Letter From the Vicarage

In November 2017 there was a national news story that sheep are not stupid. Researchers in Cambridge trained sheep to recognise the faces of celebrities. Untrained sheep recognised the face of their handler. The conclusions of the research is that sheep have advanced face-recognition skills on a par with humans. But this was not news to me. I have never kept sheep, but the Bible contains the collected wisdom of those who have. Jesus used sheep as an image in his teaching. The recognition an individual sheep has for its shepherd, is likened to the Christian’s recognition of Jesus, the Good Shepherd:

Jesus said, “I am telling you the truth: the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who goes in through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him; the sheep hear his voice as he calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out. When he has brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice. They will not follow someone else; instead, they will run away from such a person, because they do not know his voice.” Jesus told them this parable, but they did not understand what he meant.

John 10:1-6.

Another thing that I have heard on the Radio recently relates to human longevity. Several times I have heard scientists state this:

“The first person to live to a thousand has probably already been born.”

This is a surprising statement, something more likely to come from science fiction than from hard-science. This is because we humans find it hard to relate to things outside of our own experience. We have never heard of anyone living beyond 120 years. You may recall the WW1 veteran Harry Patch who died in 2009 aged 111, his longevity was national news. The oldest person alive today (at the time of writing) is the Japanese woman Nabi Tajima who is 117. We know that our dear departed friends and family died long before that age. We would conclude that living to 1,000 is impossible.

But some living things that are within our experience do live to beyond a thousand years; we must all have seen an ancient Yew or Oak tree at some point or other. Some fungi also are very long-lived. The body of a fungus is underground, the mushrooms and toadstools we see are just the flowering bodies of the subterranean life-form. The oldest of these are massive, weighing much more than any dinosaur, heavier too than a Blue Whale.

When our hair falls out, new hair grows in its place. When we damage our skin, fresh skin grows to replace it. We replace our dead blood cells. Scientists have discovered that the human body could in theory keep renewing itself for a thousand years. The reason this doesn’t happen at the moment is because of the process of human ageing. Scientists hope that if they can stop the ageing processes, people will be able to live much longer.

As a lifelong student of the Bible, this ‘news’ about the human body being able to last for a millennium was not news to me. The book of Genesis tells us that Noah was 600 years old at the time of The Flood, and that he lived another 350 years after that (Gen 9:28-29.) Other people from that era lived for hundreds of years; some are listed in Genesis 11:10-32, for example Noah’s son Shem who lived for 600 years. Methuselah lived to be 969(Gen5:25 27).

So why are things so different now? The Bible also tells us that after The Flood God decided to limit the human life-span to 120 years. (Genesis 6:3). So now we humans live with built-in obsolescence through the ageing process. This is our experience, our expectation; and we know that average life expectancy is much lower. The Bible gives three score years and ten as an example of a good innings; Psalm 90, written perhaps 3,000 years ago, reads

The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong. Ps 90:10.

Forty years ago, when I started studying the Bible, scientists mocked the Bible for stating that individuals used to live for hundreds of years. Many Bible scholars felt the need to explain away the large numbers, some saying that there had been scribal errors in copying the original manuscripts. But it looks to me that the Bible contains ancient wisdom, and the scientific community is finally catching up with what the Bible says in this regard.




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Parish Magazine Editor since February 2012

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