Grumpy Old Men

It’s the theocrats’ world now, so we’d better get used to it. Casting around for something historical to write about, I thought I’d begin at ‘the beginning’ – with the enormous claimed ages of the Biblical patriarchs (900 for Adam and so on).

From an armchair anthropologists’ perspective, it’s not difficult to work out why ancient cultures claimed great ages for their ancestors. It’s common to a lot of belief systems after all – the Sumerian king lists happily slap down twenty-thousand year spans on their oldest monarchs; the Greeks who believed in a Golden Age knew that men back then lived a very long time (as well as being ENORMOUS – ancient giantism is another common factor). The reasons are both practical and moral – if your job in a society is to police morality it’s a good idea to remind everyone how wicked they are, and since people are aware that relative to one another they’re not actually hugely evil you need to invoke the past as a time when things, and people, were better. In societies where people die young this means talking about ancestors who lived a long time.

Obviously no mythmakers sat down and plotted this – the beliefs in more favoured ancestors and golden ages would have evolved gradually and their social uses emerged over time. Practically, though, huge claimed ages are probably a quirk of a calendrical system based on king (or patriarch) lists. Such systems are particularly unfriendly to gaps (the idea of “don’t know” as an acceptable historical answer is a Greek invention and even then hardly widespread) as suggesting that periods in a nation’s history were rulerless would be highly un-PC. So the solution is simply to stretch the numbers.

That’s my opinion. But I’m Godless. So what do fundamentalists say?

I think if I was a Biblical literalist I would have a certain amount of sympathy with the “LOOK IT JUST IS OK!” end of the argument. It seems more honest and direct to just ignore the skeptics and quote the Bible than to get involved in pseudo-scientific justifications. But it also seems a lot less fun.

Obviously the patriarchs’ ages must be right – this is the starting point for the creationist argument. But why are they right, and more importantly, why don’t people live so long now? “God did it” is the obvious answer and would satisfy most of the target audience. But how much more useful to be able to deploy science – or words that sound a bit like science?

“After the flood the earth was completely different than the earth before. There were widespread global differences. These would include changes in the climate, composition of the atmosphere, hydrologic cycle, geologic features, cosmic radiation reaching the earth, ozone concentration, ultra violet light, background radiation, genetics, diet, and a host of other subtle and/or profound chemical and physiological changes.” (This site has some particularly emphatic arguments to do with MATHS)

Wow! Elsewhere we have the argument that animals seem to have genes that programme their lifespans ergo the patriarchs had similar genes, only better ones. Why would that be though? GOD DID IT. The problem with all these arguments – in fact with pretty much every creationist argument – is that it ends up at “IT JUST IS, OK!!!” in the end. Sooner or later you run into the man behind the curtain and the pretence of rationality collapses. But it’s so tempting to drop a bit of science – even quite a sterly literalist site gets a little bit excited by post-flood nuclear radiation. The era of the patriarchs in these re-readings isn’t some golden age but a terrifying post-apocalyptic world, a sort of Mad Max with 300-year-olds in robes.