MATTHEW 24:28 “EAGLES” OR “VULTURES”?

PMW 2018-073 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In the opening section of the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24–25), Jesus deals initially and significantly with the approaching AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem by Roman imperial forces (vv. 4–34). We may easily surmise this from the local context. After all, the Discourse is introduced by Jesus’ prophesying the destruction of the temple (Matt. 24:2), then linking his prophecy to the temple locale (“the holy place,” v. 15), warning the local residents to flee from the area (Jerusalem is in Judea, v. 16), and informing them generally when it will occur (in “this generation,” v. 34). [1]

The Roman eagle

Matt. 24:28 is an interesting verse embedded in this context. But its frequent mistranslation dulls the cutting edge of Jesus’ warning about the Roman invasion. For instance, the NASB renders this verse: “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” And the ESV, NIV, NRSV, and NJB agree. Clearly the “corpse” here is an vivid, dramatic image of Jerusalem as destroyed (cf. v. 22).

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Verse-by-verse analysis of Christ’s teaching on Jerusalem’s destruction in Matt 24. Show the great tribulation is past, having occurred in AD 70.

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Yet the word translated in our text is aetos, which means “eagle,” not “vulture” (as the NASB footnote allows). When properly translated as “eagle” it becomes a clear and compelling image of the Roman army, for the eagle was a symbol of Rome. For instance, Josephus comments on the marching order of the Roman legions:

Then came the ensigns encompassing the eagle [aeton], which is at the head of every Roman legion, the king, and the strongest of all birds, which seems to them a signal of dominion, and an omen that they shall conquer all against whom they march; these sacred ensigns are followed by the trumpeters.” (J.W. 3:6:2 [123]; cp. Suetonius, Galba 13) ….

All these came before the engines; and after these engines came the tribunes and the leaders of the cohorts, with their select bodies; after these came the ensigns, with the eagle [aieton].

Thus, the Lord’s imagery highlights the devastating rapacity of the Roman legions with their auxiliary troops. The translation “eagles” is preferred over “vultures” in that it highlights first-century Roman power, which is most relevant to Jesus’ warning of the temple’s stone-by-stone destruction (Matt. 24:2).

A potential difficulty

But a problem moves some exegetes to translate this word as “vultures” rather than “eagles.” The supposed problem is the birds’ relationship to the “corpse”: “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Matt. 24:28). It is argued that a major difference between eagles and vultures is that eagles are hunting birds that capture live prey to devour, whereas vultures are scavengers that feast on prey that has already died. And generally this is true.

However, this is not always true. A quick search of the Internet will show that eagles also are opportunistic feeders. They will wrest carrion from other birds of prey or come down upon road kill carcasses to feed. In fact, there are even videos of them doing this. Besides, the Romans are the ones who kill Jerusalem. They are not coming after some other agent killed her, in order to look for leftovers. Thus, there is no necessity for translating aetoi as “vultures” due to its relationship to the corpse.


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In fact, two additional problems undermine the vulture argument.

First, in the OT eagles depict God’s use of pagan powers to inflict punishment on Israel, which Jesus does here in Matt. 24. OT passages that employ eagles in this way, show them being sent from afar against Israel for judgment. For instance, in the covenant curse passages, include Deut. 28:49 mentions eagles being sent against Israel for her unfaithfulness (this is a generic warning). In Eze. 17:1–10 we have two parables that picture Babylon then Egypt coming as destroying eagles. In Hos. 8:1 the Assyrian (v. 9) invasion is symbolized as an eagle coming against the house of the Lord.

The swift, powerful movement of the eagle is a symbol of the swift, powerful invasion by an empire from far away. It does not picture a local neighbor tribe of Israel rising in battle against her.

Second, and more importantly, Greek has another word for “vulture,” and this is gups. This word does not appear in the NT. But it is used in the Greek OT, the Septuagint. See: Lev. 11:13; Deut. 14:11; Job 6:7; 15:23; 28:7; 39:27. [3] And the Septuagint is abundantly used in Matthew and the other Gospels, so would be well-known to first-century Christians and Jewish.

Furthermore, the leading non-biblical writers in antiquity who mention both eagles and vultures keep them distinct. For example, Aristotle (Historia Animalium 6:5, 6) and Aelianius (Historia Animalium 2:46; 10:22).[2]

Jesus’ rationale

Now why does the Lord portray this judgment as eagles gathered around the carcass? It is interesting that he chooses the word “eagle” (aetos) here. He could have chosen a more generic term such as orneon (“fowl”), such as John employs in a similar context in Revelation 19:21. Or peteinon which usually speaks of wild birds (Acts 10:12; 11:6; Rom 1:23; Jms 3:7), and is a term Jesus frequently uses (Matt 6:26; 8:20; 13:4, 32; Luke 12:24). Or even korax which represents a flesh-eating bird, the raven (Luke 12:24). Instead, he selects a term that reminds us his audience of the greatest military power of the day: the Roman Empire.

Josephus records the ultimate act that lies behind the imagery here:

“The Romans, now that the rebels had fled to the city, and the sanctuary itself and all around it were in flames, carried their standards into the temple court and, setting them up opposite the eastern gate, there sacrificed to them, and with rousing acclamations hailed Titus as imperator” (J.W. 6:6:1 [316 ]).

As already noted the Roman ensigns bear the eagle as the symbol of Rome. In fact, to the Roman legionaries these were “sacred emblems” (J.W. 3:6:2 [124]). Thus, when Jerusalem dies, Jesus pictures the instrument of her death: the Roman legions, under the symbol of eagles.


Notes
1. I have argued elsewhere that Jesus’ attention shifts from AD 70 to the Final Judgment between Matt. 24:34 and 36 (Olivet Discourse Made Easy). However, I will be providing much more evidence in my new book on the Olivet Discourse that this shift of focus in the latter portion of the Discourse (Matt. 24:36–25:46) is required for both exegetical reasons and their theological implications. But before Matt. 24:34 the focus is clearly on events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

2. For abundant, compelling evidence supporting my interpretation, see Warren Carter, “Are There Imperial Texts in the Class? Intertextual Eagles and Matthean Eschatology as ‘Lights Out’ Time for Imperial Rome (Matthew 24:27–31), JBL 122/3 (2003): 467–487. Unfortunately, though he provides overwhelming evidence that “eagle” is the required translation in Matt. 24:28, he then misinterprets what Jesus is talking about. He argues that it is a reference to Rome’s destruction, just as Babylon and Assyria were used by God against Israel, and then judged themselves. He sees Matt. 24 as eschatological rather than historical.

3. I would note that the LXX reading of Job 5:7; 15:23; and 39:27 are quite different from the Massoretic Text, and therefore from our modern translations. But the Greek gup occurs in these passages there, and this was the basic OT text often used by Jesus and the Apostles.


JESUS, MATTHEW, AND OLIVET
I am currently researching a commentary on Matthew 21–25, the literary context of the Olivet Discourse from Matthew’s perspective. My research will demonstrate that Matthew’s presentation demands that the Olivet Discourse refer to AD 70 (Matt. 24:3–35) as an event that anticipates the Final Judgment at the Second Advent (Matt. 24:36–25:46). This will explode the myth that Jesus was a Jewish sage focusing only on Israel. The commentary will be about 250 pages in length.

If you would like to support me in my research, I invite you to consider giving a tax-deductible contribution to my research and writing ministry: GoodBirth Ministries. Your help is much appreciated!

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2 thoughts on “MATTHEW 24:28 “EAGLES” OR “VULTURES”?

  1. A. Rich September 11, 2018 at 9:48 am

    Can’t remember where I read this but Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our nation’s bird precisely because the eagle ate carrion (sometimes).

  2. Robert J. Macauley September 12, 2018 at 11:46 am

    Wonderful! Looking forward to more.

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