A Case for Christian Vegetarianism

For approximately its first 300 years, Christianity was pacifistic and largely vegetarian.  Some of the earliest Jewish members of the Jesus movement were consistently vegetarian.  Many Gentile converts to Christianity were also vegetarian. New Testament text saying that John the Baptizer ate “locusts and wild honey” is likely a mistranslation wherein “locust” ought to be phrased as “carobs”. In no Gospel account of the Last Supper is the Passover lamb mentioned; rather, the references are to a meal chiefly consisting of bread and wine, albeit possibly taking place in or near Passover time. Some of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen, but it must be recalled that this was only a temporary occupation, since once they had met Jesus, he then promised to make them “fishers of men”, adn they abandoned their former occupations to become “career disciples”. Additionally, the ancients classified animals, and therefore edible animals, quite differently than do we moderns; it is even possible that fish were not considered animals in the same way that mammals were so considered.

After Jesus’ death, leadership of the Jerusalem disciples fell to Jesus’ brother Yakov or James. It was said of James that he was devout, zealous for the Jewish Law … and vegetarian. One of the very earliest and important Jewish-Christian movements, the Ebionites, were also strict vegetarians, and there is evidence that their roots reached back into “apostolic times” and that their practice was a continuation of an original vegetarianism held by the original Jesus sect.

Moreover, without sentimentality or indulgence in modern concerns about animal rights, a case can be made that Jesus himself was a vegetarian whose prime objection to the priesthood was its carrying out of animal sacrifice; and that his “cleansing” of the Temple was an ancient example of animal liberation.

Typically, the lesson drawn from Jesus’ disruption of Temple commerce has to do with his outrage at “the moneychangers” who were stationed in the Temple precincts. However, this makes little sense, because the moneychangers were legitimate officials whose purpose was to assist Jews from all over the Empire to buy sacrificial animals at the Temple (rather than having to drag them all the way to Jerusalem from their respective points of origin).

Moreover, Luke’s Gospel even omits mention of the moneychangers. It appears therefore, that they were only a part of a much larger problem that loomed in Jesus’ mind: animal sacrifice itself. Nor was this idea novel or unique to Jesus. All through the Hebrew Bible, there is  a strand of anti-Temple/anti-animal sacrifice sentiment, centered around an apparent outrage at flesh and blood sacrifice. The Bible preserves both of these pro-and-anti-sacrifice themes.

Apparently Jesus was born into, and/or chose to adhere to, the ethics of the anti-sacrifice party or parties. And this is probably why at his final meal, Jesus offered wine instead of animal blood, and bread instead of animal flesh. From now on, Jesus indicated, bread and wine would serve as surrogates for animal sacrifice in Jewish conventicles that followed Jesus’ ethical teachings.            One Ebionite text has Jesus saying, “I have come to abolish the sacrifices, and until you do abolish them, my wrath will not cease from you”. In this, Jesus was reaffirming the ancient anti-sacrificial stance; and in the Last Supper, Jesus was attempting to inaugurate a non-bloody and therefore “new” covenant. This anti-priestly stance, coupled with his driving animals out of the Temple precincts, is one of the chief elements that led to Jesus’ execution:

And the scribes and chief priests heard of it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people were astonished at his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18)

For those interested in vegetarianism as applied to and practiced by Jesus and the earliest Christians, there follows a short list of pertinent sources.







2 thoughts on “A Case for Christian Vegetarianism

  1. Anonymous

    What a good read, very interesting 🙂 I had no idea there was an ancient vegetarian christian movement.

  2. rennyo01 Post author

    Hey, you … thanks for stopping by and for your nice comment. You run a wonderful blog yourself 🙂

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