I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. But like most people of conscience, I was sickened and horrified to see the recent video taken by animal rights activists of baby chicks being ground alive at an egg hatchery. Seeing such cruel and heartless treatment of living beings has undoubtedly caused some of us carnivores to at least take a moment to consider the dark truths behind how animals are processed for food in the modern world.
Indeed, human beings throughout history have questioned the morality of animal slaughter, and religious traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have long been the home for those who believe that killing and consuming sentient animals is barbaric. Religious vegetarianism is commonplace in the East, but is not considered mainstream in most Western faith communities.
And yet, after lengthy research into the historical record, I have become convinced that Jesus Christ himself was in all likelihood a vegetarian, and that vegetarianism was probably a central tenet of the early Christian community founded by his disciples. In fact, there is evidence that Christ’s opposition to animal sacrifice at the Jewish Temple may have been the triggering event that led to the Crucifixion.
Yes, I know. This sounds preposterous. But stay with me, and let me present the historical evidence before you make a final judgment.
Christian and Muslim views of Jesus
Before I begin, let me state that I am a Muslim, so already my views on Jesus are not the same as those of my Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus is a pivotal figure in both Christianity and Islam, and both religions consider themselves to contain the true teachings of Christ. The primary differences between the two faiths arise over his identity and message.
For Christians, Jesus is a divine being, the Son of God, who took human form in order to experience martyrdom, death and resurrection as part of God’s plan for redemption. For Christians, Christ’s death on the cross is an act of cosmic blood sacrifice – he took upon himself the sins of mankind, and those who believe in him are cleansed of their sins through vicarious atonement. Salvation comes through faith in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice.
For Muslims, Jesus was a human being, a prophet and a teacher, who was sent by God to guide humanity. Muslims believe that Jesus never wanted to be worshipped as a deity, and that his message was very simple: “Worship God, your Lord and mine, and follow my example.” There is no doctrine of vicarious atonement in Islam, as Muslims believe Jesus and all of God’s messengers taught individual moral responsibility. Muslim belief is that the central teachings of Christianity – the divinity of Christ and his death as a sacrificial atonement – are later pagan inventions that Jesus himself would have rejected. Salvation for Muslims comes through what they consider the central teachings of Jesus and all prophets – belief in One God and living an ethical life.
Discussions of the differences in Christian and Muslim approaches to Jesus can and do fill volumes, and I can only scratch the surface of this theological controversy here. But I state these points above as a disclaimer. As a Muslim, my personal views of Jesus are already different from those of my Christian neighbors. As a result, I am 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.
And this skeptical approach toward the official version of Christian history has led me to a deep personal conviction – based on the historical sources – that Christ’s message was not just about loving your fellow human beings, but that he actually was deeply concerned that his followers show compassion toward animals.
I came to this conclusion while researching my next book, a novel on the birth of Christianity. My first novel, Mother of the Believers, about the birth of Islam from the perspective of Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha, has been a success. I wanted to follow up with a similar book about Jesus based on the early historical sources. I decided to set aside my own pre-conceived beliefs about Jesus as a Muslim and treat the sources with objectivity. I wanted to present Jesus as early Christians likely saw him, even if that understanding was different from my own faith.
And in the process of examining the New Testament and early historical sources about Jesus, I became shocked to learn that perhaps neither Christians nor Muslims today truly understand what Jesus was about. The evidence of religious vegetarianism in the early Christian community was so overwhelming that I was forced to consider why this was not one of the issues that divide Christians and Muslims in theology. Most Christians and most Muslims are not vegetarian and most people in both faiths would be startled by the suggestion that Jesus and the early Christians were staunch vegetarians.
Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity: James versus Paul
In order to get to the point that Jesus appears to have been a vegetarian according to early Christian sources, I must first give a basic explanation of the historical process by which the religious movement we now call Christianity came together. There are many sources for the following historical interpretation, but the most readable and well argued is by Prof. Barrie Wilson, a respected biblical scholar at York University in Toronto. His work How Jesus Became Christian provides a detailed examination of the evolution of Christian thought that I summarize below.
My investigation into the life of Jesus began by examining the first theological dispute that arose in the Christian community after the earthly mission of Jesus. Interestingly, there is little controversy over how Jesus lived. Most scholars, both secular and Christian, would likely accept the notion that Jesus in his lifetime was a practicing Jew, one who adhered to the Torah, the Law of Moses, even if he had some different interpretations of specific legal points than other Jewish teachers. That meant that Jesus was circumcised, prayed ritually every day according to ancient Jewish practices, worshipped at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, observed the Sabbath and major Jewish festivals such as Passover and Yom Kippur, and adhered to kosher laws regarding which foods were acceptable and which weren’t (Jesus would not have eaten pork, for example).
This last point was not controversial in his lifetime, but became a major issue later when an increasing number of Gentiles (who had no such food restrictions) began to convert to Christianity. But during his lifetime, and for several years afterward, the followers of Jesus did not see themselves as creating a new religion. They were Jews who believed that Jesus was their teacher and leader, and the Acts of the Apostles discusses how the early Christians continued to worship at the Jewish Temple like other Jews, apparently unaware of the doctrine that Christ’s death and resurrection removed the need to observe these ritual Jewish practices. This early “Jewish Christian” community was led by James the Just, identified in the New Testament as the younger brother of Jesus, and supported by well-known disciples like Peter and John
According to contemporary historian Flavius Josephus, James the Just was highly respected by the Jewish community of Jerusalem for his righteousness and adherence to the Law of Moses. And yet modern Christians do not consider adherence to the Mosaic Law necessary or perhaps even virtuous. In fact most Christians today would be hard-pressed to name a handful of the 613 commandments that form the backbone of the Torah. So as I researched my novel, the question naturally arose – how did Christianity transform from a community of Torah-observant Jews into a Gentile religion that renounced the Law of Moses?
The answer to that question comes in the figure of one man whose vision of the risen Christ changed the history of the world. The Apostle Paul. The story of Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of Christianity to its greatest champion is famed in Church history and doctrine. On his way to arrest Christian fugitives in Damascus, Paul claimed to have a direct personal vision of Christ (whom he had never actually met during his lifetime). The Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s own letters differ in the exact details of this profound spiritual event, but the end result was clear. Paul said that he had been given a direct revelation of Christ’s gospel and began to preach his understanding of Christ to Gentiles.
For Paul, Christ was more than a Jewish teacher and political leader, as the Jerusalem community around James believed. Christ was a Divine Being who had sacrificed his life to cleanse the world of sin. It is in Paul’s letters that we first find the doctrines of Christ’s divinity and vicarious atonement (the Gospels would be written later, when Paul’s ideas had become prevalent among Christians). Paul taught his followers that obedience to the ritual law of Moses was no longer necessary – indeed it was a “curse” (Galatians 3:10-13). All that was needed to be a Christian was faith in Christ and his redemptive sacrifice.
These ideas have of course become the bedrock of modern Christianity. But what is fascinating is that Paul’s letters, the earliest Christian documents (preceding even the Gospels by decades), reveal that Paul’s vision of the Christ was not the same as the Jesus known to his family and disciples.
The Jesus Movement (Jews who saw Jesus as their teacher and leader) was based in Jerusalem at the time, while Paul was preaching to Gentiles throughout Asia Minor (modern Turkey), apparently without any authority from the disciples to do so. Indeed Paul proudly claims in his letters that he did not need anyone’s authority to preach and that his Gospel came directly from Christ himself (Galatians 1:1).
Not surprisingly, his proclamation of speaking on behalf of Christ did not sit well with the Jerusalem Christians who had known Jesus personally and could not reconcile Paul’s vision of the antinomian Christ with the Torah-observant rabbi who had led them. According to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, James the Just sent envoys to check up on him and what he was preaching (Galatians 2:12). And when these envoys heard his doctrines, especially with regard to faith in Christ removing the need for Christians to follow Jewish dietary laws, all hell broke loose. As Paul himself describes the incident in Galatians, he had a shouting match with Peter and other disciples, and was very much the odd man out (Galatians 2:11-13)
Several of Paul’s letters in the New Testament were written to respond to the critiques of these Jewish Christians, who claimed Paul was misguided and perhaps even lying about his encounter with Christ (see Galatians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 11:31, 1 Timothy 2:7 where Paul repeatedly insists that he is not lying, since clearly this is a charge being regularly made against him). Indeed, the modern Christian notion that Paul was on good terms with the disciples who had known Jesus in his lifetime is simply not borne out in Paul’s own letters. While the Acts of the Apostles, written years later by Paul’s followers, often portrays the debates between James and Paul as cheerful disagreements between brothers, Paul’s own letters show that their differences were intense and volatile. It was as if the two movements were actually competing religions rather than branches of the same faith.
How Pauline Christianity Triumphed
But if Paul’s vision of Christ had little support from the people who actually knew Jesus, how did it become the basis for Christianity? The answer lies in the tragedy of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The followers of Jesus the man were centered around Jerusalem, while the followers of Christ the God were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The Jewish Christian community suffered a major blow when their leader James the Just was murdered a in 62 C.E., and when the Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple a few years later, the surviving Jewish Christians fled to Pella in modern Jordan.
The death of James and the destruction of Jerusalem crippled the Jesus Movement and placed it dangerously close to extinction. According to 4th century Christian history Eusebius, the blood relatives of Jesus (the Desposyni) were hunted down as political threats by the Roman Emperors Domitian and Trajan and the people who had known and followed Jesus in his lifetime rapidly became an endangered species.
Paul’s Christ Movement, on the other hand, was phenomenally successfully. Untouched by the destruction of Jerusalem, the Gentile based religion easily eclipsed the struggling Jewish movement that had been its predecessor (and competitor). Paul’s vision of Christ the Divine Savior had many similarities to popular religions of the Roman Empire, including the mystery schools of Egypt and the cult of Mithras. The ideas of a Divine Man incarnating, dying and being reborn, were already popular mystical doctrines in these communities, and it was not hard to replace Mithras or Osiris with Christ. And the end result was that over centuries, Paul’s idiosyncratic view of Jesus became the orthodox Christian line, simply because it survived and thrived.
Most Christian scholars would not dispute the basic outline of the history as I have laid it out here. Understandably, their view would be that the “correct” vision of Christianity survived, guided by God’s hand through history. It is not for me to dispute anyone’s faith, and the reader must decide how to interpret the meaning of these events themselves. I had already known the basics of this historical framework when researching my novel. And as a Muslim, I was interested in learning more about these Jewish Christians led by Christ’s brother James, as their vision of Jesus more closely fits my own.
And it was in the process of researching these Jewish Christians that I was startled to discover that there was a consistent theme in their teachings. Along with the belief that Jesus was God’s servant and a human teacher, they had a passionate commitment to vegetarianism.
That struck me as odd. Islam is not a vegetarian religion, and if I had been looking for historical evidence to support my Muslim religious beliefs in the teachings of the Jewish Christians, I certainly found these accounts quite jarring. But the evidence is undeniable. One of the central themes that set Jewish Christian groups apart from Pauline Christians was their belief that Jesus rejected animal sacrifice and the consumption of meat.
The Ebionites and the Survival of Jewish Christianity
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the surviving Jewish Christians continued under a variety of names according to early Church historians. The most common name for these groups was the Ebionites, from the Hebrew word Evyonim, which means “the poor.” This is an apparent reference to the many sayings of Jesus where he consistently honors and elevates the poor. (“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” – Luke 6:20). Other names for these groups include Nazarenes and Elkasites. They seem to have developed some minor theological distinctions among them – some accepted the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus (as Islam does) while denying it made him in any way divine, while others said Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary.
According to Church historians like Iraneus (2nd century CE), Origen (3rd century CE), Epiphanius and Eusebius (4th century CE), groups like the Ebionites had their own Gospel written in Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic, the language Jesus actually spoke). That in and of itself is fascinating, since none of the canonical Gospels that became part of the New Testament were written in Hebrew or Aramaic. They were written in Koine Greek, the common language of the eastern Roman Empire (with regrets to Mel Gibson, whose insistence in having the Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate speak Latin was one of the many historical inaccuracies in his Passion of the Christ).
So even for a Christian believer, there is the problem that the words of Jesus as recorded in the canonical Gospels are translations from the language he actually spoke. 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. And yet it is remarkable that the Ebionites and other Jewish Christians did possess such gospels, written in the language of Christ, suggesting that their link to the teachings of the historical Jesus is closer than those of their rivals.
Based on this Gospel, the Ebionites rejected what was becoming mainstream Christianity and denounced the letters of Paul as false teachings. The Ebionites faithfully observed the Law of Moses, claiming that in doing so, they were following the example not only of James, Peter and the disciples, but of Jesus himself. And according to Epiphanius, the Ebionites were vegetarian, rejecting animal sacrifice as immoral, claiming again that they were following the teachings of Jesus himself.
In the Panarion, his epic treatise against heresy, Epiphanius gives us many details about the Ebionite lifestyle. He says that the Ebionites claimed that the Apostle Peter had been a vegetarian and had ordered his followers to abstain from eating meat. In the Ebionite Gospel, they quote Jesus as saying “I came to abolish sacrifices, and unless you cease from sacrificing, my anger will not cease from you.” The reference is to the practice of animal sacrifice in the Jewish Temple, where thousands of animals were ritually slaughtered every year as offerings to God, the meat being shared with the Priests.
The Ebionites claimed that Jesus was horrified by cruelty to animals and that one of the primary aspects of his mission was to abolish the practice of ritual slaughter. Their argument was that Temple sacrifices were an innovation and had no basis in the authentic Law of Moses, and Jesus was sent to restore the Torah as Moses had practiced it. To the extent that the Jewish scriptures appeared to endorse animal sacrifice by the Priests (cf. the Book of Leviticus), they claimed that such passages were forgeries inserted by the Priesthood itself to promote its livelihood (the falsification of parts of the Bible would be a central claim of Islam centuries later).
While we do not possess the full text of the Ebionite Gospel, which along with other “heretical” books was banned by the Church in the 4th century, we do have some Ebionite apocryphal writings such as the Clementine Homilies and the Recognitions of Clement. These documents (known to scholars as the “pseudo-Clementines”) are Ebionite stories about the early Christians. They purport to be the writings of Clement, the first bishop of Rome, ie — the first Catholic Pope appointed by Peter. (It is remarkable that the Ebionites believed Pope Clement was an opponent of Paul, the man today credited as a founding leader of Christianity in Rome!)
The Homilies and the Recognitions contain accounts of Peter’s mission and his disputes with a false teacher named “Simon Magus” who is misleading people about Jesus (Simon Magus is clearly an Ebionite code-name for Paul). And in the pseudo-Clementine literature, Peter is portrayed as a vegetarian who only eats bread and olives, and avoids eating “dead flesh.”
After having been confronted with this wealth of information about the Ebionites, who have a strong historical claim to be a continuation of the Jewish movement started by Jesus and subsequently led by James the Just, it became evident to me that vegetarianism and compassionate treatment of animals was an important part of early Christian thought.
Evidence of Ethical Vegetarianism in Mainstream Christianity
But a critic of this line of reasoning can rightly raise the fact that the Ebionites were rejected as heretics by mainstream Christianity. So what if they were vegetarians? They were wrong about everything else about Christ, they must be wrong about that too. So I decided to see if there was evidence from mainstream Christian sources that support vegetarian practices in the early Christian community.
And to my surprise, I found them.
Hegesippus, a 2nd century orthodox Christian historian, wrote of James the Just, the brother of Jesus:
“After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed…”
There it was. James the Just, according to an early orthodox Christian did not eat meat. Nor did he drink alcohol. According to Epiphanius, the Ebionites also rejected alcohol and used water for communion, further strengthening their claim to be continuing the practice of James, who was the brother of Jesus and his appointed successor. As biblical scholar Robert Eisenman points out in his monumental work James the Brother of Jesus, “Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus.”
So if James really was a vegetarian, and James and Paul disagreed about the proper understanding of Christ’s teachings (especially with regard to what foods a Christian should eat), then it should not be surprising if Paul had a problem with vegetarianism. I went back to examine Paul’s writings to see if he had any opinions on vegetarians.
And remarkably, he did.
In Romans 14:1-2, Paul denigrates those Christians who “eat only vegetables” saying that their “faith is weak.” So it is clear that vegetarianism was common among Christians in Paul’s day, to the extent that he had to refute their claim that refraining from meat was an act of piety. The fact that Paul has to make this point means that ethical vegetarianism was being presented as a moral requirement to be a Christian! And, as we have seen, Paul’s vision of Christ was opposed to rules and restrictions around food, to the extent that he found himself in conflict with James and Peter on the subject.
Was The Crucifixion the Result of Christ’s Opposition to Animal Sacrifice?
The evidence that Jesus was a vegetarian, or at least early Christians who knew him were vegetarians, was compelling. But it seemed to be a minor doctrinal point, with little historical significance.
And then I came across a remarkable book called The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity by Keith Akers, which posits a shocking thesis – that the central event of the Christian faith, the Crucifixion, was predicated upon Christ’s willingness to fight for animal rights.
Akers is a committed vegetarian and he makes no apologies for the fact that he is evangelizing vegetarianism as a moral code for others. And some who read his book might find his persistence on the subject annoying. Regardless, the book truly makes compelling arguments that vegetarianism was intrinsic to Christ’s message of love and compassion for the world, and that gentleness toward animals is a prominent theme in Christ’s parables. Akers explains in greater depth the historical processes that I have detailed above, and the book is valuable for anyone who wishes to understand how the vision of Paul differed from that of other early Christians, and why Paul’s vision ultimately triumphed to become Christian orthodoxy.
But for me, the most powerful argument that Akers makes is that Christ’s rejection of animal sacrifice brought him into direct conflict with the Temple Priests, leading to Christ’s arrest and trial under Pontius Pilate. Akers has the remarkable ability to point out evidence in the biblical texts that is hiding in plain site.
Most Christians would agree that the immediate event that led to Christ’s arrest under the charge of sedition was his confrontation at the Temple. The famous scene where Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers is usually the focal point of Christian tellings of the story. Christ’s attack on Temple business practices such as converting foreign exchange was seen as a threat to the Sadducee Priests’ power, thus resulting in their willingness to turn him over to Pilate on the claim of fomenting rebellion against Rome.
And yet, as Akers points out, the moneychangers were a small part of the Temple scene. It is unlikely that the Priests would have felt directly threatened by an attack on unscrupulous traders overcharging pilgrims on exchange rates. But the Gospel accounts actually list moneychangers as one of several groups that Jesus drove out of the Temple – and they are not the first in line.
“Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)
The primary reference is to those who were “buying and selling.” What does that mean? That means the huge business of animal sales for sacrifice! The Temple was both a site of worship and a butcher shop. Jesus was disrupting the Temple’s primary revenue stream – the trade of animals for ritual slaughter.
That Jesus was primarily concerned with animal sacrifice in the Temple is made explicitly clear in the Gospel of John:
“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13-17)
In the Gospel of John, Jesus physically drives herds of animals out of the Temple courtyard using a whip. It is an incredibly powerful visual image. Yet in all the years of that I have listened to the story of Jesus at the Temple, I have never heard anyone focus on this compelling scene. The overturning of the currency tables seems to be what is stuck in the Christian consciousness, and yet the most dramatic and chaotic event in this incident is clearly the freeing of the animal herds.
As Akers argues, the direct attack on the Priests’ principal source of livelihood, the animal sacrifices, could not be ignored. The Priests had to respond to the threat Jesus posed to their power, and they did. And the outcome changed the course of history.
What Does This Mean For Us Today?
If we accept that Jesus of Nazareth, the divine Savior of Christianity and the human Prophet of Islam, cared so deeply for animals that he would endanger his own life to end cruelty against them, what does that mean for us today?
Neither mainstream Christianity nor mainstream Islam endorses vegetarianism as a preferred lifestyle. But Akers makes a compelling argument that spiritual vegetarians have always existed within the Christian community, and that their voice of compassion toward animals is one that will never be silenced.
And Akers suggests convincingly that the Ebionites were ultimately absorbed into Islam, which shared most of their views about Jesus. And their vegetarian beliefs continued to influence Sufis, the mystics of Islam. Many Muslims would be surprised to learn that Rabia al-Adawiyya, a beloved female Sufi saint, was a vegetarian. And many Islamic legends around Jesus portray him as an ascetic who avoided meat and was deeply concerned for the welfare of animals as well as humans.
And so these teachings of Jesus continue to live on.
I think it is important to remember in a modern mechanized world, where animals are slaughtered in horrific ways using cruel and monstrous machines, that we do have a responsibility to other creatures on this earth. We have a duty to them, to our Creator, and to our own humanity, to show animals mercy and compassion. Watching beautiful little chicks ground alive by gears and blades should make us question who we are and what being human means.
On a personal note, I do not plan to renounce the consumption of meat. But I now have a preference to eat meat that has been slaughtered in as humane a way as possible. In both Judaism and Islam, there are ancient rules of sacrifice meant to lessen an animal’s suffering and bring a quick and merciful death. Called shechita in Jewish kosher laws and zabiha in Islam’s halal rules, these slaughter practices were developed in a primitive desert world where human survival should have been the only concern. And yet these ancient nomads chose to think about the welfare of animals, to feel empathy for the taking of their lives for food, and to find ways to do so as mercifully as they could. The barbaric practices of modern slaughterhouses violate the merciful traditions of Judaism, Islam, and yes, Christianity, and the holy figures of our traditions would undoubtedly reject such contemporary cruelties.
I would venture to guess that many Jews and Muslims living in the West today are lax about eating only meat that is kosher or halal. I know that is true in my own case. But after seeing some of the horrifying images from modern secular slaughterhouses, perhaps it is time for all of us to look into our religious histories and take seriously the traditions that emphasize mercy toward animals.
Maybe it is time to look back in order to move forward.