These, as given by Moses in the Hebrew text, are as follows:
Infidelity has not failed, in various ages, to attack revelation on the score of the supposed absurdity of assigning to any class of men this lengthened term of existence. In reference to this, Josephus (Ant. 1:3, 3) remarks: "Let no one, upon comparing the lives of the ancients with our lives, and with the few years which we now live, think that what we say of them is false, or make the shortness of our lives at present an argument that neither did they attain to so long a duration of life." When we consider the compensating process which is going on, the marvel is that the human frame should not last longer than it does. Some, however, have supposed that the years above named are lunar, consisting of about thirty days; but this supposition, with a view to reduce the lives of the antediluvians to our standard, is replete with difficulties. At this rate, the whole time from the creation of man to the flood would not be more than about 140 years; and Methuselah himself would not have attained to the age which many even now do, whilst many must have had children when mere infants! Moses must therefore have meant solar, not lunar years — averaging as long as ours, although the ancients generally reckoned twelve months, of thirty days each, to the year. "Nor is there," observes St. Augustine (De Civ. Dei, 15:12), "any care to be given unto those who think that one of our ordinary years would make ten of the years of these times, being so short; and therefore, say they, 900 years of theirs are 90 of ours — their 10 is our 1, and their 100 our 10. Thus think they that Adam was but 20 years old when he begat Seth, and he but 201 when he begat Enos, whom the Scriptures call (the Sept. ver.) 205 years. For, as these men hold, the Scripture divided one year into ten parts, calling each part a year; and each part had a sixfold quadrate, because in six days God made the world. Now 6 times 6 is 36, which, multiplied by 10, makes 360 — i.e., twelve lunar months." Abarbanel, in his Comment. on Genesis v, states that some, professing Christianity, had fallen into the same mistake, viz. that Moses meant lunar, and not solar years. Ecclesiastical history does not inform us of this fact, except it be to it that Lactantius refers (2:12) when he speaks of one Varro: "The life of man, though temporary, was yet extended to 1000 years; of this Varro is so ignorant that, though known to all from the sacred writings, he would argue that the 1000 years of Moses were, according to the Egyptian mode of calculation, only 1000 months!" That the ancients computed time differently we learn from Pliny (Hist. Nat. 7), and also from Scaliger (De Emend. Temporum, 1); still this does not alter the case as above stated (see Heidegger, De Anno Patriarcharum, in his Hist. Patr. Amst. 1688, Zir. 1729).
But it is asked, if Moses meant solar years, how came it to pass that the patriarchs did not begin to beget children at an earlier period than they are reported to have done? Seth was 105 years old, on the lowest calculation, when he begat Enos, and Methuselah 187 when Lamech was born! St. Augustine (1:15) explains this difficulty in a twofold manner by supposing,
1. Either that the age of puberty was later in proportion as the lives of the antediluvians were longer than ours, or,
2. That Moses does not record the first-born sons but as the order of the genealogy required, his object being to trace the succession from Adam, through Seth, to Abraham.
While the Jews have never questioned the longevity assigned by Moses to the patriarchs, they have yet disputed, in many instances, as to whether it was common to all men who lived up to the period when human life was contracted. Maimonides (More Nebochim, 2:47) takes this view. With this opinion Abarbanel, on Genesis v, agrees; Nachmanides, however, rejects it, and shows that the life of the descendants of Cain must have been quite as long as that of the Sethites, though not noticed by Moses; for only seven individuals of the former filled up the space which intervened between the death of Abel and the flood, whereas ten of the latter are enumerated. We have reason, then, to conclude that longevity was not confined to any peculiar tribe of the ante or post diluvian fathers, but was vouchsafed, in general, to all. Irenaeus (Adversvs Haeret. 5) informs us that some supposed that the fact of its being recorded that no one of the antediluvians named attained the age of 1000 years, was the fulfillment of the declaration (Genesis 3), "In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die;" grounding the opinion, or rather conceit upon Ps 90:4, namely, that God's day is 1000 years.
As to the probable reasons why God so prolonged the life of man in the earlier ages of the world, and as to the subordinate means by which this might have been accomplished, Josephus says (Ant. 1.c.): "For those ancients were beloved of God, and lately made by God himself; and because their food was then fitter for the prolongation of life, they might well live so great a number of years; and because God afforded them a longer time of life on account of their virtue and the good use they made of it in astronomical and geometrical discoveries, which would not have afforded the time for foretelling the periods of the stars unless they had lived 600 years; for the great year is completed in that interval." To this he adds the testimony of many celebrated profane historians, who affirm that the ancients lived 1000 years. In the above passage Josephus enumerates four causes of the longevity of the earlier patriarchs.
1. As to the first, viz., their being dearer to God than other men, it is plain that it cannot be maintained; for the profligate descendants of Cain were equally longlived, as mentioned above, with others.
2. Neither can we agree in the second reason he assigns; because we find that Noah and others, though born so long subsequently to the creation of Adam, yet lived to as great an age, some of them to a greater age than he did.
3. If, again, it were right to attribute longevity to the superior quality of the food of the antediluvians, then the seasons, on which this depends, must, about Moses's time — for it was then that the term of human existence was reduced to its present standard — have assumed a fixed character. But no change at that time took place in the revolution of the heavenly bodies, by which the seasons of heat, cold, etc., are regulated: hence we must not assume that it was the nature of the fruits they ate which caused longevity.
4. How far the antediluvians had advanced in scientific research generally, and in astronomical discovery particularly, we are not informed; nor can we place any dependence upon what Josephus says about the two inscribed pillars which remained from the old world (see Ant. 1:2, 9). We are not, therefore, able to determine, with any confidence, that God permitted the earlier generations of man to live so long in order that they might arrive at a high degree of mental excellence. From the brief notices which the Scriptures afford of the character and habits of the antediluvians, we should rather infer that they had not advanced very far in discoveries in natural and experimental philosophy. SEE ANTEDILUVIANS. We must suppose that they did not reduce their language to alphabetical order; nor was it necessary to do so at a time when human life was so prolonged that the tradition of the creation passed through only two hands to Noah. It would seem that the book ascribed to Enoch is a work of postdiluvian origin (see Jurieu, Crit. Hist. 1:41). Possibly a want of mental employment, together with the labor they endured ere they were able to extract from the earth the necessaries of life, might have been some of the proximate causes of that degeneracy which led God in judgment to destroy the old world. If the antediluvians began to bear children at the age on an average of 100, and if they ceased to do so at 600 years (see Shuckford's Connect. 1:36), the world might then have been far more densely populated than it is now. Supposing, moreover, that the earth was no more productive antecedently than it was subsequently to the flood, and that the antediluvian fathers were ignorant of those mechanical arts which so much abridge human labor now, we can easily understand how difficult they must have found it to secure for themselves the common necessaries of life, and this the more so if animal food was not allowed them. The prolonged life, then, of the generations before the flood would seem to have been rather an evil than a blessing, leading as it did to the too rapid peopling of the earth. We can readily conceive how this might conduce to that awful state of things expressed in the words, "And the whole earth was filled with violence." In the absence of any well-regulated system of government, we can imagine what evils must have arisen: the unprincipled would oppress the weak, the crafty would outwit the unsuspecting, and, not having the fear of God before their eyes, destruction and misery would be in their ways. Still we must admire the providence of God in the longevity of man immediately after the creation and the flood. After the creation, when the world was to be peopled by one man and one woman, the age of the greatest part of those on record was 900 and upwards. But after the flood, when there were three couples to repeople the earth, none of the patriarchs except Shem reached the age of 500, and only the first three of his line, viz. Arphaxad, Salah, and Eber, came near that age, which was in the first century after the flood. In the second century we do not find that any attained the age of 240; and in the third century (about the latter end of which Abraham was born), none, except Terah, arrived at 200, by which time the world was so well peopled that they had built cities, and were formed into distinct nations under their respective kings (see Genesis 15; see also Usher and Petavius on the increase of mankind in the first three centuries after the flood).
II. The statements as to the length of the lives of Abraham and his nearer descendants, and some of his later, are so closely interwoven with the historical narrative, not alone in form, but in sense, that their general truth and its cannot be separated. Abraham's age at the birth of Isaac is a great fact in his history, equally attested in the Old Testament and in the New. Again, the longevity ascribed to Jacob is confirmed by the question of Pharaoh and the patriarch's remarkable answer, in which he makes his then age of 130 years less than the years of his ancestors (Ge 47:9), a minute point of agreement with the other chronological statements to be especially noted. At a later time, the age of Moses is attested by various statements in the Pentateuch, and in the New Test. on St. Stephen's authority, though it is to be observed that the mention of his having retained his strength to the end of his 120 years (De 34:7) is, perhaps, indicative of an unusual longevity. In the earlier part of the period following we notice similar instances in the case of Joshua, and, inferentially, in that of Othniel. Nothing in the Bible could be cited against this evidence, except it be the common explanation of Psalm 90 (esp. verse 10), combined with its ascription to Moses (see title).
That the common age of man has been the same in all times since the world was generally repeopled is manifest from profane as well as sacred history. Plato lived to the age of 81, and was accounted an old man; and those whom Pliny reckons up (7:48) as rare examples of long life may for the most part be equaled in modern times. It must be observed, however, that all the supposed famous modern instances of very great longevity, as those of Parr, Jackson, and the old countess of Desmond, have utterly broken down on examination, and that the registers of countries where records of such statistics have been kept prove no greater extreme than about 110 years. We may fortunately appeal to at least one contemporary instance. There is an Egyptian hieratic papyrus in the Bibliotheque at Paris bearing a moral discourse by one Ptah-hotp, apparently eldest son of Assa (B.C. cir. 1910-1860), the fifth king of the fifteenth dynasty, which was of shepherds. SEE EGYPT. At the conclusion, Ptah-hotp thus speaks of himself: "I have become an elder on the earth (or in the land); I have traversed a hundred and tell years of life by the gift of the king and the approval of the elders, fulfilling my duty towards the king in the place of favor (or blessing)" (Facsimile d'un Papyrus Egyptien, par E. Prisse d'Avennes, pl. 19, lines 7, 8). The natural inferences from this passage are, that Ptah-hotp wrote in the full possession of his mental faculties at the age of 110 years, and that his father was still reigning at the time, and therefore had attained the age of about 130 years, or more. The reigns assigned by Mahetho to the shepherd-kings of this dynasty seem indicative of a greater age than that of the Egyptian sovereigns (Cory, Ancient Fragments, 2d ed., pages 114, 136). SEE CHRONOLOGY.