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Jesus and the early Christians
Was Christ a Vegetarian?

by Ted Altar

The following arguments are to be found, for the most part, in Keith Akers' very useful, A Vegetarian Sourcebook, 1989. Another sourcebook I would also highly recommend for its scholarship is Lewis Regenstein's Replenish the Earth: The History of Organized Religion's Treatment of Animals and Nature--Including the Bible's Message of Conservation and Kindness Toward Animals, 1991.

"I require mercy, not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13 & 12:7)

This is a significant message when we remember that in the context in which this was said meat eating was commonly considered part of these sacrifices. Sacrificial offerings often entailed meat consumption and a strict reading of Leviticus 17: implies that, indeed, all meat consumption necessitated a sacrifice. Also, the noted confrontation of Jesus in the Temple suggests that he was not at all pleased by the desecration of the Temple by the money changers AND by "those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons" (John 2:14-15) since these animals were being sold for sacrifice before being eaten.

No Unequivocal Biblical Reference to Christ Eating or Buying Meat

Consider the verse where it is said that Jesus' disciples "were gone away unto the city to buy meat" (John 4:8). This translation from the King James version has been misunderstood as meaning literally "meat". In fact, the Greek word for "meat" from which the James translation based its choice for this word, simply meant nutrition in the generic sense. Hence, the Revised Standard Version now simply translates this same passage as "his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food".

Regenstein notes that nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus depicted as eating meat and "if the Last Supper was a Passover meal -- as many believe -- there is, interestingly, no mention of the traditional lamb dish".

Did Christ at Least Eat Fish? (e.g., Luke 24:43)

Note that on the two occasions where he is said to have eaten fish, these were after his death and resurrection. Also, we should maybe keep in mind that fish was a well known mystical symbol among these early Christians. The Greek word for fish (Ichthys) was used as an acronym whose initials in Greek stood for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior". Given how the early Christians employed the term, there is therefore good historical evidence for the argument that all of the "fish stories" that managed to get into the gospels were intended to be taken symbolically rather than literally.

Biblical Breaks and Contradictions

We should not forget that the Bible is not complete and its many inconsistencies require thoughtful interpretation. For instance, we have the contradiction between Genesis 1:29-30 with Genesis 9:2-3. Some scholars interpret the first prescription for vegetarianism as the preferred diet, and suggest that it was only after God became grievously disappointed with human sin and flooded the earth did the second provision become permitted, and not without qualification (and maybe only as an expedient for the situation). To take another example, the New Testament makes repeated attacks on meat offered to pagan idols (Acts 15:20; Revelation 2:14), but Paul gives assurances that eating such flesh is all right if no one is offended (Corinthians 10:14-33). Paul, then, would seem to be contradicting Christ.

Examples of Early Christians

Not a few Christian scholars have concluded vegetarianism to be the more consistent ethic with respect to the spirit of Christ's teachings. For example, we have the Ebionites, Athanasius, and Arius. Of the early church fathers we have Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Heronymus, Boniface, St. Jerome, and John Chrysostom. Clement wrote, "It is far better to be happy than to have your bodies act as graveyards for animals. Accordingly, the apostle Matthew partook of seeds, nuts and vegetables, without flesh". One of the earliest Christian documents is the `Clementine Homiles', a second-century work purportedly based on the teachings of St. Peter. Homily XII states, "The unnatural eating of flesh meats is as polluting as the heathen worship of devils, with its sacrifices and its impure feasts, through participation in it a man becomes a fellow eater with devils". Many of the monasteries both in ancient times to the present practiced vegetarianism. For instance, Basilius the Great's order, Boniface's order, Trappists monks, etc. Also, we have the examples provided by the stories around some saints like Hubertus, Aegidius and Francis of Assisi.

Indirect Historical Evidence

Knowledge about how the Essenes, the Nazoreans and Ebionites lived suggests that Christ was probably a vegetarian. The Essenes were Jews who were remarkably similar to the early Christians as evinced in their deemphasis upon property and wealth, their communalism and in their rejection of animal sacrifices. The first Christians were known as the Nazoreans (not to be confused with Nazarenes), and the Ebionites were a direct offshoot from them. All three groups were vegetarian which is suggestive of the central role such a practice once played in Early Christianity.

Paul's need to constantly deal with these vegetarians is also evidence of how prevalent they were and not a few fellow Christians, it would seem, took issue with Paul. Paul, if he is consistent with his words, would have been vegetarian (Corinthians 8:13), notwithstanding his opposition to the Ebionites. According to Clement of Alexandria, Matthew was a vegetarian. Clementine `Homiles' and `Recognitions' claim that Peter was also a vegetarian. Both Hegisuppus and Augustin testify that the first head of the church in Jerusalem after the death of Christ, namely Christ's brother James the Just, was a vegetarian and raised as one! If Jesus's parents raised James as vegetarian then it would be likely that Jesus was also so raised.

Conclusion

Given the above points, it is reasonable to believe that vegetarianism would be consistent with, if not mandated by, the spirit of early Christianity, a spirit that advocated kindness, mercy, non-violence and showed disdain towards wealth and extravagance. Meat eating would hardly have been considered the way of the humility, non-extravagance and love for all of God's creation. Hence, the orthodox early church father, Christian Hieronymous, could not but be compelled to conclude:

The eating of animal meat was unknown up to the big flood, but since the flood they have pushed the strings and stinking juices of animal meat into our mouths, just as they threw quails in front of the grumbling sensual people in the desert. Jesus Christ, who appeared when the time had been fulfilled, has again joined the end with the beginning, so that it is no longer allowed for us to eat animal meat.

Postscript: What Happened After Christ?

Maybe an even more important question than that of whether or not Christ was a vegetarian, was why Christianity later abandoned its vegetarian roots. Steven Rosen in his book, Food for the Spirit, 1987, argues:

The early Christian fathers adhered to a meatless regime...many early Christian groups supported the meatless way of life. In fact, the writings of the early Church indicate that meat eating was not officially allowed until the 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine decided that his version of Christianity would be the version for everyone. A meat eating interpretation of the Bible became the official creed of the Roman Empire, and vegetarian Christians had to practice in secret or risk being put to death for heresy. It is said that Constantine used to pour molten lead down the their throats if they were captured.

Ironic indeed that pagan Rome here would have this longstanding influence upon Christianity.

In any case, I think we can all be thankful that it is a lot easier today to be a vegetarian. The occasional rudeness and social disapproval a vegetarian must tolerate is a pretty small inconvenience in comparison to Constantine's way of dealing with vegetarians.

To cite another sad example: in southern France a group of Albigensian vegetarians (a Cartharist religious group) were put to death by hanging in 1052 because they refused to kill a chicken!

[While I'm not a Christian myself, I do find these questions interesting and even important. There is a large body of good impartial scholarship on this issue that is worth reading. Remember, many Christian groups from the time of Christ have practiced vegetarianism. The Seventh Day Adventist maybe being the most well known in the U.S. And even within other mainstream Christian groups, and even Jewish groups, there exists among them all at least some minority opinion held by respected members who would forward the merits of vegetarianism being the more consistent practice with their principles. You might also take a look at Andrew Linzey's book, Christianity and the Rights of Animals. -- Ted]