Revelation 20:2 says,
2 And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.
Revelation 20 uses the term chilia (“thousand”) six times. It is often argued that the term is plural, and therefore it refers to “thousands” of years, not merely one thousand. But this argument is not valid linguistically. While it is true that the word is technically plural, this is not how the term is actually used in Greek. Chilia is a plural word, but it can only be properly translated as a singular “thousand” to make any sense.
For example, in 2 Peter 3:8 we read,
8 But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand [chilia] years, and a thousand [chilia] years as one day.
Here “one day” is as a chilia. In other words, ONE day equals ONE thousand years. Peter was not telling us a day was like “thousands” of years. In fact, here is where it is helpful to know that Peter was thinking in Hebrew thought patterns, even though he wrote in Greek. Peter was quoting from Psalm 90:4, which says,
4 For a thousand [eleph] years in Thy sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night.
Where the psalmist uses the Hebrew word eleph, Peter uses the word chilia as its Greek equivalent. Eleph, however, is singular, while chilia is technically plural. The psalmist meant one thousand years, because if he had meant more, he would have used the plural elephi, which is used elsewhere (Num. 10:36, “the many thousands in Israel”).
The Greek word chilia is plural because it is used as an adjective that modifies a plural noun (“years”). Virtually all Bible translators know this, and this is why they do NOT render it as “thousands of years.” The NASB, then, is correct (along with virtually all other translations) when it renders chilia as “a thousand years” in 2 Peter 3:8 and in Rev. 20:2.
The History of Millennial Teaching
My area of research is in history, rather than language. When we look at the history of philosophy and thought, I know that the idea of a Sabbath Millennium is very old and is a well-known idea coming out of a Hebrew understanding of Scripture. For instance, in the Epistle of Barnabas, usually dated around 115 A.D., we read in chapter 13,
3 And even in the beginning of the creation he makes mention of the Sabbath. And God made in six days the works of his hands; and he finished them on the seventh day, and he rested the seventh day, and sanctified it. 4 Consider, my children, what that signifies, he finished them in six days. The meaning of it is this; that in six thousand years the Lord God will bring all things to an end. 5 For with him one day is as a thousand years; as himself testifies, saying, Behold, this day shall be as a thousand years. Therefore, children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things are accomplished. 6 . . . then he shall gloriously rest in that seventh day.
This letter is written in Greek and was cited by many of the early Church fathers. I do not propose to enter into the debate of its canonicity or the date of its authorship. I use it as an early example of the fact that chilia is used as a singular “thousand,” as well as an example of the early belief that there would be a Sabbath Millennium in which “all things are accomplished.”
If the author wrote this around 115 A.D., as many say, then he was almost certainly a younger contemporary of John himself, who died around 100 A.D. The book of Revelation was not even written until 96 A.D. It is not likely that the author of Barnabas would have disagreed with John’s own interpretation of the book of Revelation.
John had other Hebrew disciples who were “the ancient and first expositors” of Scripture. Anastasius Sinaita says of them,
“Taking occasion from Papias of Hierapolis, the illustrious, a disciple of the apostle who leaned on the bosom of Christ, and Clemens, and Pantaenus the priest of [the church] of the Alexandrians, and the wise Ammonius, the ancient and first expositors, who agreed with each other, who understood the work of the six days as referring to Christ and the whole church.” (Fragment IX)
Greek and Hebrew Mindsets
The Millennial teaching came out of Hebrew thought patterns, based upon the historicity of the Old Testament. It is only later that the Hebrew view was discarded in favor of the Neoplatonic Greek view. For this reason, the Epistle of Barnabas was attacked later by those who preferred the Greek (Alexandrian) method of allegorical biblical interpretation. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. X (1911 ed.), under “Millennium,” tells us,
“The most powerful adversary of millenarianism was Origen of Alexandria. In view of the Neo-Platonism on which his doctrines were founded and of his spiritual-allegorical method of explaining the Holy Scriptures, he could not side with the millenarians. He combated them expressly, and, owing to the great influence which his writings exerted on ecclesiastical theology especially in Oriental countries, millenarianism gradually disappeared from the ideas of Oriental Christians.”
“St. Augustine finally held to the conviction that there will be no millennium… In the same book [De Civitate Dei] he gives us an allegorical explanation of Chap. 20 of the Apocalypse. The first resurrection, of which this chapter treats, he tells us, refers to the spiritual rebirth in baptism; the Sabbath of one thousand years, after the six thousand years of history, is the whole of eternal life; or, in other words, the number one thousand is intended to express perfection, and the last space of one thousand years must be understood as referring to the end of the world….
“This explanation of the illustrious Doctor was adopted by succeeding Western theologians, and millenarianism in its earlier shape no longer received support.
“The Protestantism of the sixteenth century ushered in a new epoch of millenarian doctrines. Protestant fanatics of the earlier years, particularly the Anabaptists, believed in a new, golden age under the scepter of Christ, after the overthrow of the papacy and secular empires.”
Thus, we see that the spiritual-allegorical interpretation of Scripture, was popularized by Origen in the third century. He often tortured the Old Testament into speaking allegorically. The Alexandrian view had little use for history as viewed by the Hebrews.
Greek thought was based upon their mythological view of religion. Their religion was based largely upon myths, which were stories that were understood as allegories, rather than as history. Thus, when trying to convert Greeks to Christianity, some teachers adopted the Greek mindset in order to make it more palatable to them.
But historically speaking, John was a Hebrew, and he had a Hebrew mindset. The Hebrews certainly used allegories and parables, but even its allegories were based on real history. Adam and Eve were real people. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real, and their stories are not mere allegories.
In fact, their stories are historical allegories. Their histories had prophetic meaning. Abraham really did have two wives: Hagar and Sarah. They were allegories of the Old and New Covenants, as Paul says in Gal. 4:22-31, but they really did live as historical characters on earth. Allegory does not displace history in our Scriptures, but gives spiritual meaning to history.
The primary difference between the Greek and Hebrew views is that the Greeks saw no need for any of the biblical stories to be rooted in history, as long as the stories had an allegorical meaning. The Hebrew view saw all things rooted in history, but also saw that history has meaning and often sets patterns for future prophetic fulfillment.
It is ironic that the Roman Church repudiated Origen of Alexandria in the year 400 A.D. for his teachings on universal reconciliation, but they adopted his method of interpreting Scripture. This was how the teaching of the Sabbath Millennium was lost. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that the Hebrew view was revived by Protestants in the sixteenth century. Yet in recent years, some Protestants have continued to reject the idea of a Millennium.
In my view, we ought to adopt a Hebrew mindset and discard the Greek one. Hebrew thought is rooted in biblical law and its judgments. When God sentences men or nations to slavery, it is always according to specific time cycles, which are rooted in history. Divine judgment applies the laws of time in direct proportion to the seriousness of the crime. Any allegorical interpretation of this is an extra layer of meaning that cannot replace the historical application.
So the Hebrews saw the basic Sabbath law not only in terms of a weekly Sabbath-rest, but also in terms of seven-year cycles, forty-nine year cycles, and even the Great Sabbath cycle of 7,000 years. John was certainly familiar with these teachings, and he did nothing to refute them in his writings. Therefore, I conclude that the thousand years in Revelation 20 is a literal time period that follows the laws of time as seen in the Sabbath law.