The Vultures/Eagles Saying of Luke 17:37 and Matthew 24:28
The vulture/eagle saying of Lu 17:37 and Mt 24:28 happens to be one of the more enigmatic sayings of the gospel accounts. The number of different interpretations I have seen in my research so far, are, in many cases, also accompanied with confident declarations that their proposed interpretation is assuredly the correct one.
The interpretation provided by poster "genesis" is the view held by the WT (which I also held, without question, at one time). In this interpretation the "eagles" (see it-1
664; the article "Eagles", and under "Figurative Use") refer to Jesus' disciples and the "body" is "the True Christ, the Son of man" who, "at that future time," will "provide his disciples with lifesaving truth." (jy
219; Note: I am not implying that poster "genesis" holds to everything the WT does. I am only pointing out that the view he expressed about the 'eagles/vultures' saying corresponds with what the WT teaches.)
Eagles or Vultures?
One problem the WT explanation of Lu 17:37 and Mt 24:28 encounters is if "eagles" is translated as "vultures." As it turns out, the Greek word (ἀετοὶ
) can be translated either way. The Insight
reference cited above spends a paragraph explaining why the WT prefers "eagles" in that passage. For comparison, the NET footnote # 98 at Lu 17:37 (here
), and footnote # 38 at Mt 24:28 (here
) both show why many translations prefer "vultures." The main points of difference are that eagles are generally solitary, but the Greek word in both verses is plural. Also, eagles generally prefer live prey, while vultures prefer carrion. Thus, vultures better fits the context.
The reason "eagles" seems to be preferred by the WT is due to the noble image presented by "eagles," versus the gruesome image presented if "vultures" is used. As mentioned, the Greek word can mean either. But the setting ("vultures" = plural) and "corpse" (ptoma
in Matthew) lends itself to "vultures." In Luke, soma
("body") is used. Soma
can refer to either a live body or a dead one, depending entirely on the context. (Lu 11:34; 12:22, 23; 23:52, 55; 24:3, 23) But ptoma
definitely refers to a corpse or carcass. (Mt 14:12; 24:28; Mr 6:29; 15:45; Rev 11:8-9) The idea of Jesus describing his disciples as vultures feeding on a corpse (i.e. on Jesus) would be quite grisly. For example, Ellicott's
commentary on Mt 24:28 says:
Two interpretations of this verse may, without much risk of error, be at once rejected:—(1) [the idea of the "eagles" referring to the Roman armies] . . . (2) The strange fantastic imagination of many of the Fathers that the “carcass” is Christ Himself, as crucified and slain, and that the eagles are His true saints and servants who hasten to meet Him in His coming. Those who picture to themselves with what purpose and with what results the vultures of the East swoop down on the carrion which they scent far off upon the breeze, will surely find such an explanation at once revolting and irrational.
In a similar vein, Constable's Notes
Another view is that the corpse refers to Christ and the vultures are God’s children gathered to feed on Him. However the idea of feeding on Christ is foreign to the context, and the comparison of Him to carrion is unappealing.
Thus, understanding the birds as vultures feeding on a corpse lends the two verses (Lu 17:37 & Mt 24:28) to be understood differently from how the WT interprets them.
"Where" Is What?
In Luke, the 'eagles/vultures' saying is preceded by the disciples question of, "Where?" (Lu 17:37) And immediately preceding the question "where?" is Jesus' saying that 'two men/women' will be 'sleeping/grinding' and that one will be 'taken' and one 'left/abandoned.' Thus, if one takes the "where?" as referring to the 'men/women who are taken', then, one could think that the disciples were wondering "where" the "men/women" were being taken to. And by extension, if those "taken" equate with Jesus' disciples, then, that would make the WT's explanation seem more plausible. But there is still the problem with translating "eagles" as mentioned above. There is also another problem with thinking that the two men/women sleeping/grinding is what the "where" was referring to:
It is possible that the disciples are asking "where?" in connection with the whole sequence starting at Lu 17:22ff. In this instance the "where?" would be referring to 'where this judgment scenario was going to take place?' (which included a 'revealing of the Son of Man' (Lu 17:24, 30), the saying about 'lightning' (Lu 17:24), a sudden life or death 'fleeing' (Lu 17:31-33 ), a Divine judgment similar to that of Noah's and Lot's time (Lu 17:26-30), as well as the threat of deceivers (Lu 17:23).
The reason this is possible is that in Matthew there is described a need for a sudden fleeing (Mt 24:16-20), an ensuing "great tribulation" of Divine origin (Mt 24:21-22), the warning about deceivers (Mt 24:23-24), the saying about the lightning (Mt 24:27), and then the saying about the "eagles/vultures" (Mt 24:28) The saying about the 'men/women sleeping/grinding' does not occur in this sequence. It is mentioned later on at Mt 24:40-41. The next sub-title below enlarges on this as to why Matthew's sequence is explanatory. Thus, in the parallel in Matthew, the eagles/vultures saying is unrelated to the men/women sleeping/grinding. This lends credence to the idea that when the disciples ask "where?" in Luke 17:37, they are not asking about the two people who are either taken or abandoned. Rather, they are asking about "where" this judgment is to take place.
Matthew Helps Explain Luke
The account in Luke 17:22-37 occurs somewhere around 6 weeks to 3 months (give or take) before the Olivet Discourse in Mt 24. Thus, if one sees the Olivet Discourse as enlarging on and/or explaining what the disciples heard in Luke 17, then, one would use the Matthew account to help explain the Lukan account, and not the other way around. This would favor the idea that the "where?" in Luke 17:37 was regarding the whole sequence starting in Luke 17:23ff, since the 'men/women sleeping/grinding' saying does not occur in the Matthew 24:16-28 sequence. Also, where Luke uses "body" (leaving open the possibility of a live body that eagles would prefer), Matthew definitely uses "corpse" (ptoma
), which vultures would prefer.
Using the Matthew account to help understand the Lukan account would appear to rule out the idea that the disciples question, "where?" was about where the 'men/women' would be 'taken.'
The question of, "where?" may have been prompted from the fact that Jesus never mentions Jerusalem or the Temple in the discussion in Luke 17:22-37. Instead, he illustrates with 'Noah's days' (a worldwide judgment) and 'Lot's days' (a localized judgment). Those two disparate (in location) judgments may have led to the disciple's question of "where?" for the location of the judgment Jesus is describing in Luke 17. Notice that Jerusalem is first mentioned in connection with judgment in Luke 19:41-44. And even after that the disciples expressed surprise when Jesus mentions the destruction of the Temple later. (Lu 21:5-7) The 'eagles/vultures' saying in Luke 17:37 may have been a way for Jesus to answer the disciples question while saving the details for later. In effect, when the judgment starts there will be no question as to what is happening and where it is happening, just as the gathering of vultures leaves no question about what they are gathering for. (Not unlike our saying, "Where there is smoke, there is fire.")
How Mark's Account Helps
Note also Mark's account in Mr 13:14-23 which basically covers the same ground as Mt 24:15-28. Mr 13:23 ends that passage by saying, "Be careful! I have told you everything ahead of time." This would negate the need for disciples to gather in some future time to find out the truth, since "everything" was already available via the Olivet Discourse. (And especially so in connection with the first century judgment since it would happen within "this generation."
As an aside, note a similar sequence regarding the "faithful steward" parable: In Luke the parable is given by Jesus in response to a disciple's question. (Lu 12:41, 42-48) The question itself was prompted by a previous discussion by Jesus. (Lu 12:35-40) Later, Jesus repeats the parable and the gist of the discussion in the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24:42-51) without the question. (See this post
for a comparison of the f&ds parable in the synoptics and how the later mention (Mt 24 & Mr 13) helps explain who is the intended audience. Links to further discussion of that parable can be found here
In the Insight
article on "Eagles" referenced above, under "Figurative Use," note how the paragraph in connection with Lu 17:37 and Mt 24:28 uses a form of "special pleading"
Poster coccus ilicis
posted on the subject of the meaning of the Greek words soma
(body; Lu 17:37) and ptoma
(corpse; Mt 24:28) here
. Her posts state that the two words are not interchangeable. Her post also states that Luke 17:37 was directed to the Pharisees based on Luke 17:20, which was then followed by her reasoning on how she thought Luke understood the passage. My reply to that post is here
. The discussion begins at post # 10 (here
) and continues, with a couple of exceptions, to post 20.