Monday, August 23, 2010

How Old were Jesus’ Disciples?

Life expectancy in the Roman Empire was 35 years of age. According to an author of the time, a person at age 10, expected to live another 35 years.*

Mentally, we tended to think the disciples were roughly the same age as Jesus. 30 years +/- 5 years. (Most Sunday School pictures depict them in that age range.) According to this Chart on Roman Life Expectancy, they would most likely be dead by 53 CE. [If they were younger, say 25 years old, their life expectancy was even less—to 51 CE!]

An alternative Chart indicates if they were 25, their life expectancy would be 57 CE, or at 30, would be 59 CE.

Simply put, by the time Paul started writing his letters, we would expect many of them to be dead. By the time of the Jewish wars, we would expect all of them to be dead.

We don’t often think about life expectancy—we have a terrible tendency to “project” our own life expectancy of 70 years on people of the time.

Yet simply put, even if the Gospels were written in 65 CE—most of the eyewitnesses would be dead by then. A fact of living in that time.

*Edited, thanks to Vinny.


  1. Interesting point. I have never thought about this. I know, shocking. :) This put s a whole new perspective on how we should view some of the books of the Bible.

    Thanks for opening my eyes to a new perspective on the Bible.

  2. Interesting point. I have never thought about this. I know, shocking. :) This put s a whole new perspective on how we should view some of the books of the Bible.

    Thanks for opening my eyes to a new perspective on the Bible.

  3. I'd never thought about it either.

    I wonder at what age people in that society were considered middle age or old?

  4. Dagoods,

    I think you may have misread that passage. It speaks of "a life expectancy at age ten of about thirty-five additional years."

  5. Always something new to consider! We really do have trouble understanding the Bible within its
    1st century context.

  6. DagoodS,
    I have a favor to ask. Would you consider putting a search box on your blog? I've read more posts of yours than I care to admit and from time to time I like to link to them. But, that means remembering in which year and month they were written. Otherwise, I'm left reading through the titles of many entries!

  7. Blogger has a search gadget you can add relatively easily from the blog design page.

  8. DagoodS,
    Thanks so much for the search box!

  9. Excellent point! I always had it in the back of my mind that the dating of the manuscripts was way too late to have been writing by eye witnesses.

    ** Lorena **

  10. Exfundy,

    I don't think you want to overstate the argument though. Average life expectancies can be skewed by infant mortality. For someone who has reached adulthood, ages of sixty or seventy were unlikely, but perhaps not as unlikely as the average life expectancy might suggest.

  11. Vinny,

    But I wouldn't base something as important as faith on writings by people whose average life expectancy was way lower than their Biblical age. That they actually wrote the stuff is a long shot, if not impossible. You know that, and I know that.

  12. exfundy,

    I absolutely agree. I only point this out because there is nothing that I hate worse than being caught without a good answer in an argument with a current fundy and I once got tripped up when I over-emphasized short life expectancies.

  13. Regardless of what one believes about the authorship, (and I am perhaps as close to a “fundie” was will quietly read here) Vinny’s point is very reasonable. As a funeral director with some schooling in statistics, I would suggest that one should always use care in interpreting “average lifespan.” Infant mortality, death from childhood diseases, war and even maternal death all disproportionally target the young, and “skew the curve.” Males who survived to age 25 or 30, and women to maybe 35-40 may well have had chances similar to our own of reaching 65-70. Then cancers may start showing up.
    I would anticipate a “bimodal” two-hump death rate graph, with a big high rate early on, then lowered through the 40’s and 50’s then a hump slightly higher than our own after that. That’s Just a starting guess, but I know that in my own field, 100 years ago, undertakers made money by burying children . You go to old cemeteries, and will often see a couple buried with a cluster of infant/child graves arrayed around them. That was the 1890’s perhaps, but I am suspicious that the shape of the curve was stronger, not less in early civilizations. Would be interesting to actually amass the data.
    Popular fiction of the last few centuries we seem to frequently find references to folks 60-80, and yet “average lifespan” seems to be listed as far, far less.
    Of much greater interest (Should things like modal and median numbers, etc not be available) would be contemporary accounts referring to men of 30 or 40 as “old” DagwoodS alludes to some such, but I think much more important use could be made of that sort of data. BTW, even the bible refers to “Three score and ten, or perhaps four score” as a “normal” life. That is relevant even if it is only the culture wisdom around the campfire (unless we stuck it in since the invention of modern antibiotics)

    R. Eric Sawyer

  14. rericsawyer,

    The statistics were derived from census entries (over 1000 entries), historical accounts, and cemetery markers. We are stuck using the information we have and deriving results.

    rericsawyer: Males who survived to age 25 or 30, and women to maybe 35-40 may well have had chances similar to our own of reaching 65-70
    Actually, if you clicked on the links, you would see the percentages estimated. If you have alternative sources of study and information, I would be happy to review them.

    As to the “threescore and ten”…

    What would you think if I insisted Christians must believe every time our planet rotates, exactly 1000 years passes in heaven? That we must exactly correlate the time between the two realms in the equation: “1 Earth Day = 1,000 Heaven Years”? And I rely upon Psalm 90:4 for such a contention?

    It would be pointed out (and correctly so!) that such a reading is contrary to both the context and the genre. This is a poem where the author is demonstrating the insignificance of humans as compared to Elohiym. The author is saying, “We humans live what—70 or 80 years at the most? (Ps. 90:10) What is that to a God? To him, your 70 years is like 25.5 MILLION years. (Ps. 90:4)”

    We agree that people did live to be 70, both at the time of Psalms, and First Century Mediterranean. But Psalm 90:10 is not giving us actual life expectancy statistics any more than it gives us an equation to calculate “Heaven Time.”

  15. A 25 year old man in the United States can expect to reach the age of 76. In Rome, he could expect to reach 57. I would not consider those chances similar.

    On the other hand, if my math is correct, a 25 year old may have had a 25%-38% chance of reaching the age of 65, which certainly would allow for the possibility of eyewitnesses being alive if the gospels were written early.

  16. My allusion to the 3 score and 10 was certainly not aimed at illustrating divine revelation (even though I accept such revelation)

    My only point was that, if taken at total face value, a poet marking the fixed limited and brief nature of our life compared to the infinity of the trancendent, he was quite capable of referrencing 40, 50 or 60 years, if such were more in keeping with the realities and expectations of his culture. The notice I was making is that, if that poem were to be written today, we nould not use a substantially different number to exress the limited nature of man. Mayby 5 score, or 5 score and 10, but our expectatins don't seem that different juding from that one line.

    Of course, the data trumps the literature, and I have not looked at the data, only my own anecdotal notes. The other point, and I think it is valid whatever your ultimate biases are, is to be very skeptical when statisitics seem to give you a gift!

  17. rericsawyer,

    I think we would use a different number. If I asked, “What is the highest amount of years you could expect to live?” I would suspect many people would say “100.” The Psalmist was making a distinct point to compare the most a human could live as compared to what a god would live.

    And it is not as if the statistics are helping me or hurting me. The simple fact (and I picked this up from a Roman History course—not some skeptical site) is that life expectancy was shorter in First Century Mediterranean. And there wouldn’t be as many eyewitnesses running around as many Christians have the impression.

    Understand, this wouldn’t mean ALL the eyewitnesses would be missing. In fact, as Vinny points out, the very statistics we are using here indicate there would be a few. If there were 12 disciples, and all were the age of 30 at the time of Jesus’ death, there is a large enough percentage that at least one would still be alive by…say…68 CE. And clearly we are talking more than just the 12.

    I’m not raising this as some claim that “All the Eyewitnesses would be DEAD by 50 CE”—not at all. Just something to get people to realize how different times were, and to not retroject our current cultural biases into that time.

  18. Fair enough.
    My interest is totally removed from my religious opinions. I am a little knee-jerk about statistics casually and incompetantly used in order to suport or defend anything.
    Sounds like you've pretty well done your homework here. (Now, if we were talking life-span in the EARLY old testament...!)

    R. Eric Sawyer