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Was Jesus a Vegetarian?

By Keith Akers

For many vegetarians, Jesus’ message implies compassion toward all creation. How can we justify the torture and slaughter of billions of animals each year for food? And how can we tolerate such obvious cruelty in a religion whose founder preached mercy and compassion? Yet most modern churches reject vegetarianism with hardly a thought; vegetarianism is an idea which is at best tolerated, and at worst condemned as heresy.

Was Jesus a vegetarian? This issue is too complex to be answered with just a few Bible verses. In fact, it cannot be fully answered in a short article; my book, The Lost Religion of Jesus, has a more complete answer. The New Testament takes contradictory stands on this issue, sometimes seeming to condemn and sometimes seeming to support vegetarianism. Jesus feeds bread and fish to the five thousand (Mark 6:34-44) — seeming to approve of eating fish. But Jesus also speaks of compassion toward animals (Matthew 12:10-12, Luke 12:6-7, 13:15-16) — seeming to hint at vegetarianism. The same can be said of many other views in the Bible as well; one can defend almost any point of view one wants with appropriate Bible verses. But that leaves us with the question, where does the truth lie?

I. Vegetarianism in Early Christianity

There were many vegetarians in early Christianity, both in the leadership and among ordinary Christians. Augustine, while not vegetarian himself and while vehemently arguing against the idea that Christians must be vegetarians, nevertheless states that those Christians who "abstain both from flesh and from wine" are "without number" (On the Morals of the Catholic Church 33). His "heretical" Manichean opponents were entirely vegetarian. But the Christian vegetarians to whom Augustine is referring are clearly orthodox, indicating a widespread acceptance of vegetarianism both among heretics and the orthodox.

Many leaders of the early church were vegetarian. Eusebius says that James the brother of Jesus was a vegetarian, and in fact was evidently raised as a vegetarian (Ecclesiastical History 2.23). Why would Jesus’ parents have raised James as a vegetarian, unless they were vegetarian themselves and raised Jesus as a vegetarian as well? Eusebius also states (Proof of the Gospel 3.5) that all the apostles abstained from meat and wine. Other famous early Christians who were vegetarian, based on statements made by them or about them, included Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Arnobius, Tertullian, and Jerome.

II. The Controversy Over Vegetarianism

The letters of Paul give clear evidence of a controversy over vegetarianism. Paul believes that it is not necessary to be a vegetarian in order to be a Christian.

"As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables," says Paul (Romans 14:1-2). Paul counsels patience between the meat-eaters and the vegetarians. But there is nothing wrong with eating meat as such — "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience" (I Corinthians 10:25).

Paul won this battle in the early church; while many Christians were vegetarian, most churches taught that it was not necessary to be vegetarian. However, some early Christians, such as the Jewish Christians, rejected Paul; they were vegetarian and thought that vegetarianism should be required of all Christians. It is these Jewish Christians who were in conflict with Paul over the vegetarian issue.

III. Who were the Jewish Christians?

For the Jewish Christians, Jesus did not come to found a new religion; his message was about simple living and nonviolence. Jesus did not overturn the Jewish law, but preached a return to the Jewish law (as he saw it) — a law which commanded simple living and nonviolence. For the Jewish Christians, Jesus was a prophet who was loyal to the law; but upon examining the Jewish law, Jesus reached radical conclusions. The Jewish Christians therefore believed in simple living, pacifism, and vegetarianism.

We know about the Jewish Christians — and among them, the Ebionites, the chief Jewish Christian group — on the basis of early church documents. The most useful of these are the Clementine Homilies, the Recognitions of Clement (two Jewish Christian writings) and the Panarion of Epiphanius (an attack on Jewish Christianity which, however, gives insight into their beliefs).

The Jewish Christians called themselves "the poor" — the term "Ebionites" is derived from a Hebrew word which means "the poor." They traced their poverty back to the primitive Christian community described in Acts 4:32-35 — a community which shares all of their possessions in common. Thus, although no one owns any private property, because the community cares for everyone "there was not a needy person among them" — just as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says "You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24).

The Jewish Christians were also pacifists. The Recognitions speaks at several points of opposition to war and killing (1.70-71, 2.36, 3.42), echoing the statements of other early Christians, both Jewish and gentile, who were opposed to war, as well as the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9), "Do not resist one who is evil" (Matthew 5:39), and "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44).

The Jewish Christians were vegetarians. They opposed meat-eating and the sacrifice of animals in the temple. There are frequent passages in both the Homilies and Recognitions which attack animal sacrifice; the Homilies state that God did not want animals killed at all (3.45), and condemns those who taste or eat meat at all (7.4, 7.8). This opposition to animal sacrifice and support of vegetarianism is one of the most distinctive features of Jewish Christianity — mentioned by Epiphanius as well as in the Homilies and Recognitions.

Why did the Jewish Christians make such an issue over animal sacrifice? We must remember that in ancient times the temple in Jerusalem was not like a modern synagogue or church — it was the place where the Jews brought animal sacrifices, and thus resembled a butcher shop or slaughterhouse more than a modern place of worship. The priests in the temple were able to keep much of the meat from the sacrificed animals and thus benefitted economically from this practice. For the Ebionites, this was a religious sanction to kill animals, which had no place in their religion. Jesus says (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7), "I require mercy, not sacrifice," a saying which the Homilies and Recognitions cite as well. The Ebionite gospel quoted Jesus as saying, "I have come to abolish the sacrifices, and if you cease not from sacrificing, my wrath will not cease from you" (Panarion 30.16.5).

One of the problems which the Jewish Christians had was that, since they remained Jewish and therefore loyal to the law, they had to explain the passages in the "Old Testament" (the Jewish scriptures) which seemed to justify war-making and animal sacrifice. They argued that these commands were not truly in the law given to Moses, but were added by scribes who came after Moses. So we see that Jewish Christianity involved vegetarianism, but a lot more as well. It was a truly radical viewpoint — which eventually became heretical both to orthodox Judaism and to orthodox Christianity.

IV. The Confrontation in the Temple

The Jewish Christians are alone in early Christianity in placing heavy emphasis on the rejection of animal sacrifice. Yet the historical Jesus was clearly opposed to animal sacrifice, as we can see from one of the key events in Jesus’ life — the last week of his life, leading up to his crucifixion. According to all of the gospels, Jesus went into the temple and disrupted the animal sacrifice business:

"And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, "It is written: ‘my house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers." (Matthew 21:12-13; parallels at Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17)

Who were the ones who bought and sold in the temple, and why were they selling pigeons? The animals which are being sold are sacrificial animals, and it is these dealers in animals whom Jesus is angry with. The primary practical effect of this confrontation was to disrupt the animal sacrifice business — chasing out the animals to be sacrificed, or those who were selling them to be sacrificed. "Cleansing the temple" was an act of animal liberation.

Jesus calls the temple a "den of robbers," an allusion to Jeremiah 7:11; but this passage in Jeremiah follows only after Jeremiah describes murder, adultery, and blatant idolatry (Jeremiah 7:9), and ends by denying that God ever required sacrifices, anyway (7:22). If, of course, the animal sacrifice cult was a fraud--as the Ebionites believed--then the extortion of animals from the populace on religious pretenses was indeed literal robbery and a matter considerably more serious than the figurative "robbery" involved in overcharging.

The final result was that the Romans crucified Jesus. Pilate, the Roman governor, would hardly have crucified someone just because of a Jewish theological dispute. But if someone were causing a riot or disturbance in the temple precincts, this demanded Roman action. It is much more plausible that Jesus objected to the practice of animal sacrifice itself, and that his disruption of the temple business during the volatile Passover week was the immediate and most important cause of his death. It was this act, and its interpretation as a threat to public order, that led immediately to Jesus’ crucifixion.

V. The Jewish Christian understanding of Jesus

Why should we believe that the Jewish Christians had the best understanding of Jesus? There are several reasons. First and most importantly, Jesus was a Jew. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus nowhere indicates that he is founding a new religion. When asked what we must do to gain salvation, he replies, "If you would enter life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). The commandments which Jesus says are the greatest are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). This is exactly how Jewish Christianity saw Jesus: as building an ethic of compassion and sharing on the basis of the Jewish law. Who would have the best understanding of Jesus? Would it not be those of his own followers who, like Jesus, considered themselves Jews?

Secondly, Jesus and the primitive church were in a conflict with the temple priests. The most certain piece of historical knowledge we have about Jesus is that he was crucified, and he was undoubtedly killed after disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the temple. Jesus wants the temple destroyed; the priests in the temple want Jesus and the Jesus movement destroyed. Even after Jesus’ death, the priests keep up the struggle, hoping to either silence or kill the apostles (Acts 4-7). Why would Jesus have risked his life for something not essential to his message?

The Jewish Christians are virtually alone among early Christians in understanding why Jesus died. Jewish Christianity describes Jesus as if this attack on the temple was part of a deliberate plan. Jesus has come to abolish the temple sacrifices (Recognitions 1.54) — thus explaining perfectly both his own motivations and the motivations of those who sought to destroy him and his movement.

Vegetarianism was abandoned because of the popularity of the letters of Paul among early Christians. The early leadership of the church (James, Peter, and John) was Jewish, but they quickly got into a divisive battle with Paul (Galatians 1-2 and Romans 14). In the second century, the teachings of Paul became increasingly popular among Christians. The Jewish Christians detested Paul, considering him an apostate. But by the second century Jewish Christians were already in the minority and eventually Paul’s letters were accepted as part of the New Testament, masking the fact that in his day Paul was a highly controversial figure. Since Paul said vegetarianism was optional, the church followed his stand on this issue. Later editors of the New Testament further distorted and confused Jesus’ views on animals.

Jesus believed in simple living and nonviolence, and felt that this was part of the law of God. Jesus was undoubtedly vegetarian, since this was the original teaching of Jewish Christianity. Jesus did not bring a new theology, but rather a radical understanding of the law. For Jesus, the law commands nonviolence; we are not to shed blood, whether the blood of humans in warfare or the blood of animals in meat consumption or animal sacrifice. Jesus risked and gave his life to disrupt the wicked and bloody animal sacrifices in the temple. But the religion of Jesus has been lost from modern Christianity.

Keith Akers
September 1, 2001 (revised at various times since then)