Does it matter to Christians, thinking about vegetarianism, whether Jesus ate meat and/or fish? Obviously it does matter. It’s sufficiently obvious that I am tempted just to make this an essay assignment for a group of high-school vegans: “A group of Christian vegetarians says that we shouldn’t eat meat, but admits that Jesus ate meat. Can you see any problems with this approach? Discuss.”
If Jesus ate meat, what kind of Jesus does this give us? There’s actually a humorous song by the “Green Beings,” written by Vance Lemkuhl, which has these lyrics:
Jesus was a flexitarian
He didn’t eat meat, but he sometimes ate fish
He stuck to his core beliefs
With rare exceptions for chicken or for beef . . .
Flexitarians can show you the way
A purely casual approach that’s right for today . . .
However, there are some Christian vegetarians who say this very thing: Jesus was not a vegetarian (or may not have been a vegetarian), but it doesn’t matter. If you read the section on Christianity in Lisa Kemmerer’s excellent book Animals in World Religions, you can see that this position actually seems to be the default of many Christian vegetarian advocates. I respect these Christian vegetarian advocates, but this clearly puts ethical vegetarianism and Christianity on a collision path, something I would prefer to avoid.
Two suggestions I have heard in this regard are that (1) Jesus’ behavior is not normative for us; it doesn’t matter what Jesus ate, any more than it matters what Jesus wore on his feet; (2) with the horrors of modern factory farms, it matters more what Jesus would eat today, not what he ate in the first century. I’ve heard other suggestions as well, but these seem to be the relatively best alternatives.
It’s true that factory farms are especially horrible, but for ethical vegetarians, simply ending the factory farming system is not enough. Killing the animal is the worst abuse of all, and makes all the other abuses possible. Factory farming is relatively recent; it has only been widespread since the Second World War. But ethical vegetarianism goes back to Pythagoras, Plato, the Therapeutae, the Essenes, Tolstoy, and Gandhi, all of whom pre-date modern industrial agriculture.
It’s true that Jesus’ behavior is not normative for us, but this misses the main concern of ethical vegetarians. For a Christian, it does not follow that if Jesus did something, we must do the same thing. But it does follow that if Jesus did something, that it cannot be wrong to do that thing. If Jesus ate meat, then it cannot be wrong to eat meat. We are free to practice vegetarianism, but not to advocate vegetarianism on ethical or moral grounds.
This is in fact an exact duplication of Paul’s position at Romans 14:3: “Let not him who eats [meat] despise him who abstains [from meat], and let not him who abstains [from meat] pass judgment on him who eats [meat].” But Paul’s argument actually implies something very different from what some Christian meat-eaters have supposed. Paul’s argument really presupposes that Jesus was a vegetarian.
The whole dispute about vegetarianism in Romans 14 makes no sense if Jesus ate meat. At the time when Paul wrote this letter, there were still people alive who had known the earthly Jesus, and if Jesus had eaten meat, Paul could simply have appealed to Jesus’ own example. He does not, indicating that the question is whether a practice of Jesus and his early followers (in this case, vegetarianism) should be required of all adherents, or is optional. Paul’s opponents, it seems, were not just vegetarians, but thought that vegetarianism should be required.
If Jesus ate meat, then while it is possible to be a vegetarian or vegan for health or other reasons, ethical vegetarianism is a heresy. To say that it’s wrong to eat meat would be to condemn the supposed founder of the religion. In fact, this is precisely what the Council of Gangra (mid-fourth century) decided; this council anathematized anyone who said that it was wrong to eat meat. (The Council made a few exceptions: it allowed people to say that it was wrong to eat meat offered to idols, to eat blood, or to eat an animal which had been strangled — a tip of the hat to the apostolic decree, Acts 15:29.) During the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars (who were vegetarians) in the Middle Ages, suspected heretics were given an animal to kill. If they refused to kill the animal, they were deemed to be heretics.
Christianity today can do better than this. Many today feel that vegetarianism and opposition to killing sentient creatures is part of the gospel message. Jesus disrupted the animal sacrifice business in the temple somewhere around the Passover season of 30 CE. The gospel of the Ebionites describes Jesus as a vegetarian who indignantly rejects the Passover meat, and says “I have come to destroy the animal sacrifices, and if you do not cease from sacrificing, my wrath will not cease from you” (Panarion 30.16.5).
Today’s Christianity has made it impossible to be a Christian and an ethical vegetarian. If we are to have any sort of Christian-vegetarian dialogue, we need to explore ways in which this kind of ethical vegetarianism is not automatically excluded at the outset, or the dialogue is not going to go very far.