“You don’t actually believe,” my Christian friend asked, “that Methuselah lived to be almost 970 years old, do you? It’s been pretty much proven by biblical scholars in the last century that the ages shouldn’t be taken literally. I had no idea you were a biblical literalist.” Intrigued by the fact that it was “proven,” I asked what the proofs were. He said there were two—those such that hold it to be a myth or literary device to speed up the story from Adam to the Flood and those who say the ancients reckoned the years differently, something akin to what we do with “dog years.”
These are not new questions to be sure. In City of God, St. Augustine set out to defend the truth that we should interpret the ages of the Biblical Fathers literally. Even in Augustine’s day there were those who tried the “dog-years” interpretation saying that the authors of Sacred Scripture reckoned years differently, 10 years for every actual year. He refutes it by pointing out that if the calendar was “sped-up” then a year would last 36 days, with each month lasting 3 days. The problem with this however is that there are very specific references to months and days in the text. We are told that the waters began to recede “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month” (Gn 8:4). Later we learn that Noah left the ark on the twenty-seventh day of the second month (Gn 8:14). Between the two months there were at least 44 days, making the “dog-years” hypothesis untenable. We can conclude with Augustine and all those who followed him that “[I]t is plain that the day then was what it now is, a space of four-and-twenty hours, determined by the lapse of day and night; the month then equal to the month now, which is defined by the rise and completion of one moon; the year then equal to the year now, which is completed by twelve lunar months, with the addition of five days and a fourth to adjust it with the course of the sun” (City of God, Book 15, Ch.14).
Likewise the “literary device” hypothesis is difficult to defend. There is a genealogy that connects each of the persons listed directly. Anyone who has attempted to trace their own genealogy knows that the two most important things are getting the years of birth and death correct and matching the child with the right parents. So unless you are willing to concede that the people listed themselves were not real people, then you will have difficulty connecting the men and women listed except by accepting the time frame as well. There is no reason that the Sacred Author would need to employ this as a literary device when it would be just as effective to summarize across generation the way it is done at the beginning of the book of Exodus.
The Problem of Methuselah
All that being said, we still have not overcome what I will call the “wink-wink” aspect. According to the Guinness Book of World records, the “greatest fully authenticated age to which any human has ever lived is 122.” That Methuselah lived to be 969 years old flies in the face of both experience, common sense and modern genetics. Ironically enough, though, if we are willing to accept Divine Revelation as true (i.e. a literal interpretation of the ages) then we can use some of the principles of genetic mutations to offer a reasonable explanation.
In a couple of previous posts (here and here) we discussed how faith and reason intersect to offer an explanation of our beginnings from a single man and a single woman whom Tradition calls Adam and Eve. Being the first of their kind they would necessarily represent humanity in its “purest” form. That is, as the first human beings, they would be setting the genetic standard for what it means to be human. Any so-called mutations in a creature that is the first of its kind represents not a mutation but a part of the baseline so to speak. Mutations could only begin to occur in the second generation. But these mutations (I am oversimplifying here to make a point) would not begin to express themselves in offspring until there was a “doubling” in that both parents had the mutation and passed it along to their offspring. Given that the appearance of these mutations occur in random subjects, probability theory would suggest that it would take a long time for this doubling to occur, even if the population size is increasing exponentially.
At a certain point in time, a “shorter life” gene could have entered the gene pool and through a process of micro-evolution (especially if it was selective for another reason) became the more prominent. Human beings had “evolved” such that they now lived for 80 years instead of 800. The vegans among us might be quick to point out that everything was fine until they started eating meat (Gn 9:3), but I digress. The point is that modern science can offer us a possible explanation as to how it happened. It could have happened another way. But, happen it did. This is not a proof, but an explanation. Revelation is a given.
Why Faith Needs These Questions and Answers
While this may be an interesting intellectual exercise that shows the overlap between faith and reason, that is not the point of this essay. It is simply an example. We should not be surprised that we cannot prove many things contained with divine revelation, especially those related to our pre-historic, that is those that happened before historical record, beginnings. If we could discover them then we would not need revelation. As Christians, we start with the Bible as a given and then proceed from there. Like our friend St. Augustine, we believe and then understand.
We might treat these things as “acceptable fictions” that make for a nice story or simply look the other way, feeling a little absurd when they come up. Both practices are ultimately damaging to our faith. Which is more unbelievable—that men once lived hundreds of years or that God Himself took flesh, walked the face of the earth as one of us, suffered, died, was buried and on the third day rose again? By examining revelation using other avenues of truth it not only strengthens our faith, but more importantly, it increases our awe at the most wonder-full truth of the Incarnation. An incarnational religion ought to be animated by a desire to put flesh on the truths of the faith by scrutinizing them using the tools of reason. Armed with the maxim that truth cannot contradict truth, the assurance that everything given to us through the fonts of Revelation is true, and a healthy dose of humility, we should not fear to use reason to challenge what we believe. Questioning the truths of the Faith is not the same thing as questioning whether they are true. The death of faith can come from at the hands of credulity just as easily as it can in the face of methodical doubt. The Christian story is quite incredible and we should treat it as such. Apologetics helps the apologizer just as much as his audience; be not afraid to shine the light of reason onto divine revelation.