One question that keeps coming up is how ancient people recorded in the Bible lived so many years. How old was Methuselah? Genesis 5:27 tells us that Methuselah lived 969 years. How can that be?
As I hit my eightieth birthday with all the aches and pains that go with old age, I have to ask why anyone would WANT to live that long. The ancient Hebrew texts tell us that people in those days had aches and pains too. You might say that their bodies were different from ours, but that isn’t what the evidence shows. You can date a human bone by a careful study of the bone material itself and studies have shown that people in ancient times had very short lifespans by our standards.
We have discussed this issue in the past, and one possible explanation we have mentioned is that they weren’t using our method of measuring time. Julius Caesar gave us the calendar in 45 B.C., and Pope Gregory adjusted it long after the time of Christ, but ancient people used celestial objects to measure time. Some scholars have given another possible answer to the time issue. Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith (Volume 55 #4, pages 239-251) and Brevard S. Child’s book Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture pages 152-3 suggest a cultural answer to this question.
In Mesopotamia, great people were honored by assigning them an age that was symbolic of their character or accomplishments rather than reporting their chronological age. The ancient Sumerian king list records, “In Eridu, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28,800 years.” The picture shows one surviving copy of the Sumerian king list. The list also tells of other kings with even longer reigns. It should be pretty obvious that this is not referring to chronological age. Other cultures of that time did the same thing. The Chinese recorded their rulers as having very long lifespans comparable to Methuselah’s.
So how old was Methuselah? Remember what it means to take the Bible literally. It means you look at who wrote it, to whom it was written, why it was written, and how people of the time would have understood it. The age of Methuselah is not an error, but rather it may be an accurate recording of what the author had in mind when he gave credit to this great man of faith.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Reference: Child, Brevard S., Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, Fortress Press, © 1979, ISBN 0-8006-0532-2