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The Septuagint (along with the Samaritan Pentateuch) and Flavius Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities allow for about 6 to 7 hundred more years from our days back to the Flood (which accordingly would date back to the 31st century b.c. - there are some variants).

The Masoretic textual tradition sets about the 24th century as date of the flood cataclysm. That makes it hard for any early chronology of mankind to appear historical for anyone inclined towards the biblical account. Most translations regard the Masoretic numbers as the most reliable ones. However, they appear to be the latest, since Flavius Josephus (a prominent Pharisee and historian of the first century) does not know the Masoretic numbers.

What motivated the Rabbis/Masoretes to change the numbers and shorten the early chronology of mankind?

An English translation of the relevant chapter (Genesis 11) can be seen here: (corrected in acc. with Flav.Jos. Ant.Jud., Theophilus, Africanus, Eusebius, who used an older version of Septuagint, 1st to 3rd cent. and (oldest, 2nd cent.) Papyrus Bodmer´s Luke 3:36, which do not have that second, later inserted Kainan)

10 And these are the generations of Sem:
Sem was a son of one hundred years
when he became the father of Arphaxad, in the second year after the flood.
12 And Arphaxad lived one hundred thirty-five (MT: thirty-five) years
and became the father of Sala.
14 And Sala lived one hundred thirty (MT: thirty) years
and became the father of Eber.
16 And Eber lived one hundred thirty-four (MT: thirty-four) years
and became the father of Phalek.
18 And Phalek lived one hundred thirty (MT: thirty) years
and became the father of Ragau.
20 And Ragau lived one hundred thirty-two (MT: thirty-two) years
and became the father of Serouch.
22 And Serouch lived one hundred thirty (MT: thirty) years
and became the father of Nachor.
24 And Nachor lived seventy-nine (MT: twenty-nine) years
and became the father of Thara.
26 And Thara lived seventy years (130 years -> Abram)
and became the father of Abram and Nachor and Harran.

Flavius Josephus writes in his 6th book:

  1. I will now treat of the Hebrews. The son of Phaleg, whose
    father Was Heber, was Ragau; whose son was Serug, to whom was
    born Nahor; his son was Terah, who was the father of Abraham, who
    accordingly was the tenth from Noah, and was born in the two
    hundred and ninety-second year after the deluge;
    for Terah begat Abram in his seventieth year.
    Nahor begat Haran when he was one hundred and twenty years old;
    Nahor was born to Serug in his hundred and thirty-second year;
    Ragau had Serug at one hundred and thirty;
    at the same age also Phaleg had Ragau;
    Heber begat Phaleg in his hundred and thirty-fourth year;
    he himself being begotten by Sala when he was a hundred and thirty years old,
    whom Arphaxad had for his son at the hundred and thirty-fifth year of his age. Arphaxad was the son of Shem, and born twelve years after the deluge.

Is the Septuagint (and Flavius Josephus') chronology inflated, as almost every translation of the bible seems to maintain, or is—on the contrary—the Masoretic Text deflated for some reason?

For instance, this Wikipedia article shows the differences for some of the genealogies in Genesis:

Differences in dating

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Wikipedia has a very nice table of the dates given the Masoretic, Samaritan, and Septuagint versions of Genesis. Note that there are some inconsistencies concerning who survived the flood if you take the Septuagint ages at face value. –  Noah Apr 28 '13 at 19:50
I can't seem to find anything written about what the Dead Sea Scrolls have for these chronologies. Can anyone else? –  Noah Apr 28 '13 at 20:00
@Noah Snyder: The Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain anything from Genesis 5 or 11, except for a few fragmentary words that do not side with one against the other. –  user2350 Jun 14 '13 at 19:47

6 Answers 6

     I propose that the variations seen in the genealogies of Genesis arose from an effort to praise or villify certain patriarchs. Specifically, there is evidence of a motivation to praise the first five generations from Adam to Mahalalel, and to villify Jared, Methuselah, and Lamech. I refer to the Wikipedia chart given above in my argument.

     The Septuagint added 100 years to the birthdates of the first five patriarchs versus the dates which appear in the Masoretic and Samaritan texts. By adding 100 years to the birthdates of the first five patriarchs, this shifts their times of death to before the birth of Jared (960) and the generations of Methuselah and Lamech. Shifting these dates could have been a way of changing the text to reflect what the traditional interpretation was at the time.

     On the other hand, the Masoretic and Vulgate texts do not separate Jared's birthdate from the earlier generations. However, the Masoretic text added 100, 120, and 129 years, respectively, to the birthdates of Jared, Methuselah and Lamech. This places the dates of death for these three patriarchs at the years 1422, 1656 and 1651. The time of the flood occurred when Noah was 600 years old, which was the year 1656 in the Masoretic text. Clearly, the text implies that Jared and Methusaleh perished in the flood, although Jared appears to have died before it happened. The tradition of not holding these three patriarchs in high regard is also evident in the Samaritan text. Here we find that all three perished in 1307, the exact same date as Noah's flood, according to that text.

     There may a lingering question about Enoch. The biblical text mentions that Enoch walked with G-d, so there would be no motivation for placing his death near the flood.

     I would like to cite this paper I found online, which spurned my thinking on this question:

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I would propose the following approach:

For the time before the flood: Primacy of the Massoretic numbers. They have the greatest variance and most support by the Samaritan text (and in the three differing cases - Jared, Methuselah, Lamech - the Masoretic agrees or comes close to the Septuagint).

For the time after the flood: Primacy of Septuagint and Samaritan text, which agree in all instances. (The second Kainan does not appear in all Septuagint manuscripts, not in Josephus' chronology and not in the earliest manuscript containing Luke's genealogy of Jesus.)

The reason for the Massoretes to reduce the age of procreation for 100 years to (for that time) an unusually early age seems to be the following:

Abraham should stand out solitarily as the only one getting a son at his high age. (That the issue was actually more with his wife Sarah is seen in the account about the birth of Isaac, and later even more so, when Abraham had five more sons with Keturah at a much higher age.

The Massoretic numbers are historically impossible, because they do not allow enough time for Sumeric and Egyptian well (and written!) documented early history.

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One of the important considerations of the various editors was the death of Methusela. The Masoretic and Samaritan texts have him dying on the year of the flood, though the way they get there is quite different. It is also an important consideration that none of the other patriarchs survive the flood, and so some traditions ensure that they all die before the flood, except Noah of course.

Babylonian numbers used a base 60 positional system, but it did not have a placeholder like '0'. There was in fact no difference between 10 and 600. This, along with difficulties in changing bases, appears to have created a number of varied interpretations in later documents. If Biblical authors tried to base their numbers on the original Sumerian records, there would be a good number of possibilities that they could choose. The biggest difficulty would be for them to try to get sane numbers from the crazy ages of the patriarchs in some interpretations of Sumerian records.

To me it would seem that sanity checking and making the ages fit Biblical stories would be major influences on the original authors, as well as editors, as the same constraints can be seen being fulfilled in multiple versions, though the particulars can be quite different.

The specific changes that you refer to appear to have been made much more recently, as they reflect base 10 alterations. I would guess that another round of sanity checking influenced the decision for patriarchs to have their first children in the 30s rather than after 100 years. (I'm using sanity checking as a technical, not pejorative term)

I'm afraid I can't really comment on any particular changes, or how well they fit other events, as it seems to me that any true time spans have been mistranslated and edited out of existence, even if the original Sumerian writings had them correct. They now have mostly symbolic meaning, though I would guess that sometimes the extra stories that gave them meaning often did not make it into the final Biblical documents and so have also been lost.


You state:

That makes it hard for any early chronology of mankind to appear historical for anyone inclined towards the biblical account.

This appears to be a problematic hermeneutic technique, to decide on the more reliable text based on which fits your preferred timeline. It is clear that various authors, copyists, compilers, and editors have changed things, including lifespans, but I think it is better practice to look at the best evidence about the texts themselves, rather than fitting texts around ideas gained from other sources.

BTW, I studied Sumerian history and pre-history last year with my kids, and didn't see anything about an unusually large 3100BC flood, basically uninterrupted habitation with regular major flooding between the rivers, but not of civilisation destroying magnitude. 3100BC is in the middle of a reasonable populous and prosperous period, just before the development of the Bronze Age.

I've heard of a theory of a 5500BC flood in a close by area - the fabled Black Sea Deluge - but that doesn't help fit your chronology either. Where was the flood you are referring to?

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This doesn't address anything specific in the question. –  curiousdannii Sep 18 '14 at 4:36
@curiousdannii, yes I was intending to say more and got sidetracked :-) –  Richard Sep 18 '14 at 9:38

I addressed this in detail here.

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Welcome to Stack Exchange, we are glad you are here. Be sure to check out the site tour and in particular what constitutes a good answer. We generally expect a bit more than a link to an external website - could you maybe briefly summarize your essay here and leave a link to it "for more information"? –  ThaddeusB Aug 27 at 14:26
Hi @BroDaniel Whilst this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here (summarize the relevant portions of the resource that answer this question), and provide the link for reference. –  Paul Vargas Aug 27 at 16:41

It most likely had something to do with transposing the numbers from a hexagesimal (base-60) to a decimal (base-10) system. They weren't sure what to do with the hundreds place, so they left it blank.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

Hello, and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! Showing your work is a requirement on this site. Could you edit this answer to tell us how you arrived at this conclusion? –  Susan Sep 18 '14 at 1:19

Another theory I've read (has anyone else come across this?) is that as time went on under the Old Covenant, an understanding arose among the Israelites that the Messiah would appear during "the 6th Age" of human history--i.e. the sixth millennium after Adam. The Septuagint chronology reflects that perfectly, placing the creation of Adam somewhere before 5000 B.C. In Catholic/Western tradition, the date 5199 B.C. often appears, while in Byzantine/Eastern circles, 5509 B.C. is cited. Depends on which LXX manuscript is considered authoritative.

The Masoretes on the other hand, as followers of the Pharisees, had to figure out a way to realign the ancient timetable so that the creation of Adam would no longer point to Christ in this way, so..shave off a few centuries here and there..and voilà! The calender used by contemporary Israel today (e.g. the Jerusalem Post, etc) dates from 3761 B.C.--even shorter than Ussher's chronology!

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Hi, and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. We do appreciate you posting, but do you have a source for your sixth age statement? –  Frank Luke Jan 8 '14 at 17:21
Thanks! Let'see... Links: 1. 2.… BOOKS: 1. The Beginning of Wisdom: Unabridged Translation of the Gate of Love (Elijah ben Moses de Vidas) 2. Prognosticum Futuri Saeculi [Julian of Toledo] These also demonstrate how the "6th millennium" thing, based on the Seder Olam creation date (3761 B.C.), led to all the craziness of some folks thinking the world would end in the A.D. 1840s! –  Tony Jan 8 '14 at 22:47

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