Written by Paul J Bucknell on July, 23, 2022
Matthew 24:28 Eagles or Vultures? A grammatical and linguistic, and contextual interpretation of Matthew 24:28
The Question on Matthew 24:28
I think you will agree that the translators of the Bible from Greek to English did a great job. But, it appears that they can sometimes confuse the ordinary student and reader of the Bible by their translations.
What Greek word could have the same meaning for eagle and vulture? (Mat 24:28; Luke 17:37)
“For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together” (Mat 24:28 KJV).
“Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Mat 24:28 ESV).
The Discussion on Matthew 24:28
The question raises the need for various translations due to differing interpretations and expressions. Consider that King James ordered the KJV English translation from the Greek in the early 1600s, in contrast to the more recent ESV translation. But the time-lapse doesn’t solve all the problems.
Out of 61 translations of Matthew 24:28, 19 use eagles while 39 use vultures. Bird (NLV) and big birds (WE) are also used, along with two translations (AMPC, OJB) using both (can’t go wrong)!
The translation of carcass is evidently not so important, even though it is also variously translated as body, carcass, corpse, and dead body. Perhaps, this is because it refers to the same object, but eagle and vulture, in some cultures greatly differ! So which is it?
I recently had an opportunity to live by a lake and saw both eagles and vultures. They are entirely different creatures, both in looks as well as in habits. Eagles dive for live fish and small animals, while vultures circle the dead before consuming them. I took pictures of the beautiful rare eagle but never the common ugly vultures!
I quote two sources describing this eagle/vulture Greek word (aetos).
1) an eagle: since eagles do not usually go in quest of carrion, this may refer (I added) to a vulture that resembles an eagle 2) an eagle as a standard (Roman Military)
—from the same as 109; an eagle (from its wind-like flight):-eagle. see GREEK for 109
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. STRONGS NT 105: ἀετός. ἀετός, (οῦ, ὁ (like Latin avis, from ἄημι on account of its wind-like flight (cf. Curtius, § 596)) (from Homer down), in the Sept. for נֶשֶׁר, an eagle: Revelation 4:7; Revelation 8:13; Revelation 12:14.
The Net Bible again says,
Jesus’ answer is that when the judgment comes, the scenes of death will be obvious and so will the location of the judgment. See also Luke 17:37.
tn The same Greek term can refer to “eagles” or “vultures” (L&N 4.42; BDAG 22 s.v. ἀετός), but in this context it must mean vultures because the gruesome image is one of dead bodies being consumed by scavengers.
Perhaps, the confusion increases by stating that in English the class: Birds of Prey, include both eagles and vultures; even though they are very different.
Eagles are not a natural group but denote essentially any kind of bird of prey large enough to hunt sizable (about 50 cm long or more overall) vertebrates….Among the eagles are some of the largest birds of prey: only the condors and some of the Old World vultures are markedly larger. (Wiki)
The Symbolism of the Eagle
Translating requires us to consider common usage carefully, Bible usage, context, and definition. When referring to the definitions above, did you notice that there was a second one? It can explain the use of eagle. The eagle symbolized power in the Ancient Greek and Persian worlds.
The eagle is one of the most ancient symbols of humanity. The Greeks and the Persians consecrated it to the sun, as a symbol of elevation and of spirit associated with the supreme sky-god, representing the spiritual principle. For the Greeks, the Eagle was the emblem of Zeus. (New Acropolis)
Note the difference between the Greek understanding of eagle and vulture.
The Vulture is a bird sacred to Hades & Herakles. The reason it is sacred to Herakles is that it is the only bird that does not kill its food (seeing as how they eat the bodies of the dead). (Greek Mythology)
The Greek words for each, eagle and vulture, are vastly different; so is the symbolism. Eagle represents the chief Greek god Zeus while the vulture has little stature. “Zeus being equated with Jupiter, the eagle holding Jupiter’s lightning became the chief symbol (aquila) of the Roman legions” (Wiki: Eagle of Zeus).
The Interpretation of Matthew 24:28
In the Old Testament, there were several words differentiating eagles from the various kinds of vultures, “But these are the ones which you shall not eat: the eagle and the vulture and the buzzard” (Deut 14:12).
The Old Testament influence of differentiating eagles from vultures continues into the New Testament. I will demonstrate this from the Book of Revelation when considering each interpretation.
We observe the same Greek word in Matthew translated as eagle in Revelation. Another word for birds is used to refer to vulture. If the word means eagle, then why do many translations use vulture rather than eagle?
In Matthew 24:28, although the Greek word means eagle, the choice to use vultures is due to the presence of carrion, and so, the immediate context shapes the translation more than the definition and word usage for those choosing to use vultures.
24 For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. 25 Behold, I have told you in advance. 26 So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. 27 For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (Mat 24:28, NASB)
Two Matthew 24:28 interpretations coordinate with the translation. Let’s first look at vultures.
Matthew 24:28 Interpretation 1: Vultures
The first interpretation is more common out of the many English translations, stating that the vultures will soon clean up the carnage wherever there is something dead. If the birds are vultures, it represents signs of judgment following the return of the Son of Man. The vultures do not kill but clean up after the kill, that is, the judgment.
We see this sense in Revelation 19:21, “The others were killed by the sword that extended from the mouth of the one who rode the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves with their flesh.” However, the word birds is not translated eagle but more accurately birds (Greek: ornion from which ornithology originates). The sense is here but the word usage does not confirm the interpretation. The same is true with Revelation 18:2 and 19:17.
This interpretation is associated with vultures, but it comes short because the word is typically translated eagle, associated with swiftness, power, strength, and certainty. The reason the majority of translators have chosen to use vultures is to accommodate the immediate context. Vultures surround the dead, not eagles, because they search for food. Revelation 19:21 possesses this sense but the choice of words confounds its usage in Matthew 24:28.
In this case, interpretation leads to translation, rather, as in the second interpretation, translation leads to interpretation. The later is preferred.
Matthew 24:28 Interpretation 2: Eagles
Eagle is the most straightforward translation of the Greek word (aetos). Its preferable to allow the word to define the interpretation, if at all possible. Eagle in this case would carry the symbolism of strength and might.
Habakkuk 1:8 uses the word for eagle (Hebrew: nesher which is translated in Septuagint as eagle Greek: aetos). The NASB and ESV use eagle here, “…They fly like an eagle swooping down to devour” (NASB).
I like Young’s literal translation, emphasizing the eagles.
“For wherever the carcase may be, there shall the eagles be gathered together” (YLT Mat 24:18).
While above we saw three usages of birds associated with vulture-like action in Revelation, we also have three translations of this same Greek word (aetos) used as we would expect. “Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice” (Rev 8:13). Also see Revelation 4:7 and 12:14.
Many miss the most natural interpretation because of their unfamiliarity of how the Roman army used the eagle in those days.
In this interpretation, the one carcass represents Jerusalem, while the eagles are the symbols carried by the Roman army. Images of eagles stand tall on the army’s great staffs (ie. standards). Each legion, typically over 5,000 men, would maintain one eagle staff. The eagle in this interpretation is the second definition mentioned above, a symbol used by the Roman military legion.
The interpretation fits nicely into the larger Matthew 24 context and Jesus’ prophesy of Jerusalem’s destruction (Mat 24:1-3). Each eagle represented one of the Roman legions surrounding and gathered about the city during the siege. The Roman general, Titus, closed off Jerusalem after Passover in April starving many to death. He made the final siege in August 70AD. God judged Jerusalem for rejecting His Son Jesus, the Messiah and King. Now, the risen king, the Son of Man, returns to judge Jerusalem.
The larger context of Matthew 24
It’s not my point here to interpret this paragraph or this eschatological chapter, but we must make sure the interpretation is consistent with the text. In the larger Matthew 24 context, Jesus answers the disciples questions about the destruction of Jerusalem from verses 1 and 2.
“As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Mat 24:3)
They asked about several matters, especially about the destruction of the temple. After speaking about the distress among God’s people, Jesus refers to the abomination of desolation in verse 15. Many consider it fulfilled with Antiochus IV but somehow, as with the Little Horn (antichrist), he reappears. Jesus, obviously, did not see Antiochus IV as a final fulfillment of Daniel. Our verse closes this paragraph, seeming to give an affirmative sign of escaping Jerusalem before it was too late. All through the paragraph, Jesus warns them to pay heed to the haste by which they must escape. General Titus allowed the pilgrims to enter Jerusalem for Passover but then imprisoned them by his surrounding Roman armies. Jesus alludes to the timing of this destruction by when the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem, which occurred within a generation (Mat 24:34).
Jesus speaks more clearly regarding this event when Luke writes to a more non-Jewish audience in Luke 21.
20 But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. 21 Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; 22 because these are days of vengeance so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-22)
This interpretation does not rule out Jesus’ second coming to judge the world. The disciples sought answers to numerous questions including the final end of the age. Starting in verse 29 and onward, Jesus appears to speak of this cosmic event.
Eagle is the preferred and expected usage. We prefer the second interpretation, that of the eagle. The word usage of eagle forces our interpretation, which fits well with the context. This interpretation is not without its own problems, such as the word in verse 29 “Immediately after…,” but this is secondary to the integration of this verse. Jesus’ second coming has yet to come. Jesus does, however, provide specific answers to the disciples’ questions on the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, subtle pointing to the invasion of the Roman armies.
Bible Questions on Matthew 24:28
- How many translations use eagles; how many use vultures?
- How is an eagle different from a vulture?
- Why do the translations differ when translating this word?
- What is the first interpretation if the word vulture is used?
- If this first interpretation is used, how do the vultures fit in?
- How does the 3 uses of the Greek word for eagle in Revelation strike you? More of vultures or eagles?
- What is the second interpretation if the word eagle is used?
- In this second interpretation, what do corpse and eagles represent?
- Describe the cataclysmic scene around the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Look it up if needed.
- Does this second interpretation fit the context of Matthew 24:1-3? Explain.
- Do you prefer the translation of eagles or vultures? Which interpretation do you favor and why?
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