Was Jesus a Vegetarian?
By Keith Akers
For many vegetarians, Jesus’ message implies compassion toward all creation. How
can we justify the torture and slaughter of billions of animals each year for
food? And how can we tolerate such obvious cruelty in a religion whose founder
preached mercy and compassion? Yet most modern churches reject vegetarianism
with hardly a thought; vegetarianism is an idea which is at best tolerated, and
at worst condemned as heresy.
Was Jesus a vegetarian? This issue is too complex to be answered with just a few
Bible verses. In fact, it cannot be fully answered in a short article; my book,
Religion of Jesus, has a more complete answer. The New Testament takes
contradictory stands on this issue, sometimes seeming to condemn and sometimes
seeming to support vegetarianism. Jesus feeds bread and fish to the five
thousand (Mark 6:34-44) — seeming to approve of eating fish. But Jesus also
speaks of compassion toward animals (Matthew 12:10-12, Luke 12:6-7, 13:15-16) —
seeming to hint at vegetarianism. The same can be said of many other views in
the Bible as well; one can defend almost any point of view one wants with
appropriate Bible verses. But that leaves us with the question, where does the
I. Vegetarianism in Early Christianity
There were many vegetarians in early Christianity, both in the leadership and
among ordinary Christians. Augustine, while not vegetarian himself and while
vehemently arguing against the idea that Christians must be vegetarians,
nevertheless states that those Christians who "abstain both from flesh and from
wine" are "without number" (On the Morals of the Catholic Church 33). His
"heretical" Manichean opponents were entirely vegetarian. But the Christian
vegetarians to whom Augustine is referring are clearly orthodox, indicating a
widespread acceptance of vegetarianism both among heretics and the orthodox.
Many leaders of the early church were vegetarian. Eusebius says that James the
brother of Jesus was a vegetarian, and in fact was evidently raised as a
vegetarian (Ecclesiastical History 2.23). Why would Jesus’ parents have raised
James as a vegetarian, unless they were vegetarian themselves and raised Jesus
as a vegetarian as well? Eusebius also states (Proof of the Gospel 3.5) that all
the apostles abstained from meat and wine. Other famous early Christians who
were vegetarian, based on statements made by them or about them, included
Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Arnobius,
Tertullian, and Jerome.
II. The Controversy Over Vegetarianism
The letters of Paul give clear evidence of a controversy over vegetarianism.
Paul believes that it is not necessary to be a vegetarian in order to be a
"As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over
opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only
vegetables," says Paul (Romans 14:1-2). Paul counsels patience between the
meat-eaters and the vegetarians. But there is nothing wrong with eating meat as
such — "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on
the ground of conscience" (I Corinthians 10:25).
Paul won this battle in the early church; while many Christians were vegetarian,
most churches taught that it was not necessary to be vegetarian. However, some
early Christians, such as the Jewish Christians, rejected Paul; they were
vegetarian and thought that vegetarianism should be required of all Christians.
It is these Jewish Christians who were in conflict with Paul over the vegetarian
III. Who were the Jewish Christians?
For the Jewish Christians, Jesus did not come to found a new religion; his
message was about simple living and nonviolence. Jesus did not overturn the
Jewish law, but preached a return to the Jewish law (as he saw it) — a law which
commanded simple living and nonviolence. For the Jewish Christians, Jesus was a
prophet who was loyal to the law; but upon examining the Jewish law, Jesus
reached radical conclusions. The Jewish Christians therefore believed in simple
living, pacifism, and vegetarianism.
We know about the Jewish Christians — and among them, the Ebionites, the chief
Jewish Christian group — on the basis of early church documents. The most useful
of these are the
Clementine Homilies, the Recognitions of Clement (two Jewish Christian
writings) and the Panarion of Epiphanius (an attack on Jewish Christianity
which, however, gives insight into their beliefs).
The Jewish Christians called themselves "the poor" — the term "Ebionites" is
derived from a Hebrew word which means "the poor." They traced their poverty
back to the primitive Christian community described in Acts 4:32-35 — a
community which shares all of their possessions in common. Thus, although no one
owns any private property, because the community cares for everyone "there was
not a needy person among them" — just as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says
"You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24).
The Jewish Christians were also pacifists. The Recognitions speaks at several
points of opposition to war and killing (1.70-71, 2.36, 3.42), echoing the
statements of other early Christians, both Jewish and gentile, who were opposed
to war, as well as the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the peacemakers"
(Matthew 5:9), "Do not resist one who is evil" (Matthew 5:39), and "Love your
enemies" (Matthew 5:44).
The Jewish Christians were vegetarians. They opposed meat-eating and the
sacrifice of animals in the temple. There are frequent passages in both the
Homilies and Recognitions which attack animal sacrifice; the Homilies state that
God did not want animals killed at all (3.45), and condemns those who taste or
eat meat at all (7.4, 7.8). This opposition to animal sacrifice and support of
vegetarianism is one of the most distinctive features of Jewish Christianity —
mentioned by Epiphanius as well as in the Homilies and Recognitions.
Why did the Jewish Christians make such an issue over animal sacrifice? We must
remember that in ancient times the temple in Jerusalem was not like a modern
synagogue or church — it was the place where the Jews brought animal sacrifices,
and thus resembled a butcher shop or slaughterhouse more than a modern place of
worship. The priests in the temple were able to keep much of the meat from the
sacrificed animals and thus benefitted economically from this practice. For the
Ebionites, this was a religious sanction to kill animals, which had no place in
their religion. Jesus says (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7), "I require mercy, not
sacrifice," a saying which the Homilies and Recognitions cite as well. The
Ebionite gospel quoted Jesus as saying, "I have come to abolish the sacrifices,
and if you cease not from sacrificing, my wrath will not cease from you" (Panarion
One of the problems which the Jewish Christians had was that, since they
remained Jewish and therefore loyal to the law, they had to explain the passages
in the "Old Testament" (the Jewish scriptures) which seemed to justify
war-making and animal sacrifice. They argued that these commands were not truly
in the law given to Moses, but were added by scribes who came after Moses. So we
see that Jewish Christianity involved vegetarianism, but a lot more as well. It
was a truly radical viewpoint — which eventually became heretical both to
orthodox Judaism and to orthodox Christianity.
IV. The Confrontation in the Temple
The Jewish Christians are alone in early Christianity in placing heavy emphasis
on the rejection of animal sacrifice. Yet the historical Jesus was clearly
opposed to animal sacrifice, as we can see from one of the key events in Jesus’
life — the last week of his life, leading up to his crucifixion. According to
all of the gospels, Jesus went into the temple and disrupted the animal
"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 moneychangers and the seats of
those who sold pigeons. He said to them, "It is written: ‘my house shall be a
house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers." (Matthew 21:12-13;
parallels at Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17)
Who were the ones who bought and sold in the temple, and why were they selling
pigeons? The animals which are being sold are sacrificial animals, and it is
these dealers in animals whom Jesus is angry with. The primary practical effect
of this confrontation was to disrupt the animal sacrifice business — chasing out
the animals to be sacrificed, or those who were selling them to be sacrificed.
"Cleansing the temple" was an act of animal liberation.
Jesus calls the temple a "den of robbers," an allusion to Jeremiah 7:11; but
this passage in Jeremiah follows only after Jeremiah describes murder, adultery,
and blatant idolatry (Jeremiah 7:9), and ends by denying that God ever required
sacrifices, anyway (7:22). If, of course, the animal sacrifice cult was a
fraud--as the Ebionites believed--then the extortion of animals from the
populace on religious pretenses was indeed literal robbery and a matter
considerably more serious than the figurative "robbery" involved in
The final result was that the Romans crucified Jesus. Pilate, the Roman
governor, would hardly have crucified someone just because of a Jewish
theological dispute. But if someone were causing a riot or disturbance in the
temple precincts, this demanded Roman action. It is much more plausible that
Jesus objected to the practice of animal sacrifice itself, and that his
disruption of the temple business during the volatile Passover week was the
immediate and most important cause of his death. It was this act, and its
interpretation as a threat to public order, that led immediately to Jesus’
V. The Jewish Christian understanding of Jesus
Why should we believe that the Jewish Christians had the best understanding of
Jesus? There are several reasons. First and most importantly, Jesus was a Jew.
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus nowhere indicates that
he is founding a new religion. When asked what we must do to gain salvation, he
replies, "If you would enter life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). The
commandments which Jesus says are the greatest are to love God and love your
neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). This is exactly how Jewish Christianity
saw Jesus: as building an ethic of compassion and sharing on the basis of the
Jewish law. Who would have the best understanding of Jesus? Would it not be
those of his own followers who, like Jesus, considered themselves Jews?
Secondly, Jesus and the primitive church were in a conflict with the temple
priests. The most certain piece of historical knowledge we have about Jesus is
that he was crucified, and he was undoubtedly killed after disrupting the animal
sacrifice business in the temple. Jesus wants the temple destroyed; the priests
in the temple want Jesus and the Jesus movement destroyed. Even after Jesus’
death, the priests keep up the struggle, hoping to either silence or kill the
apostles (Acts 4-7). Why would Jesus have risked his life for something not
essential to his message?
The Jewish Christians are virtually alone among early Christians in
understanding why Jesus died. Jewish Christianity describes Jesus as if this
attack on the temple was part of a deliberate plan. Jesus has come to abolish
the temple sacrifices (Recognitions 1.54) — thus explaining perfectly both his
own motivations and the motivations of those who sought to destroy him and his
Vegetarianism was abandoned because of the popularity of the letters of Paul
among early Christians. The early leadership of the church (James, Peter, and
John) was Jewish, but they quickly got into a divisive battle with Paul
(Galatians 1-2 and Romans 14). In the second century, the teachings of Paul
became increasingly popular among Christians. The Jewish Christians detested
Paul, considering him an apostate. But by the second century Jewish Christians
were already in the minority and eventually Paul’s letters were accepted as part
of the New Testament, masking the fact that in his day Paul was a highly
controversial figure. Since Paul said vegetarianism was optional, the church
followed his stand on this issue. Later editors of the New Testament further
distorted and confused Jesus’ views on animals.
Jesus believed in simple living and nonviolence, and felt that this was part of
the law of God. Jesus was undoubtedly vegetarian, since this was the original
teaching of Jewish Christianity. Jesus did not bring a new theology, but rather
a radical understanding of the law. For Jesus, the law commands nonviolence; we
are not to shed blood, whether the blood of humans in warfare or the blood of
animals in meat consumption or animal sacrifice. Jesus risked and gave his life
to disrupt the wicked and bloody animal sacrifices in the temple. But the
religion of Jesus has been lost from modern Christianity.
September 1, 2001 (revised at various times since then)