God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What’s the difference between an eagle and a vulture?

The Greek aetos is usually translated “vulture” in Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37, but “eagle” in Revelation 4:7, 8:13, and 12:14. Why?

The answer has to do with how words — for animals, in this case — are used metaphorically.

In English a “vulture” is different than an “eagle” — and we also have hawks, falcons, turkey vultures (“buzzards”), eagle owls, and more — but beyond the zoological differences, the two words also represent very different qualities: a vulture is usually bad, while an eagle is usually good.

“Eyes like an eagle” refers to someone who has the good fortune of seeing well, as does “eyes like a hawk.” “Eyes like a vulture,” though not a common expression, to me indicates something nefarious.

“Waiting around like vultures,” too, refers to something untoward. “Waiting around like eagles” — again, not a common expression — to me is neutral or positive.

To “soar like an eagle” is a good thing, while “to soar like a vulture” — even though vultures and eagles soar almost exactly the same way — is bad.

I think that all of this is important because it highlights an important fact about how language works: the associations of a word extend beyond the literal meaning of the word.

In Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37, the aetos birds gather around (dead) bodies. That’s what “vultures” stereotypically do in English.

Revelation 4:7, which matches Ezekiel 1:10, mentions a lion, an ox, a human, and an eagle. It’s hard to know if, in that context, aetos was supposed to be positive (soaring like an eagle, for example) or negative (perhaps like an ox that gores). But certainly to the extent that the four animals are used to represent the four evangelists, and, in particular, to the extent that John is an aetos, only “eagle” works in English. (Question: Do you think we should we let that later interpretation influence our translation decision?)

In the OT, aetos is used for nesher. We find the word in Isaiah 40:31, for example, where it is clearly positive: people who wait for God are compared to eagles.

In Exodus we see the well-known image of “wings of Eagles,” upon which God lifted up the Israelites. There “wings of vultures” certainly doesn’t work in English.

In Habakkuk 1:8, though, nesher (and aetos) are used as a predatory image: The Chaldeans “fly like a nesher, quick to devour.” Though most translations go with “eagle” here, I think “vulture” is better.

(Micah 1:6 is interesting, too, because it uses the phrase, bald “like the eagle.” Eagles aren’t bald — not even the bald eagle — but vultures are.)

Deuteronomy 14:12-18 and Leviticus 11:13-19 both contain lists of birds that are not to be eaten. Though it’s almost impossible now to know what each word represented there, we do see evidence of an advanced ornithological taxonomy.

But I think that the zoology here is irrelevant. In most of these cases, the difference between an “eagle” and a “vulture” is a question not for bird experts, but more generally for English speakers.



Black Vulture

Black Vulture

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle


April 8, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. If it’s eagle let it stand. I have seen the eagle take a salmon from a child’s boat – it didn’t need to be called a vulture. The translator must stand against the common culture.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | April 8, 2010

    • I agree, but with the disclaimers that:

      * precision about ancient animal references is not easily ascertained.

      * words change meaning based on time and geography, so the same word could have been used differently by different writers. A case in point is “sparrow” and “dove” and “pigeon” and even “turtle” – words that mean different things to different people at different times.

      * the connotations that Joel referred to should be pointed out in a footnote, such as (and I’m making this “info” up off the top of my head), “this would not be the American Bald Eagle, but rather hawks found in the middle east, a smaller, fatter, variety, not associated with grace and poise, as is the American Bald Eagle.” Or whatever helps distinguish the actual from the icons of the day.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | April 8, 2010

  2. >>>…Do you think we should we let that later interpretation influence our translation decision?…

    Um, only in that we should point out that later interpretations should be ignored, sort of like a judge saying:

    “The jury will disregard what counsel said” when an objection is sustained.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 8, 2010

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  4. Your differences between the eagle and the vulture are taken. However, it is also noteworthy to recognize that in the King James version the eagle was mentioned in the two accounts Luke 17:37 and Mat 24:28. However,
    in the New International Version both accounts were mentioned to be vultures. It is my opinion that it should be eagles – so what the real meaning is right here is where the living body of Christ is there are the prophets gathered together.

    Comment by Neville Nixon | February 16, 2011

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