Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Introduction

In Revelation 7, there is a list of 12 Israelite tribes with 12,000 people in each tribe, totalling 144,000 people in all.[1] 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.

For this article, I’ve relied heavily on Ian Paul’s commentary on Revelation, volume 20 of the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, published by IVP Academic in 2018.

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”[2] 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 actual 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.[3]

The number 144,000 is written in Revelation with Greek words as hekaton tesserakonta tessares chiliades.[4] 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.”[5] 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 chapter 7 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 may be why the 144,000 are all men.

The 144,000 are Male Virgins

In Revelation 14, the 144,000 are described as set apart in various ways 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 secular literature.[6] John, and other Greek-speaking Jews also,[7] seems to have coopted this usually feminine word for his purposes.[8]

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 Israelites 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).[9]

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza writes,

“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.”[10]

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. While the multitude had come through the tribulation (Rev. 7:14), 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.)

Conclusion

“Revelation is a thoroughly symbolic text.”[11] 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 idols.

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.”[12] Women and girls, and people of all nationalities and ethnicities, are just as much a part of this real community of God’s people as any male Jewish virgin.

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Footnotes

[1] 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

[2] Paul, Revelation, 6.

[3] 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: CraigKeener.com)
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?

[4] Hekaton means 100, tesserakonta, 40, tessares, 4, and chiliades, 1000.

[5] Paul, Revelation, 159. See Numbers 1:1-16 (cf. Num. 31:1–6; 2 Sam. 24:1–9).

[6] 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 are all male.

[7] 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. 

[8] 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).

[9] 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.

[10] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Proclamation Commentaries; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), 88.

[11] Paul, Revelation, 37.

[12] Paul, Revelation, 158.

© Margaret Mowczko 2021
All Rights Reserved.

Image Credit

Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, based on “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (c. 1423–1424) from the altarpiece made for the high altar of San Domenico, Fiesole. (National Gallery, London).


Further Reading

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.

Explore more

All my articles on virginity and celibacy in the early church are here.
All my articles that look at passages in Revelation are here.
The Woman on the Scarlet Beast (Rev. 17)
Gender Division Divides the Church (Rev. 5:9–10)
The Status of Christian Women: We Are All Sons of God
The Kingdom of Heaven in the Here and Now and Future
Is Jesus Waiting for Us?

5 thoughts on “Who are the 144,000 and why are they all men?

  1. A note on the Identity and Gender of the Twenty-Four Elders

    The Elders’ Gender

    The Greek doesn’t tell us much about the gender of the group of elders who are mentioned in Revelation 4:4 & 10f, 5:8, 14; 7:9-12; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4.

    The Greek words for “the twenty-four elders” (οἱ εἴκοσι τέσσαρες πρεσβύτεροι) is grammatically masculine, but the masculine gender is used in Greek for groups of all men as well as for groups containing both men and women. (If the elders were all women, the feminine grammatical gender would be used.)

    I’ve written a somewhat technical article about the word πρεσβύτεροι (“elders”) and its use in the New Testament here. But I chose not to include the twenty-four elders in the article because of the highly symbolic nature of Revelation.

    Revelation is a very Jewish book and elders in Judaism were typically men. So I think we are meant to picture older men. In Revelation 5:4 and 7:13ff, one of the elders speaks, and the grammar indicates this elder is male. Nevertheless, the gender of the elders is never highlighted or even mentioned in Revelation, and they are not referred to as “men.”

    Roles of the Elders

    In Revelation 4, we are told that these elders sit on thrones, wear white robes, and have golden crowns on their heads. They are depicted as royalty seated in a throne room where they worship someone who is much greater than them.

    In Revelation 5, we are told that the elders, again in association with the four living creatures, each have a harp and are holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. They sing a new song and prostrate themselves in worship to the Lamb. In Revelation 5, chapter 11, and chapter 19, the twenty-four elders are depicted as worshipping priests.

    The twenty-four elders are mentioned in association with the four living creatures (animals) seven times in Revelation: in chapters 4, 5, 7, 14, and 19. However, the four living creatures are mentioned more often, and are more prominent, than the elders. (See Rev. 4:6-11; 5:6, 8, 11, 14; 6:1-8; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4.)

    Jesus’s twelve apostles are associated with thrones elsewhere in the New Testament where their function is judging rather than worship (Matt. 19:28//Luke 22:28-30). However, the twelve apostles are not mentioned in the verses that mention the twenty-four elders.

    The Twelve Apostles and the Twelve Patriarchs

    The twelve apostles are clearly mentioned in Revelation only in chapter 21 where the twelve tribes of Israel are also mentioned. But the apostles are not mentioned as people as such, but as names that are etched on the foundations of the New Jerusalem.

    Revelation 21:9-14: One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. 13 There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

    Perhaps the twenty-four elders are Jesus’s apostles and Israel’s patriarchs, and the names in the New Jerusalem may represent the elders who are in the throne room in heaven, but this connection is nowhere stated or even implied in Revelation.

    (Apostles are mentioned more generally, along with saints and prophets, in Revelation 20 where they are encouraged to rejoice at the downfall of Babylon.)

    Ian Paul on the Twenty-Four Elders in Revelation

    The following is from Ian Paul’s commentary on Revelation, volume 20 of the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, published by IVP Academic in 2018, pages 122-124.

    The twenty-four elders seated on thrones provides one of the more complex images in Revelation; there are questions about their number, their title, their apparel and their action. First, it is clear that (contrary to some commentators) these are not angelic figures, of which there are many in Revelation that are clearly described as such, but human.

    In the light of John’s extensive use of Old Testament imagery, it is surprising that those doing obeisance in the presence of God are not priests. Yet it is clear that John is working with the original Exodus vision of God’s people as a whole being a ‘kingdom [of] priests’ (Exod. 19:6; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6), a vision now restored in the new covenant in Jesus (1 Pet. 2:9).

    The elders already enjoy notable elements of what has been promised to the faithful in the messages: they sit on thrones (3:21), are clothed in white (3:5) and wear wreaths or crowns (stephanoi, 2:10). At key points they are closely associated with the redeemed, joining with their praise (7:9–11), celebrating both the anticipation (11:15–18) and (in voices fused with those of all God’s people) the realization (19:4–8) of God’s final victory – though they are notably absent from the New Jerusalem.

    They are therefore best understood as the representatives of the people of God in the presence of God, in anticipation of the End when all the redeemed, raised from the dead, are themselves in God’s presence in the New Jerusalem. This interpretation is confirmed by noticing that the term ‘elder’ occurs twelve times in Revelation.

    Why, then, are there twenty-four? One suggestion is that God’s people are now comprised of those represented by the twelve tribes whose names are written on the gates of the New Jerusalem (21:12) together with the twelve apostles whose names are written on the foundations (21:14), corresponding to the first covenant with God’s Jewish people and the new covenant with (Gentile) humanity. This has two major problems: first, the apostles are themselves Jewish, so cannot represent in any sense the ‘non-Jewish’ people of God as distinct from the Jewish people of God; and, second, throughout the New Testament, including in Revelation, Jews and Gentiles together form one single, united people of God, not a people in two halves (Eph. 2:14–18; see comments on Rev. 7:1 – 8:1).

    More convincing is their correspondence to the twenty-four divisions of the Levitical priesthood (1 Chr. 24:7–18) and the temple musicians (1 Chr. 25:9–31); while not forming a distinct caste of priests, the elders do exercise the priestly functions of the people of God, including offering up prayers (5:8; 8:3).

    But the number also corresponds to the number of attendants (lictors) who functioned as assistants and bodyguards to consuls and emperors, carrying the bundles of rods (fasces) which included an axe to symbolize the ius gladii, the emperor’s power over life and death in the right to exercise capital punishment. Emperors were originally entitled to have twelve lictors attending them, but Domitian doubled that number to twenty-four.

    Although the apparel of angelic beings and, possibly, of the high priest in the Old Testament (who wore linen), being dressed in white is primarily a pagan habit for worship, white being associated with purity, holiness and honour (see comment on 3:4–5). In this eastern part of the empire, as far back as the time of Alexander the Great, we know of elders of cities, the leading and prominent citizens, coming as delegates before approaching rulers, dressed in white and wearing gold wreaths (crowns) and bowing, casting their crowns before them to symbolize the submission of their city to that ruler’s power.

  2. The 144,000 is a representative number for the whole body of Christ, the redeemed people of God, the Holy city. These are all pictures in John’s vision, given to him by Christ. It is a real vision and given to us for our comfort in these last days. We need it…

    1. Yes, The intention of Revelation was to bring comfort to persecuted Christians, not to scare comfortable Christians.

  3. “The book of Revelation … is saturated with allusions to the Old Testament”

    Michael Wilcock in his commentary on Revelation (The Bible Speaks Today) says that one of the best commentaries on Revelation is the cross references in the RSV.

    The RSV has very extensive cross references which cover every parallel passage and just about every allusion to the OT. One of my favourate cross references is on Jn 7:52 “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee”: the RSV references 2 Kings 14:25 “according to the word of the LORD the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher”. Gath-hepher is in Galilee.

    1. Thanks, Martin. To read Revelation in a Bible that has extensive cross references is excellent advice.

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