Was Jesus a vegan?

Jesus in the temple (detail) – Scrovegni – public domain image

The historical Jesus would have completely rejected the casual torture and killing of animals. This practice of compassion was quite clear in the early church but was then lost as Christianity spread into the wider Roman world.

What does this imply about Jesus’ practice of compassion? Definitions of veganism vary, but the basic concept is not to kill or harm any sentient creature, especially for food. There is no word in ancient Greek or Latin for “vegan.” In fact, there was no word in English for it, either, before the first Vegan Society was formed in 1944. But the concept was present even in ancient times. It is roughly analogous to the ancient Sanskrit term “ahimsa,” referring to non-harming of sentient creatures, found in Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Veganism is not about purity; it is about compassion, “which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose,” as the Vegan Society puts it.

Was Jesus a vegan? The canonical gospels are contradictory and don’t help us very much. Jesus says that God does not forget even a sparrow; but Jesus also feeds fish to five thousand followers. The Jesus Seminar, representative of reliable scholarship, concluded that very few of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels are historical anyway. But if we leave aside the gospels, where else can we turn?

In a short article, we can’t discuss this question with the thoroughness it deserves. (For a lengthy discussion, see my books The Lost Religion of Jesus and Disciples.) We can, however, discuss three key points relating to this problem: (1) the controversy over vegetarianism in the early church, (2) the testimony of Jewish Christianity, and (3) Jesus’ attack on animal sacrifice. All of these point to a single conclusion: Jesus and the early Christians rejected violence against animals, but the later church abandoned this teaching.

Controversies in the early church

The controversies over meat-eating and animal sacrifice in the early church indicate that the practice of compassion for animals was part of the original teachings of the early church, but was lost when it spread to the wider Roman world. The letters of Paul, written by a participant and eyewitness in the early church, give us the best explanation of this process. Paul and the leadership of the early Jerusalem church strenuously disagreed with each other on this subject.

Paul’s letters give us both sides of the argument. These are found in Galatians 1-2, Romans 14, and I Corinthians 8-10. In general, Paul believes that while vegetarianism is fine (and he even seems to be a vegetarian himself), it should not be a requirement for the entire movement.

In Galatians 1-2, Paul describes his angry dispute with James, Peter, and John. It’s not clear what the disagreement is about, but it has something to do with food (the “table of gentiles”). In Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-10, Paul is more clear; the food issues are about animal sacrifice and eating meat. He maintains that it is perfectly all right to eat meat, even meat sacrificed to pagan idols, but he also counsels diplomacy in dealing with the vegetarians.

The weak man [weak in faith, that is] eats only vegetables. (Romans 14:3)

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience. (I Corinthians 10:25).

Paul would not have raised this issue unless someone was eating only vegetables, and was raising questions of conscience about buying from the meat market. Paul’s statement indicates something more, though. Paul’s most likely audience was the wealthy Corinthians who could afford to eat meat on a regular basis.

The ancient Roman world was highly unequal and most people lived at subsistence level. Most people in the ancient Mediterranean world were mostly vegan most of the time; that’s all they could afford (see Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists, pp. 35-45). Meat-eating, or access to any animal products like cheese or eggs, would have been a casual expectation only for the rich. These were the people who could afford this sort of luxury on a regular basis.

The early Christian movement was a movement of and for the poor. But with Paul, the message had begun to penetrate beyond Jesus’ original audience and reach into the wealthier classes. This was both a harbinger of Christianity’s eventual success, and an indication that the original radical message was slowly being lost.

Paul knows this is controversial. So he advises the Romans to take care not to offend 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 fact, Paul writes to the Corinthians that he is willing to abstain from meat — not because of a moral issue, but just to avoid controversy:

I [Paul] will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall. (I Corinthians 8:13)

For Paul’s opponents, giving up meat was not just a personal choice. It was part of the gospel message — good news for the animals. Interestingly, there is one thing that Paul doesn’t say. He never says that Jesus himself ate meat. At the time Paul wrote, there were many people alive who had known the earthly Jesus. If Jesus had eaten meat, Paul could have settled the argument in an instant: “how can you object to eating meat, when our Lord himself ate meat?”

But Paul never makes this argument. Most likely, this was because it was well known that Jesus didn’t eat meat. Paul was only objecting to making Jesus’ practice a rule for all Christians — similar to his ideas on not making celibacy a rule for all Christians.

The Testimony of Jewish Christianity

Let’s fast forward a few centuries and look at the situation within the early church in the second, third, and fourth centuries. The later Jewish Christian Ebionites (ebionim = “the poor” in Hebrew) were a group of early Christians loyal to the Jewish law, as interpreted by Jesus. They also despised Paul, rejected animal sacrifice, and didn’t eat meat. In other words, they inherited the views of Paul’s vegetarian opponents in the early church.

We know about the Jewish Christian Ebionites from several sources: from fragments of their gospel, from descriptions of their beliefs by the early church fathers who attacked their ideas, and from two early documents either written by or heavily influenced by Jewish Christians: the Clementine Homilies and the Recognitions of Clement.

The Ebionites said that Jesus had come specifically the abolish the animal sacrifices. The Ebionites were vegetarians and refused to eat meat. 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. They despised Paul, considering him an apostate from the law, and identified with Paul’s opponents in the early church — James, Peter, and John. They believed that James the brother of Jesus (not Peter) was the leader of the early church. James was universally acknowledged to be a strict vegetarian, and in fact was raised as a vegetarian (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.5-6).

James’ views were likely normative in earliest Christianity. James also refused to wear wool, so this was more than just a question of diet. Early Christians were repelled by the public displays and killing of animals in the Roman Coliseum, which would sometimes feature combat with and killing of many animals (and humans). They objected to the “the madness of the circus” and “the atrocities of the arena” (Tertullian, Apology 38). Tertullian notes that the Christians “have not even the blood of animals at their meals of simple and natural food” (Apology 9), folding the objections against killing animals and against killing people together in a single vision of nonviolence.

Jesus’ action for animals

Jesus in the temple (Greco) – public domain image

For the poor, who could not afford to eat animal products in the first place, the main “temptation” to eat meat would have come at festival times, when the common people would have had access to sacrificed meat. This makes the Jewish Christian view opposing animal sacrifice highly significant. In the gospel of the Ebionites, Jesus indignantly rejects the Passover meat, and attacks animal sacrifice, saying:

I have come to abolish the sacrifices, and unless you stop sacrificing [animals], my wrath will not stop from you. (Epiphanius, Panarion 30.16.5).

Does this description accurately describe Jesus? One of the few incidents found in all four gospels is that Jesus did try to “abolish the sacrifices”:

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 money-changers 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)

Jesus’ anger specifically targets the buyers and sellers of animals. The practical effect of this confrontation was to disrupt the animal sacrifice business — chasing out the animals to be sacrificed, as well as those who were buying or selling them. “Cleansing the temple” was an act of animal liberation.

The controversies in the early church between Paul and the early church leadership show that the treatment of animals was a hot topic in the early church. The later Jewish Christian Ebionites best preserved the views of the early church, and were unequivocally against meat consumption and animal sacrifice. Finally, Jesus’ disruption of the animal sacrifice business in the temple shows that Jesus not only believed in this principle himself, but was willing to die for it. It was this incident which led to his arrest and crucifixion.

This act demonstrates Jesus’ compassion for the animals more clearly than any of the teachings of the modern church. In modern terms, Jesus was a vegan. If we are to be true to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings, we must make it our mission to spread this message of compassion far and wide.

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NOTE: this is an updated and somewhat lengthier version of a post from last March. This new version has also been published on Medium.

 

16 thoughts on “Was Jesus a vegan?

  1. Chris

    Hi Keith,

    Love your blog and The Lost Religion of Jesus (have read it twice!).

    I have to say the more research I am doing the more I suspect there was a lot of tampering with Paul. Romans 14:3 for instance could be translated such as: The one being made sick (from eating flesh), eats only vegetables. Further, Paul later says that God makes those who are weak strong. This may not be the insult most people perceive it to be but rather an indirect endorsing of vegetarianism in a sense. Especially as Paul says twice he will eat no flesh as long as the world stands (1 Cor 8:13 and Rom 14:21).

    Further, the passage with 1 Cor 10 has troubled me for a long time. However, I think I have got to the heart of the matter and it lies in someone you mention in the Lost Religion of Jesus: Marcion. In reconstructions of Marcion’s canon 1 Cor 10:22-31 weren’t believed to be included. In fact this is very likely a later insertion (as Marcion’s canon came early and Luke is dated rather late) to combat Marcionism whilst keeping the Pauline epistles. As you may be aware, Marcionites were vegetarian and pretty much exclusively followed Paul as the true apostle. Jason BeDuhn, in his book Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, does believe that a fragment of 1 Cor 10:25 (basically half a sentence out of context) is present, but the evidence for this seems weak at best whereas the evidence for it not being there seems stronger.

    All this to say is that I think Paul can be redeemed for the cause vegetarianism. I think it was later redactors and translators who have been the greater problem.

    Reply
    1. Keith Akers Post author

      I agree that Paul was likely vegetarian. The more I read of Paul and ask myself, “what would the Ebionites say?”, I see more and more of the Ebionite Jesus in Paul’s writing. As I mentioned in Disciples, I am inclined to think that Paul takes an Ebionite position (and reflects Jesus’ own views) on such things as simple living and nonviolence. When Paul says “we serve not under the old written code” (Romans 7:6), this sounds very similar to the Ebionite view that the Old Testament was filled with falsehoods.

      It’s an interesting thought that Paul’s letters were edited to include anti-Marcionite passages. If Paul was a vegetarian and never said “eat anything sold in the meat-market,” then this actually makes the case that rejection of eating animals was a key belief of the early church even stronger.

      I haven’t read Jason BeDuhn’s book, but if this is what’s going on, these later editors didn’t do a very good job, since they evidently missed “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” the reference to “the prince of this world,” and others which (to me) much more directly support Marcionism. Romans 14:3 seems consonant with the rest of Romans 14 and elsewhere in Paul’s letters. It seems to flow logically from what he says about the “table of demons” in I Corinthians 10:19-22. Paul is straightforwardly urging everyone to just get along; the world is coming to end soon anyway, and there’s no point in getting into a fight with the vegans. There is still plenty of evidence elsewhere that eating animals was a divisive issue in the church, which only became a problem when the message spread to those who were wealthier and could afford meat.

      Reply
      1. Chris

        I do like the Ebionite or even Essene view of God. I haven’t read the Clementine Homilies (yet; it’s on my list of things to do), but I think this will paint the most coherent narrative of a creator God. As much as I appreciate the rationale for Gnosticism, I am not sure if it ultimately works. I mean at the end of the day we either have a loving God or not. If you just push him/her away several emanations I am not sure at the end of the day if it does anything to help your cause. All these groups are both seeing the same problem: a God that appears to do evil things. One group says it’s not “the” God and the other says these things were made up. I guess we will ultimately never know until we die, but until then, i still have faith in an all-loving God who cares for all living things.

        Reply
  2. Mark Aelred Sullivan

    We need to be aware of the tendency to “find the Jesus we are looking for”. Almost everyone does it, including those ignore or “write-off” any/all evidence because they believe Jesus was entirely a literary creation. But if John the Baptist and James the Just are any indication, then we can assume that Jesus, who was part of the same movement, also swore-off meat and wine. (Rejecting wine seems more based on fanatical puritanism and asceticism, not compassion or non-violence.) According to Flavius Josephus, who during the Jewish uprising switched sides and then became the principal propagandist of the Flavian emperors (Messiah Vespasian the God, and Son of God Titus) , John did indeed eat honey and/or honeycomb (which modern vegans eschew).
    Still, here we have dissonance with the literary-gospel Jesus who is depicted, in contrast with John, as accused of being a glutton and drunkard. And lots of wine and fish (whether actually or symbolically) are consumed in the gospels.
    The synoptic gospels reflect the influence of Paul, who even before Josephus had switched sides and became an instrument of the Romans. Paul abrogated the Jewish Torah in order to more easily convert the “God-fearing” Gentiles, without requiring them to defy Roman law (in contrast to strict Zealot Messianists). (One can wonder if Paul or Josephus, or both, served as the literary model for the gospels’ Judas Iscariot, who betrays the Jewish Messiah ultimately into the hands of the Romans.)
    John’s gospel reflects the influence of a Hebrew Jerusalem Temple priest, the unnamed Beloved Disciple. So, in the wake of the Temple being demolished by Rome, the author (reflecting the views of the Beloved Disciple), depicts Jesus as replacing the old Temple priesthood with its animal sacrifices with a new priesthood that changes water into wine and sacrifices bread and wine as his own flesh and blood (and also eats fish to prove he is indeed flesh-and-blood.)
    The Temple had been destroyed, but the Messiah did not arrive — or return — to defeat the Romans and restore the Temple and Kingdom of Israel. Instead, “the Paraclete” came and “reminded” the disillusioned remnant that the Messiah had previously come (and gone back to the Father) and what he taught. the Messiah was the Eternal King and High Priest who, while he “dwelt among us”, instituted a new priesthood centered on the ritual symbolic sacrifice of his own flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine. The surviving Ebionites (who did not die at the hands of the Roman army, but had fled Jerusalem and the Empire before it was too late) of course rejected any such resurrection of blood sacrifice, even if only symbolically.
    In the end, the Ebionites might more closely resemble the “Hare Krishna” Vaishnavas who do not consume meat and wine (and other foods that are not sattvic or peaceful) … but do eat honey and milk products that do not entail the harming or killing animals.

    Reply
    1. Keith Akers Post author

      Indeed. I am working at this from two directions, “what is veganism?” and “what did Jesus practice?” The ancient Roman world didn’t have a well-defined concept of “vegan” or anything similar. For that, we need to go to the East and to the idea of “ahimsa.”

      The important thing about veganism is compassion, not purity, and that compassion be extended to animals. It’s about not harming sentient creatures. It’s clear to me that Jesus accepted this practice, to the extent of dying for his objections to animal sacrifice. I rather doubt that Jesus or his first followers ate dairy products. Without refrigeration, milk would quickly perish, and cheese would have been expensive and labor-intensive, possibly more expensive even than meat. So “the poor” would haven’t even been tempted to debate whether the cows were well-treated. The main “temptation” to accept violence against animals would have been at festival time, and we know what Jesus thought about that.

      John the Baptist probably ate honey. Even here, though, we are dealing with fragments of things written down 2000 years ago and endlessly interpreted and edited. Honey (currently a “no-no” for mainstream veganism) has historically been ambiguous for vegans. As recently as 2005 a prominent vegan wrote that “honey is vegan” and suggested that vegans drop this issue. The main concern raised by this writer was inconsistency; if we are going to make an issue out of insects, then logically we should be against any non-organic produce. Vastly more insects are killed by pesticides than in the honey industry. Yet almost no vegans would say that fruits and vegetables not grown organically are therefore “not vegan.” And if you do, then even “organic” produce probably uses cow manure from factory-farmed animals, so how far do we want to take this?

      And these dilemmas can be multiplied endlessly. What do you do if aging beloved grandmother (who knows you are vegan) puts in an ingredient that has a minute amount of whey? Yes, I know, a lot of purists would insist that you should refuse this dish and give your grandmother a lecture on the suffering of dairy cows, but I’m willing to bet that most vegans would give this a pass under the “possible and practicable” clause. I don’t know the precise dilemmas that Jesus or his early followers faced, but I see enough evidence to believe that Jesus strove to be consistently compassionate to all sentient creatures, even his enemies.

      Reply
    2. Chris

      Interestingly though, the term “honey” in Biblical times could have referred to any sticky, sweet substance. Sap, syrup, dates, paste, etc. Especially in the reference of “wild honey” without any specific referent to bees it could even have very well been the sweet paste from the carob/locust beans.

      Reply
  3. Drew Hensley

    I have often thought that the feeding of thousands with fish could have been an attempt to counter the tradition that Jesus did not eat fish. I’m more into the great NT Wright than Jesus Seminar and so have no problems believing the story is historical. He did multiply something; he could do that if he wanted to just as I believe he could have unshackled himself from that dagger crucifix. If it really was fish (I’m skeptical) then perhaps it should be understood that Jesus was at the moment more concerned with the well being of the crowd than he was about the public display of flesh eating. It was an act of compassion. As for wine, I’m not sure what to think here. It’s hard for me to believe they made up an alcoholic Son of God or that the Son of God really was a very heavy drinker? Too weird. Perhaps no set of traditions about Jesus is totally historical; maybe we can’t really pigeon hole him – which seems to be the stated position of seminarians when issues like this come up.

    Reply
    1. Keith Akers Post author

      The reason that the traditions are so contradictory is because the original sources are contradictory. The movement was already split when the gospels were written. The writers and editors combined these traditions into a single narrative, sometimes rejecting one in favor of the other, sometimes combining them into a single narrative. You can construct almost any picture of Jesus you want by picking and choosing: for or against the temple, for or against the law, for or against divine Sonship, etc. Any consistent narrative is going to be arbitrary and subjective. The way to understand Jesus is not to reject these contradictions but to embrace them: come face to face with the original controversies in the early church. That leads you to the letters of Paul and the Ebionites.

      In the case of the fish stories, as I have said on many other occasions, there are many other contradictory accounts in the early church fathers, most of which do not feature fish. How do you explain these?

      From the Ebionite point of view, wine implies reckless behavior and lack of judgment. But the result of “lack of judgment” is going to be, at best, unthinking and conventional morality, which is really conventional immorality: killing animals, killing people, and exploiting the poor. At worst, this lack of judgment will be no morality at all. It’s much easier for demons to possess you if you’re already drunk and don’t know what you’re doing in the first place.

      Reply
      1. Drew Hensley

        Yes I think the resurrection got everybody thinking and doing very creative theology to explain who this man was and what his resurrection meant. But if he didn’t resurrect and wasn’t divine then discussion about what ate or didn’t eat and why amounts to very little to me. He would just be the product of human imagination and no more significant than Plato or Buddha as far as I’m concerned.

        Reply
  4. Max

    The Book “Forgotten Origins: The Lost Jewish History of Jesus and Early Christianity” is written by a rabbi who accepts Ezra’s version of the Torah, and has little in common with “Disciples” and “The Lost Religion of Jesus.”

    Akers, clarifies extensively in the book “Disciples,” that the Christian Jews “Nazarenes” did NOT ACCEPT The Torah (given by Ezra), but an older and pure Torah, which James Tabor calls the pure Torah of Moses (not of Ezrah). https://pages.uncc.edu/james-tabor/ancient-judaism/nazarenes-and-ebionites/

    Ezra’s Torah speaks of sacrifices, and JESUS ​​CAME TO ABOLISH SACRIFICES, as the prophet Jeremiah 7: 21-22 said in which God NEVER commanded to make ANY SACRIFICE OR HOLOCAUST when he led the Hebrew people out of Egypt.

    (“I have come to abolish sacrifices and if you do not stop sacrificing the wrath will not cease from you, Epiphanius, Pan. 30.16.5”)

    Here is a problem, that Judaism and Christianity were transformed over time into BUTTERFUL religions. God extremely hates BUTCHERY AND SACRIFICES.

    That is why the Saints “Nazarenes” considered “fictions” all those Babylonian and Canaanite (demonic) customs.

    “The Nasaraeans – they were Jews by nationality – originally from Gileaditis, Bashanitis and the Transjordon … They acknowledged Moses and believed that he had received laws – not this law, however, but some other. And so, they were Jews who kept all the Jewish observances, but they would not offer sacrifice or eat meat. They considered it unlawful to eat meat or make sacrifices with it. They claim that these Books are fictions, and that none of these customs were instituted by the fathers. This was the difference between the Nasaraeans and the others “, Epiphanius’ “Panarion” 1:18

    The “Disciples” book is a true literary beauty, with a few small but significant objections:
    1. Jesus performed miracles and there is supernatural life (he was not a vegan, Marxist philosopher), he performed miracles like those performed by Padre Pio of Pietrelcina or those seen in Garabandal.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6NM0DZZ0b0&t=1712s
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4__CcFNieE

    2. The Ebionites believed in the ANGELIC conception of JESUS.
    “When Christ wished to come upon the earth to men, the good Father summoned a mighty power in heaven, which was called Michael, and entrusted Christ to the care thereof. And the power came into the world and was called Mary, and Christ was in her womb seven months “(Cyril of Jerusalem, Discourse on Mary Theotokos 12)

    3. Jesus rose from the dead.
    “And when the Lord had given the linen cloth to the servant of the priest, he went to James and appeared to him. For James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he had drunk the cup of the Lord until he should see him risen from among them that sleep. And shortly thereafter the Lord said: Bring a table and bread! And immediately it is added: He took the bread, blessed it and brake it and gave it to James the Just and said to him: My brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of man is risen from among them that sleep “(Jerome, De viris illustribus 2).

    Richard Elliot Friedman explains Torah assembling in “The bible with sources revealed”

    Anyway I love the book “Disciples”.

    Reply
      1. Allison

        I am a totally new vegan 4 months, I stopped eating animal products in the matter of a 3 second decision after educating myself and listening to the Vindication of Diet. That was what connected everything full circle for me in a physical and spiritual way. Reading through issac newtons breakdown of Revelation and Daniel was eye opening, and learning just how many important figures in history who have become vegetarian or vegan is incredible!! Ignorance is the pandemic plaguing our world. If a person should look to seek the question at hand backwards, he would find the answer. God bless you for creating this site!!

        Reply

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