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“Ask a Priest: Did Noah Really Live 900 Years?”
Q: I was going through RCIA class, but I stopped going because I’m experiencing a period of doubt. What should I do when I happen across difficult Bible passages? I’m experiencing doubt of the Bible’s accuracy over the fact that Scripture records Noah and the other patriarchs as having lived over 900 years. When the Bible records the patriarchs to live to be over 900 years, is it literal or figurative truth? It just seems plainly unbelievable and actually silly to think that someone could live that long. What are your thoughts? Perhaps you can revive my faith. -C.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It is good to hear that you were in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The questions you raise are good, but your difficulties shouldn’t dissuade you from continuing in the RCIA.
It is permissible for Catholics to believe that the long ages of the patriarchs are literal. But practically all Catholic interpreters consider the ages to be meant to teach us a theological truth, that sin brings with it death, expressed symbolically in the constantly decreasing number of years people lived.
God’s original plan for Adam and Eve was immortality — they wouldn’t die. But Adam and Eve fell, and sin entered the world. As we go through the Book of Genesis we see that the life spans of key figures get shorter. This seems to figuratively represent how sin brings death into the world.
Recent Church teaching has leaned toward interpreting Genesis 1-11 as stories that, while they have some basis in history, are meant primarily to teach theological and spiritual truths. (For further reading see the Catechism, No. 337 and No. 390, as well as Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, Nos. 31 and 38, which express the need to appreciate “the manner of expression or the literary mode” of Genesis 1-11. Also, see this article by Mark Shea.
The essential thing to understand is that we always need to interpret what we read in light of its literary genre. A historical novel, for example, doesn’t intend to teach details about what happened, but tries to get the basic history correct. Other literary genres have other expectations and intent.
What all of this means, I think, is that a difficult text in Scripture shouldn’t block your journey of faith. Rather, it can be an opportunity to delve deeper into Scripture and into Church teaching, as well as your prayer life. Some of the greatest commentators on Scripture did their best work on their knees, in prayer.
We need the Church to help us with Scripture, so ideally the Bible should bring us closer in the community of the faithful, rather than push us away. I hope this helps. God bless.