The story of the 144,000 who stand with the Lamb on Mt. Zion in Rev 14:1-4 is one of those “flashpoints” in the interpretation of John’s vision. Craig R. Koester’s new commentary in the Anchor Bible, vol. 38A, has something of a new approach. To begin with, here is Koester’s translation. The emphasis is mine, and it indicates the places at which I wish to further explain Koester’s approach:
Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion. With him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven that was like the sound of rushing water and like the sound of loud thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. They sang what seemed to be a new song in from of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders. And no one could understand the song except the 144,000, who had been purchased from the earth. These were not defiled with women. Now these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes are maidens. They were purchased from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb. In their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.
The smaller, but still interesting shift occurs in v.3. Most translations indicate that “no one could learn the song” except the 144,000. This is, indeed, an acceptable translation. Koester, however, draws upon “a suggestive contrast between the followers of the Lamb and the adherents of other traditions,” most specifically the initiates of the mystery religions. He acknowledges that other translations use the word “learn” but indicates that “the issue is not learning the words but learning what the song means – that is, understanding it…the new song speaks of being purchased by the Lamb, which the redeemed understand because they have received the benefits of Christ’s death” (609). This seems reasonable to me, indeed, one sings best when singing about what one has experienced or felt.
The other major shift has to do with two of the last four characterizations. To begin with, Koester writes that “Revelation does not assume that women are inherently unclean, since images of a woman giving birth and a woman at her wedding banquet are used in positive ways” (609). Indeed, the people of God, in the figure of the New Jerusalem, are described as the Lamb’s bride. Koester goes on to write that “Revelation uses marital imagery in a positive way and links defilement to behaviors that violate the marriage relationship.” Thus, adultery, immorality and prostitution are metaphors that connote “unfaithfulness toward God” rather than their literal denotations.
The second characterization of the 144,000 uses the Greek word parthenoi. This is often translated as “virgins,” which in a literal reading limits this select group to celibate males whose abstinence is either permanent or temporary. Koester rejects this sort of reading in favor of understanding the most basic characterization of the 144,000 as all the faithful (7:4,9). This leaves the question, then, of how to interpret the imagery of parthenoi. Readers who are familiar with Revelation will have already noted that Koester breaks up the sentence in 14:4b rather differently than do most. Remembering that the punctuation in NA27 is not part of the mss tradition, here is the Greek, followed by some major translations:
NA27: οὗτοί εἰσιν οἳ μετὰ γυναικῶν οὐκ ἐμολύνθησαν, παρθένοι γάρ εἰσιν, οὗτοι οἱ ἀκολουθοῦντες τῷ ἀρνίῳ ὅπου ἂν ὑπάγῃ.
Koester: These were not defiled with women. Now these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes are maidens.
NRSV: It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
KJV: These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.
NAB: These are they who were not defiled with women; they are virgins and these are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
Note that the Koester translation does not take the parthenoi as an explanation of what it means to have avoided defilement with women. Concerning his choice of sentence structure, Koester writes (611):
The [traditional] break leaves the rest of the sentence with a finite verb, requiring a paraphrase: these [are] the ones who follow” (NAB) or “these follow” (NRSV). Grammatically, however, the words in 14:4b form a complete sentence: “those who follow” is the subject, are (eisen) is the verb, and maidens (parthenoi) is the predicate. The initial gar (now) introduces the new feminine imagery in 14:4b and relates it to the idea of purity without suggesting that parthenoi (maidens) explains the masculine imagery that precedes it. This use of gar is common (BDAG 189.2; cf. Rev 9:19; 16:14; 19:10; 21:25).
This sort of use of the imagery of virginity is fairly unremarkable for Zion, Israel, or Christians who are faithful to God and Christ. Moreover, it describes the 144,000, who are ALL the faithful, first in terms of male fidelity, and then in terms of female fidelity, as Koester writes. It’s kind of neat little solution, and AFAIK it is unique to Koester, so I will be interested to see how it is received.