In Revelation 8:13 we are confronted with a variation that merits our full attention.
Was it an angel or an eagle that John saw flying through heaven and making the announcement that the last three angels were about to blow their horns?
NIV: “As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: ‘Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!’ ”
KJV: “And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!’ ”
Was it an angel or an eagle?
Our first criterion is to search the Scriptures and see what had survived in the manuscripts.
“Angel” is found in the Byzantine or “Koine” Text Type, most minuscule manuscripts dated after 950 A.D.
“Eagle” is found in three important Alexandrian manuscripts dated ±350 and 450 A.D., as well as the Koine papyrus No. 46, dated ±800 A.D. Also in Old Latin and Syriac translations of the New Testament.
According to these facts, “Eagle” is much stronger represented in die manuscripts.
Next we try to compose the possible way the variation could have originated. That could help us understand which variation could be the original, and which the divergence. There are two possibilities.
First we study the possibility that the word could have been altered accidentally either by a hearing mistake, but the words don’t sound similar at all, or by misreading, but again this is also highly improbable.
The second possibility is that the word had deliberately been altered by some scribe for some specific reason. This is quite possible since an almost identical sentence with “angel” instead of “eagle” is found in Revelation 14:6: “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth…”
This is quite a reasonable explanation for altering “eagle” to “angel”, but for the other way around there seems to be no obvious possibility. That points to “eagle” rather being the original and “angel” the variation.
In conclusion we look at the way these words are used in Revelation, as well as the context, the genre and the cultural background.
The word or concept of the “eagle” is found only in two other places in Revelation. First as part of the description of the apocalyptic creatures in chapter 4:7: “And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast was like a calf, and the third beast had the face of a man and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.”
The second referral to “eagle” is in Revelation 12:14: “And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place…”
In Revelation an eagle is never employed to fulfil any duty or special function, least being a herald announcing the fulfilling of an imminent curse by the awaiting three angels!
On the other hand it is clear that angels are the agents fulfilling the tasks in Revelation, especially as messengers and heralds. There is no obvious reason why the author of Revelation would deviate in this incident.
In the genre of the apocalypse, we find “eagle” five times in Ezekiel, twice as part of the description of an apocalyptic being, and three times there are referrals to the mighty wings of the eagle. But nowhere does the eagle fulfil any special task or extraordinary function.
Also in Daniel the eagle is mentioned twice. First as part of the description of how unattended Nebuchadnezzar’s hair had grown. The second as part of the description of an apocalyptic creature. Again the eagle fulfils no extraordinary role. For an eagle to fulfil the role of a herald in Revelation, is contradictory to the utilization of the eagle in other apocalyptic prophecies.
Even the way eagles are mentioned in the rest of the Bible, there are only referrals to their strong wings, the way they care for their young etc. but nowhere does an eagle function out of its natural role, least being a herald announcing forthcoming catastrophe!
The effect of this variation.
The variation with “angel” fits perfectly within Revelation and this specific pericope.
The variation with “eagle” brings a strange element into the apocalypse that in no way adds to the understanding, the message, the application or any other element of this pericope. The eagle is not mentioned in the rest of Revelation or given any other function. It rather functions as a “fremdkürper” in Revelation.
When two of the three criteria point in one direction, the choice to oppose it, cannot be taken easily. But even Bruce M Metzger, an expert in the study and evaluation of manuscript variants mentions in his book “The Text of the New Testament.” p212: “Theoretically it is possible that the Koine text may preserve an early reading which was lost from the other types of text, but such instances are extremely rare…”
Here in Revelation 8:13 I am convinced that we have such an incident.
Nowhere in Revelation does an eagle function in a comparable way.
Nowhere else in Revelation the presence of an eagle is mentioned.
Nowhere in any apocalyptic material is an analogous incident mentioned.
Nowhere in the Bible does an eagle perform in any way other than its natural state.
In Revelation we find groups of angels performing together. The angels of the seven Churches; (Rev. 2 – 3) the angels blowing their trumpets; (Rev. 8:8 – 11:15) the angels announcing great things; (Rev. 14:6 – 14:19) and the angels that had to pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth. (Rev. 16:2 – 16:17)
Yet there are also angels that fulfil an individual task. Inter alia there is the angel functioning as a mediator; (Rev. 2:1) the one completing a task; (Rev, 8:3) the one making announcements (Rev. 14:6) the one completing an assignment; (Rev. 17:3) the one explaining the modus operandi; (Rev. 17:15) and one even commanding the terrestrial birds. (Rev. 19:17) These are but a few examples of the many in Revelation. To me this incident of the present study is an example of an angel performing an individual task, not something to be assigned to an eagle!
In this variation to my opinion, the intrinsic criteria weigh more heavily than both the external and internal criteria.
The variation with “angel” should be taken as the true rendering of what was originally written by John in Revelation 8:13.