Was Jesus a
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
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
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.
September 1, 2001 (revised at various times since then)