144,000 Priests?

144,000 Priests? November 1, 2012

As I mentioned previously, in my Sunday school class we have been in chapter 14 of the Book of Revelation for the past two weeks. One of the members of my class, who in fact teaches Sunday school herself, made the interesting suggestion that the celibacy of the 144,000 (Revelation 14:4) might have to do with their priestly status – not in the sense of being Catholic priests and thus celibate, but in the sense of being set apart for priestly service in the Levitical sense. Priests had to abstain from sex prior to their priestly service.

At first glance, the language of “defiling themselves with women” sounds incredibly sexist – and even if it turns out to be less so than first seems to be the case, we will still want to challenge the assumptions about sex embedded in this text, as well as the patriarchal assumptions about priesthood. But it is worth noting that the point may not be a negative one about women, but a way of indicating, through mention of their abstinence from sex, the priestly status of the 144,000 – making them the “firstfruits” to enter the ever-expanding priestly status that will eventually encompass the great multitude.

What do others think? Is Revelation 14:4 a reflection of the negative view of women and sex that would dominate much of later Christianity? Or does it stand closer to roots in Jewish, and more specifically Levitical, views of priesthood? Or is it both?

This also makes an important point about the chronology (or lack thereof) of the Book of Revelation. Presumably the priestly status of the 144,000 in ch.14 is logically prior to the great multitude taking that status in ch.5. But as Christian Shephard said on LOST, it seems that also in heaven as envisaged by the author of Revelation, “there is no ‘now’ here.”

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  • Brian P.

    Don’t overthink it.

  • Craig Wright

    It seems to me that the celibacy of Rev. 14 is related to Ex. 19: 15. It is also an interesting contrast with Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion. This contrast is developed in Heb. 12: 18-29. The 144,000 might the church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, (Heb. 12: 23), which also helps interpret the imagery of Rev. 7, where the 144,000 and the great multitude could be the same group.

  • Straw Man

    The one thing that seems to me to be too obvious to point out, is that literal celibacy is not meant; practically nothing in Revelation is meant literally.

    But if it’s not literal, then it seems like it can’t be a DIRECT example of misogyny; if the sex and the women aren’t literal, then neither is the defilement. I haven’t heard the priestly connection before, but it seems rather compelling. I’ve heard a general interpretation that virginity (evoking Eden) is used as a symbol of moral purity in general. I’ve also heard the suggestion that “women” represent religions, and immoral ones represent apostate religions (as in the Great Whore and her daughters), so “not defiled with women” suggests that they kept themselves separate from false gospels or false churches.

    It would seem, at most, as if Revelation is *invoking* an existing misogynistic notion in the first-century culture. I.e., it isn’t interested in debating whether “women” in general, or certain women in particular, are “defiling.” Rather, it uses a phrase that is already meaningful to anyone with the slightest ascetic tendencies (which includes Judaism and its offshoot). The phrase itself may be rooted in misogyny, but it’s far from clear whether it was used with misogynistic intent. Even those with noble aims can fall into using dubious phrases, just as an activist against discrimination today might complain that a store “gypped” him, without considering (and possibly not knowing) that the phrase is rooted in hatred of the Romany.

    It’s not completely clear, though, that “defiling themselves with women” is itself a misogynistic phrase at all. Is the defilement inherent in women, or simply in certain forbidden acts like adultery, fornication, etc.? First Timothy speaks of “defilers of themselves with menfolk,” but the writer to Timothy surely didn’t hate men? It seems possible to me that any misogyny lurking in this verse is actually one step further removed, in that the writer is thinking about certain acts, and not necessarily blaming women at all, but the phrase has just enough ambiguity about it, and just enough people DO blame the women, that anyone with feminist sensibilities will find the phrase potentially offensive.

    • Just a quick point: In some English translations 1 Timothy mentions people “defiling themselves with menfolk” but there is no reference to defilement in the Greek text, unlike in Revelation, which uses a term which is sometimes translated as “soiled.”

  • The 144000, who are also the firstfruits, are drawn evenly from 12 Jewish tribes (ch7): no Gentiles among them. And they are all alive on earth before the rapture (Peter, who was married, would have to wait, either dead or alive!). Does that look Christian?
    In Revelation, Jesus, under any form, is never mentioned as firstfruit.

    I do not see where these 144000 would be priests. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4). Jesus is never said to have such following in other NT texts. Furthermore, how could the 144000 be said to follow Jesus wherever he is, if Jesus was in heaven since about 30 CE and the 144000 Jews were still on earth (and alive) around 95 CE?

    There is no mention of women entering the heavenly Jerusalem (21:7), only “sons”.
    To put it bluntly, John was misogynistic, big time. That’s my opinion.

  • Mark Matson

    I am frequently struck by the intertextual nature of the Revelation. And so when I reconsidered this passage and its Zion focus, I was reminded immediately of a vision in Zechariah (3:1-10). [Handy this, since I am teaching an exilic material OT course]. But here the vision is of Joshua the high priest who first has defiled clothes, which are cleansed so that he might serve as priest. More importantly, the focus is on the turban which is given him — a turban with an inscribed stone which is linked to taking away sin.

    If Petersen (in his OTL commentary, and following Mitchell) is correct, the major feature of the turban was the inscribed gold plate that said “Holy to YHWH” which is linked to the special role of forgiveness of sins. Zechariah is thus intertextually linked to Exodus 28:36-38. And perhaps Revelation is echoing both of them.

    In which case… perhaps the priesthood concept is correct. That they are following the Lamb would fit in a vision where the former worship is finally consummated with the revelation of the Lamb.

    My only problem is not the “defiled by women” but the gloss that follows “for they were “virgins” (parthenoi). That doesn’t fit.

    • Well, given that they are permanently in the presence of the Lamb, and thus akin to priests that are permanently on duty, I thought that could fit with the priestly symbolism. What do you think?

      • According to 5:9-10, everyone to be redeemed (“out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation”) are considered priests. So the priesthood is not limited to the 144000 male virgins. Furthermore, John wrote “They follow the Lamb **wherever he goes**”, when it is accomplished, that is when the 144000 have rejoined in heaven the Lamb (slain presumably on earth). I do not see here hint of some permanent spiritual relationship, but rather a change of location.

  • More about the 144,000.

    That’s a very large number for virgin Jews in the 1st century. Appraisal of the number of Jews at that time goes from 2 to 5 millions (many of them as Diaspora Jews). But, since there was no census of Jews then, any Jew would think of a larger total. Certainly, Josephus thought that and is known to inflate greatly the numbers. So let’s say 5 millions, that’s 2.5 millions male Jews. So 144,000 out of 2,500,000 is about 6%. That ratio for virgin male Jews then is marginally realistic.

    Could these 144,000 be Jewish Christian male virgins? There were relatively few Jewish Christians. That’s apparent in Paul’s letters and other documents. Let’s give 10% of Christians among Jews around 100 CE. That is probably too generous. But that’s not enough in order to extract 144,000 virgin male Christian Jews from a total of 250,000 male Christian Jews. And it is most doubtful our author thought of those. Rather he had all male virgin Jews on his mind, not the rarer male virgin Jewish Christians.

    But these 144,000 are followers of the Lamb. This Lamb would need to be very popular in order to be followed by the vast majority of virgin male Jews in the known world.

    No problem: considering the Jewish version was written soon after 70 CE, there is a very obvious candidate: Ananus (son of Ananus), a former high priest, slain by rebel Idumeans in Jerusalem, around 67-68 CE.

    Here is how Josephus described him (extracted from Wars, IV, V, 2):
    “Ananus with his kindness to the people”, whose body was cast away without burial, “He was on other accounts also a venerable, and a very just man; and besides
    the grandeur of that nobility, and dignity, and honor of which he was
    possessed, he had been a lover of a kind of parity, even with regard to the
    meanest of the people; he was a prodigious lover of liberty, and an
    admirer of a democracy in government; and did ever prefer the public welfare
    before his own advantage, and preferred peace above all things”, ” had been esteemed venerable by those that dwelt on the whole habitable earth”.
    More here: http://historical-jesus.info/rjohn.html

  • Susan Burns

    The 144,000 are the first sons of the 12 tribes born without blemish. The numerology is included to tell the reader that the Book of Revelation is authoritative. The author makes this into a future prophesy but the embedded hebraisms indicate a more ancient paleoglot translated symbolically. The Hebraism of first fruits must be attributed to the original Lawgiver and his Beit Din methodology for living water distribution in the Jordan floodplain (kikur). There is no modern word to translate “kikur” because western civilization does not practice irrigation by innundation. We have tamed all of our great riverine systems. The fluvial geomorphology of the Jordan watershed was very wet in the early holocene because the thick forest zones had not yet been cut to fuel the copper mines of the Faynan. Deforestation causes desertification. The yearly innundation of the Jordan kikur covered the mound gardens with fertile sediment. The Hebrew word GeL describes these mounds created by living water innundation. Ruth 3:4 uses words related to GeL for copulation between a man and bride (margalah, galah, mar-galot). It is easy to see why mounds of fertile farmland would be compared to pregnant female. When the sediment and resulting harvest began to diminish, stricter laws on copulation seemed to have been enacted.

  • Gary


    Rather long, but well worth watching because,
    1. Duelity at the beginning, worth watching.
    2. Woman’s point of view, Pagels in a quality production. This does not apply to James, but I get the impression that some in this community don’t treat women the same as men. Like Pagel’s Revelation”s”, being attacked (100:00 minutes, there are more than one), and King’s “Wife of Jesus”, even though she said herself that it might be a fake.
    3. Women used in a derogatory manner, as war propaganda. Roman’s showing defeated countries as a woman being killed by a Roman soldier/emperor/God (21:00).
    4. Revelation written by a Jew as universal war propaganda (15:00)….”in your face, Romans, our 144K warriors from all Jewish tribes, un-soiled by woman, will defeat your harlot Rome”.
    5. More recent use as universal war propaganda from both sides, I find interesting. Dr Seuss, Hitler, Shock and Awe (39:00).
    So I’d say 144K “not soiled”, is a response to Rome’s depiction of defeated countries as women getting their throats slit….a slam against the male warrior ego.

  • Without going to my commentaries, which probably would not help in this case, 144,000 seems to me a number of completeness, i.e. symbolic. Undefiled is a sexual referent, because these yes, priests, are a restored complete community betrothed to the Lamb. Their restoration (of everything that they are) is through the blood of the Lamb. The imagery is not easily explicated in terms that are common in everyday parlance. The critical aspect is that they are without power. Their capacity is only because they follow the Lamb and it is itself enabled by the new song. (A Psalms theme of course.)

    Now I’ll go to whatever I can find around the house… hmmm can’t find Bauckham, Ellul is unindexed but the old Michael Wilcox has a clue. But I have to go to choir practice…

  • I found Bauckham’s little theology book on Revelation and it has no index either – but he does match the 144000 to the same gross in chapter 7, calling the 144000 an army – and Revelation as a Christian war scroll. (p.76). And again on p. 94 – “in 14:1-5 we see the martyrs, the Lamb’s army, successfully resisting attack on mount Zion and celebrating their triumph in heaven.” This is consistent with the sense of Psalm 2 – I myself have offered as libation my own king on Zion, my holy hill.

    So these are a dedicated and betrothed army, defeating enemies not by might but by the blood of the Lamb.

    • Indeed, on the last point I mentioned to my Sunday school class last week that there is quite a build-up to the “last battle” but no actual battle. There is a lot of warfare imagery, but the Lamb’s side doesn’t actually wage war in the traditional sense (although I suppose the giant hailstones could be compared to artillery, but even then no human is launching them…)

      • “but no actual battle”

        What about Rev19:11-21?

        And the Lamb here is the ferocious leader of God’s army according to:
        17:14 “These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is **Lord of lords and King of kings** …”
        19:16 “And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: **KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS**.”

        That Lamb is also Jesus:
        19:13 “… His name is called The Word of God.”
        In 21:14 this Lamb has/had “twelve apostles”.
        Also 5:5 “But one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, **the Root of David** [who is revealed to be the Lamb in the next verses], has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.”
        Compare it with:
        22:6 “I, Jesus … am **the Root** and the Offspring **of David** …”

        • There is indeed imagery of warfare – but would you agree that no actual battle is depicted, at least of a traditional sort?

          • In Rev19:11-21, we have:

            “in righteousness he judges and **makes war**” (11)

            “And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine
            linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses.
            From his mouth issues a **sharp sword with
            which to smite the nations**” (14-15a)

            “And I saw the beast and **the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him** who sits upon the horse **and against his army**” (19)

            “And **the rest were slain by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth**; …” (21)

            A great and bloody battle is stated here and Rev19:21 describes how the enemies get all killed (apparently the armies of heaven are not necessary!).

            So, according to the Christian version, Jesus (aka the Lamb, the “Word of God”, “King of kings and Lord of lords” –see my earlier posting), is a super warrior who would kill all (see 17-18) in the armies of the (gentile) nations.

          • On the scenario that you envisage (which George Beasley-Murray also favored) that this is a Christian adaptation of a Jewish apocalypse, we should expect some ambiguity and reworking. In this case, which do you think is more likely? That Jesus is emvisaged having a literal sword coming out of his mouth, or that the sword represents his speech or perhaps the Word of God?

          • James, I think Rev19:21 takes out that possibility:
            “And **the rest were slain by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth”

            I do not see how the Word of God (or his speech) could kill entire armies in a war. But an extraordinary sword would. Even the horses are killed. Could the Word of God (or his speech) slay (innocent) animals?
            “[after the battle, birds] to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, **the flesh of horses** and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” (19:18)

            As far as ambiguities (and absurdities and contradictions) are concerned, the Christian additions created many of those:

            But the original Jewish text was not reworked at all, just inserted with Christian passages (most of them short, except for the letters).

            One example:
            “He had a name written that **no one knew** except Himself.” (19:12b)
            But in the same passage, “John” knows at least two of his names:
            “… His **name** is called The Word of God.” (19:13b)
            “And He has on His robe and on His thigh a **name** written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” (19:16)
            It is also very strange that, through cross-referencing in the text of Revelation, this super warrior is identified as being the Lamb (rather odd to have a lamb be a superlative war machine!), who is also Jesus. So why is it written nobody would know his name?

            “Jesus is envisaged having a literal sword coming out of his mouth?”
            The one originally spirited in heaven as a child (12:5) became the no-name extraordinary warrior with a sword in his mouth. And that warrior is implied to extract the blood from his enemies:
            “he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:15).
            All of that would be part of the Jewish version which also has:
            “… he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword …” (13:10)
            But the Christian interpolator wanted that super warrior to be also Jesus. So Jesus inherited of all the above.
            In 2:16, that same Christian tried to soften the blow by having Jesus saying “the sword of My mouth”.

          • The Jewish apocalypse may well have envisaged a literal final battle. But given that throughout the text the language of conquering and of victory has been subversively reinterpreted so that it denotes something accomplished through self-sacrifice, I am not as persuaded as you are that the language of warfare here must be literal.

          • James, from your first sentence, it seems to me you are warming up to a Jewish apocalypse being incorporated in Revelation.

            However, without denying the canonical Revelation does include self-sacrifice for salvation of others (5:9 & 7:10,14), I notice this salvation is accomplished in 7:9-17, 14:3-4 & 14:16. Then, later, the Lamb/Jesus becomes the super warrior killing the armies of the gentile nations (19:11-21).

            There is no interference or overlap between the two roles (salvation & conquest). They happen in sequence, one after the other.

            And I am disagreeing with you about the language of warfare. In Ch. 19, it is very graphic (and scary), without any hint of self-sacrifice.

          • I’ve never been opposed to the idea, although I am much more interested in the possibility now than I was when I first read about it in Beasley-Murray’s commentary some years ago.

            It is hard to know what to make of such imagery when it occurs, but at the very least it seems as though one has a quick end made of all opposition, rather than anything resembling human warfare.

            Even when it comes to the lake of fire, which seems pretty final, there is a tension with the ongoing presence of people excluded from the city at the end of Revelation. And so perhaps we are both right, since Revelation doesn’t seem to wrap up into a consistent unified package.

          • I am not persuaded by it either. It seems this is definitely a Jewish apocalyptic that is envisioning the period between Domitian’s decree to the empire in the worship of the living emperor as god, focusing on the “Christian” population that existed in Asia Minor. Given its proximity to Israel, and the fact that the war in Judea had scattered most “Jewish” based groups into the empire, Asia minor (namely Ephesus, known for its spiritual, paganist allegiance to Rome) seems a fitting place where the emperor would focus most of his attention. I believe the 144K priests are symbolically representing the Jewish elect that had survived the apocalypse of Judea, and the great multitude is their gentile congregation that too suffered martyrdom under Rome during this time, that became increasingly volatile in the years to follow, with the deaths of some great men like Ignatius, Clement, Papias and Polycarp.

  • Roberto
  • Roberto

    Sei cerca del Questo o l’hai già ricevuto il sassololino bianco

    Mashiach (Messia), che all’inizio sarà un grande Chakham, e che diventerà in seguito sia Profeta Elia Re che Sacerdote e poi Membro della Triade
    Ecco, io invierò il profeta Elia prima che giunga
    il giorno grande e terribile del Signore,
    24 perché converta il cuore dei padri verso i figli
    e il cuore dei figli verso i padri;
    così che io venendo non colpisca
    il paese con lo sterminio. confr. Matteo 24:3 Ultimi Giorni Apocalisse22:4 vedranno la sua faccia
    e porteranno il suo nome sulla fronte.

    • Copying and pasting like this is spamming and is unacceptable online behavior.