For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. (Matthew 24:28, NKJV)
This is one of the strangest prophecies in scripture. It is also one of the most interesting. It is found in the middle of Christ’s warnings about the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus is basically saying there will be a dead body (the fallen city) and birds of prey will gather around it.
But why eagles?
Because that’s what the Romans carried on their aquila or ensigns, and it was the Romans who destroyed the city and burned the temple.
But note that Jesus says eagles and not eagle. There’s more than one and this is particularly interesting once you understand the context of the temple’s history.
When Herod built his temple he stuck a golden eagle on its gate, perhaps as a nod to Roman benevolence. It was a gorgeous sculpture, but the Pharisees didn’t like it one bit.
“What blasphemy! Doesn’t Herod know we forbid the making of images?”
The religious Jews loved the new temple but they hated the eagle, so a couple of scholars pulled it down. Herod was furious and had the two men burned alive. After that he let the matter rest. Eagle come, eagle go. There was no more eagle on the temple.
All this happened at around the time Christ was born. No doubt he heard stories about the controversial eagle growing up. And this is what makes Christ’s prophecy all the more significant.
To recap, Jesus is sitting on a hill overlooking a temple that once had an eagle on it. So when Jesus points to this building, alludes to dead bodies and eagles gathering, his four listeners would have paid special attention.
Less than forty years later, an eagle showed up outside the walls of Jerusalem. This eagle was the ensign of the famous Twelfth Legion, the XII Fulminata or Thunderbolt legion originally levied by Julius Caesar.
Was this Christ’s prophecy coming to past? Nope – it was just one eagle and one eagle does not constitute a gathering of eagles.
The Twelfth Legion and its single eagle besieged Jerusalem for about a week before retreating. (Why did they leave? Nobody knows for sure, but it is possible Cestius Gallus, the legate, felt the Twelfth was under-equipped to prosecute a lengthy siege.) During its withdrawal the Twelfth Legion was attacked by Jewish forces at Bethoron. The legion lost 6,000 men, their siege weapons, and their precious aquila or eagle.
For a Roman legion to lose its eagle standard was a devastating blow. It was like losing its soul. The Romans would move heaven and earth to retrieve a lost eagle.
Less than a year after the defeat at Bethoron, the Romans returned to Israel in strength. This time they meant business.
Cestius Gallus had marched on Jerusalem with one legion, but in AD70 Titus returned with four: the Fifth, the Tenth, the Fifteenth, and a reconstituted Twelfth. It was an impressive display of strength, with 60,000 soldiers and auxiliaries in total. With such massive numbers the Romans were confident of success. They arrived at the start of Passover and locked up the city like a prison.
One legion or eagle had not been sufficient to do prosecute a siege, but four eagles were more than enough. And when Jerusalem fell, an emaciated and dismembered carcass, there the eagles were gathered.
Extracted from chapter 12, “The eagles are coming,” from Paul Ellis’s book AD70 and the End of the World.