19 Dec 2022

Methuselah

I have only a nodding familiarity with textual criticism of the Bible. One needs a strong familiarity with Hebrew to take part in the debates concerned. But there are some bits that are reasonably accessible to anyone and I find some of those to be a real lulu. The fact that both the widely-known account of creation (Genesis 1) and the usually-cited copy of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) are clumsy and late priestly interpolations is surely ironical. Details of that here. I personally like the version of the Commandments in Exodus 34 a lot better. I am definitely against seething a kid

But studying Bible difficulties can turn up some useful bits. There are a lot of "crazy bits" in the Bible that turn out to be not so crazy after all in the light of advances in archaeology and historical studies. The 1955 book Und die Bibel hat doch recht (later translated into English as The Bible as history) seems to have been the first to bring together a lot of reasonable explanations for those crazy bits. I believe it was even made into a film.

And one of the craziest bits is the story of Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, who lived for 969 years (Genesis 5:2127). So how come? Such an age is way outside of what we know to be biologically possible.

The explanation is reasonably straightforward. The decimal system (base 10 numbering) was always common (due to our ten fingers) but has never been universal. Computer programmers are well aware that other systems are possible and can be useful. Binary is the best-known alternative but there is also hexadecimal and octal. I find octal to be particularly confusing -- because it looks so much like decimal.

And the number systems in ancient times were many and various. We still have some remnants of them among us. Talking in terms of dozens is still common and we measure time in base 60.

And the original document that became the Methuselah story is long lost. Originally, it may even have been transmitted orally. So what base numbers was the Methuselah author using? We cannot know. When it was included in the text that later became the Torah, the priestly compilers interpreted the numbers they saw there in terms of their own numbering system and that system is comprehensible to us today. Had the priests concerned been more sophisticated, they might have been suspicious that they were out by a factor of ten. That would have made Methuselah 96 years and some months old, which is much more believable and is probably right.