Recently, in response to a friend’s blurb promoting Disciples on Facebook, someone asked whether the author of the book (namely, me) was promoting vegetarian “propaganda.”
I have heard this same basic objection before, expressed in other ways. Readers feel that describing Jesus or early Christianity as vegetarian is strange. A reviewer of my previous book The Lost Religion of Jesus politely said, “There is, for my taste, an overemphasis on vegetarianism as one of the differences between the Jewish Christian groups and the Gentile Christian church.” Another reviewer, less politely, described The Lost Religion of Jesus as “an apologetic book for vegetarianism with a religious ‘seal of approval’ applied”; still another said that it was “a poorly supported argument for becoming a vegetarian.”
The basic answer is that NO, this isn’t vegetarian propaganda. It’s history. Is there a problem with this?
Some people will have a problem with this. They have already made up their minds. The strangeness of the idea that Jesus could have been vegetarian is sometimes based on the fundamentalist presumption that anything in the Bible must be true. The Bible says that Jesus ate fish and distributed fish to the crowds; therefore, Jesus ate fish and distributed fish to the crowds. The Bible, in this view, is history.
How can an intelligent person still make this sort of argument? Isn’t this the same crowd that doesn’t believe in evolution, opposes birth control, and thinks homosexuality is a sin? In fairness, not all Biblical literalists think this way, but the underlying problem is the same; they have made up their minds already. They are interested in one thing only: find a verse that agrees with what they want to say, and then stop looking and refuse to listen to anything else. It is the lazy person’s approach to reading the Bible.
I could go on ranting about how stupid Biblical literalism is, but there’s something else going on here, something that trips up even the liberal scholars. Jesus’ vegetarianism is only “strange” in a modern framework, when meat-eating has spread all over the globe, and where even respected intellectuals speak of “meat hunger” and an intrinsic psychological need to eat meat. In the first century, almost everyone was vegan most of the time, and not by choice.
The typical diet of most people in the Roman Empire was bread. Occasionally, they might get such items as lentils or vegetables. Meat was a luxury item for the upper class, the “1%” of the day. An all-bread diet is a perfectly awful diet, of course, and nutritional deficiencies were likely rampant throughout the ancient world. When the apostle Peter describes his diet as bread, olives, and pot-herbs (Recognitions 7.6, Homilies 12.6), he is actually describing a pretty typical diet.
The only time that most people in the ancient world, aside from the “1%,” would eat meat would be at festival times, when sacrificed meat would be available. This underscores the importance of the ancient Christians’ rejection of animal sacrifice. Jesus says “I require mercy, not sacrifice [of animals],” and goes into the temple to disrupt the animal sacrifice there. Stephen compares the animal sacrifice business to idolatry. Acts 15:29 forbids Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols. In the Ebionite gospel, Jesus says “I have come to destroy animal sacrifices,” and declares his disgust for the Passover meat.
I can’t “pass over” this issue, because it’s the key to understanding the disputes in the early church. The first and most serious split in the church occurred over the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. James and the other apostles in the Jerusalem church wanted to forbid all meat offered to idols, and all meat altogether. But Paul argues that we can eat meat offered to idols. Paul advises us to “eat anything sold in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience” (I Corinthians 8:13), which in context only makes sense if someone in the ancient church was raising questions of conscience.
Moreover, we can see clearly from this passage who Paul’s audience is. The only people who had ready access to the meat-market were the rich and super-rich of the ancient world. For everyone else, there was bread, and sacrificial meat at festival times. Paul is trying to spread the message of Jesus among the upper classes. In doing so, Paul is in fact arguing against the position of the apostles that rejects meat, and especially meat offered to idols.
Ethical vegetarianism was at the center of primitive Christianity, and in fact Jesus gave his life for this principle, when he went into the temple and disrupted the animal sacrifice business there. If you are determined beforehand to reject this idea, you can call this sort of analysis “propaganda.” But there’s a better word for it: it’s history.