When I was growing up, my mother had some interesting expressions. When I wasn't moving as quickly as she'd like, I was told I was "as slow as molasses in January." The slow-moving liquid is virtually immobile in cold weather. And whenever she saw something that looked old and worn out, she'd exclaim, "That looks older than Methuselah!" Unlike molasses, I had no idea who or what Methuselah was until I was about 13 and discovered that he was a person mentioned in the Old Testament who lived to be 969 years old. (See Genesis 5:27). We also find that Adam lived to be 930 years old and Seth was 912 years old when he died. For at least the last (approximately) two thousand years, the idea of anyone living beyond 125 years old (give or take a couple of years) is unheard of--you would be considered mad if you seriously claimed someone alive today was over 900 years old. The question arises: Did people in the Old Testament really live to be hundreds of years old? If so, why don't we live that long today? If not, what of the inerrancy of Holy Scripture, and what must a Traditionalist believe? These are the questions I will tackle in this post.
Is the Biblical Year Different from Our Years?
One attempt to understand the great ages in Genesis is to present the word year as not literal, just as the word day in Creation does not need to be taken in the literal sense. The following question was proposed to the Pontifical Biblical Commission:
"Whether in the designation and distinction of six days with which the account of the first chapter of Genesis deals, the word 'DAY' can be assumed either in its proper sense of a natural day, or in the improper sense of a certain space of time; and whether with regard to such a question there can be free disagreement among the exegetes?"
On June 30, 1909, the Commission (with full approval from His Holiness Pope St. Pius X) responded:
"IN THE AFFIRMATIVE." This means that the "days" of creation need not be actual periods of twenty-four hours each. This also comports with the Commission's decision of June 23, 1905 (also approved by Pope St. Pius X) that Scripture gives historical accounts except "...where without opposing the sense of the Church and preserving its judgement, it is proved with strong arguments that the sacred writer did not wish to put down true history, and history properly so-called, but to set forth, under the appearance and form of history a parable, an allegory, or some meaning removed from the properly literal or historical significance of the words."
However, this does not seem to be the case with the word year. There is no on-point decision from the Holy Office, a Roman Congregation, or papal decree which (to the best of my knowledge and belief), teaches the same regarding the years of those recorded in the book of Genesis. Furthermore, there are no extra-biblical records, antediluvian or after, which suggests that years were calculated substantially different from modern years. The Biblical word written by Moses under Divine Inspiration in the Creation account was yom, meaning "a period of time." It was incorrectly rendered as "day." God created the universe in six time periods, not necessarily six 24-hour periods of time. No such confusion occurs in regard to years. Even assuming that the ancient calendars were 10% shorter, that would still make Methuselah well over 800 years old.
The attempt by some modern scholars to reduce the Biblical year to one-tenth of a current year, fails miserably. If this were true, Methuselah lived to be about 97 years old, which seems reasonable. However, it simply doesn't comport with the ages given for fathering children, which in some cases (Enoch fathering Methuselah) was 65. That would make him an incredulous six and one-half years old! Akkadian and Sumerian records also report life spans in the hundreds of years. The reality seems that some people in Old Testament days really lived close to a millennium. Does this mean God performed miracles on these people?
Three Kinds of Impossibility
When we speak of something being impossible, it can imply one of three things, namely it is (a) logically impossible, (b) scientifically impossible, or (c) physically impossible. The logically impossible is that which is self-contradictory by its very terms, e.g. Have God make a square circle. A circle by definition rules out having sides, and a square must have four equal sides, also by definition. A "square circle" says nothing about reality. It cannot be done because it is meaningless. God cannot do the logically impossible or anything that goes against His Perfect Divine Nature, e.g. God cannot lie. As the First Vatican Council taught:
This faith, which is the beginning of human salvation, the Catholic Church professes to be a supernatural virtue, by means of which, with the grace of God inspiring and assisting us, we believe to be true what He has revealed, not because we perceive its intrinsic truth by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God himself, who makes the revelation and can neither deceive nor be deceived. (See Dei Filius, Ch. 3; Emphasis mine).
The scientifically impossible is that which people cannot yet achieve, but could if the technology was available. Hence, in 1920 it was impossible for a man to walk on the moon. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong proved it was now possible from that point going forward. The physically impossible is that which goes contrary to the known laws of physics and other scientific disciplines. A scientific law is descriptive of the universe. It is not like a law of the legislature, or something written down. The law of gravity simply describes the way things we observe behave, and have always behaved at least as far as we can tell. We assume the future will be a constant repetition of the past, so we think the law of gravity will always hold true, but there is no scientific justification for this idea. God, Who ordered the universe, could make it function differently in general or in a specific instance (allowing someone to levitate, like certain saints did). These are miracles.
So, does living to be 969 years old, constitute a miracle? A miracle is a deed that is sensible, extraordinary, and of divine origin. Under this definition, it could be considered such, but not if it were a general rule--it wouldn't be extraordinary.
Eat Right, Exercise, and...Live To Be 900?
There are many factors that limit a human lifespan. Here are but ten of such major factors:
- Inadequate exercise
- Environmental Stress
- Exposure to Radiation
- Telomerase Activity (chromosome shortening)
Early humans did not eat the processed foods of today, or lack exercise. Obesity was most likely extremely rare. There were far less pollutants and chemicals in use. This would cross off numbers six and seven above, and greatly reduce number four. However, there seem to be two factors in particular that could account for life spans dropping from about 900 to about 85 with an upward limit of approximately 125: (a) exposure to radiation, from space and within the Earth, and (b) telomerase activity.
Coal burning, building materials, paved roads, and even granite countertops in kitchens, guarantee our exposure to igneous rocks. There is decay of radioisotopes in those igneous rocks (uranium, radium, and thorium, for example) that causes small amounts of radiation. Multiply the amount of constant exposure to that of ancient peoples and there is a huge amount of radiation as compared to way back in history. Cosmic radiation (not all of which is damaging) was thought to be constant throughout Earth's history. In 1995, Russian astronomer Dr. Anatoliy Erlykin, challenged this idea when he noted an anomaly in the very high-energy region of the cosmic ray spectrum. (See A.D. Erlykin, "Around and Above the Knee"Nuclear Physics B--Proceedings Supplements 39 [February 1995]: 215-227).
In 1997, Sir Arnold Wolfendale, a British astronomer, joined with Erlykin and were able to show a significant increase in harmful cosmic rays showering the entire Earth arising from a single supernova in the recent past (i.e. sometime less than 100,000 years ago). (See Erlykin and Wolfendale, "A Single Source of Comic Rays in the Range 1015-1016 eV," Journal of Physics G: Nuclear and Particle Physics 23 [August 1997]: 979).
Our cells can only replicate a limited number of times. For the somatic cells that make up our organs, the telomere region of the chromosomes is incompletely replicated during cell division. Eventually, the chromosomes become so short that important genes fail to get replicated leading to the inability to replace damaged cells, resulting in organ shut-down and death. There is an enzyme, telomerase, which adds nucleotide base pairs to the ends of DNA to counteract the shortening process. There is one huge drawback: If cancer should occur, the tumors would grow unchecked and virtually unstoppable no matter what kind of cancer. Too much telomerase activity will bring about an early death from cancers and tumors; too little results in earlier death from organ failure. (See, e.g., E. Blackburn, "Telomere States and Cell Fates," Nature 408 [November 2, 2000]: 53-56).
Putting It All Together
After the Fall of humanity, exposure to radiation was significantly lower, and telomerase could function at much higher levels without the presence of the carcinogenic radiation and other toxins we put in the atmosphere and in ourselves. This coupled with the absence of other life shortening factors, could indeed result in super-long life spans. When the radiation levels increased after the supernova, God could have intervened to limit telomerase activity to protect people, but with the result of much shorter life spans. In the state of Original Justice, humans were to be immortal. By sin, death entered the world. "Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned." (Romans 5:12). The shift from immortality to mortality might have necessitated longer life spans at first. Shorter lives would also have a limiting effect on the evils the majority of people in their fallen state could bring upon the world, and get people thinking about the things of God sooner, having less time on Earth.