(Gen. 6:3) Do humans really live for 120 years?

CLAIM: The Bible teaches that humans only live for 120 years. Recently, however, people have stepped forward, claiming to be over 120 years old. In fact, the text claims that Noah himself lived another 350 years after the Flood, as did many of his descendants (see Gen. 11). What should we make of this claim?

RESPONSE: There are two options for understanding this claim:

Option #1: This length of time refers to the time before God flooded the Earth in Noah’s time. Most interpreters hold this view.

Option #2: This length of time refers to the length of human life after Noah’s time. Interpreters who hold to this view claim that the effects of the life-shortening are neither dogmatic nor immediate. Notice, for example, how the length of men’s ages slowly decreases in Genesis 11. They would claim that this decree of God took time to go into effect. As Matthews writes, “The longer life spans among postdiluvians can be attributed to a gracious delay in the same way that the penalty of death for Adam and Eve was not immediately executed (2:17; 3:16-19).”[1] Likewise, Wenham writes, “It may be, however, that the author thought of the 120 years as a maximum life-span that was only gradually implemented; cf. the slow-acting curses of Eden 3:16-19. In the post-flood period, the recorded ages steadily decline (chap. 11), and later figures very rarely exceed 120. After the time of Jacob, the longest-lived include Joseph (110, Gen 50:26), Moses (120, Deut 34:7), and Joshua (110, Josh 24:29). Only Aaron (123, Num 33:39) exceeds 120.”[2]

Scientific data support this second option. Our cells cannot live far beyond 120 years long, because of a phenomenon called apoptosis. Ross writes, “Apparently, our cells are designed to shut down after a certain number of cell regenerations. Apoptosis means that no matter how healthy and safe a lifestyle and person leads, he or she will not live beyond about 120 years.”[3] Even skeptic Michael Shermer affirms this, when he writes,

For humans, the record for the oldest documented age ever achieved is 120 years. It is held by Shigechiyo Izumi, a Japanese stevedore. There are many undocumented claims of people living beyond 150 years and even up to 200 years; these frequently involve such cultural oddities as adding the ages of father and son together. Data on documented centenarians (people who live to be 100 years old) reveal that only one person will live to be 115 years old for every 2.1 billion people.[4]

Before you look at Wikipedia to see people who have lived longer than 120 years old, keep two things in mind. First, birth records aren’t well known from the early 1900s. When someone passes 100 years of age, it is quite difficult to tell just how old they are. Second, this figure of 120 could be a round number—not an exact limit.

[1] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 335.

[2] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1987), 142.

[3] Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998), p.121.

[4] Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1997), 83-84.