The Early Christian Church
(from the introduction to Clement of Alexandria in the 1st edition, 1883)
The attitude of the first great Christian writers and apologists in regard to total abstinence was somewhat peculiar. Trained in the school of Plato, in the later development of neo-platonism, their strongest convictions and their personal sympathies were, naturally, anti-kreophagistic. The traditions too, of the earliest period in the history of Christianity coincided with their pre-Christian convictions, since the immediate and accredited representatives of the Founder of the new religion, who presided over the first Christian society, were commonly held to have been, equally with their predecessors and contemporaries the Essenes, strict abstinents from flesh-eating. (1)
Moreover, the very numerous party in the Church - the most diametrically opposed in other respects to the Jewish or Ebionite Christians - the Gnostics or philosophical Christians, "the most polite, the most learned, and the most wealthy of the Christian name," for the most part agreed with their rivals for orthodox supremacy in aversion from flesh, and, as it seems, for nearly the same reason - a belief in the essential and inherent evil of matter, a persuasion, it may be said, however unscientific, not unnatural, perhaps, in any age, and certainly not surprising in an age especially characterised by the greatestmaterialism, selfishness, and cruelty. But the creed of the Christian church, which eventually became the prevailing and ruling dogma, like that of the English Church at the Revolution of the sixteenth century, was a compromise - a compromise between the two opposite parties of those who received and those who rejected the old Jewish revelation.
On the one hand Christianity, in its later and more developed form, had insensibly cast off the rigid formalism and exclusiveness of Mosaism, and, on the other, had stamped with the brand of heresy the Greek infusion of philosophy and liberalism. Unfortunately, unable clearly to distinguish between the true and the false - between accidental and fanciful and the permanent and real - timidly cautious of approving anything which seemed connected with heresy - the leaders of the dominant body were prone to seek refuge in a middle course, in regard to the question of flesh-eating, scarcely consistent with strict logic or strict reason. While advocating abstinence as the highest spiritual exercise or aspiration, they seem to have been unduly anxious to disclaim any motives other than ascetic - to disclaim, in fine, humanitarian or "secular" reason, such as that of the Pythagoreans.
Such was the feeling apparently, of the later orthodox church, at least in the West. While, however, we thus find, occasionally, a certain constraint and even contradiction in the theory of the first great teachers of the Church, the practice was much more consistent. That, in fact, during the first three or four centuries the most esteemed of the Christian heroes and saints were not only non-flesh-eaters but Vegetarians of the extremest kind (far surpassing, if we give any credit to the accounts we have of them, the most frugal of modern abstainers) is well known to everyone at all acquainted with ecclesiastical and, especially, eremitical history - and it is unnecessary to further insist upon a nototious fact. (2)
- In the Clementine Homilies, which had a great authority and reputation in the earlier times of Christianity, St. Peter is represented, in describing his way of living to Clement of Rome, as professing the strictest Vegetarianism. "I live," he declares, "upon bread and olives only, with the addition, rarely, of kitchen herbs" (Greek xii. 6.) Clement of Alexandria (Pœdagogus ii. 1) assures us that "Matthew the apostle lived upon seeds, and hard shelled fruits, and other vegetables, without touching flesh;" while Hegesippus, the historian of the Church (as quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical Hist. ii. 2, 3) asserts of St. James that "he never ate any animal food" - [Greek] : an assertion repeated by St. Augustine (Ad. Faust, xxii. 3) who states that James, the brother of the Lord, lived upon seeds and vegetables, never tasting flesh or wine" (Jacobus, frater Domini, seminibus et oleribus usus est, non carne nee vine). The connexion of the beginnings of Christianity with the sublime and simple tenets of the Essenes, whose communistic and abstinent principles were strikingly coincident with those of the earliest Christians, is at once one of the most interesting and one of the most obscure phenomena in its nascent history. The Essenes, "the sober thinkers," as their assumed name implies, seem to have been to the more noisy and ostentatious Jewish sects, what the Pythagoreans were to the other Greek schools of philosophy - practical moralists rather than mere talkers and theorisers. They first appear in Jewish history in the first century B.C. Their communities were settled in the recesses of the Jordan valley, yet their members were sometimes found in the towns and villages. Like the Pythagoreans, they extorted respect even from the worldly and self-seeking religionists and politicians of the capital. See Josephus (Antiquities xiii and xviii.), and Philo, who speak in the highest terms of admiration of the simplicity of their life and the purity of their morality. Dean Stanley (Lectures on the Jewish Church, vol. iii) regards St. John the Baptist as Essenian in his substitution of "reformation of life" for "the sanguinary, costly gifts of the sacrificial slaughter-house."
- It is a curious and remarkable inconsistency, we may here observe, that the modern ardent admirers of the Fathers and Saints of the Church, while professing unbounded respect for their doctrines, for the most part ignore the one of their practices at once the most ancient, the most highly respected, and the most universal. Quod semper, quod unbique, &c., the favourite maxim of St. Augustine and the orthodox church, is, in htis case, "more honoured in the breach than in the observance." Partial and periodical Abstinence, it is scarcely necessary to add, however consecrated by later ecclesiasticism, is sufficiently remote from the daily frugal living of a St. James, a St. Anthony or a St. Chrysostom.
Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index