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I know that another question focuses on the meaning of the phrase in which this word is used, but I am only interested in the translation of the word itself (most answers to that question take the translation 'vultures' as a given).

The plural nominative noun ἀετοί (from ἀετός) in Matthew 24:28 is translated as 'vultures' by most modern translations. However, the KJV translated it literally as 'eagles' (see also Luke 17:37). The lexical entry for the noun in BDAG (2000) is:

ἀετός, οῦ, ὁ (since Hom., who, as do many after him, writes αἰετός early Attic [cp. Jos., Bell. 5, 48]; ins, pap, LXX; Test12Patr, ParJer; ApcMos 33; Jos., Bell. 1, 650f, Ant. 17, 151; Tat. 10, 1f; DELG s.v. αἰετός) eagle symbol of swiftness Rv 12:14 (s. Ezk 17:3, 7); cp. 4:7; 8:13 (s. Boll 37f; 113f—ἀ. πετόμενος as Job 9:26). Eating carrion, in the proverb (cp. Job 39:30) ἐκεῖ (ἐπι)συναχθήσονται οἱ ἀ. Mt 24:28; Lk 17:37 (where vulture is meant; Aristot., HA 9, 32, 592b, 1ff, and Pliny, Hist. Nat. 10, 3 also class the vulture among the eagles; TManson, Sayings of Jesus ’54, 147, emphasizes the swiftness of the coming of the Day of the Son of Man). Moses forbade eating of its flesh B 10:1, 4 (Dt 14:12; Lev 11:13).—M-M.

It is interesting that the lexicon says "where vulture is meant", as if the text is incorrect.

Davïd posted some additional lexicons to consider. From the LSJ:

ἀετός, Ep., Lyr., Ion., and early Att. αἰετός (v. fin.), οῦ, ὁ, eagle, as a bird of omen, αἰ. τελειότατον πετεηνῶν Il.8.247, cf. 12.201, Od. 2.146 (cf. II): favourite of Zeus, ὅστε σοὶ αὐτῷ φίλτατος οἰωνῶν Il. 24.310, cf. Pi.P.1.6; Διὸς . . πτηνὸς κύων, δαφοινὸς αἰ. A.Pr.1022, cf. Ag.136; ὁ σκηπτροβάμων αἰ., κύων Διός S.Fr.885:—prov., αἰετὸς ἐν ποτανοῖς Pi.N.3.80; αἰετὸς ἐν νεφέλαισι, of a thing quite out of reach, Ar.Av.987; ἀετὸν κάνθαρος μαιεύσομαι (v. μαιεύομαι):—the diff. kinds are distinguished by specific names, Arist.HA618b18 sqq.

     2.. eagle as a standard, of the Persians, X.Cyr.7.1.4; of the Romans, Plu.Mar.23, etc.

     3.. the constellation Aquila, *Arat.591, Ptol. Tetr. 27, etc.

II. omen, Theoc.26.31.

III. eagle-ray, Myliobatis aquila, Arist. HA540b18.

IV. in Architecture, gable, pediment (from its resemblance to outspread wings, Gal.18(1).519), Ar.Av. 1110, ubi v. Sch., IG1.322 ii 80, cf. Pi.O.13.21, Fr.53, E.Fr.764; ὑπὸ τὸν αὐτὸν ἀετὸν ὑπελθεῖν come under the same roof, IG14.644 (Bruttii, iii B.C.).

V. name of bandage, Sor.Fasc.12.508C.

VI. temporal vein (Magna Graecia), Philistion ap.Ruf.Onom.201.

VII. iron part of spoke of wheel, Poll.1.145, Hsch.

VIII. Astrol. and Magic, fabulous plant growing in Libya, Pamphil. ap. Gal.11.798, Cat.Cod.Astr.7.222. (αἰετός in early Att. Inscrr., IG1.322ii80, 2.1054.39; αἰητός Arat.522, v.l. in Pi.P.4.4; αἰβετός (i.e. αἰϜετός) Hsch.) [ᾱ always.]

The Moulton & Milligan lexical entry mostly coincided with #4 (IV) from the LSJ entry above.

Is this a manuscript discrepancy, or might there be another explanation for the use of 'eagle' in this context? Or is 'vulture' a better translation?

Please keep answers restricted to the translation of the word ἀετοί itself as there is already another question concerning the meaning of the surrounding context.

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It might not help much, but you might as well add the LSJ entry to your resources; also the Moulton and Milligan entry, which is limited on ἀετός, but one would want to check. –  Davïd May 6 at 14:34
    
+ have a look at Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p. 707: "Whether οἱ ἀετοί refers to 'egales' or 'vultures' does not matter (the two were often classed together), but a reference to the Romans does not make sense here, as it might have in the preceding pericope; nor does the carrion symbolize anything in particular. As tempting as it appears to many commentators, the proverb need not be allegorized." There is further discussion in context. FWIW! –  Davïd May 6 at 15:11

1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Not as Clear-cut a Distinction as Modern Science

Note that even in modern taxonomy, eagles and many vultures are related, both being in the Accipitridae family for taxonomic purposes, of which that article notes:

Many well-known birds, such as hawks, eagles, kites, harriers and Old World vultures are included in this group.

Specifically the "Old World Vultures" is meaning those that would be referred to in the Middle-east (the New World referring to the America's).

While eagles are birds of prey, at least some (Perhaps most or all? I'm not sure of that. This page on accipitridae notes that a large number of the kites from that family group scavenge, and this entry specifically mentions under "Food Habits" that carrion scavenging is common of the group) are as the Golden Eagle, where it is noted, "Golden eagles are not above scavenging for carrion." This is of course the main aspect of vultures, for "Both Old World and New World vultures are scavenging birds, feeding mostly from carcasses of dead animals."

Conclusion

There is not a need to be too concerned about a clear-cut distinction in the use of the word in Scripture. The word ἀετός is simply a reference in some passages to birds that are gathering to feast on dead bodies, of which both vultures and (at least some) eagles are characterized to do. The fact that the Bible indicates such is occurring in those passages means that even if they fall under the classification of modern day "eagle," they are of the type that does eat carrion as well, like vultures.

Probably the leaning toward "vulture" today in translations is because in our modern classifications, that type of bird better pictures one that gathers to eat dead things, whereas many people think of a "bird of prey" (a hunter) when they hear "eagle."

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