Did Adam and other Biblical Persons live very long lives?

Msgr. Charles Pope is of the opinion that Adam and certain other Biblical persons lived very long lives. He explains:

“Personally, I think we need to take the stated ages of the patriarchs at face value and just accept it as a mystery: for some reason the ancient patriarchs lived far longer we do today. I cannot prove that the patriarchs actually lived that long, but neither is there strong evidence that they did not. Frankly, I have little stake in insisting that they did in fact live that long. I think it is best just to accept that they did.”

The persons in question are in the lineage from Adam and Eve to Abraham. These are the persons mentioned in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. The stated lengths of their lives varies, from 969 years for Methuselah, 930 for Adam, down to a few hundred years for the more recent ancestors of Abraham. Then, once the call of Abraham begins in Genesis 12:1, the ages and stated life spans of Biblical persons become much shorter. Abraham was said to live to be 175 and Moses to 120. Otherwise, the stated life spans, from the time of Abraham onward, are not so different from today.

Now there are essentially two possible approaches to the question of the life spans stated in Genesis:
1. The life spans are literal, and therefore these persons lived extraordinarily long lives.
2. The life spans are figurative, and these persons lived an ordinary length of time.

Msgr. Pope suggests the first approach, and he claims that there is no strong evidence to the contrary. Well, I think he is mistaken. There is strong evidence that their life spans could not be literally as long as stated.

First, it is Catholic dogma that all human persons are descended from Adam and Eve. So we must place the life spans of Adam and Eve at the beginning of humanity. And we must hold that all human persons are descendants of Adam and Eve.

Second, if we propose that the life spans from Adam to Abraham are all literal, then we must also accept the account of this lineage. And this would imply that the human race has only existed for a few thousand years. For Abraham lived about the year 2000 B.C., give or take a century or two. (Biblical chronologists generally place Abraham’s life sometime between 2200 BC and 1750 BC.) And the time from Adam to Abraham would seem to be no more than a few thousand years, if their ages and lineage is literal.

Third, there is ample historical evidence for human civilization prior to that time. And civilization cannot exist without the gifts from God of reason and free will. Essentially, the civilization implies the ability to reason abstractly, which is what allows us to understand transcendent truths, such as God, faith, and morality. And this understanding implies free will, which then implies an immortal intellective soul.

So we are left with only one possible conclusion that is consistent with all of the above. The lineage stated in Genesis, from Adam to Abraham, cannot be literal. The literally stated life spans do not place the life time of Adam far enough in the past to account for the dogma that all human persons are descended from Adam. Certainly, human persons with reason and free will — gifts only given along with the gift of an immortal soul — lived tens of thousands of years ago. So the lineage and therefore the life spans stated in Genesis cannot be literal. They must be figurative.

Adam did not live to be 930 years old. That number, in the first book of the Bible, is figurative — just like the number 144,000 mentioned in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. And the lineages in first part of Genesis are also somewhat figurative. Each person named might not have been the immediate descendant of his stated ancestor. Some generations, perhaps very many, may have been skipped over. And this factor in no way makes the stated lineage unfair or false. For we all know that Jesus is called “the son of David”, despite there being many generations between David and Jesus.

Numbers are sometimes used in the Bible in a figurative manner. For example, when David fought against Goliath, his size and the size of his weapons are implausibly large. These are figurative expressions, not literal values. And when we examine the Flood of Noah, it is impossible and contrary to reason and science, if the story is entirely literal. But if the story of the Flood is a literal historical event, described in highly figurative language, it makes perfect sense.

So, how long ago did Adam and Eve live? Anthropologists say that behavioral modernity — the beginning of our human race (Homo sapiens sapiens) — began sometime between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago. And they identify behaviorally modern humans (BMH) by their ability to reason abstractly.

From a theological point of view, the ability to reason abstractly implies the gift of an intellective immortal soul, with free will. And this further implies that all BHMs are descendants of Adam and Eve. Therefore, we must place the life times of Adam and Eve at the start of behavioral modernity, that is to say, at the start of the human race, at least 50,000 years ago.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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