One of the big problems that people have with the idea that Jesus was a vegetarian is the “fish stories” in the New Testament — stories in which Jesus distributes fish as food to people, or in one case actually eats fish. If Jesus was a vegetarian, then what are these stories doing in the New Testament?
We can get an important clue as to what they are doing in the New Testament if we take a quick look at what their effect is and has been. From the point of view of a meat-eater, these fish stories are very convenient. Jesus ate fish, therefore eating meat must be all right. The letters of Paul, which predate the gospels by decades, also explicitly reject ethical vegetarianism at several points. “Eat whatever is sold in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience” (I Corinthians 10:25).
Whatever we say about the historical authenticity of these references to eating meat, it’s clear what the effect has been: it has been to make ethical vegetarianism a heresy. You can be vegetarian for your health, if you want, but not for ethical reasons. During the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in the middle ages, suspected heretics were given an animal to kill. If they refused, they were determined to be heretics.
1. Let’s start with the one case where Jesus actually eats fish, after his resurrection. (There is a similar passage in John 21:4-13, but in John, Jesus only distributes the fish, he doesn’t eat it.)
And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questions rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Luke 24:38-43, emphasis added)
Historically this passage is suspect right at the outset; the resurrection stories are the latest in the tradition and wildly contradictory to each other. This particular passage in Luke is especially suspect, because Jesus talks to his disciples and wants to convey that he is not a mere spirit (just as in the case of his appearance to “doubting Thomas”).
Anyone familiar with the history of early Christianity can immediately see the problem. Some, such as the famous second-century heretic Marcion, had exactly the belief to which Jesus is “replying” — that Jesus never existed on a physical plane, but was just a spirit or ghost. Most likely, this verse was penned as a specific response to Marcionism, which didn’t even become an issue until many decades after Jesus and the original disciples had all passed from the scene. Jesus says he isn’t a spirit, and when the disciples still don’t believe, only then does he eat the fish, something a ghost could not do. This passage can’t be taken seriously as real evidence about the historical Jesus. It is likely written as a response to Marcion and those like him.
2. What about the feeding of the multitudes with bread and fish (Matthew 14:13- 21, 15:32-38 and parallels)? There are many parallel versions of this basic story. Not only is it in the Bible, it is mentioned several times by early church fathers. Ireneaus twice states that Jesus fed the multitudes with bread alone (Against Heresies 2.22.3, 2.24.4). Arnobius also describes this incident without mentioning fish (Against the Heathen 1.46) as does Eusebius (Proof of the Gospel 3.4). Indeed, even Jesus himself, when referring back to this miracle (Matthew 16:9-10), mentions bread but doesn’t mention fish.
The bread is everywhere present, but the fish only sometimes. This strongly suggests that the original tradition was about distribution of bread, not bread and fish. In the case of Matthew 16:9-10, the insertion of fish becomes obvious, because the editors of Matthew changed the original story to include fish but forgot to change Jesus’ backward reference.
3. “Fish” was a well-known mystical symbol in early Christianity, because the Greek word for “fish” is transcribed “ichthys” or “ichthus,” which is an acronym (in Greek) for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Many early writers speak of fish in a clearly symbolic way, e. g. Tertullian On Baptism 1. Because of this, it isn’t clear that the original “fish stories” were even intended to be literal accounts of actual events, but were allegories about the distribution of the sacred message. Jesus wasn’t distributing physical fish, but rather himself and his message as spiritual food.
So what is the real origin of these fish stories? Rather than fight this issue out on the terrain of historical criticism, I’d suggest that curious students look at the whole controversy about vegetarianism in the early church. We are blessed in this respect: unlike the gospel accounts, where we have second-hand or third-hand stories warmed over and heavily edited, in the authentic letters of Paul we have first-hand accounts from one of the key participants in this dispute. Romans 14, I Corinthians 8 – 10, and Galatians 2 all give accounts of a divisive dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem church (James, Peter, and John) over food. This left Paul isolated from the rest of the church; “even Barnabas was carried away,” Paul ruefully admits.
We know that the leader of the early church, James the brother of Jesus, was not only a vegetarian, but was raised a vegetarian, and didn’t drink alcohol either (Hegesippus, quoted in Eusbius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.5-6). It is clear from this and other evidence (discussed in depth in my book, The Lost Religion of Jesus) that there was a group of people in the early church who thought that eating meat was an issue of conscience, and that we should be vegetarians. Otherwise, why would Paul feel the need to “refute” these views? When Paul stresses the need not to offend those who do not eat meat or drink wine (Romans 14:20-21), he is likely referring to James or people like him.
These passages in the New Testament were not just an impartial record of historical events; they were a belated effort to settle a divisive dispute in the early church by incorporating fish stories into the original gospel. In this they were unfortunately rather successful, but as historical evidence it’s pretty transparent what their origin was.
Ethical vegetarianism as a “heresy” has survived in numerous forms, all the way from the Jewish Christian Ebionites, down to modern Christian thinkers such as Charles and Myrtle Fillmore (founders of Unity) and Ellen White (founder of the Seventh-day Adventists). If you trace this “heresy” back to its origins, it becomes clear that it comes from Jesus himself, who was killed after entering the temple and disrupting the animal sacrifice business there.