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(From Latin ante=before, and diluvium=flood; people who lived before the Flood).

In the Pentateuch

From Adam to Noah the Bible enumerates ten patriarchs. A genealogical table of them is given (Genesis 5). Their names, lifetime, and age at which they begot their successors are systematically stated.

The modern theory of the composition of the Pentateuch assigns the chapter in which this table occurs to the documentary source commonly called the "Priestly Code", or by abbreviation, P. (See PENTATEUCH.) In the narrative of this code the table of the ten patriarchs is said by critics to have followed immediately after the Hexahemeron of chapter i. The account of the Creation concluded or began, as they maintain, with the phrase: "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 2:4). The list of the patriarchs begins: "This is the book of the generations of Adam". The thread of the same narrative is said to be further continued in chapter vi, 9, by means of the same phrase: "These are the generations of Noah". The intervening chapters, critics hold, belong to an older account of the primeval time.

Critics allege that among the names of the ten patriarchs there are six that occur also in the list of the descendants of Cain. The table of Cainites is given in 4:17-18. The six names, supposed to be the same in both registers, are Cain or Cainan, Henoch, Irad or Jared, Maviael or Malaleel, Mathusael or Mathusala, and Lamech. The different manner in which some of the names are spelled in the parallel list is held to be insignificant. As the table of Cainites in chapter iv is assumed by critics to be from an older document than that of the Adamites in chapter v, the inference was obvious that the names of the latter table were taken from the former. For this inference critics find a support in the meaning of the names Adam, Enos, and Cain or Cainan. The names Adam and Enos mean "man"; Cain or Cainan means "the one begotten" or "the son obtained" cf. iv, 1. Thus we would have the parallel Adam-Cain, Enos-Cainan, namely, man and his scion.

The number ten

In fixing upon the number ten as the number of patriarchs the author may have followed some ancient and perhaps widely spread tradition. The list of the ten patriarchs with their abnormally long lifetime resembles that of the first ten Babylonian kings as recorded by Berosus, Eusebius, Chron. Arm., I, i, t. XIX, col 107-108. According to Vigouroux, "Dictionnaire de la bible", the tradition of ten ancient ancestors is found also with other races; e.g. among the Hindus, with their ten Pitris or forefathers, comprising Brahma and the nine Bramadikas; among the ancient Germans and Scandinavians, with their belief in the ten ancestors of Odin, etc. But it is equally possible that the number ten is simply due to a systematic method of computation. Thus the pro-historic age from Adam to Abraham was to comprehend twenty generations, ten from Adam to Noah, and ten from Sem to Thare. A similar systematic arrangement we have in the genealogical table of Christ in St. Matthew containing three times fourteen generations.

The following table contains the names of the patriarchs with their respective ages according to the Hebrew text, Septuagint, and Samaritan Bible; also the names of the reign of the ten Babylonian kings. The first number is the age at which the patriarch begot his successor, the second the remainder of his years, the third the total number of his years. The list of Babylonian kings is taken from Vigouroux (Dict. de la Bible):

As the table shows, the original text and its two versions differ greatly in fixing the number of years from Adam to the Flood. In the Hebrew Bible the number is 1,656, in the Samaritan, 1,307; in the Septuagint, 2,242. On a closer examination it will be found that the difference between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint is chiefly occasioned by the systematic addition of 100 years which the Septuagint has made to the age of six patriarchs at the birth of their successors. The Samaritan on the contrary has in the case of three patriarchs deducted 100 years. No reliable clue that we know of has as yet been found for deciding which of the computations is the original. Presumption is on the side of the one in the Hebrew text being the oldest text of the three. On the other hand, the Samaritan has the advantage that the lifetime of the three patriarchs Jared, Methusala, and Lamech has been shortened, so that there is a gradual decrease in the number of years of each patriarch from Adam to Noah.

In the table of the ten Babylonian kings the length of their reign is calculated by means of sares. Berosus counts 120 sares. The sare has an astronomical value of 3,600 years and a civil value of eighteen and one-half years (Vigouroux, Dict. de la bible). According to the first estimation of the sare, the total number of years for the ten kings would be 432,000, according to the second 2,220. The efforts made to bring the sares or 432,000 years of the Babylonian kings, into harmony with the 1,656 years of the patriarchs (e.g. by equating seven Hebrew days with five Chaldean years) have yielded no satisfactory result.

Longevity of the patriarchs

Various theories have been advanced for explaining the abnormally long lifetime of the patriarchs. They may be classified into three groups:

The literal and historical interpretation

The genealogical table is accepted as a record of the past and as possessing the ordinary certainty of history. The ten patriarchs are held actually to have lived the long life assigned to them. The object which God intended by this extraordinary longevity is said to have been the increase of men on earth and the preservation of ancient tradition. In answer to the objection that the system of the human body does not permit of so long a lifetime, it is argued that a special providence of God had favoured the ancients with a peculiar organization and constitution of body, and had provided for them a special kind of food and climate. Thus already Josephus: "Let no one make the shortness of our lives at present an argument that neither the Patriarchs attained so long a duration of life; for those ancients were beloved of God and made by God himself; and because their food was then fitter for the prolongation of life; and besides God afforded them a longer time of life on account of their virtue, and the good use they made of it in astronomical and geometrical discoveries, etc."

Furthermore in corroboration of the Biblical account he names as witnesses the historians Manetho the Egyptian, Berosus the Chaldean, Mochus, Hesitaeus, Hieronymus the Egyptian, and others, who all bore testimony to the longevity of primeval man. Ant., I, III, 9.

The metaphorical interpretation

The names of the ten patriarchs signify ten dynasties or tribes. Each dynasty might have comprised a succession of several rulers. The explanation is ingenious. It may be doubted, however, whether this was the meaning of the narrator. By naming the patriarchs he seems to have meant one individual. For he states the age at which the patriarch begot the son who was to succeed him. Others argue that the Hebrew, Shanah, in the list of the ten patriarchs signifies the duration not of a year, but of a month. But in that case Enos begot his successor when he was eight years of age, and Malaleel and Henoch begot theirs when they were five.

Others again, but without sufficient ground, say that the year is to be taken as a year of three months from Adam unto Abraham, of eight months unto Joseph, and only after him are we to allow for it the natural duration.

The mythical interpretation

We have already pointed out that according to the theory of the documentary composition of the Pentateuch, chapter v belongs to the original history named by the critics the "Priestly Code". If the genealogical dates recorded in that narrative are examined, a gradual and systematic shortening of man's lifetime is distinctly noticeable. From Adam to Noah the duration of man's life ranges from 500 to 1,000 years. From Sem to Thare it ranges from 200 to 600 (xi, 10-32). From Abraham to Moses, from 100 to 200. Abraham lived 175 years; Isaac, 180; Jacob, 147 (Genesis 35:28; 25:7; 47:28). After that the average human life is 70 or 80 years. "And the days of our years in them are three score and ten years. But if in the strong they be fourscore years" (Psalm 89:10). Critics, moreover, hold as we have seen, that according to the original structure of the "Priestly Code" the genealogical table in chapter v immediately followed the account of the Creation in chapter i. If so, the narrative of this Code contained no mention of paradise, nor of man's immortality, fall, and punishment. On the other hand it may have been the opinion of the author of this Code that the smooth and even course of man's life, the result of his continued state of innocence, contributed to the possibility of his attaining a preternaturally old age. But when this primordial innocence was lost the duration of man's life was shortened. Thus the longevity of the patriarchs would agree with the notion of the primeval oetas aurea, a fabulous period of innocence and happiness.


Delitzsch, Dillman, Commentaries on Genesis (Edinburgh, 1897). and by Hummelauer (Paris, 1895); Schanz, Das Alter des Menschengeschlechts nach der heiligen Schrift, der Profangesehichte und der Vorgeschichte, in Biblische Studien, I, No. 2 (Freiburg, 1895).

About this page

APA citation. Van den Biesen, C. (1907). Antediluvians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Van den Biesen, Christian. "Antediluvians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Nicolette Ormsbee.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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