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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 sacrifice.

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 Christian Ebionism.

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 then.

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.

Conclusions

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 perfectly.

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.