Each month, the Compassion Consortium offers an essay on a topic related to our tenets. These are authored by the Compassion Consortium Spiritual Team as well as guest writers.
Was Jesus Vegetarian?
by William Melton
In addition to being a Main Street Vegan Academy graduate and the husband of Victoria Moran (which got me a huge tuition discount for the Academy), I recently exchanged my lawyer’s robe for a clerical collar. I am a ministerial student at the OneSpirit Interfaith Seminary, and will be ordained as a minister in spring 2021. In my first year’s training, I had the opportunity to study many different religions. My primary focus has been an examination of these from the standpoint of their teachings regarding compassion towards non-human animals, as compared to the application of these in real-world practice. Upon my ordination, my intention is to use this education to advocate as an Interfaith Minister for the extension of compassion to all living beings, as well as to address related initiatives, such as social justice, animal liberation, and human and planetary health.
Although I do not personally identify with any specific religion, I have developed a strong interest in early Christianity in general (i.e., through the 4th century CE) and in Jesus in particular. This has led me to the question “Was Jesus a vegetarian?” Note that I use the term “vegetarian” because neither the word “vegan” nor the concept of veganism as a distinct lifestyle existed at that time.
I am sure that it does not surprise you that this question has been asked before, but you may be a bit surprised that there is still no definitive answer, despite intensive research on this issue. Very knowledgeable, multi-lingual vegan scholars, including Keith Akers, Norm Phelps, Rynn Berry, and Rev. Andrew Lindzey, DDiv) have explored this question in depth, and I have had the good fortune to read many of their books on this subject.
Their research and conclusions have focused largely on the following areas:
Vegetarian Communities and Sects
Numerous communities and sects that were vegetarian for ethical and religious reasons existed in Jesus’ day in the region where he lived. These included the Essenes, Nazoreans, and Ebionites. Jesus is known to have been familiar with all three. The Essenes existed prior to the time of Jesus and up until, approximately, 70 CE, when the Second Temple was destroyed. Many historians conclude that John the Baptist, and his mother, the sister of Jesus’ mother, Mary, were Essenes; and some writers believe that Mary and Joseph were members of the sect, as well. The Nazoreans existed at roughly the same time. The Ebionites appeared in the latter years of Jesus’ life and were around until approximately 400 CE. James (brother or cousin of Jesus), and the disciples Peter and Matthew, as well as other relatives of Jesus are believed to have been Ebionites.
These communities had very similar beliefs: a simple lifestyle, pacifiism, vegetarianism and opposition to the animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple. Consequently, some authorities believe that the three groups were actually one in the same and simply reflected name changes over time. For example, both the Nazoreans and Ebionites are referred to as Jewish Christians, followers of Jesus and his teachings who saw themselves as observant Jews, as well.
Family and Friends
In addition, Jesus was personally connected to vegetarian family members and companions. As mentioned above, these are likely to have included John the Baptist (who ate wild honey and locust pods from the carob tree, not “locusts”), James, Peter, Matthew, Thomas and, according to some sources, several other apostles, as well. The above, which is largely derived from reliable contemporaneous sources described below, begs the question: If Jesus’ family members, companions, followers, and the communities and sects he was close to were all vegetarians, how could he himself not be?
Although the Bible is not definitive on the issue of Jesus himself as a vegetarian, there were highly credible, proto-Orthodox (i.e., pre-Catholic) church fathers from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE who alluded to the Jewish Christians, particularly the Ebionites, as vegetarians. Early leaders wrote extensively about the Ebionite Gospel which expressly stated that Jesus was vegetarian. The proto-Orthodox considered this gospel heretical, however, which is likely the reason it no longer exists, but their writings included those of Origen and Clement of Alexandria, both of whom were vegetarians, as well as Epiphanius’ Panarion and the “pseudo Clement” Recognitions and Homilies (pseudo, meaning writings attributed to, but not actually written by, Clement — this is another Clement, from Rome, not Alexandria).
Analysis of the Bible on any subject is challenging at best. The predominating scholarly view is that there were many contributors to the text over almost 1,000 years; most of them did not personally know the events or people they were writing about; and the majority wrote several hundred years (at least) after the event in question happened or person discussed was alive. In addition, copies of these documents had to be manually produced and this resulted in many accidental errors. On top of all this, there were also many intentional revisions for reasons of doctrine, rivalry, and political and theological agendas, many of which significantly altered the intended meaning. And very few of the original texts are still in existence.
Nevertheless, vegan scholars have painstakingly and enthusiastically analyzed and dissected every verse in the New Testament that refer to what Jesus ate and what he said about animals, even to the point of going back to the earliest available manuscripts in the original Greek. These experts have come to various conclusions, but two in particular are of note:
They contend that Jesus did not, in fact, feed “the multitudes” with a few fish on the two occasions mentioned in the Gospels. It was only bread. This conclusion is largely based on (1) there is no mention of fishes in other references to these events, Biblical or historical, and (2) the Greek word that comes to us in English as “little fishes” may well be more accurately translated as “relish,” something like hummus or baba ganoush.
Some have further ascertained that Jesus may not have asked for and eaten broiled fish after his resurrection to prove that he existed physically instead of only spiritually. This conclusion is based, first, on the fact that this event, as described in the Gospel of Luke, is not mentioned in the other Gospels. In addition, some conclude that this text was added later to the original in an effort to refute the position taken by the Gnostic philosopher, Marcion, that Jesus was never present on earth in physical form, either before or after his resurrection, but instead that his physical body appeared only as an apparition.
And the Answer Is …
So, was Jesus a vegetarian or not? Each of the vegan scholars who has researched this question has come to their own conclusion ranging from: “There is no reason to believe that he was” to … “He might have been” to … “He probably was” to … “He definitely was.” Therefore, it would seem that academic agreement still does not exist among those in the best position to know.
My view on this question is a little different. I accept that there is compelling evidence that Jesus may have been a vegetarian, but the truth is, I personally don’t care whether he was or was not, because:
I believe that, to the extent one follows any religion or teaching, it begs to be interpreted as living and dynamic in relation to the circumstances of today’s world.
When Jesus lived, the earth’s environment was not on the verge of collapse, and 3 billion land and aquatic animals were not being tortured and cruelly slaughtered every day for human food, fashion and “fun.”
If Jesus were alive today, I am 100% certain, based on his teachings of mercy and love, he would be a vegan.
That’s good enough for me.
Pagels, Elaine, PhD: The Gnostic Gospels
Roberts, Holly, MD: Vegetarian Christian Saints: Mystics, Ascetics & Monks