THE VEGETARIAN THEME IN CHRISTIAN TRADITION
MISASSUMPTIONS ABOUT JESUS AND CHRISTIANITY
Most Christians assume that Jesus ate fish and Passover lamb and therefore could not have been a vegetarian. Most feel that their religion does not place any limits on what animals they may kill and eat. Most believe that the Christianity of today is the same as the religion of Jesus’ original followers. Most assume that Jesus was a fundamentalist. I challenge all these assumptions.
OVERVIEW: THE CONNECTION BETWEEN JESUS AND MY THEME
My thesis is this: There was a Judeo-Christian “church” before Jesus, an Essene group from which Jesus got his values. That church lasted until the early 400s, when they were scattered by the newly Christian Roman emperors. They disappear from history, save one mention by a Moslem historian in the 800s. I refer to this group loosely as “Judeo-Christian,” although they did not call themselves “Christian,” at least not initially. They probably called their church a synagogue.
My thesis is that Jesus was one of a long line of those prophets, one of the greatest. His aim was the moral perfection of humanity. Sadly, his legacy was derailed. His memory and teachings were hijacked by the Romans and their religious allies, the new gentile Christians, particularly the Latin Christians, and transmogrified into a New Testament and a Creed that get his story all wrong, omit many of his most significant ideas, and introduce ideas he would have disagreed with, first and foremost, his deification. As I like to say, Jesus did not want to be worshipped; he wanted to be followed.
Legend has it that from Adam to Noah humankind sacrificed no animals and ate no meat, which I believe indicates that there were societies which were vegetarian or which had a vegetarian religious or class priesthood. (Genesis 1:30, 9:3.) Moses tried to return Israel to the vegetarianism of the matristic Eden but failed. (Exodus 16:15; Schwartz, Judaism and Vegetarianism, p. 6; Recognitions of Clement, 1:35 ff, Roberts and Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 8:87-88; Numbers 11:7, 18-34.)
Moses predicted that a prophet would come after him who would complete his work. (Deuteronomy 4:12, 36.) Jesus’ followers believed Jesus was that prophet (Acts 3:22) and that Jesus’ aim was to complete Moses’ work of returning the world to its Edenic peaceful state, as it was before the patriarchal invasions. Part of Moses’ work was to eliminate animal sacrifice from the Jewish religion. Jesus shared this goal and actually shut down the sacrificial system in the Jerusalem Temple for some short period of time. (John 2:14-16.) Jesus and his immediate circle of apostles were vegetarian, and so too was his Judeo-Christian church for 400 years until it was persecuted out of existence. That’s my theory.
OVERVIEW: WHAT WAS GREAT ABOUT JESUS?
Christians generally consider Jesus to have been great because he made the cosmic sacrifice—trading his life for our sins. However, the churches acknowledge he was great for a second reason—although, they rarely mention it—and that is because of the content of his ethical teachings. The points I make here will be developed more fully below.
He took over the temple, drove out all those who bought and sold animals, and also drove out all the animals. Thus, he abolished animal sacrifices in the Temple for some period—as the messiah was to do: “In the time of the Messiah the sacrifices will cease (except that of thanksgiving).” (Pesik 9:79, “Antinomianism,” www.JewishEncyclopedia.com; see the section of this book entitled Jesus Stopped the Animal Sacrifices in the Temple, p. 179.) And he was crucified as messiah-king of the Jews. The sign on the cross said “King of the Jews.” (Mark 15:2, 25.)
Jesus and those around him were vegetarian, and his followers were encouraged to “bear what they were able” regarding eating meat, which I believe meant they were to observe a vegetarian fast at lest two days per week (Didache 8:1-2), always to avoid eating the flesh of animals killed in connection with pagan sacrifices and sold in the public market, and always to avoid cruelty to animals. The rule against “eating things strangled” was a term of art or code name that stood for the rule against eating the meat of animals tortured or painfully killed. (Acts 15:20.) It is probable that vegetarianism was not an immediate or absolute requirement but a goal to be striven for. (See the sections of this book entitled James, Brother of Jesus, p. 108, and The Burden Theme, “Bear What Thou Art Able”, p. 158.)
The Judeo-Christian movement was persecuted out of existence by the 400s, although Muslim sources make mention of it as late as the 800s. Their books were banned. They were forbidden to be copied, which meant that after a few hundred years they rotted out of existence. Probably some were burnt in the bonfires that thug monks set alight in the streets.
Jesus did not succeed in establishing his kingdom of ethical monotheism in his lifetime, but that does not mean he was a failure or that his followers will not yet someday succeed in his name. He pointed the way. He was a major player in the process that I am trying to describe in this book, the process of trying to return the world to a state of peace, justice, high ethical and environmental standards; to put an end to slavery; to find a balance between the sexes; to end child abuse; and achieve a sensitivity to the suffering of the animals.
Paul, John, and their disciples—who aimed their teachings at gentiles—completely dropped all references to Jesus as prophet and son of man. They preferred “son of god,” and not in the sense of adopted son of god but as pre-existent logos, and only-begotten son of god. They referred to Jesus as “Lord Jesus Christ,” and they used the term “christ” to mean “messiah-god” instead of “messiah-king.”
Ultimately, through a process of “christological inflation,” a term I have coined, Paul, John, and their successors made Jesus into god coequal with the father. Matthew and Luke taught Jesus was begotten of god at the time of his conception. (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35.) The author of Mark taught that Jesus became god’s son at his transfiguration or enthronement. (Mark 9:7.) Paul taught that Jesus was designated son of god and begotten at his resurrection. (Romans 1:4; Acts 13:33.) John taught Jesus was begotten of god from the beginning of time. (John 1:2.) The original Ebionites teaching was that Jesus was the natural born son of Joseph and Mary, that Jesus had been “begotten” at his baptism, meaning he had been adopted, like all Israel’s kings at their coronation, as god’s honorary and preeminent son. (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:7; Mark 1:11; Acts 10:38, 13:33; Hebrews 1:5, 5:5.)
Because the denomination known as “orthodox” or “catholic” or the “great church” was so well organized, because it so fiercely attacked all other Christian and pagan sects, and ultimately because it made an alliance with the Roman government, it ended up as the official religion and used that position to suppress or destroy all other pagan religions and all other sects of Christianity. In its many councils it perfected the theory that Jesus was the cosmic sacrifice in the Greek mystery religion sense that wiped away the sins of those who believed in him. Those who expressed doubts were excommunicated and told they would go to hell. Later, doubters were killed.
How could so much Christological inflation have occurred so quickly? See the section of this book entitled Information from Moslem-Nazarene Sources, p. 134, for my theory as to how it happened.
Christological inflation may seem a little far afield from my topic, which is the diet of Jesus and his early followers. However, bear in mind that the process of elevating Jesus to status as deity coequal with god the father included a simultaneous deemphasis of Jesus as a teacher of ethical principles about making peace, which principles included making peace with the animals. Gentile Christians found it more convenient to worship a god who demanded certain beliefs but who put few restrictions on behavior, less convenient to follow a prophet who demanded that they make great changes in their behavior, including their dietary behavior.
FOLLOW JESUS BY BEING DEEP HISTORIANS AND STUDENTS OF ETHICS
The Christianity of today focuses too much on the New Testament and too little on the many other sources of information about Jesus, too much on Jesus’ cosmic sacrifice and too little on Jesus’ ethical teachings, too much on getting forgiveness for sins and too little on stopping the sinning—including the sins we commit against innocent animals and the physical environment.
As you read this section, you will see that I am an admirer and follower of Jesus—not as the cosmic sacrifice but as our greatest teacher of peace, law, and justice. I am an admirer and follower not of the Jesus you read about in our mangled New Testament, but of the Ebionite Jesus of Judeo-Christian history.
Fundamentalists will have problems with my hypothesis that Jesus ate no meat, because the gospels clearly say Jesus ate fish, fed fish to others, and called apostles who were fishermen. (Matthew 7:10, 4:19, 14:17, 15:36, 17:27; Mark 1:17; Luke 24:42, John 6:9, 21:9. See the section of this book entitled What About the Fish Stories? p. 191, for an explanation of how the fish passages arose.)
I will discuss the surviving sources of information regarding these vegetarians. The sources are extensive, and some are right in the New Testament. The revisionist editors did a haphazard job of purging vegetarian references as they edited the gospels. And some of what we know comes from quotations which ultra-orthodox heresy fighting Church Fathers made of now lost Judeo-Christian writings.
I will have much to say about Paul, who was not a vegetarian and who was contemptuous of vegetarians. He referred to them as being weak in faith because they would not eat meat. (1 Corinthians 8: 4-13.) He was contemptuous of the Jerusalem founders of Christianity, referring to them as “superlative apostles” and the “circumcision party.” (2 Corinthians 11:5,13, 12:11; Galatians 2:12. See Paul, James, and the Jerusalem Council, p. 122.)
Why do I take a critical approach? Shouldn’t I just focus on the evidence for Jesus’ vegetarianism and leave everything else about Christianity untouched—which is what groups like the Christian Vegetarian Association do? (www.christianveg.com.) Why risk upsetting the faith of unlearned Christians? Because, simply put, the CVA approach is not convincing. It appears to focus arbitrarily on the verses that favor vegetarian theory and ignore those that disfavor it.
For me to demonstrate the high probability that Jesus was a vegetarian, I must teach you the critical method and teach you the method in full. Using this tool, you will be able to read our highly edited New Testament and understand how to tell the oldest layers from those added later. A little bit of the critical method might just be enough for you to conclude that nothing in the New Testament is true. But if I take you all the way through the process, you will come out on the other side possessing tools sufficient to understand what Jesus stood for.
There is one final reason why I take a critical approach: I think if Jesus is looking over the balcony rail and observing what goes on down here on earth, he is probably tired of Christians inflating him into something he was not and completely missing what he actually was. Clarifying who he really was is a service I think he would appreciate. Something similar could be said of poor, confused Saul of Tarsus. He would probably appreciate someone undoing all the damage he did.
Most theologians take little notice of dietary matters as they construct their theories. I believe they overlook a powerful analytical tool. A focus on diet can lead to insights they otherwise might miss. I will return to this point frequently in this chapter, so I will say no more about it here.
Essenes were strict vegetarians, and older Essenes were generally celibate. I take the position that Jesus was of Essene background, while others say he was a Pharisee. The two positions are not irreconcilable because Essenes and Pharisees respected each other and shared most beliefs and customs.
Josephus, Philo, Eusebius, and Plinius say the Essenes were vegetarians. The Essenes shared vegetarianism and many other customs with the Pythagoreans.
The quest for the historical Jesus is a worthy one. At the end of this quest we do not find a Jesus of doctrinal quibbles or a Jesus who focused on finding an innocuous inner peace.
We find instead a Jesus of action who challenged injustice and illegality and sought an end to poverty, war, slavery, subjugation of women, abuse of children and prisoners, and violence in general. We find a Jesus of compassion, ethics, and right-living, all of which extend not just to other humans but to the animals as well. As I say elsewhere, we do not find a Jesus who wanted to be worshiped but one who wanted to be followed.
It is often said that Jesus was a failed messianic pretender, such as Jesus Bar Kokhba, because he did not succeed in bring peace to the world. Even after 2,000 years, I would suggest that this might be a hasty judgment. We who are part of Jesus’ tradition may yet complete his work. Is there a time limit on how long a true prophet and messiah-king has to achieve results? Christians should not give up but should rechannel their efforts in the ethical direction in which Jesus pointed us.
It is not too late for us to learn what Jesus was challenging us to do and do it.