In Revelation 7, there is a list of 12 Israelite tribes with 12,000 people in each, totalling 144,000 in all. These 144,000 are mentioned again in Revelation 14:1-5 where we are told more about them including the fact that they are men (Rev. 14:4). Since the Christian faith is fully inclusive of women, some are troubled that this group consists of only men. What is the 144,000? Who are these men? And are women really excluded from this group?
Revelation 7 and 14 can be read on Bible Gateway here.
The 144,000 Men is a Symbol
The Book of Revelation, much of which is John’s report of a vision, or a series of visions, “is saturated with allusions to the Old Testament” and is steeped in ancient Jewish thinking. The 144,000 men is an image or symbol that first-century Jewish Christians living in Asia Minor, the original audience of Revelation, perhaps grasped more readily than us today.
The 144,000 are described as “servants (literally, slaves) of God” in Revelation 7:3. “Slaves of God” is an expression used of prominent figures in the Hebrew Bible, such as Moses, who were devoted to serving God. In Revelation, the phrase usually refers to the redeemed, to followers of Jesus (Rev. 1:1; 2:20; 19:5; 22:3, 6; etc). The 144,000 are redeemed and sealed with the name of the Father and the Lamb on their foreheads for their protection (Rev. 7:3; 14:1). They are presented as the opposite of those who worship the Beast and have been sealed by its mark.
The Beast is Revelation’s symbol for the Roman imperial cult, and the Beast-worshippers are enemies of the Lamb. The Lamb is Revelation’s symbol for the risen Messiah.
Just as the Beast is a symbol and the Lamb is a symbol―Rome and Jesus are not actually animals, the 144,000 is a symbol. The 144,000 men are not real people themselves, or specific people, but they symbolically represent a larger group of real people. We will see who the 144,000 represent later, but first I look at a few descriptions of these men.
The 144,000 are Israelite Warriors
Numbers are symbolic in Revelation, and this includes the number 144,000. Ian Paul explains the significance of this number.
Because of the distinctive square shape of Hebrew altars in the Old Testament (in contrast with pagan altars which were rectangular or round) and the shape of the Holy of Holies as a cube (1 Kgs 6:20), John consistently uses the square and cubic numbers 144 and 1,000 to designate the things of God, in particular the people of God.
The number 144,000 is written in Revelation with Greek words as hekaton tesserakonta tessares chiliades. Chiliades (“thousand”) can signify completeness, or inclusiveness, but can also represent a large number that cannot be counted. Perhaps John intended it to have both senses. The 144,000 is a vast but complete and inclusive group of people
Furthermore, the list in Revelation 7:3-8 looks like a census. Ian Paul notes that the purpose of censuses in the Old Testament “was often to ascertain the fighting strength of the conscription army, which could consist of all able-bodied adult males. … The enumeration [in Revelation 7] therefore depicts God’s people as a spiritual army, disciplined and ready to engage in holy warfare.” The 144,000 in Revelation appear to be warriors, non-violent warriors.
A Multitude of Ethnically Diverse Priests
John hears about the tribal lists of the 144,000 from an angel (Rev. 7:2-8). But when he looks, he sees “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9).
The countless multitude that John sees is larger than the 144,000 counted men and they are not only Jewish. All ethnicities are included: “every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Rev. 7:9; cf. Rev. 5:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15). Many scholars believe the 144,000 Israelite men and the multi-ethnic multitude are two images that figuratively represent the one, same group of real people.
Further in the chapter we read that the multitude are “the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple” (Rev. 7:14-15).
If the 144,000 and the multitude is the same group, or represent the same group, they appear to be serving as priests as well as being warriors (cf. Rev. 5:9-10). They are warrior-priests. According to Jewish thinking, only men could be warriors and priests. This is probably why the 144,000 are all men.
The 144,000 are Virgins
In Revelation 14, the 144,000 are described in various ways as set apart and we learn that they had not defiled themselves with women. They were virgins (Greek: parthenoi). Parthenoi is typically a feminine word and not used for men in ancient Greek pagan literature. John, and perhaps other Greek-speaking Jews also, seems to have coopted the usually feminine word for his purposes.
The word “defile” (Greek: molynō) is sometimes used in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) to refer to anyone or anything that is ritually unclean. Note that its use in Revelation 14:4 does not mean that women themselves are somehow defiling. Rather, according to the Hebrew Bible, having sex made both partners ritually unclean for a short period of time. (See Leviticus 15:18). The Bible, in fact, speaks positively about marriage and sex (e.g., Heb. 13:4a). It also speaks positively about women. (See here.)
There are a few verses in the Hebrew Bible where men abstained from sex when fighting a holy war (Lev. 15:16, Deut. 23:9-10) or when about to encounter God in a profound way (Exod. 19:10-15; cf. 1 Sam. 21:4-5). They kept themselves ritually clean in preparation for special, sanctified service.
On the other hand, the virginity of the 144,000 may simply signify dedication and faithfulness to God in the face of idolatry (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2).
“Since in the rhetorical context and sign system of Revelation sexual language is used metaphorically, the phrase ‘they have not soiled themselves with women’ refers to the idolatry of the imperial cult.”
The 144,000 are Offered as First Fruits
The 144,000 are redeemed, or purchased, from humanity and offered as first fruits to God and the Lamb (Rev. 14:5). The Hebrew Bible tells us that first fruits was an offering to God made at the beginning of the harvest. This offering was of the first and best animal of a flock, or the first harvested sheaf of a crop, the first basket of fruit or nuts, or the first portion of products such as wine, oil, honey, or fleeces. The first fruits belonged to God.
There are several verses in the Hebrew Bible that speak about redeeming firstborn sons, as well as male animals, as a consecrated first fruits offering. For example, Exodus 34:19-20 states, “The firstborn male from every womb belongs to me, including all your male livestock, the firstborn of cattle or sheep…. You must redeem all the firstborn of your sons.” (See also Exodus 13:13; 22:29-30; 23:16; etc.) So, as with the imagery of male warriors and male priests, the 144,000 being men fits with the imagery of first fruits and redeeming sons.
Some people believe the 144,000 were martyrs who had refused to worship the Beast and take its mark. The multitude had come through the tribulation (Rev. 7:14); however, the verses in Revelation that mention martyrdom do not directly refer to the 144,000 or to the multitude. (See Rev. 6:9; 10:4; 12:11; 13:15; 14:13.)
“Revelation is a thoroughly symbolic text.” As already stated, just as Rome is not actually a beast and Jesus is not actually a lamb, the 144,000 in John’s visions are not real, or specific, people even though this group symbolises or stands for a much larger group of real people.
The 144,000 are symbolised as priestly warriors, and according to the Hebrew Bible and ancient Jewish mindset, only men can be priests and warriors. However, the 144,000 signify all redeemed humanity, including women and girls, who remain faithful to the Messiah despite tribulations and despite temptations to follow false gods.
Ian Paul states that the 144,000 “must refer to the whole people of God, and not a remnant or elite within them … and [they] constitute the total number who are protected from coming judgment.”
Women and girls, and people of all nationalities and ethnicities, are just as much a part of this real community as any male Jewish virgin. This is true of everyone who faithfully follows the Lamb, the Messiah Jesus.
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 Ancient Jews had a hope that the tribal structure of Israel would be restored (cf. Rev. 21:12). Ian Paul notes, “There are eighteen different listings of the tribes of Israel in the Old Testament – and this list matches none of them! Perhaps most surprising is that this list does not match the list in Ezekiel 48, which is an eschatological rather than a historical listing.” Paul, Revelation, 159
 Paul, Revelation, 6.
 Paul, Revelation, 36-37. The New Jerusalem is also a cube and is described with the symbolic numbers 12,000, 144, and 12 (Rev. 21:16-21). Craig Keener suggests the figurative 144,000 are “the new Jerusalemites”; they are “the people of God for the city of God.” (Source)
In Revelation, the “bride” (nymphē) or the “wife” (gynē) of the Lamb is the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 19:7 “wife”; Rev 21:2 “bride”; Rev 21:9-10 “bride” and “wife”; Rev. 22:17 “bride”; cf. Rev 3:12). Does this have anything to do with why the 144,000 are virgins?
 Hekaton means 100, tesserakonta, 40, tessares, 4, and chiliades, 1000.
 Paul, Revelation, 159. See Numbers 1:1-16 (cf. Num. 31:1-6; 2 Sam. 24:1-9).
 The masculine language used in the Greek of Revelation 14:4 (a masculine article, pronouns, and a participle) might indicate that the virgins are men, or both men and women. However, since it is stated that these virgins have not been defiled with women, we can safely assume the symbolic 144,000 were all male.
 In Joseph and Asenath, an ancient historical novel, Joseph is referred to as a parthenos (“virgin”) twice (Jos. Asen. 4:7; 8:1). This Jewish work was written in Greek sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE. As far as I can work out, this work and Revelation are the two earliest ancient Greek texts where men are called parthenoi.
 LSJ and BDAG (Bauer and Danker’s lexicon) have parthenos as a masculine noun in definition III and b. respectively. Elsewhere in the New Testament, parthenoi (“virgins”) are young women (Matt. 1:23; 25:1; Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 7:34).
 Lynn R. Huber adds another layer and argues that the male virgins make an anti-Rome statement. Male virginity went against the marriage reforms that Caesar Augustus had initiated and that Domitian actively supported. (Domitian is believed by many to have been the emperor when Revelation was written.) Huber states that, according to Augustus, “The failure to marry and reproduce was a failure to fulfill one’s masculine role and, in essence, one’s political, social, and religious duties.” Huber, “Sexually Explicit? Re‐reading Revelation’s 144,000 Virgins as a Response to Roman Discourses” in Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality 2.1 (January 2008): 3‐28, 10.
 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Proclamation Commentaries; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), 88.
 Paul, Revelation, 37.
 Paul, Revelation, 158.
© Margaret Mowczko 2021
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Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, based on “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (c. 1423-24) from the predella (lowest part) of the altarpiece made for the high altar of San Domenico, Fiesole. (National Gallery, London).
Ian Paul blogs at Psephizo and has several blog posts on passages in Revelation here.
George Athas explains the genre of Revelation by comparing it with the genre of political cartoons here. (His aim is to explain why the COVID vaccine is not the mark of the beast.)
Phillip Long writes about the descriptions of the 144,000 in Revelation 14 here.
All my articles on virginity and celibacy in the early church are here.
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