Was Jesus a vegetarian? The long answer is to investigate both Jesus and the movement that he was part of, something I’ve done in my books The Lost Religion of Jesus and Disciples. This post will give a shorter answer that briefly discusses three key points: the controversy over vegetarianism in the early church, the later history of Jewish Christianity, and Jesus’ attack on animal sacrifice.
The dispute over vegetarianism in the early church shows that the leadership of the Jerusalem church was vegetarian. The later history of Jewish Christianity indicates that Jewish Christianity was vegetarian and preserved this tradition of defending animals. Jesus’ attack on the animal sacrifice business demonstrates that Jesus himself shared these views.
The controversy over vegetarianism in the early church
The very earliest layer of historical evidence about Christianity, the letters of Paul, indicate that vegetarianism was a hot topic in the early church. Before the destruction of the temple, before the gospels were written, and before theological assumptions colored later Christian histories, Paul is clearly enmeshed in a huge controversy over vegetarianism. The outlines of this controversy are found in Romans 14, I Corinthians 8–10, and Galatians 2.
In Romans and I Corinthians, Paul indicates that his opponents are vegetarians. Paul maintains that it is perfectly all right to eat meat, but also counsels diplomacy in dealing with the vegetarians.
The weak man [weak in faith, that is] eats only vegetables. (Romans 14:3)
Paul suggests not offending the picky eaters in the early movement.
Nothing is unclean of itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean . . . Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything makes your brother stumble (Romans 14:14, 20–21).
In this phrase “makes your brother stumble,” we can see the whole problem. It is eating meat and drinking wine which makes these vegetarians stumble, because they are offended by it. Paul says we can safely ignore these vegetarians . . .
Eat anything sold in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience. (I Corinthians 10:25)
. . . but, on the other hand, we should take care not to offend them:
I [Paul] will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall. (I Corinthians 8:13)
These early Christian vegetarians were offended by the thought that other believers might sacrifice animals or eat meat. Not only are they vegetarians, they believe that vegetarianism should be required of all followers of Jesus. It is not a question of personal preference, but a question of conscience.
So who are these trouble-making vegetarians who must not be offended? They were the leaders of the early church. In Galatians 2, Paul’s opponents are clearly spelled out: James the brother of Jesus, Peter, and John. The dispute itself is not as clearly spelled out, all we know is that until “certain men from James” came to Antioch, that Peter ate at the “table of gentiles” (Galatians 2:12). We do know, though, that James’ view carried the day, at least at the time. Peter stops eating at the table of gentiles. “Even Barnabas was carried away,” Paul ruefully admits (Galatians 2:13).
James the brother of Jesus, the first leader of the Jerusalem church after Jesus’ departure, was universally acknowledged to be a strict vegetarian, and in fact was raised as a vegetarian (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.5–6). Why would Jesus’ family raise James as a vegetarian, but not Jesus? The natural conclusion is that Jesus’ parents raised Jesus and James as vegetarians and that this was part of the original gospel message.
This dispute in Galatians is not about kosher regulations in the modern sense, as if someone had pork at the table, or someone were mixing meat and milk. Rather, Paul is concerned with James’ much more radical idea of what is kosher; it is meat and wine, by themselves, that make a meal unclean (Romans 14:20–21).
The Testimony of Jewish Christianity
Later Jewish Christianity, especially the Jewish Christian Ebionites of the second, third, and fourth centuries, inherited the traditions of James and the Jerusalem church. They would not eat meat, or eat with anyone who was not baptized and had therefore given up meat — for them, all believers were vegetarians and had renounced violence. These later Jewish Christians were described by such early Christian writers as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius, and also in two lengthy documents which are mostly Jewish Christian in origin, the Homilies and Recognitions.
To eat “dead flesh” is to eat at the table of demons (Homilies 7.4, 7.8), and in the Homilies and Recognitions, followers of Jesus are counseled to avoid eating at the table of demons, or indeed even to eat with anyone has eaten at the table of demons and has not subsequently been baptized. That’s why, according to Jewish Christianity, Peter refused to eat with unbelievers or “gentiles” (Recognitions 1.19, 2.3, 2.71–72, 7.29, 7.34; Homilies 1.22, 13.4).
Jesus was a Jew, and in the beginning all followers of Jesus were Jews, but by the second century Jewish Christianity is condemned as a heresy. When the rest of the New Testament is written, though, Paul’s anti-vegetarian viewpoint is triumphant and is written into the Christian literature. There is no restriction on food; Mark says parenthetically that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7:19). Jesus now distributes fish to the five thousand, and even eats fish after the resurrection (Luke 24:43).
However, some evidence of Jesus’ compassion for animals has survived in the gospels:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. (Luke 12:6)
What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? (Matthew 12:11)
The Jewish Christian Ebionites were loyal to the Jewish law (as interpreted by Jesus), they despised Paul, they rejected animal sacrifice, and they were vegetarians. They have, in short, inherited the traditions of the vegetarians in the early church described by Paul. The vegetarian opponents of Paul were also loyal to the law, despised Paul, rejected animal sacrifice, and were vegetarian.
The early church was highly fragmented, with numerous competing heretical groups. Why, of all the innumerable groups that followed Jesus, should we believe the gentile Christian groups rather than the Jewish Christian groups? Wasn’t Jesus himself a Jew? Wouldn’t those early Christians who — like their teacher — were also Jewish, be most likely to have understood Jesus correctly?
Jesus’ action for animals
In the gospel of the Ebionites, Jesus indignantly rejects the Passover meat, and attacks animal sacrifice, saying “I have come to destroy the sacrifices, and unless you stop sacrificing [animals], my wrath will not stop from you.” If Jesus had compassion for animals as part of his message, then that would explain why he gave his life for this principle. 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. (Matthew 21:12; parallels at Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17)
John places the incident in the temple at a different time, but elaborates more fully on the event itself:
In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” (John 2:14–16)
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 buying or selling them to be sacrificed. “Cleansing the temple” was an act of animal liberation. Jesus himself quoted the prophets when he said, “If you had known what that text means, ‘I require mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12:7).
We know that there were vegetarians in the early church, including the leadership, who were not only vegetarian but believed that vegetarianism should be required, and were in a serious dispute over food with Paul. We know that later Jewish Christianity claimed allegiance to this Jerusalem church and rejected Paul; they were vegetarians, against animal sacrifice, and loyal to the law. Finally, we know finally that Jesus was arrested and executed after a confrontation in the temple in which he disrupts the bloody animal sacrifice business. If we know anything about the historical Jesus, we know that he was vegetarian.