Was Jesus a vegetarian? According to a recent article appearing in the Huffington Post, he sure was.
Kamran Pasha, the article’s author, writes from a Muslim perspective. I admit I admire his willingness to admit his own bias, which makes him “more likely to question the official Church stance on Christ’s life and teachings than those who accept the Christian vision. I read early Church histories with a different attitude than a believing Christian would, and I am more likely to give credence to historical accounts that are today deemed heretical by the Church.”
As much as I respect such honesty, Mr. Pasha never moves beyond the boundaries of his own bias. Consequently, he is overly reliant on critical scholarship that does not – in the present author’s view – accurately address the life of Christ.
The suggestion that Jesus was a vegetarian seems a minor detail. But the arrival at this conclusion highlights numerous charges against the Christian faith that are worthy of attention.
(1) ALTERNATIVE CHRISTIANITIES?
Recent scholarship has popularized the idea of “alternative Christianities” (cf. Bart Ehrman). The claim is that in the early days of the church, there were many competing versions of Christianity. Pasha characterizes the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christianity as one of competition: “It was as if the two movements were actually competing religions rather than branches of the same faith.”
He supports this (as do many critical scholars) with the Galatian problem. In Galatians 2, Peter and Paul come into sharp disagreement over the issue of obedience to the law. Pasha and others see this incident as representative of the existence of alternative Christianities that existed in the first century.
But this is simply not the case. In the same Galatian letter (in the same chapter), Paul makes clear that though the same message was being taken to the Jews and Gentiles, having been commissioned by the same God (Galatians 2:6-10). The two groups were in agreement – this was not a cause for dispute.
Further, the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) established the potential for Gentile converts to be welcomed into the same Christian fellowship as Jewish converts. And, to the Church at Ephesus he speaks of the unification of the two groups, who were now “brought near” and made “fellow citizens” as a result of the gospel (Ephesians 2:11-22).
(2) DID JESUS SAY THAT?
I have little reason to detail the history of the Ebionite movement, save to address Pasha’s claim about the unreliability of the gospels on the basis of language: “There is already a language barrier that separates us from the historical Jesus. We do not today possess authentic gospels in Aramaic or Hebrew, and so we can never know for sure if Christ’s words were properly translated into Greek, and the nuances and meanings of his mother tongue are lost to history.”
The question he raises is the question of ipsissima verba (the “exact words”) versus ipsissima vox (the “exact voice” of Jesus). What Pasha claims is that sense Jesus spoke Aramaic, and the gospels are written in Koine Greek, the truth of Christ’s ministry cannot be known accurately.
But this is not true. Granted, we may not have exact recordings of Christ’s words. Yet consider your local news outlets: a reported might easily report that “Today the president said we’re pulling troops from Iraq.” The President may never have said those exact words (ipsissima verba), yet the report may still reflect the meaning of the President’s words (ipsissima vox). Consequently, it may be possible to not have Jesus’ exact words recorded without sacrificing the content of His message. The strong agreement across gospel narratives (as well as their early date) lends support to the idea that the four gospels accurately reflect Christ’s teaching.
Pasha claims that the Ebionites had a fuller understanding by possessing Aramaic versions of the gospels, and that the Ebionites were vegetarian. I simply counter that the overwhelming extant manuscript evidence is Greek and is reliable. The dietary preferences of the Ebionites makes little difference.
(3) CHRIST IN THE TEMPLE
Finally, Pasha suggests that Christ’s crucifixion reflects His commitment to animal rights. Specifically, Pasha suggests that the temple cleansing reflected Jesus’ desire to liberate the animals from the temple courts, and that ultimately this was what precipitated His crucifixion.
But this neglects the theological implications of the temple cleansing incident. In Zechariah 14:21 it is recorded that when the Messiah comes there will be no “…Canaanite in the house of the LORD Almighty.” The Hebrew word for Canaanite is the same as the word for “merchant.” Therefore, if Christ purges the temple of “merchants,” this is a proclamation that the Messiah has arrived. The priests knew this: this is why the cleansing incident in John 2 precipitates questions from Nicodemus in John 3.
Ultimately, Jesus was crucified for a reference to Daniel 7, where He claims to be the one coming in the clouds. This was outright blasphemy to the Sanhedrin, who at that point tore their clothes and cried for crucifixion. Jesus’ crucifixion was motivated by theology, not animal rights.
(4) JESUS ATE MEAT
Finally, there is the fact that the gospels portray eating meat. The most explicit reference is in Luke 24:43 where He eats fish in front of His disciples. Granted, there is a textual issue where a “honeycomb” may also be in view here. But Bart Ehrman, in his textual commentary suggests that “honeycomb” rather than “fish” is the addition. In the early church the honeycomb was often a part of Eucharistic worship.
Additionally, Jesus, as any Jew, would have participated in the Passover Seder where a lamb was traditionally consumed. While the text never explicitly states that a lamb was consumed in the upper room, it is difficult to imagine otherwise given Jesus’ strong Jewish heritage.
VEGETARIANISM AND CHRISTIANITY
Firstly, in the first century world the impovershed conditions would have made it difficult for the average Jewish family to afford meat (Luke’s account records Jesus’ parents sacrificing doves at the temple, indicative of their poverty). Suggestions of vegetarianism, at least in Jesus’ context, ignores the salient cultural conditions.
Secondly, Paul does discuss the issue in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. But here again the issue is theological rather than linked to animal rights. Meat was used as a sacrifice in pagan practice. Hence, Christian converts may have been apprehensive of their food’s religious associations and abstained to preserve their “weak” consciences.
How far vegetarianism reaches into early Christian history is a subject I’m not qualified to address. Pasha seems to offer some interesting examples, however this does not necessarily provide a link between Christ and His later followers.
Of course, I do not condemn those who are vegetarian or vegan. On the contrary, it can be a very healthy lifestyle, and some may also see this issue in terms of its moral dimensions. However to suggest that Jesus was a vegetarian is to take less than a complete view of the varied issues.
IT’S WHAT’S INSIDE THAT COUNTS
Jesus made clear that faith isn’t about a prescribed list of dietary restrictions:
”Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ” (Matthew 15:17-20)
When we set up a list of rules, vegetarianism or otherwise, we focus on behavior and neglect the heart. Christ came to change that. He came to redeem us from a life of behavioral modification. He came to show us the way back to the Father. My prayer is that at the cross you will find your way back home.