Was the Last Supper Vegetarian?
by Keith Akers
Other relevant articles:
Against the Scholars -- Jesus'
Opposition to Animal Sacrifice (again)
The Jesus Seminar Meets the
Ebionites: Were the Ebionites a Legalistic Group?
Jesus and the Moneychangers
One of the most commonly cited objections to Jesus’ vegetarianism was that
Jesus celebrated the Passover at the Last Supper with his disciples. The
Passover would have necessarily included the Passover lamb as part of the meal,
goes the argument, and therefore Jesus must have eaten meat at his very last
meal — thus precluding his being a vegetarian. Was Jesus’ last meal a
vegetarian meal, or did it include lamb?
The usual way of proceeding is to ask the question, was the Last Supper a
Passover? There is dispute about this even among the gospels. In Matthew, Mark,
and Luke (undoubtedly drawing on a single source) the Last Supper is referred to
as a Passover. In John, however, the Last Supper is not a Passover. There
are many scholars, such as the majority of the Jesus Seminar, who conclude that
the Last Supper was not a Passover. Therefore, considerable controversy exists
as to whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal. Most people would move
forward to the question of whether the Last Supper was vegetarian after first
resolving the problem of whether it was, or was not, a Passover Seder.
I believe that the question "was the Last Supper a Passover?" is
the last issue which should be asked, rather than the first. It is
speculative and complicated. There are several easier questions which should be
asked first, and the first one is, would Jesus have favored the sacrifice of the
lamb in the first place?
1. Was Jesus opposed to animal sacrifice?
There are conflicting traditions in the history of the early church and in
the New Testament on this question. We can summarize these traditions as
follows. On the one hand, there are several indications that Jesus would have
opposed animal sacrifice:
1. The New Testament describes both Jesus and Stephen (the first Christian
martyr after Jesus) as in conflict with the temple priests over issues closely
related to animal sacrifice. The temple was the place where animal sacrifices
were offered and animal sacrifice was a central feature of the temple
operations. Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple and most conspicuously,
disrupts the animal sacrifice business in the temple. The priests form the core
of the group seeking Jesus’ death. The accusation against Stephen is that he,
too, preaches against "this holy place" — i. e., the temple. Stephen
compares temple worship to idolatry.
2. In the New Testament, both Jesus and Stephen indicate awareness of an Old
Testament tradition which attacks animal sacrifice. Jesus twice quotes Hosea
6:6, saying "I require mercy, not sacrifice," while Stephen quotes
Amos 5:25-27 in support of his idea that temple worship is idolatry.
3. The Jewish Christian Ebionites, and other Jewish Christian groups as well,
vehemently attack the practice of animal sacrifice, aligning themselves with an
Old Testament tradition which attacks this practice. This is one of the most
prominent features of Jewish Christianity as is immediately clear from reading
Epiphanius and from the Recognitions and Homilies. Since any
support for the Jewish practice of animal sacrifice would most likely appear
among Jewish followers of Jesus, the fact that his Jewish followers actually attacked
animal sacrifice strongly indicates that Jesus also attacked animal sacrifice
— especially considering that the conflict with the temple establishment
resulted in his death.
4. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and his followers also practiced
baptism. For John the Baptist, baptism was an alternative or replacement for at
least one of the functions of animal sacrifice — forgiveness of sins. In
Jewish Christianity, baptism is specifically instituted by Jesus (not John the
Baptist!) as a replacement for animal sacrifice.
There is also evidence for a countervailing tradition in the New Testament,
that Jesus would have approved of the sacrifices.
1. Jesus is described as celebrating the Passover, which seemingly requires a
lamb to be sacrificed.
2. Jesus tells the leper who has been healed to make the offering which Moses
commanded — which, upon reading the Old Testament, we discover was an animal
3. Jesus is himself described as being a sacrifice for our sins. "Christ
died for our sins," is one of the most celebrated and often-quoted of Paul’s
aphorisms. If Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, then that seems to imply that God
wants a sacrifice and that (before Jesus) animal sacrifice was part of the
commands from God, found in Leviticus and elsewhere.
Now — which tradition, if either, is more likely to be true? On balance,
the evidence that Jesus opposed animal sacrifice is decisively stronger, as we
can see the fingerprints of later theological musings evident in the passages
favoring animal sacrifice. I have discussed this question extensively in The
Lost Religion of Jesus, but will outline the key issues here.
The evidence for Jesus opposing animal sacrifice seems to come from
the earliest layer of Jesus traditions. It seems to be strongly connected to a
central fact of Jesus’ life — Jesus’ execution following his disruption of
the temple. The disruption of the temple is one of the few episodes from Jesus’
life which is in all four gospels. His crucifixion is one of the few
indisputable points about Jesus’ existence. If we know anything at all about
Jesus, it is that he was crucified. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, and
therefore Jesus must have been a threat to public order — something which
disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the temple would clearly be.
Moreover, if Jesus opposed the temple cult, this makes sense of both the
persecution and the survival of the early Christian community. In Acts, the
opponents of the Jesus movement are not just any Jews, but a specific set of
Jews — those Jews connected with the animal sacrifice business in the temple.
Other Jews, such as the Pharisees, come out looking relatively good. The
Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him; then, after Jesus’ death,
the Pharisee Gamaliel opposes the persecution of the apostles when they are
arrested. There is one Christian martyr, Stephen, who is lynched after giving a
speech in which he compares the temple cult with idolatry, after the high priest
asks Stephen to answer the accusation against him that he wants to destroy
"this holy place" (the temple). There is abundant evidence both that
the Jesus movement and the temple establishment were very opposed to each other,
while other Jewish groups seem to be more neutral toward the Jesus movement.
We need to ask, then — why was Jesus killed, and why were the early
Christians persecuted? These are central historical facts, and if we do not
understand these events, then we know virtually nothing about early
Christianity. The Jewish Christians had an obvious answer, supported by the
evidence in the synoptic gospels and in Acts: Jesus and his movement was opposed
to the temple establishment.
The "sacrifice-friendly" passages, by contrast, seem to arise out
of later theological considerations. These theological considerations grew out
of the conflict with gnosticism. This manifested in two tendencies: to minimize
the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish tradition, and to interpret Jesus’
death as itself in observance of the Jewish law. Both of these were
consequences of a conflict which came to a head in the second century, over
whether there was any connection between Jesus and Judaism at all. Gnostics
wanted to sever the connection between Judaism and Jesus altogether; passages
which suggested slavish observance to the law, would tend to refute gnosticism,
and serve a polemical purpose for the early church.
In this view of the later church, Jesus was a Jew, therefore "must"
have kept the Passover at the Last Supper — never mind that what was described
as being on the table had nothing to do with a Seder. Jesus "must"
have commanded the leper to go to the temple and make the offerings which Moses
commanded — never mind that Jesus would shortly thereafter disrupt the making
of offerings in the temple, an event which would lead to his crucifixion. Jesus’
death was a sacrifice for sin — never mind that Judaism had forbidden human
sacrifice for centuries. The story was being reworked to make it fit the needs
of later theological concerns.
Moreover, if there were any primitive Christian tradition supporting animal
sacrifice, how do we explain the strong opposition to animal sacrifice in
Jewish Christianity? If Jesus really did support animal sacrifice, then
support for this Jewish practice should have been readily apparent in Jewish
Christianity. Yet it is clear that later Jewish Christianity, described by
Epiphanius in the fourth century, was vehemently opposed to animal sacrifice.
This Jewish Christianity was vegetarian, opposed to animal sacrifice, opposed to
Paul, and loyal to the Jewish law as they understood that law. Paul’s letters
clearly show that Paul had opponents — opponents who were vegetarian, who
opposed meat sacrificed to idols, who questioned Paul’s claim to be an
apostle, and who were loyal to the Jewish law. It is indisputable, therefore,
that some of the same issues that were raised by Jewish Christianity in the
fourth century were also raised by some of Paul’s opponents in the
first century. These opponents of Paul were the spiritual precursors of Jewish
Because of the fact that the opposition to animal sacrifice is wrapped up in
events of Jesus’ life which are clearly historical (namely, his death), and
because opposition to animal sacrifice is found in the gospels and in Acts, only
one answer is possible: Jesus opposed the animal sacrifice cult.
2. Was the Last Supper vegetarian?
If Jesus opposed the animal sacrifice cult, then we can certainly exclude the
possibility that a sacrificed animal was on the table at the Last Supper. The
question now becomes, what was on the table? For the resolution of this
question, we have two sources of information: the accounts of the Last Supper in
the New Testament, and the traditions which arose concerning the Last Supper,
reflected in the practice of the Eucharist or communion.
According to the gospels, there were at least two, or possibly three items at
the Last Supper: bread, a drink, and possibly a dip of some sort. The drink is
usually assumed to be wine, but this is not spelled out. Matthew and Mark
describe all three; Luke has only bread and a drink; and John mentions only the
dip. We have no indication of what was in the dip, but the easiest explanation
is that it was vegetarian, since this would probably be the least expensive.
The traditions of the Eucharist, or communion, are also interesting. Early
Christians sought to imitate the Last Supper in this ritual. A variety of
different practices were employed. The dominant one was bread and wine; but
others included bread and water, or bread and water mixed with wine. In none
of these traditions, however, was lamb or any other "red meat"
present. In fact, the overwhelming majority excluded all animal products and
were strictly vegetarian. There was only a very small minority of traditions
where bread and cheese were used, and an even smaller minority using bread and
fish, evidently in imitation of the miraculous feeding of the multitude.
What can we conclude was on the table at the Last Supper? Certainly, the lamb
was not present. The evidence both from the New Testament and from early
Christian traditions surrounding the Last Supper indicates that the Last Supper
was strictly vegetarian.
3. Was the Last Supper a Passover?
We now come to the most difficult and complex question of all — whether
Jesus, at his last meal (or at any other time), celebrated the Passover. The
argument is frequently made that Jesus could not have been vegetarian, for the
Passover requires a lamb, and Jesus ate the Passover. This argument is made by
Epiphanius in his arguments against the Ebionites, and by countless others since
Most opponents of the view that Jesus was a vegetarian are almost completely
oblivious to the fact that this argument is primed to blow up in their faces. It
would actually be stronger evidence for Jesus’ vegetarianism if this meal was
a Passover. For if the Last Supper was a Passover, and if (as seems clear) there
was no lamb present, then this is overwhelming evidence for Jesus’
vegetarianism. Why else would Jesus have refused the central element of the
Passover, the lamb, unless he had objections to eating meat? Why else would
Jesus have modified Jewish tradition in such a blatant and obvious manner? His
not eating meat on this occasion would then be an indication that this was a
central feature of his teachings.
The Jewish Christian Ebionites, of course, portrayed the Last Supper as
vegetarian. When his followers ask about the Passover, Jesus indignantly
replies, "I have no desire whatsoever to eat this passover meat with
you" (Panarion 30.22.4). This saying from the Ebionite gospel leaves
ambiguous whether the Ebionites thought that Jesus did not celebrate the
passover, or whether he celebrated an "alternative" passover. Jewish
vegetarians today choose the latter alternative: they celebrate a Seder which is
entirely vegetarian or vegan.
There are several indications that the Last Supper was not a Passover. First
of all, "bread and a drink" sounds a lot like the kiddush
ceremony, in which a blessing is offered over wine and sometimes bread. This
ceremony, in fact, can bear an absolutely uncanny resemblance to a Christian
communion service. Skeptics are urged to actually participate in such a ceremony
— the resemblance is striking. Here we have a Jewish ritual meal containing
exactly the same elements as are found in a Christian ritual meal.
Secondly, there is the question of Christian memory. When reading the gospel
accounts of the Last Supper in this light, it seems highly likely that we first
had an earlier tradition of a last meal, consisting of bread and a drink, on
which was later superimposed the tradition that this last meal was also a
Passover. The later redactors of this tradition, though, did not go back and
rewrite the earlier tradition so that it brought in any of the elements of the
Passover Seder into the description of the meal. In fact, quite the contrary;
they left these earlier elements in place, in spite of the fact that the meal so
described seems to have little in common with a Seder. If the story about Jesus
celebrating the Passover was the original story, then the "bread and a
drink" elements would probably not be there; what was added later would
probably be a reference to the elements of the Seder.
Thirdly, there is the question of timing. Jesus was killed, most likely,
after disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the temple. Now when would the
most likely time for such a demonstration have been? Would it be on the day
after Passover, after countless lambs had already been sacrificed? Most likely,
it would have been before the Passover, or perhaps for dramatic emphasis
at the very time when the lambs were being killed. The most likely sequence of
events after this incident is — an arrest, a brief trial, and then prompt
crucifixion. The gospel writers wanted to expand the time which elapsed between
this incident in the temple and Jesus’ death, so that Jesus would have time to
deliver various parables and soliloquies, be captured by the Romans and betrayed
by Judas, and finally tried before various magistrates.
But this is probably a creation of the gospel writers. Most likely, what
happened was this: Jesus creates a disruption in the temple, as the Passover
lambs are being sacrificed. He is immediately arrested by the temple police.
After a short discussion among the priests as to how to deal with the situation,
Jesus is turned over to the Romans. He is brought before Pilate, where he says
"I have come to abolish the sacrifices," and Pilate responds,
"Crucify him." This sequence, however, does not allow any time for a
final Passover meal. Thus, while we prefer the presentation in the synoptic
gospels to that of John in most cases, in this case John is probably right: the
Last Supper was not a Passover meal.
On the other hand, we cannot be sure. Jesus may have intended to redefine the
Passover Seder and turn it into a new celebration which did not require
bloodshed. This is clearly the intent of the rest of Jesus’ program: to resist
the injunctions which allow or even recommend bloodshed, and to replace them
with the original peaceful intentions of the kingdom of God, as found in the
Garden of Eden and as prophesied in Isaiah 11. Even if the Last Supper was not
itself a Passover, Jesus may have celebrated an "alternative" Passover
at other times in his life.
I have reversed the usual order of asking questions in our search for what
was on the table at his last meal. The most important question is one which is
rarely asked by Christians or by historians either — whether Jesus would have
approved of sacrifices at all. It’s clear that Jesus was very much opposed to
animal sacrifices, and that this opposition explains the most fundamental
bedrock information that we have about the historical Jesus, namely that he was
crucified. Neither orthodox Christians, nor many modern historians, really have
a convincing explanation for why else Jesus might have been killed, though for
Jewish Christianity the explanation was obvious. What else could have happened
after Jesus disrupted the temple sacrifices?
The next question is what was on the table at Jesus’ last meal. We know
what was not on the table: any lamb, or any other sacrificed animal. We
do have some limited evidence on this question, from the gospels and from the
extra-biblical traditions that grew into the ritual of communion or the
Eucharist. Both the gospels and these extra-biblical traditions describe a
vegetarian meal. The description of bread and a drink fits the description of
what we would expect a first-century vegetarian meal to look like almost
Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder? This is a grey area. Probably not, but
we can’t be sure, as we are unsure of so many of the details of Jesus’ life.
Probably, if it was a Jewish ritual meal, it was a kiddush ceremony. But
in any case, the Last Supper was vegetarian, and this supports the other strong
evidence that we have for the fact that Jesus was a vegetarian and regarded
vegetarianism as a central facet of his teaching and practice.