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Jim Catano

Originally posted on Vegsource

Review of The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity, by Keith Akers

New York, Lantern Books, 2000

Paperback $20, 260 pages

Review by Jim Catano 

We vegetarians usually rank "above average" in the mellowness category. However, if you ever want to see our good will disappear in a hurry, just ask the question, "Was Jesus a vegetarian?" It always seems to generate opposing and passionately held responses ranging from, "The Bible says that Jesus ate fish and lamb, so he obviously was NOT vegetarian," to, "An understanding of the intent and meaning of the original biblical language shows that Jesus WAS vegetarian."

A typical scenario for one of these debates has participants pulling out copies of the Bible to develop their arguments. Keith Akers, in his book The Lost Religion of Jesus goes one step further, and for this we owe him a big "thank you." Akers not only analyzes the biblical texts but also diligently compares information found in several of the earliest non-Biblical Christian writings and from the non-Christian witnesses of early Christianity. What results is an eye-opening study for anyone with a spiritual or academic interest in what Jesus of Nazareth stood and ultimately died for.

Those who have studied Christian history know that divisions among the faithful occurred fairly early. Councils like the one held at Nicaea in 325 document attempts to re-standardize Christian doctrine and unite disparate communities of believers. Breakups like the Great Schism of 1054 that divided the Roman and Eastern rites remind us that these attempts often failed. This book illustrates that the first splitting of Christians into factions occurred even earlier than most people realize. In fact, the author suggests that it started during the time of the New Testament narratives and among the apostles themselves. One premise that may rankle conservative Christians is that Paul was the first and most important modifier of the faith that Jesus lived and taught.

The book is subtitled Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity. Akers carefully details from ancient documents that the Jerusalem-based apostles taught a somewhat different Gospel than the one Paul modified so the Christian message would be more appealing to the Greek and Roman audiences to which he preached. Bitter debates occurred between Paul and Jesus' appointed leaders Peter, James, and John. Remnants of those controversies are still quite visible in today's New Testament. Akers contends, however, that Paul's faction eventually "won the debate" and ultimately got to write and pass down the records thereby having the last word, so to speak.

The following excerpt is a summary of the events of that period. Rather than coming from a Paul-influenced New Testament view, however, itís history as it may have appeared to the "Jewish" Christians in Jerusalem who ultimately faded into the recesses of history.

Jesus, inspired by a group of Nasaraeans who are vegetarian and attack animal sacrifice, is baptized by John the Baptist. He proclaims a Jewish gospel based on a radical interpretation of the universal law of God a gospel based on simple living, pacifism, and vegetarianism. He goes to Jerusalem where he protests against the animal sacrifice business in the temple. He is brutally crucified by the Romans as a trouble-maker at the instigation of the priests in the temple.

His followers come together at the Pentecost and, after powerful revelations, declare that Jesus has appeared to them. The priests in the temple still violently oppose Jesusí followers, arrest the apostles, try to kill James the brother of Jesus, and kill at least one other prominent follower (Stephen). They are checked by the more moderate Pharisees. The sect survives and grows.

The Jesus movement gains adherents and a new twist with Paul. Paul, on the basis of his own visions and independently of the other followers of Jesus, preaches adherence to a Jesus who is more than a prophet--a Jesus who does not merely proclaim the law but actually replaces it. Controversy is introduced to the early church. Paul and the Jewish followers of Jesus disagree over the Jewish law and over various food issues (eating meat, eating food offered to idols). Prominent members of the followers of Jesus, including his brother James and all of the apostles, are vegetarian; but the question of whether vegetarianism is required is sharply disputed by Paul (Romans 14). Many of the followers of Jesus are "zealous for the law" (Acts 21:20), but Paul denies that this is necessary at all. The disputes grow and divisions deepen.

The author meticulously points out that the "law" promoted by Jesus and the Jerusalem Christians is not the same detailed, ritualistic, rabbinic code promoted by Jesus' antagonists--the temple priests, Pharisees and Sadducees--and which has evolved to form the basis of the various expressions of Judaism today. Instead, this Christian/Jewish law is a simple, literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments including a strong emphasis on non-worldly living and eschewing all violence toward humans or animals.

Akers provides ample historical detail to show how the persecution of Christianity proved unsurviveable in Jerusalem but not in Rome and why Pauline Christianity was able to eventually become the official state religion of the Roman Empire in less than 300 years. Basically, this occurred because the church embraced a few of the empire's values, such as a tolerance of personal materialism, an acceptance of patriotically based violence, and eating the standard diet of the culture which included meat.

The faults I found in this book were an occasional poorly developed argument and some incompleteness in the indexing and footnoting. These defects, however, are more than offset by a clear, consistent presentation of facts gathered from an impressive array of ancient authors including Flavius Josephus, Epiphanius, Clement, Jerome, Origen and others as well as citationsof the views of several modern scholars of early Christianity. Akersí logic and writing style seem "borderline academic," but his development is very easy to follow resulting in a very pleasant read.

For someone who wants to be equipped the next time the discussion turns to, "Was Jesus a vegetarian?" this book provides substantive answers. Let's hope, however, that they will be more than just "bullets for battle." Remember, we veggies want to maintain our mellow image. So, please be nice, everyone.

Jim Catano (jimcatano@att.net)



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