The Age of the World

(or, an Exciting Critical Analysis of Biblical Math)



On the one side, we have ‘young earth’ Christians, who believe the Bible states the universe is no more than a few thousand years old. On the other side, we have other Christians, who claim the Bible never addresses the question of how old the universe is. The latter claim is most often made to create a wiggle room in the bible for an ancient earth; if it doesn’t address the earth’s age, people who believe the earth is millions or billions of years old aren’t contradicting the Bible.

The scientific fact is that the universe is billions of years old, and that species evolved from a universal common ancestor untold eons ago. At the same time, the biblical authors really did believe the earth was only a few thousand years old. In fact, I think we can get pretty close to figuring out just how long ago they believed the universe was made.

The Book of Genesis contains a handful of genealogies for its patriarchs. Some Christians believe these genealogies are unreliable for determining how much time has passed between each generation. Why do they think this? Because the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy that deliberately skips a handful of generations when recounting the lineage between Abraham and Jesus. If the Gospel of Matthew skipped generations, we can’t be certain the Book of Genesis didn’t skip any. I think this reasoning is flawed for two reasons.

First, it can be shown that the Gospel of Matthew skipped generations because we have the Hebrew Bible to compare his list to; we can see exactly which generations the author skipped, and we can make reasonable guesses why he did so. In contrast, it cannot be shown where the Book of Genesis skipped any generations. There is no hint this or that descendant was left out of the list, so we have no reason to assume any generations were skipped. Second, the Genesis genealogies state directly how old the listed patriarchs were when the following descendants were born. This means that, even if there was a generation between Patriarch A and Patriarch B, the genealogy still informs us that Patriarch A was so-many years old when Patriarch B was born. If any generations were skipped, the amount of time recorded remains the same.

So, the way to use these genealogies is to count up the amount of time between each generation’s birth. Adam was X years old when Seth was born, Seth was Y years old when Enosh was born, Enosh was Z years old when Cainan was born, etc. We add those XYZ numbers to determine the amount of time that has passed since the creation of Adam.

Before the printing press, books had to be copied by hand. Copies were made from copies, which were made from copies, which were... etc. If the scribe making a new copy accidentally (or intentionally!) changed the text as they were writing it, any copies made from their altered copy would contain the same changes. When dealing with hand-made copies of texts like this, scholars keep track of any textual variants, and then group the most similar copies into ‘families’ or ‘traditions’.

Most English Bible versions use the ‘Masoretic Text’, a version of the Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) that has historically been the preferred starting point for translation in Western Christianity. For most of us, it is what it is. Then we have the ‘Samaritan Pentateuch’, produced by the Samaritans, a community of Northern Israelites who became religiously detached from the Judeans to their south. And there is the ‘Septuagint’, Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. Technically, ‘Septuagint’ only refers to the Greek translation of the Torah, but the term has since come to refer to the usual collection of Greek translations of the other Hebrew scriptures. While the Septuagint differs in many ways from the Masoretic and Samaritan texts, many of these differences originated with a third Hebrew text, and possibly more.

Let’s throw the genealogies from the Masoretic, Samaritan, and Septuagint texts into a single table, with their differences highlighted. The ‘son’ age is how old the patriarch was when his son was born, while the ‘death’ age is how old the patriarch was when he died. When two or three texts agree on an age, the age is black (e.g. Adam’s ‘death’ age). When one text disagrees against the other two, the age is blue (Adam’s ‘son’ age in the Septuagint). When all three texts have a different number, they are all red (Methushelah’s ‘son’ age).



There’s more in common than there is different, but the differences are significant. The common notion in Western Christianity is that ‘Jesus spoke Hebrew, so the Hebrew version is the best one’, and by ‘the Hebrew version’ is meant the Masoretic version. So it is vital to keep in mind that the Masoretic text is not perfect, so we have no reason to assume the Samaritan or the Septuagint corrupted a Masoretic original. The Masoretic, Samaritan, and Septuagint texts evolved out of a common ancestor text, an ‘original’ version of the genealogies before any of these changes were brought in. To make sense of all this, we need to look for some patterns. If we can discern the method behind the changes made in one text tradition, we might be able to determine the original number.

The Masoretic method has a straightforward goal: when we add the full lifespan of every patriarch from creation to the exodus (Adam, Seth, Enosh, all the way down to Moses), the sum is 12,600 years. This doesn’t happen in the Samaritan or Septuagint texts. Have you ever wondered why there are 60 seconds in a minute, or 60 minutes in an hour, instead of something like 10 or 100? Or why we have 12 morning hours and 12 afternoon hours? Many cultures in the ancient Near East used base 60, which persists in our timekeeping systems. The Masoretic tradition altered the ages of the patriarchs to result in the supremely grandiose 12,600 to symbolize the importance of Moses as God’s law-giver and prophet, who came at the perfect time in history. This doesn’t tell us how individual numbers were changed, but it does show that at least some were.

In the pre-flood period, the Septuagint’s ‘son’ ages are consistently 100 greater than the Masoretic and Samaritan texts, which agree with each other. Removing these extra 100s from the Septuagint ‘son’ ages gives us the original ages. Similarly, the post-flood ‘death’ ages in the Septuagint are either 100 greater than the Masoretic and Samaritan texts (Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug), or the Septuagint simply disagrees with the other two. In these cases, the Masoretic and Samaritan texts preserve the original numbers. The Septuagint also inserts a second Cainan between Arpachshad and Shelah, but Cainan’s details are identical to Shelah’s; he is an insertion by the Septuagint, not a subtraction by the Masoretic and Samaritan texts.

The most difficult patriarch to tackle is Lamech, as none of the three texts agree on any of their numbers.



Let’s visualize the Samaritan text as a timeline, with some input from the Masoretic and Septuagint versions.



Jared, Methushelah, and Lamech would all die after the flood if we used the greater numbers for their ‘death’ ages from the Masoretic and Septuagint texts. (Is this a hint that the flood story itself is a later addition than the stories before and after it?) The genealogy in Genesis 5 is a heavily altered version of the genealogy in Genesis 4, where Lamech has an important association with the number 7, so we have reason to think the 777 for Lamech’s ‘death’ age in Genesis 5 is probably the original number, based on the 77-fold vengeance of Lamech in Genesis 4.

The smaller numbers for Jared, Methushelah, and Lamech’s ‘death’ ages are the result of the Samaritan text reducing the numbers enough for them to simply die in the flood. Yet, we know the flood came 600 years after Noah was born to Lamech, which would mean 653 is the result of this 600 added to Lamech’s ‘son’ age: 53. That 53 is the correct number, and not the Masoretic’s 182 nor the Septuagint’s 188, is reinforced by two things. First, the Samaritan doesn’t change the ‘son’ age of any other pre-flood patriarch; if the 53 isn’t the original, it would be the only exception to this rule. Second, despite the Septuagint’s ‘son’ age for Lamech being 188, the ‘death’ age is 753; take away the 600 years until the flood, and take away the Septuagint’s usual 100 for pre-flood ‘son’ ages, and again we get 53. Wherever the Masoretic 182 and the Septuagint 188 each came from, the 53 has the strongest evidence in its favor.

After all this, our best reconstruction of the original numbers in the genealogies would be this:



The above was a complex detour, but unraveling the genealogies gets us back on the road to determining the Hebrew Bible’s original timeline for the age of the universe. The next step isn’t difficult, but time-consuming. None of the other genealogies in Genesis or after provide ages anymore, so we have to hunt down the information we need.

Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born (Gen 21.5). Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born (Gen 25.26). Jacob’s son Joseph was taken to Egypt and became a powerful figure, eventually bringing his father and his family there when his father was 130 years old (Gen 47.9,28).

The Israelites lived in Egypt for 30 years (Exo 12.40) before they were enslaved for 400 years (Gen 15.13), making a total of 430 years. It would be natural to assume this number begins with the arrival of Jacob in Egypt, but this would mean the enslavement began before Joseph had died, while Exodus 1.8 strongly suggests the enslavement didn’t begin until after Joseph’s death. This suggests the 430 years of the Israelite’s residence in Egypt is probably meant to be counted from Joseph’s death.

This requires us to work backwards to figure out how old Jacob was when Joseph was born: Jacob died at 147 after living in Egypt for 17 years (Gen 47.9,28). Jacob moved to Egypt in the second year of a famine (45.6). Joseph had been in Egypt for these two years of famine as well as seven previous years of prosperity (41.53), which appear to have begun the same year as Joseph’s arrival in Egypt when he was thirty years old (41.46). So, 147, minus 17, minus 2, minus 7, minus 30: Jacob was about 91 when Joseph born. Joseph was 110 when he died (Gen 50.26). Add the 430 years until the exodus. Solomon built the temple 480 years after the exodus, and Solomon’s rule began 4 years earlier (1 Kings 6.1). David was king for about 40 years (1 Kings 2.11).

From here, the Hebrew Bible switches gears on how it tracks time passed. After Solomon’s rule, the kingdom split in two, Israel to the north and Judah to the south. The narration in the Book of Kings begins to follow a back-and-forth method of timekeeping, telling us that an Israelite king took the throne according to the year of his contemporary Judean king, and vice verse (e.g. Asa became king of Judah in year X of Jeroboam’s rule in Israel). A common mistake is to simply find how long each Judean king ruled and add their reigns together, which results in a vastly inflated timeline. Paying attention to this back-and-forth shows that many of the Israelite and Judean kings took the throne before their fathers died. Recognizing that these kingdoms practiced co-regencies averts the inflated timeline.

The next step is determining when the reigns of the Israelite and Judean kings happened relative to our traditional BC/AD calendar. A minor issue is that Judah and Israel sometimes counted the first year of their kings in different ways; do they count the whole year from the moment they took the throne, or only count the next full year? The easiest way to account for this is to corroborate events from their reigns with other ancient sources. We have a handful of such events that we’ve done this with, and have determined when they occurred: the Battle of Qarqar (853 BC), Assyria’s conquest of Israel (722), the Battle of Azeqah (701), the Battle of Megiddo (609), the accession of Nebuchadnezzar (605), the Siege of Jerusalem (597), and Babylon’s conquest of Judah (587). Putting this together gives us this approximation:



(Click to open the image at a higher zoom.)

In the 1 and 2 Kings narrative, 383 years pass between the time Solomon takes the throne and the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BC. This enables us to connect our modern calendar with the Hebrew Bible’s sequence of events. There are a handful of places where there is some ambiguity, but the margin of error wouldn’t be substantially larger than what we’ve pieced together. The result is the following:



There you go. If you’ve ever wondered the method used to determine how old the universe is ‘according to the Bible’, this is it. There are a few caveats, however.

First, while Genesis and Exodus directly state that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years, of which 400 were spent in slavery, this is inconsistent with the actual narration, which shows Moses’ grandfather being among those who entered Egypt. This was such a severe discontinuity that readers in the late Second Temple period began reinterpreting Genesis 15.13 and Exodus 12.40 as beginning with Abraham’s wandering through the Levant, rather than with the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. Second, while the biblical text says plainly that 480 years passed from the exodus to the building of Solomon’s temple, nowhere near enough time is outlined across the Torah, Joshua, Judges, or the Books of Samuel. Third, for Christians, Luke 3 inserts several generations into the genealogy (apparent duplicates of other parts of the same genealogy) so the total number of generation from Adam to Jesus is 77. these kinds of issues can add or subtract a few centuries from our timeline.

Whatever the case, the point is that the overall assumption of the Hebrew Bible’s many authors, and its many ancient interpreters, is that the universe was created some few thousand years ago.

The Book of Jubilees (written around 150 BC) divides the events of Genesis 1–Exodus 12 into ‘Jubilees’, so that the Israelites’ entry into Canaan takes place exactly fifty Jubilees after the creation of Adam. Since one Jubilee is 49 years, this would mean the time from Adam to the exodus was 2410 years. Whether we place the exodus sooner (1400 BC) or later (1200 BC) makes little difference; the community which produced and read Jubilees saw the earth as about five thousand years old (as of 2018).

Likewise, the ancient historian Josephus wrote Judean Antiquities, a massive history of the Judean people, beginning with the creation of the world and running all the way up to his present time (circa AD 93), using a Hebrew version of the scriptures that resembled the Septuagint. Josephus repeatedly tells his reader how much has passed between the creation of Adam and major events, like the flood (JA 1.82), the exodus (8.62), or the Babylonian exile (10.148). His timeline differs from our reconstruction (his timeline also suffers from bad math and/or copyist errors), but the takeaway is that Josephus believed the universe began to exist only a few thousand years before his time.

While textual variations bring a moderate margin for error into the mix, I think the timeline we reconstructed above is close to what the ‘original’ authors of Genesis, Exodus, etc., intended for us to understand from their works. Only with the advent of modern science has this number been questioned, and only after that did Christians begin to insist the bible doesn’t ‘teach’ an age for the bible. In my opinion, saying the Bible doesn’t ‘answer’ or ‘teach’ an age for the universe is disingenuous. Science can safely tell us the universe is 14,000,000,000 years old, but we shouldn’t pretend the Bible doesn’t consistently assume the universe is roughly 7000 years old concept just because it isn’t a ‘science book’.

A Camel Through the Needle's Eye

Mark 10.24–27

‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’


Jesus’ parables are usually pretty coherent, ‘realistic’, so the image of a camel being shoved through a needle’s eye is pretty off the wall even for him.

There’s a popular explanation for this. One of the gates into Jerusalem was a tiny gate called the Needle’s Eye, and — for whatever reason — camels were required to enter this gate, and had to crawl on their knees to fit through. Hence, Jesus was using this gate as an analogy to describe the utter impossibility of rich people following God. The problem is, this explanation is completely untrue. It’s a popular explanation, but it has no historical basis. There was no gate to Jerusalem called the Needle’s Eye. But even if there was, it would mean it was a common occurrence, so it hardly makes sense as an ‘impossible’ situation.

There is another theory, though, that I think makes more sense.

The Greek word for ‘camel’ was κάμηλος (kamēlos). Which looked similar to, and sounded identical, to the word κάμιλος (kamilos). An early copyist could have misread or misheard κάμιλος as κάμηλος, and wrote the wrong word down, which was then written into every copy of the Gospel after that. The word κάμιλος actually means ‘rope’.

‘It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’

To me, this makes far more sense. Jesus wasn’t using a completely arbitrary analogy, but taking a simple situation and exaggerating it to an absurd degree in order to stress his point: anyone can thread a needle, but no one can thread it with a rope.

The Rock of the Church

Matthew 16.13-20

‘On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Sheol will not prevail against it.’


One of the sharpest divisions between Catholics and Protestants is the office of ‘the pope’, the bishop of Rome as the global leader of the church in succession to the apostle Simon Peter. The primary biblical source for this belief is the conversation found in Matthew 16.13-20, in which Jesus gives Simon the nickname ‘Peter’ and identifies him as ‘the rock’ of the church. Or doesn’t, according to Protestants.

‘He Cast Out Many Demons’

The Origins of Satan, Fallen Angels, and Demons



There is a popular story within Christianity on where ‘the devil’ and his ‘demons’ came from, what I call the ‘Lucifer myth’. In this pop theology account, God created the angels in the very beginning, before he created the earth or its inhabitants. The best and greatest of all these angels was a cherub named Lucifer. One day, for whatever the reason, Lucifer became corrupt and led a full third of the angels in rebellion against God; Lucifer wanted to take his place. Instead, after a massive war Lucifer and his angels were thrown out of heaven. The fallen angels became demons, and Lucifer was given the pejorative name ‘Satan’, and they gained the ability to possess humans against their will.

This myth is found all across Christian theology for centuries. Almost none of it is found in the Bible.

When the Revelation Was Written

A Short-Standing Debate



The last century has seen the growth of a view among Christians that the Book of Revelation was written before the year AD 70. They believe the majority of the prophecies in the book are about the events leading to AD 70, and it can’t very well be that John predicted events after they happened. A fringe group among this crowd of Christians actually believes the entire Revelation — indeed, they believe all biblical prophecy — concludes with AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem. Using a handful of points, these groups of Christians believe the Revelation was written around AD 66-68.

In AD 70, Rome overpowered Jerusalem after a four-year war and destroyed its temple. AD 70 is the year of importance in this debate because it is the focal point of Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy in Mark 13 (parallels in Matt 24, Luke 21), and the Revelation seems to overlap with Jesus’ prophecy.

Was the Revelation written before AD 70 and so predicted Jerusalem’s fall, or was the book written after AD 70 and Jerusalem’s fall informs the background of the book’s contents?

Leviathan

The Dragon of the Sea

On that day Yahweh with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.


Before the universe existed there was ocean. The ancient Israelites did not believe in a creation from nothing, per se, but creation from water. There was a primordial sea, chaotic and empty, which was the closest concept to ‘nothingness’ they had. From this endless sea, the first gods came to be. But there was a problem: the sea was the primeval deity, terrible and powerful. So the gods killed the sea that birthed them.

The Death of Judah Iscariot

Matthew 27.3-10 & Acts 1.15-20

Judah was a dreadful, walking example of impiety in this world.


How did Judah Iscariot die? He got so obscenely fat he couldn’t even see, and eventually his disease-ridden body exuded feces and worms to such an extent he died, and even a hundred years later the location of his unfortunate fate reeked of death.