What Does Life Expectancy Tell Us About the Availability of Eyewitness Testimony?

A friend mentioned to me that he ran into an argument I had not heard for a while. Apparently, in A World Full of Gods, Keith Hopkins states that given the extremely low lifespan of the average Middle Eastern person, the eyewitnesses to Jesus must have died out fairly quickly, maybe even by the fifties AD. It goes like this: since the average life expectancy during ancient times was low, reports of eyewitness authors of the gospels or eyewitnesses speaking about Jesus' life in the second half of the first century are unreliable. According to the average life expectancy, no one would have lived that long.

How likely is it that eyewitnesses to Jesus' life survived the 50s? A 20 year old at the time of Jesus' death would have been 49 in 62 AD. A 25 year old would have been 54 by that time.

How likely is it that Papias--reportedly living from 60-135 AD-- had access to eyewitnesses? A 20 year old would have been 65 in 77 AD. A 25 year old would have been 70 by that time.

How likely is it that an eyewitness, whether John Zebedee, Lazarus, or some other disciple, wrote the Gospel of John in the 90s AD (assuming for the sake of argument that it was written that late). If the author was 25 at Jesus' death, he would have been 84 in 92 AD. A 20 year old would have been 79 by that time.

Average life expectancy does not tell us how long people tended to live. It does not even tell us the average age reached by most people. It includes babies and young mothers who die in child birth and children who die from disease. These skew the average downward. Once a man survived childhood, the numbers increased dramatically.

According to this Life Table Approximating Roman Population, once a person reached the age of 30 in the ancient Roman empire, their average life expectancy was 59. If they reached 40, their average life expectancy was 63. If they made it to 60, the life expectancy was 70. And so on. At any given time, over 17% of the population was 50 or older. Almost 5% of the population was 65 or older.

According to Paul in 1 Corinthians, there were in excess of 500 witnesses to the resurrection itself. There were likely others who followed Jesus at one time or another, or who heard his teachings and joined the movement later. Thus, there were at least several hundred witnesses to Jesus’ life who were active in the early Church. Obviously these witnesses had survived child hood. Just from a numbers stand point, therefore, it seems very likely that many of these eyewitnesses would have lived well into the second half of the first century.

Stepping away from the statistics for a moment, let us look at some examples of ancient Greek and Roman historians and biographers. Many of them reached their senior years.

Polybius was a first-hand witness of much about which he wrote, including the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage itself. Taking Hopkin’s approach to the numbers, there is no way Polybius could have lived long enough to witness all these events and write his books. But Lucian reports that Polybius lived to 82, and would have lived longer had he not fallen from his horse after a day of hunting.

The Roman historian Livy lived past his 75th birthday. Plutarch, a prolific Roman biographer, lived to be 81. Another ancient biographer, Cornelius Nepos, lived past his 75th birthday. Although estimates vary, the best reconstruction is that Cassius Dio lived to be 74.

Philo, the Jewish writer and biographer of Moses lived to be 70.

Early Christian writers also demonstrated longevity. Polycarp was over 85 when he was martyred by the Romans. Justin Martyr died at 65 when he met a martyr’s death. Origen lasted 69 years and Tertullian made it past 75.

If I spent more time researching this issue, I could come up with a very, very long list of ancient persons who lived long lives, even by today's standards. Thus, there is nothing at all improbable about eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection attesting to their memories while the gospels were written and when Papias was collecting information about Jesus.


Anonymous said…
Also, St. Anthony lived over 100 years (and with a hyper-ascetic lifestyle that probably wasn't especially healthy, too). So it's certainly not implausible that the disciples could have lived long enough.
Anonymous said…
Great! Case closed. It's awesome how CADRE is wide-ranging enough to deal with even the more obscure skeptical objections.
Jay KTX said…
Excellent research and reasoning. Thank you for diving into this matter.
zok said…
"Thus, there were at least several hundred witnesses to Jesus’ life who were active in the early Church."

I would think more than several hundred, since Jesus could have up to several thousand followers at a time.
Layman said…
Well, I did say "at least."
BK said…
The CADRE has a similar article to the foregoing entitled Were the apostles too old to author the Gospels?
trif said…
Thanks for the research! My pastor mentioned that in the time of Jesus people the average life expectancy was 30-35 years. I knew many lived more but your investigation in the matter was very helpful!
Anonymous said…
Wonderful. Now tell me how a person can remember all the details of a conversation that happened between 20 and 50 years later? That's right the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written 20 to 50 years after Jesus' death. No tape recorders, no paper and pens. Some of us wonder how this stuff continues to be believed.
Layman said…
Strawman Alert!

No one claims they remembered every detail of every conversation. But did they remember whether he was raised from the dead? That angels appeared to them? Did they remember many of his important teachings that he emphasized over and over again for three years? Did they remember what they had been preaching all along for those intervening years?

That's a lot more plausible than the notion that they remembered nothing.
Len said…
High Priest Annas was believed to have lived from 22 bc to 66 ad. He was already in his 50s when Jesus was crucified. And he might have lived longer had he not been assassinated in 66 ad for being a Roman sympathizer.
Anonymous said…
Seriously do you think no matter how much time has past anyone forget the day they attended a funeral only to have Jesus come in and crash it by raising the dead?
amy said…
When I see this...just...wow!

"Wonderful. Now tell me how a person can remember all the details of a conversation that happened between 20 and 50 years later? ....."
Do you for some reason believe that paper, pen and writing magically appeared 20-50 years later? There are tablets dating from 1400bc (writing or at least heiroglyphs)in northern syria, 600-900bc from Assyria, Samaritan docs from 350bc for the sale of slaves ... People wrote!
dankuik said…
There is absolutely no reason to doubt that exact words and conversation and teachings were remembered and memorized. Most historical information was passed on by accurate, memorized oral tradition. Biblical and extra biblical evidence was passed on in this way. dan
Thomas said…
I was looking at info on this years World Memorization Contest recently. The things they memorize are absolutely unreal. The thing is these are not necessarily great minds and certainly none with photographic memories. They are simply trained in a specialized system of memory. The ancients had such remarkable systems, certainly the Jews. Also, it seems that, upon close examination of Jesus sayings, we detect cadences to help memory. Some have even suggested that some teachings may have even been sung. When my daughter (now 37) was in junior high, her math teacher made the class sing formulas as they moved thru the halls, went to lunch etc. To this my day daughter can sing those formulas.

Added to that was the fact that Jesus taught daily. Don't suppose his sermon on the mount was a one-time message. And these things, sermons and events, were repeated over and over through the years by those witnessing their faith in Christ. Teachers retain so much of their knowledge because they teach that material every year. No, the disciples didn't forget much if anything.

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