John Topel, «What Kind of a Sign are Vultures? Luke 17,37b», Vol. 84 (2003) 403-411
The only consensus about the meaning of Jesus' proverb in Q, Matthew or Luke is that it is enigmatic. But closer attention to the trope itself and its literary context may give clues to its meaning in Luke 17. The two principal preoccupations of exegetes are 1) whether aetoi means eagles or vultures, and 2) how to define the literary context in which the proverb is to be read: does it refer to the coming day of the Son of Man (17,22-34) or of the last judgment (17,34-35)? This paper argues that aetoi here must mean vultures and the appropriate context for the interpretation of the proverb is the whole speech, for which its serves as the conclusion. There is a curious interplay between the Pharisees' "When" (v. 20) and the "Where?" (v. 37a) of the disciples. Attending to the polysemic possibilities of the proverb provides a meaning which knits the whole speech together.
Although the proverb o#pou to_ sw=ma, e)kei= kai_ oi( a)etoi_ e)pisunaxqh/sontai has not attracted enough attention to qualify as a noted crux interpretum1, its meaning continues to elude exegetes. But, while the proverb seems enigmatic in the mouth of Jesus, or in Q, or in Matt 24,28, a more attentive literary analysis of Luke's use of the proverb and of his shaping of its literary context may provide clues to its meaning in Jesus' eschatological discourse in Luke 17,20-37.
1. The History of Research
The History of Research, carried on mostly in commentaries, agrees on only one point - the proverb is enigmatic. Comments have centered around two issues: a) Does it speak of eagles or vultures? b) On what is it commenting, and so what does it mean?
A. Modern authors agree that Hebrew r#$n and Greek a)eto/j can mean either eagle or vulture. Almost all choose "vultures" because, although eagles can eat carrion, it is characteristic of vultures to do so2. Authors who hold out for eagles are those who see in them a reference to the eagles on the standards of the Roman army when it destroys Jerusalem3, and those who argue that Greek has and uses a distinctive word for vulture, gu/y4.