According to the Bible, Abraham died when he was 175 years old. Adam lived to be over 900 years old, and the generations immediately following him ranged between 600 and 900 years old. Based on the Biblical records, man’s average lifespan decreased by leaps and bounds following Noah’s generation. While it could be easy to write this off as an inaccuracy or literary device, similar claims of what now seem to be excessive life expectancies can be found coming from multiple ancient cultures and records that had little connection among themselves. This multiple source factor, in addition to the desire of many Christians to understand how and whether the Scriptures, seen as inspired, can be reconciled or supported with science, makes the subject worth a closer look.
Various theories have been put forth seeking to reconcile the ages mentioned in the Bible with the modern understanding of man’s lifespan. While there is no way of definitively proving one of these theories over another, they do provide a starting point for reflection, and give insight into elements of life that may have changed over time.
Some of these explanations, based on various interpretations of time, illustrate the context in which some verses of the Bible were written, but don’t satisfactorily explain the various ages given.
Understanding of Time: Different sources have proposed that the numbers found in the Bible do not correspond to a 365 day year as we know it. Prior to the Gregorian calendar currently used in many countries, and to the preceding Julian calendar of similar duration, various calendars associated different lengths of time with a “year.” According to some ancient cultures, a “year” was comparable with what we call a month today. Although this theory seems plausible at a glance, it gives rise to discrepancies when applied. For example, a shorter lasting year would explain how Adam could have lived over 900 years, which, in our terminology, would be equated to an “average” lifespan of 80 or 90 modern years. However, it seems irrational for the same writer to then claim that Abraham died at the age of 175 which, based to the same scale would imply that he died as a child. In conclusion, while this theory may have some merit, given that various calendars have assigned different lengths of time to a year, it fails to reconcile the ages recorded in the Bible.
Symbolic Numbers: The Bible sometimes uses numbers symbolically. Certain numbers had certain meanings in the Hebrew language and culture. For example, one means unity, two means division, three refers to perfection, six refers to imperfection or lack of completion, and seven refers to spiritual perfection. Several other numbers also have different meanings and implications. In some scripture passages, numbers refer to the symbolic meaning behind the number, rather than to the specific quantity. When Our Lord told Peter to forgive “seven times seven times,” for example, he was not telling Peter to forgive that many times and no more – he was telling Peter to practice spiritual perfection (meaning of the number 7) with regards to forgiveness. It has been proposed that the ages given in the Old Testament were not meant to represent the actual duration of the person’s life, but to convey the meaning behind the numbers. This theory is difficult to apply in this case, however, because the numbers given, such as 175 for Abraham, do not have a symbolic meaning like numbers such as 40 or 70×7.
Another set of theories examines the reality of the human lifespan, both today and in Biblical times, from a scientific perspective, and explains how the numbers given in the Bible could, in fact, be reconciled with reality. These theories have not been proven, but evidence has been found in support of them. Incidentally, each of these scientific theories is also compatible with the theology of creation. God created the world perfect; imperfection came with original sin, and the imperfection of the world and the natural environment would naturally have heightened with the passing of generations, as more and more negative consequences of sin took their toll on the world, which was became ever more distant from its perfect beginning.
The Vapor Canopy: Some theorists have used as their starting point the sharp decline in lifespan after the flood. Before the flood, based on Biblical accounts, people lived, on average, over 800 years; this expectancy dropped to around 300 immediately after the flood, and then to just over 100 in a short range of time. The drastic and immediate nature of this decline, in conjunction with the flood, points to the possibility of an environmental change brought on by this catastrophe. Studies have suggested that prior to the flood, the earth had a layer of vapor, called a “vapor canopy” in the atmosphere. The collapse of this layer would have caused the flood, and led to subsequent changes in the atmospheric environment. The absence of the canopy would have left earth vulnerable to new forms of radiation and a possible decrease of oxygen, which both could have effecting the average lifespan and quality of life. A secondary result of the atmospheric change would account for the onset of other natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and other destructive storms. In addition to studies showing atmospheric changes from before and after the flood, the legitimacy of this theory is supported by the similarities between the Earth and Venus, the planet most like the Earth in composition. Venus still has such a vapor canopy surrounding it.
Telomeres: Telomeres, which are specific DNA sequences, play a key role in determining man’s lifespan. The natural life expectancy of the human person is linked to the rate at which the cells in man’s body reproduce themselves, and the number of times the cells reproduce healthily, before dying off more quickly than they can be replaced. Even today, it can be seen that life expectancy differs among races, even though, on a grand scale, the difference of 10-20 years seems minute compared a difference of centuries. This difference, however, has been clearly linked to varying lengths of the telomeres, which become shorter each time the cells divide and reproduce. The longer the telomere, the longer the lifespan. Based on this theory, it is speculated that before the flood, men could have lived for so many years due to a longer strain of telomeres. The genetic change in average telomere length could be linked to the environmental changes brought on by the flood, becoming shorter and thereby leading to a significantly shorter life expectancy.
Neanderthal Man: This theory must be considered together with the telomere and/or vapor canopy explanation, and provides additional physical evidence that could support one or both of the previous theories by showing through fossil remains that, at one point, men could indeed have lived for 900 years or so. Science classifies the Neanderthal man as fully human, and has found plenty of traces of community life and intelligent activity among the ancient Neanderthal people. The Neanderthals are sometimes classified as a subspecies of modern man – homo sapien neanderthalenis – and at other times as separate human species – homo neanderthalenis. Whichever way they are classified, ancient records and fossils show that, at least for a period, the Neanderthals lived at the same time as the first homo sapiens, and intermingled with them. The difference most commonly pointed out between the Neanderthal man and our own species or subspecies of man lies in the structure of the skull. The remains of the ancient Neanderthal people show a stockier built skull, with more clearly defined or protruding eyebrows and foreheads. Some scientists simply ascribe this to a difference in subspecies due to environment, etc. However, other scientists have examined the effects aging has on adult skulls, and have shown that, even though most growth takes place during childhood, the skull does continue to grow at a slower pace during adulthood. It follows that the slightly increased size of the Neanderthal skull, as well as the difference of forehead and brow could testify to a longer average lifespan, in which the skull grew at a very gradual pace throughout an extended adulthood. The time that the Neanderthal race populated the Levant/Middle Eastern region corresponds to the time that many of the Old Testament figures, including Noah and possibly even Abraham lived, thus favoring the possibility that these men were of the Neanderthal race.
In sum, there is no definitively proven theory, or universally accepted interpretation of the Biblical account regarding the age of Adam, Noah, Abraham or other Old Testament figures when they died. The various theories mentioned above, however, show that even though living for such a long time seems to be impossible today, it does not necessarily follow that the Bible account is exaggerated or inaccurate. The truth of the Biblical records can be reconciled with different scientific theories, records from other sources, history and archeology. While none of this proves the factual accuracy of the Biblical ages beyond a doubt, it does show that the seemingly excessively long lifespan recorded is indeed plausible. Abraham may very well have lived until the age of 175.