Ask a Scholar: Noah's Age

Jon Levenson

Dear Ask a Scholar,

I have been in many religious debates over the existence of God. One of the major questions that has been asked of me is “Do you believe that Noah lived to be nine hundred years old?” It has been my understanding that as God must give way to science so science must give way to God. My question is this: If Noah did in fact live to be 900 years old, is it possible (that before the creation of the current calendar) he did live to be 900 years old by the calendar of that day? I only ask because it seems that the current calendar came after Noah’s time, and I have not been able to find a justifiable answer to this question as all my research brings me to the current calendar.
- Lael Tangeman
Answered by Jon Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His work concentrates on the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, and he has a strong interest in the philosophical and theological issues involved in biblical studies, especially the relationship of premodern modes of interpretation to modern historical criticism.
Logically, the debate over the existence of God is independent of the question of the literal truthfulness of the scriptures of any particular religion or of any particular passage within such scriptures. Whether God exists is a separate issue from whether a particular text that claims to speak in his name is reliable. Of course, what exactly we mean by terms like "truthfulness" and "reliable" is also a complicated matter; we should not assume that those terms meant the same thing in the ancient Near East that they mean today (and they mean many different things today).
In the case of Noah's lifespan of 950 years (reported in Genesis 9:29) and the similar longevities given for other early figures (especially those who lived before the Flood), the student of ancient Near Eastern literature can productively cite the Sumerian King List, a much older textas a parallel. In it, some of the early kings rule, for example, for 36,000 years. Later figures, however, rule for periods that seem more reasonable to us. In the Bible, too, the great longevities of the early figures give way as the narrative proceeds. Whereas Adam (the first figure in Genesis) lives for 930 years, Joseph (the last figure in that book) lives for 110; much later, King David dies at 70 (which Psalm 90:10 gives as the normal human lifespan). Most likely, the longevities of the early figures of Genesis reflect the widespread notion that reality in primordial times was of a radically different character from what it has become.
There is no good reason to think that "year" in such texts refers to something substantially less than what we mean by the term. When, for example, Abraham finds it unlikely that he at 100 and his wife Sarah at 90 will have a child (Genesis 17:17), he surely did not imagine a much lower figure than those terms denote today. The main point of the passage seems to be to underscore the miraculousness of the gift of that very special child (Isaac), born to an aged father and mother (the latter barren as well). If we try to argue that the years presupposed in this text are actually a much shorter unit of time, the miracle disappears, along with the main point of the passage.  Since miracles are exceptions to the natural order, and thus improbable, it is hard to know how to assess whether any given miracle-story is accurate as literal reportage. Whether the miracles reported in the Bible happened (or happen today—a somewhat different question) cannot be determined by the study of the text alone. That question gets us into very large and contentious areas of philosophy and theology. So, those "religious debates" to which the questioner refers will not, I strongly suspect, be ending any time soon.
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