Home ANS Feature Genealogies and Ages in the Old Testament

Genealogies and Ages in the Old Testament

by ANS Editor

By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service

Trinity Southwest University logo smallerALBUQUERUQE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – October 26, 2017) — Let’s face it, the Bible has many mysteries found within its pages. Consider phenomena such as the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4): are they possessed people or hybrid demons? Or Ezekiel’s Wheel (Ezekiel 1): some see an alien spacecraft, while others see it as angelic beings, or symbolic.

The list could go on. And maybe not as dramatic as the Nephilim or Ezekiel’s Wheel, some have a difficult time with the ages of people described in the Old Testament. Was Methuselah really 969 years old when he died? Or Adam 930? Or Abraham 175? Furthermore, how can we rectify the different numbers assigned to ages of the same people between the Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT) and the Masoretic Text (the Hebrew Old Testament)?

Yep, mysteries.

But according to Dr. Craig Olson (Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary), the ages are not mysteries if properly understood. For Olson, like others such as Ellen Bennet, one must understand the numbers in the context of the time the books were written. For Bennet that means using the Egyptian base-10 ‘honorific’ system of counting [1]. If Bennet were correct, Adam would not have died at 930, but at 93 years old (930 divided by 10).

Dr. Craig Olson smallerBut for Olson, the best way to understand the numbers is not through an Egyptian base-10 system (something Moses would have known due to his upbringing), but through a Sumerian base-60 system, something Moses would have understood from the ancient patriarchal documents he used to compile the book of Genesis. Olson’s rationale is that Moses would have been writing to people whose origins were in Mesopotamian culture — the Hebrews—which used a base-60 numerical system. In short, Moses knew his audience, and used what they understood.

All this and more was recently discussed at a special lecture delivered by Dr. Olson at Trinity Southwest University in Albuquerque, New Mexico, hosted by noted archeologist Dr. Steven Collins. Over a three-hour lecture, Dr. Olson presented a case for his base-60 theory developed from his doctoral dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary [2].

To begin, Dr. Olson gave a summary of his position: the lifespans listed in Genesis are symbolic numbers using a base-60 counting system, with additional numbers added to final ages stressing the importance—or lack thereof—of the individuals mentioned in the text. The rest of Dr. Olson’s presentation was to prove his point.

In the first quarter of the lecture, Dr. Olson reviewed the various approaches to the genealogies found within biblical scholarship: critical (science over text), conservative (text over science), concordism (mysteries will be solved in the future with more evidence), and accommodationism (both science and the text are needed, but must accommodate interpretation to the time of writing).

Numerical Scheme Slide smallerDr. Olson then moved on to several false assumptions. These include: First, everyone prior to the 19th century took the lifespans at face value. Second, human and divine authors used numbers the same way we do today. And third, lifespans and chronology are consistent within the Bible and archeology. Please note: Dr. Olson stressed that these are false assumption.

Dr. Olson listed five key points, underscored with textual and scientific evidence. First, lifespans cannot be of so-called “face value” (there are too many differences internally within the Bible and externally within the physical evidences from antiquity). Second, we must interpret the numbers in accordance with how Moses meant them to be understood. Third, we must examine how lifespans and ages are recorded in ancient history. Fourth and fifth, based on the above three points, we must conclude that the numbers are symbolic and schematic ways to value the importance of a person or a lineage, helping us to understand the intent of the author/s [3].

Concerning external evidence, Dr. Olson pointed out that all other numerical lineages in ancient times used similar, symbolic gesturing. These include the Sumerian and Egyptian systems, the two contemporary cultures connected to the Hebrews. Concerning the scientific evidence, Dr. Olson concludes: there is no archeological or anthropological evidence that humans ever lived beyond 120 years of age, and the average known death-age in antiquity was less than 50. The pampered kings of Egypt and Mesopotamia only lived ‘normal’ lifespans, and even an octogenarian was a rarity in the ancient world.

Dr. Olson turned his attention to internal problems as well, asking how the Bible can use numbers in various ways, leading to differing understandings and quandaries of interpretation [3]. Finally, Dr. Olson unpacked the various theories of how people could have lived long ages (Vapor Theory and Genetic Theory being the most prominent), explaining why these theories do not provide the biblical, historical, or scientific explanations needed.

Continuing, Dr. Olson covered the history of interpretation, from 250 BC (the age of the Septuagint) to Martin Luther, chronicling the various understanding people have concerning the age of the patriarchs. Some highlights include: numbers came before writing. Ancients used accurate face value numbers, but also used hyperbolic, symbolic, and sacred numbers, including the Hebrew people. There is no evidence that the Hebrews used gematria (letters assigned to numbers) prior to the Maccabean era (c. 2nd century BC).

genealogiesinthebibleandwhytheymatter smallerDr. Olson also discussed various critical solutions to the genealogies, the most prominent being the JEDP Theory (the Torah was not written by Moses), which Dr. Olson refutes. In response, Dr. Olson stated four basic premises he derives from the Genesis records: One, Genesis conveys factual, historical, and accurate information. Two, divine authorship oversaw human authorship. Three, a symbolic understanding is not an inconsistent view. Four, Moses would have communicated using language and idioms understood by his audience. It must be stressed that Dr. Olson does not see a symbolic understanding of the chronologies as going against the inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, Olson sees his approach being in line with the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy: Scripture must be understood within its “literary forms and devices” (Article XVIII, Chicago Statement of Inerrancy). And not taking the biblical literature as it was intended in its original context is a violation of its authentically-ancient nature.

The final part of Dr. Olson’s presentation demonstrated how the lineages fit with both the biblical record and archeological record, explaining how a base-60 number scheme can be broken down into multiples of 5, 7, and at times 3. In the end, the numbers are not to be taken as base-10 ‘literal’ values, but fit a pattern, much like numerical words addressing the importance of a person, in which manner the original audience (the Hebrews) would have understood them.

To say the least, the lecture was fascinating, full of thoughtful points of deep consideration. All I can say is that Dr. Olson’s presentation gave me much to chew on. His evidence and line of reasoning was fantastic. And maybe, just maybe, Dr. Olson has expanded our knowledge of the Old Testament narrative, helping us apprehend one of the mysteries of the Old Testament by changing our interpretation and understanding of the text.

1) https://books.google.com/books?id=Rb9CAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA30#v=onepage&q&f=false

2) https://search.proquest.com/openview/a6f3a919a21dd4c680d435efc28e81b0/1.pdf?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y. As a comparison to our culture today we still use elements of the base-60 system: think of time: 60 minutes, 60 seconds, etc. But we also have elements of a base-10 system: counting, banking, etc.

3) And though Dr. Olson gave ample evidence for each point, space limits what I can address. For a detailed argument of this, Dr. Olson referenced multiple scripture references and texts, please note footnote 2.

Photo captions:  1) TSU logo. 2) Dr. Craig Olson. 3) Numerical Scheme slide. 4) Genealogies and the Bible. 5) Brian Nixon.

Brian Nixon useAbout the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon

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