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Why Does the Bible Say People Lived to Be 900+ Years Old?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Older man walking through columns at the Vatican

The oldest person whose age has been independently verified in the modern era was Jeanne Calment, who died at age 122 in 1997. But 122 isn’t even close to the ages reported for the Hebrew patriarchs.

We read in Genesis that Adam lived to be 930 years old, and his son Seth lived to 912 years. Methuselah, the oldest of all the ancients, lived to 969 years, and his grandson Noah was 950.

Then, after some twenty generations passed, the age spans for the people we read about in the Bible seem to have decreased considerably.  Reportedly, Abraham, died at age 175, and his son, Isaac, died at 180 years. Abraham’s grandson Jacob died at age 147.

Interestingly, as generations of Bible families moved toward the present, their life spans continued to decrease. The prophet Samuel died at 96, King David at 70, and his son, King Solomon, at 55.

Just what is going on here?

In the beginning, humanity was expected to be immortal, but after Adam and Eve took things in their own hands and tried to hide from God, their immortality was compromised to the point that they and their progeny would live somewhere around 900 years.

The concept of ‘900 years’ seems to correlate with the concept of immortality.

By the time Noah was born, humans had almost entirely abandoned God, and God told Noah that he was fed up with the wickedness of the people. Trying to live by their own rules, humans became corrupt and distanced themselves from the  spirit of God:

“Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years’” (Genesis 6:3).

120 years is roughly the maximum of mortal longevity even today. Perhaps this number, like ‘900 years’, carries a special meaning. Since God’s spirit will vacate mortals at that point, ‘120 years’ may represent the human experience of mortality.

In other words, over time, as the ancient Hebrew people distanced themselves further from their immortal beginning as beings of God, they experienced the limitations of mortality. Their lifespan decreased accordingly. Living to be over ’900 years’ is a symbolic representation of virtuous immortality. Living ‘120 years’ is a representation of the mortality humans experience since separating from God.

Mortality and Immortality

The death of Jesus sparked a great deal of interest in the subject of immortality in the first few centuries after his life. Due to his sinlessness, he could not be held within the bonds of mortality, even though he was crucified at around age 33. Stories of his resurrection gave rise to the idea of a body that was not confined to material definition.

Paul envisioned this resurrection as a choice available to anyone. He wrote to the Corinthians that:

…this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality (1 Cor 15:53).

The idea of immortality is usually expressed as ‘eternal life’ in the New Testament, and both terms, immortality and eternal life, appear frequently in extracanonical writings as well.

In the Letter of Peter to Philip the disciples who feared for their lives after Jesus’s crucifixion, prayed to “the son of immortality to give them strength” (2:3). The ‘voice’ of the immortal Jesus came to his frightened students to help them. He explained how he had come down into the body, the mortal form, but the people he came to rescue didn’t recognize him because they could only see a mortal. But now he is instructing his students to “strip off what is corrupt, [so that they will become] light-givers in the midst of mortal humans” (5:3). I take that to mean he is helping them find the way to see more than their mortality.

While still in the body, one should be able to discern immortality if they would cleanse themselves of mortal corruption.

The Gospel of Thomas spells it out starkly.

Look at the Living One while you are alive, lest you die and then seek to see him. You will be unable to see (him). (Saying 59)

Here, the consequences of not seeing the immortal image of God while still in the body is the cause of death / mortality. It also seems to signify that seeing immortality is a way of living immortality while still in the body.

The Dialogue of the Savior agrees with the idea of ordinary people becoming immortal:

If you have understood everything which I have told you, you will become immortal.

Many other authors of the Nag Hammadi texts studied the immortality question specifically in the context of Adam and his progeny.

Back to Adam and His Progeny

In the Revelation of Adam, we find Adam explaining to his son, Seth, the revelation that he received. (Seth’s birth is mentioned in Genesis 4:25.) Three people, whom Adam could not identify since they were from the world above, appeared and invited him to arise from the sleep of death and to hear about:

“the eternal realm and the seed of that human to whom life has come” (66: 1-6).

Seth evidently learned to overthrow the curse of mortality from his father, and in fact, according to several other Nag Hammadi writings, Seth becomes a well-known savior during the generations before Noah. This would explain why Seth also lived over 900 years—evidence of his morally deserved immortality.

Other Nag Hammadi texts contain striking parallels to the Revelation of Adam. Seth is a prominent savior figure included the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, the Second Discourse of Great Seth, and the Three Steles of Seth.

Age as a Symbolic Representation of ‘Living with God’

Whether intentionally or not, it appears that the 900-year old humans represent the almost-ideal type of humanity created by God and designed to be immortal. Immortality does not begin at the point of human death, but it rather occurs when mortals “understand everything that the savior told them” (Dialogue of the Savior), or when the “perishable body puts on imperishability”… or “immortality” (1 Corinthians).

According to Genesis 6:2, the “sons of God” took wives born of mortals, and this fleshly and moral combination of immortals with mortals was what God attempted to destroy in the flood. Immortals were expected to keep themselves pure and close to God. The Bible message seems to be telling us that people lived to be 900+ years old because they represent the ideal relationship with God.

When people think of themselves as self-originating, living apart from God, and taking on the corruptibility of mortality, they experience the 120-year limit in which God’s spirit can no longer abide forever. The work of the Savior for the Hebrew people and followers of Jesus was to point out the way of immortality in the here, now, and forever.

This post is available as a Bible and Beyond Video Essay. Watch it on YouTube here.

A special thanks to “Rurouni_Phoenix,” the username of an anonymous Reddit moderator for r/AcademicQuran, whose post on the r/Bible subreddit in 2022 first brought the possible meaning of Genesis 6:3 to my attention.