Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ageless in America

My father turned 90 this year in June.  My mother reaches that milestone in May 2010.  Both are in excellent health, and exercise regularly and religiously.  With modern medicine, good genes – my father’s parents both lived into their 90s – and multiple activities, they can look forward to joining the fastest growing element of the American population – people who are more than 100 years old.  

Still, it’s unlikely they’ll match Methuselah who, the Bible reports, lived 969 years.  That lifespan, the longest recorded in the Good Book, did earn a skeptical question in Porgy and Bess, the famed Gershwin musical of the 1930s: “Who calls that livin’ when no gal will give in to no man who’s 900 years?”  Someone didn’t mind when Methuselah was 187.  That’s when his first child was supposedly born.

Noah holds the record in that department.   According to the Bible, he was 500 years old when his first son was born.  Noah would go on to live another 450 years.

Long lives were not unusual for the pre-flood generations.  The average lifespan before the flood was 912 years.   After the deluge, however, people lacked the same kind of stamina.  Their life spans averaged only 222 years, led by Shem, Noah’s son, who enjoyed his 600th birthday before kicking the bucket. 

Lengthy lives are not limited to Biblical patriarchs.  The ages of ancient Sumerian kings, for example, stretched thousands of centuries.  On monarch,  Alulim of Eridu, endured for 28,800 years.  He was an infant compared to En-Men-Lu-Ana of Bad-Tibira whose life extended for 43,200 years. 

Imagine the size of that last birthday cake to hold all the candles.

The lengthy claims naturally raised questions.  After all, even the Bible (Gen:6:3) notes that the human lifespan is 120 years.

These exercises in hyperbole probably served several functions:
·                They emphasized the importance of often-mythical people.
·                       They pushed back the origin of a country and its religion, giving both added significance. 

Other explanations abound:
·         1. One scholar noted that the Sumerians used base 60.  Later Jewish writers borrowed the lengthy years – they also buried other stories from Sumeria, such as the Garden of Eden – and simply didn’t know the dates needed to be converted to base 10.

·         2. The long years served to bridge the years between the ancient world and the time when the Bible was written.
·         3. The authors simply didn’t know how long anyone lived.  

·         4. The world was different before the flood, so people could live longer.

By the time of King  David around 1000 B.C.E., lifespans had dropped to what would be considered typical: three score and 10.  Even that total surpassed the average lifespan of humans well into the 1900s.  In Classical Greece, the lifespan has been estimated at 20 to 30 years.   That was true for Rome, too.  Even in the early 20th century, life spans averaged 30 to 40 years.

That doesn’t mean everyone died young.  Early American leaders like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, for example, all lived into their 80s.  However, so many children died young that the numbers were skewed.  Modern medicine has caused a huge jump.  Today, the average life span for an American male is 74 years; women can expect to live until 80.

That is definitely not the limit.  Joice Heth, who was exhibited by showman P.T. Barnum in 1835, was said to be 161 years old.  Actually, she was probably 80.  The oldest document age is 122, recorded by a French woman, Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997.  

That really gives my parents something to shoot for.  I hope I’m around to celebrate with them when they get there.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since.  He hold an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  You can write him via this website or

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