My new book, Disciples: How Jewish Christianity Shaped Jesus and Shattered the Church (Apocryphile Press, 2013) has now been published. You can order it on Amazon here. (I will not be selling it through my website.)
A book about the disciples of Jesus would typically start with Jesus himself: first there was Jesus, then he had disciples. Disciples suggests a fundamentally different story: first there was a movement, then Jesus emerged as its leader. This movement was markedly different from both rabbinic Judaism and gentile Christianity. It became known to history as “Jewish Christianity”— Jews who followed both Jesus (as they understood him) and the Jewish law (as they understood it).
These first disciples affirmed simple living, nonviolence, and vegetarianism, and rejected wealth, war, and animal sacrifices. Some two decades after Jesus was crucified, they split with their most famous missionary, Paul, over the issues of vegetarianism and eating meat from animal sacrifices. These events become clear through examination of the letters of Paul and the Jewish Christian literature: the Recognitions, the Homilies, and testimony about Jewish Christianity in the early church fathers. The history of Jewish Christianity takes our understanding of Christian origins into a completely new realm.
My interest in early Christianity was prompted in an unusual way — through my becoming vegetarian. I was raised Christian, but then adopted vegetarianism (and shortly thereafter, veganism) for straightforward ethical reasons; I didn’t want to cause suffering to innocent animals.
I did not become vegetarian because of Christianity, but in spite of Christianity, which seemed to be indifferent or even hostile to vegetarianism. Most Christians ate meat and could invoke the example of their savior in support. Within Judaism, there was actually considerable support for vegetarianism (Genesis 1:29, Isaiah 11:6-9, etc.), but it seemed that Jesus and the Christians had betrayed this wise tradition. “Does God care for oxen?” Paul asks rhetorically (I Corinthians 9:9). Of course not!
But then I discovered the book Jewish Christianity by Hans-Joachim Schoeps, the foremost twentieth-century historian of Jewish Christianity. Schoeps concludes that the heretical Jewish Christians were not only vegetarian, but represented the oldest tradition of the apostles themselves. Schoeps’ book implies that vegetarianism was not only present in early Christianity, but was part of the original gospel of Jesus.
Understanding “Jewish Christianity” has been a special project of mine for over 30 years. It became clear to me that the history of these early Christians was not just a vegetarian fantasy. Schoeps himself was neither a Christian nor a vegetarian, but an objective historian of religion with no axe to grind. Other nonvegetarian scholars, such as Walter Wink, also saw the truth of the vegetarianism in early Jewish Christianity (The Lost Religion of Jesus, p. xi).
I have been continually astounded that — with a few exceptions — modern Christians and modern scholars know virtually nothing of Jewish Christianity. Those who are at least aware that it exists typically dismiss Jewish Christianity with statements like “some of Jesus’ followers didn’t understand that Jesus was to liberate us from the confines of Jewish rituals.” This blindness of Christians to their own history is the deeper lesson which the history of Jewish Christianity holds for us today.
Why should people so casually dismiss the idea that the Prince of Peace might make compassion for animals a key part of his program? This idea of compassion is hardly foreign to the history of religion. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism take the idea of vegetarianism seriously. No orthodox Hindu will eat beef, and Buddhists honor as their very first precept “not to take the life of any sentient creature.” In the modern era, even atheists and humanists like Peter Singer understand the vital importance of compassion to animals. Do these people understand something that Jesus didn’t?
Even in the West this philosophy of compassion had a strong presence at the time of Jesus. Pythagoras, who coined the term “philosophy,” was a vegetarian, as well as his follower Plato and at least some sects of the neo-Pythagorean Essenes. The Jewish tradition held that God created the world vegetarian (Genesis 1:29) and would one day return the world to that state from which it had fallen (Hosea 2:18, Isaiah 11:6-9). A vegetarian Jesus would hardly be introducing a completely new idea out of the clear blue sky, and there are even hints of these ideas in the gospels, where Jesus declares sympathy for the “least of these,” and says that God will not forget even a single sparrow.
Any consideration for sparrows goes right over the heads of modern scholars and Christians generally. Christianity has rejected the very idea of compassion for which Jesus gave his life, when nearly two millennia ago he went into the temple and disrupted the animal sacrifice business there, an act which led to his arrest and crucifixion.
Considering all the problems the world faces, such as climate change, massive extinctions, environmental destruction, peak oil, resource depletion, nuclear proliferation, and financial collapse, some may question whether there are not more important topics on the planet than the history of early Christianity. But for those with an appreciation of how religion both shapes and is shaped by human existence, the story of the early disciples of Jesus has lessons for all of us.
It is those lessons which I hope that Disciples will impart. The message of Jesus and the first Christians was about simple living, nonviolence, and vegetarianism, three practices which the modern world desperately needs.