The word patriarch as applied to Biblical personages comes from the Septuagint version, where it is used in a broad sense, including religious and civil officials (e.g. 1 Chronicles 24:31; 27:22). In the more restricted sense and common usage it is applied to the antediluvian fathers of the human race, and more particularly to the three great progenitors of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the New Testament the term is extended also to the sons of Jacob (Acts 7:8-9) and to King David (ibid., ii, 29). For an account of these later patriarchs see articles ABRAHAM; ISAAC; JACOB; etc. The earlier patriarchs comprise the antediluvian group, and those who are placed between the Flood and the birth of Abraham. Of the former the Book of Genesis gives a twofold list. The first (Genesis 4:17-18, passage assigned by critics the so-called "J" document) starts with Cain and gives as his descendants Henoch, Irad, Maviael, Mathusael, and Lamech. The other list (Genesis 5:3-31, ascribed to the priestly writer, "P") is far more elaborate, and is accompanied by minute chronological indications. It begins with Seth and, strange to say, it ends likewise with Lamech. The intervening names are Enos, Cainan, Malaleel, Jared, Henoch, and Mathusala.
The fact that both lists end with Lamech, who is doubtless the same person, and that some of the names common to both are strikingly similar, makes it probable that the second list is an amplification of the first, embodying material furnished by a divergent tradition. Nor should this seem surprising when we consider the many discrepancies exhibited by the twofold genealogy of the Saviour in the First and Third Gospels. The human personages set forth in these lists occupy a place held by the mythical demi-gods in the story of the prehistoric beginnings of other early nations, and it may well be that the chief value of the inspired account given of them is didactic, destined in the mind of the sacred writer to inculcate the great truth of monotheism which is so distinctive a feature of the Old Testament writings. Be that as it may, the acceptance of this general view helps greatly to simplify another difficult problem connected with the Biblical account of the early patriarchs, viz. their enormous longevity. The earlier account (Genesis 4:17-18) gives only the names of the patriarchs there mentioned, with the incidental indication that the city built by Cain was called after his son Henoch. The later narrative (Genesis 5:3-31) gives a definite chronology for the whole period. It states the age at which each patriarch begot his first-born son, the number of years he lived after that event, together with the sum total of the years of his life. Nearly all of the antediluvian fathers are represented as living to the age of 900 or thereabouts, Mathusala, the oldest, reaching 969.
These figures have always constituted a most difficult problem for commentators and Bible readers; and those who defend the strict historical character of the passages in question have put forward various explanations, none of which are considered convincing by modern Biblical scholars. Thus it has been conjectured that the years mentioned in this connexion were not of ordinary duration but of one or more months. There is, however, no warrant for this assumption in the Scripture itself, where the word year has a constant signification, and is always clearly distinguished from the minor periods. It has also been suggested that the ages given are not those of individuals, but signify epochs of antediluvian history, and that each is named after its most illustrious representative. The hypothesis may be ingenious, but even a superficial reading of the text suffices to show that such was not the meaning of the sacred writer. Nor does it help the case much to point out a few exceptional instances of persons who in modern times are alleged to have lived to the age of 150 or even 180. For even admitting these as facts, and that in primitive times men lived longer than at present (an assumption for which we find no warrant in historic times), it is still a long way from 180 to 900.
Another argument to corroborate the historical accuracy of the Biblical account has been deduced from the fact that the legends of many people assert the great longevity of their early ancestors, a circumstance which is said to imply an original tradition to that effect. Thus the first seven Egyptian kings are said to have reigned for a period of 12,300 years, making an average of about 1757 years for each, and Josephus, who is preoccupied with a desire to justify the Biblical narrative, quotes Ephorus and Nicolaus as relating "that the ancients lived a thousand years". He adds, however, "But as to these matters, let every one look upon them as he thinks fit". (Antiq., I, iii, in fine). On the other hand, it is maintained that as a matter of fact there is no trustworthy historic or scientific evidence indicating that the average span of human life was greater in primitive than in modern times. In this connexion it is customary to cite Genesis 6:3, where God is represented as decreeing by way of punishment of the universal corruption which was the occasion of the Flood, that henceforth the days of man "shall be a hundred and twenty years". This is taken as indicating a point at which the physical deterioration of the race resulted in a marked decrease in longevity. But apart from the critical considerations bearing on this passage, it is strange to note further on (Genesis 11) that the ages of the subsequent patriarchs were by no means limited to 120 years. Sem lived to the age of 600. Arphaxad 338 (Massoretic text 408), Sale 433, Heber 464 etc.
The one ground on which the accuracy of all these figures can be defended is the a priori reason that being contained in the Bible, they must of a necessity be historically correct, and this position is maintained by the older commentators generally. Most modern scholars, on the other hand, are agreed in considering the genealogical and chronological lists of Genesis 5 and 11 to be mainly artificial, and this view seems to be confirmed, they say, by a comparison of the figures as they stand in the Hebrew original and in the ancient versions. The Vulgate is in agreement with the former (with the exception of Arphaxad), showing that no substantial alteration of the figures has been made in the Hebrew at least since the end of the fourth century A. D.
But when we compare the Massoretic text with the Samaritan version and the Septuagint, we are confronted by many and strange discrepancies which can hardly be the result of mere accident. Thus for instance, with regard to the antediluvian patriarchs, while the Samaritan version agrees in the main with the Massoretic text, the age at which Jared begot his first-born is set down as 62 instead of the Hebrew 162. Mathusala, likewise, who according to the Hebrew begot his first-born at the age of 187, was only 67 according to the Samaritan; and though the Hebrew places the same event in the case of Lamech when he was 182, the Samaritan gives him only 53. Similar discrepancies exist between the two texts as regards the total number of years that these patriarchs lived, viz. Jared, Heb. 962, Sam. 847; Mathusala, Heb. 969, Sam. 720; Lamech, Heb. 777, Sam. 653. Comparing the Massoretic text with the Septuagint, we find that in the latter the birth of the first-born in the case of Adam, Seth, Enos, Cainan, Malaleel, and Henoch was at the respective ages of 230, 205, 190, 170, 165, and 165, as against 130, 105, 90, 70, 65, and 65 as stated in the Hebrew, and the same systematic difference of 100 years in the period before the birth of the first-born appears likewise in the lives of the postdiluvian patriarchs, Arphaxad, Sale, Heber, Phaleg, Reu, and Sarug. For this list, however, the Samaritan agrees with the Septuagint as against the Massoretic text.
As regards the list of the antediluvians, the Hebrew and Septuagint agree as to the sum total of each patriarch's life, since the Greek version reduces regularly by a hundred years the period between the birth of the first-born and the patriarch's death. These accumulated differences result in a wide divergence when the duration of the entire patriarchal period is considered. Thus the number of years which elapsed from the beginning down to the death of Lamech is, according to the Hebrew, 1651, while the Samaritan gives 1307, and the Septuagint 2227. These are but a few of the peculiarities exhibited by the comparison of the perplexing genealogical lists. That the divergences are for the most part intentional seems to be a necessary inference from their systematic regularity, and the implied manipulation of the figures by the early translators goes far to make probable the more or less artificial character of these primitive chronologies as a whole.
APA citation. (1911). Patriarch. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11548a.htm
MLA citation. "Patriarch." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11548a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Sean Hyland.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.