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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

The Lost Religion of Jesus

Rosslyn Chapel.


And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

(Genesis 1:30)

If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, then you have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.

—St. Francis of Assisi

Within Christianity there is not a real consciousness about diet. But someday the Church will wake up and realize that an ethical diet is necessary to a moral way of life.

Brother Ron Pickarski, OFM


While I was at Hawthornden back in January, I went with a few of my fellow writers to the Sunday service at the 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel. We’d come mostly to soak up the medieval atmosphere; it’s been a long time since I set foot in a church hoping to emerge again with any sort of insight or answer.

The second time I attended this Church of Scotland service, the minister—a jovial middle-aged man—opened his sermon with a joke about the Findus horse meat scandal. I stared at him in disbelief. As he segued into a second joke about Little Bo Peep finding her sheep on the shelf at Tesco, I took a white-knuckled grip on my seat in the pew, quivering with indignation (and if you know me, you know I’m not exaggerating).

I didn’t hear another word he said. All I could think was, How can I look to this person for spiritual guidance?

Until that moment, I might have made a casual assertion now and then that Jesus was a vegetarian. But when I heard the minister make those jokes about the slaughter of innocent animals, I knew it was true. How could the man who preached “do unto others,” a man we sometimes refer to as “the prince of peace,” actually sit down to dine on animal flesh?

Turns out there’s a wealth of evidence to support this intuition, and a trove of interesting books to interpret it. I recently finished The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity by Keith Akers, and right now I’m reading Rynn Berry’s Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World’s Religions. You’ll recall that Professor Berry gave us an excellent talk on the history of veganism on our last morning at Main Street Vegan Academy; and before we go any further, I should underline the rich historical precedent for vegetarianism. The Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras, whom you remember as the guy who came up with a2 + b2 = c2, was also an ethical vegetarian; his many followers (and all who came after) were known as “Pythagoreans” up until the mid 19th century, when the word “vegetarian” was coined.

In Food for the Gods, Berry writes:

Evidence for Jesus’s vegetarianism in the canonical gospels is circumstantial, but nonetheless compelling. Ethical vegetarians find it inconceivable that such a potent religious figure and moral teacher could have slit the throat of an animal, or have eaten the cooked body parts of an animal. Apart from the moral impropriety of such a diet, flesh (not excluding the flesh of fish) was an extremely scarce commodity in the ancient world and would have been considered a luxurious food; it would have been out of character for a man who stressed simplicity and frugality in living to be eating such opulent food.

Speaking of frugality and simple living, I’ll give you just one reason why I feel so uneasy in the religion I inherited, and why I avoid my hometown parish: the pastor built himself a three-car garage to house his Lexus (and two other cars, perhaps?) I’m certainly not saying the man should be living in a hovel and walking two miles to work, but a fancy car and a three-car garage built with parish funds don’t qualify as “simple living” by any stretch of the imagination. People like to think of themselves as “good Christians,” but how many of them actually live by the principles Jesus espoused?

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. How do we know what Jesus really said—and what he actually ate? We must re-examine everything we think we know about him, teasing out the underlying motives of early church leaders. The Bible, as any rational Christian will admit, was written by human beings, each of whom had their own agenda. Nor does the Bible contain every worthy piece of scripture; many documents written by early followers and contemporaries of Jesus were jettisoned (or perhaps “suppressed” is a more accurate term) by Church “fathers.” The discovery of the  Nag Hammadi gospels in Egypt in 1945 yielded alternative accounts of Jesus’s life and message, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Philip, and the Apocalypse of James. Keith Akers also draws on contemporary sources (like Epiphanius of Salamis), not all of whom were sympathetic toward those Jewish sects who lived by the teachings of Jesus (and if someone who obviously doesn’t like or agree with you says nice things about you, we can feel that much more confident that those nice things are true).

Akers makes the distinction, first and foremost, between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians. The first group was comprised of several similar sects, many of whom were considered heretical by the Jewish establishment; the Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was the prophet of whom Moses spoke, and that he had come not to establish his own religion, but to correct the false and adulterated parts of their scriptures (directions for animal sacrifice being but one example). Jewish Christian sects like the Ebionites (from the Hebrew ebionim, “the poor”) lived in pacifist communities, pooling their resources and eating a vegetarian diet. It is very likely that Jesus lived and preached within just such a community; the apocryphal scriptures indicate that he overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple because he was opposed to the needless slaughter of oxen, sheep, goats, pigeons, and doves—that there was nothing “holy” about it! The priests, who lived on these offerings, were none too pleased of course—and if all this is true, it follows that Jesus would be arrested and crucified on the priests’ instigation. (So many things about my religion just didn’t make sense to me until I read these books.)

As for gentile Christianity, Akers makes a fascinating point: that pacifism was a highly inconvenient principle vis-à-vis Constantine and his army, who converted en masse after the emperor, prompted by a vision, bade his army mark their shields with crosses before a military triumph. It is this faction, of course, which took over the “Christian” message and its dissemination, diluting or overlooking the most basic tenets of nonviolence and simple living. The Jewish Christians remembered and lived by these principles, but they weren’t accepted by either orthodox Judaism or gentile Christianity, and as pacifists they suffered tremendously through a series of Jewish revolts against Rome in 66-70, 117, and 132-135 CE. Though contemporary sources tell us they regrouped at Pella after the first revolt around 70 CE, and through geographical description Matthew pinpoints his own location in that vicinity (thus bolstering the case that the Ebionites’ version of the gospel was the original), Jewish Christianity was destined to remain on the fringes of this new world religion. Akers writes, “When the larger gentile Christian church drove out Jewish Christianity…it also lost the core of Jesus’ teachings.” Hugely influential Church fathers like St. Paul, who introduced the concept of “original sin,” were instrumental in this adulteration process; contemporary sources tell us that the Jewish Christians were ardently opposed to Paul’s methods, believing that he corrupted Jesus’s teachings to suit his own ends. Those who came out on top politically were those who established the doctrine—a belief system Jesus himself would not recognize.

* * *

While the church rejected the requirement for vegetarianism, it is indisputable that there were very large numbers of vegetarians in early Christianity. In fact, there are hardly any references to any early Christians eating meat. The view that Jesus ate meat creates a paradox: vegetarianism was practiced by the apostles and numerous early followers of Jesus, including Jesus’ own brother, but not by Jesus himself! It is as if everyone in the early church understood the message except the messenger. The much more likely explanation is that the original tradition was vegetarian, but that under the pressure of expediency and the popularity of Paul’s writings in the second century, vegetarianism was first dropped as a requirement and finally even as a desideratum.

—Keith Akers, The Lost Religion of Jesus

* * *

Regarding Jesus’s possible vegetarianism, the first problem that comes to mind is that classic story of the loaves and the fishes. In Food for the Gods, Professor Berry points out that we must revisit the original Greek to find out if there actually were fishes served at that wedding feast:

Now, most translators render opsaria as sardines or little fish, but opsaria which comes from the Greek opson (relish) also meant “relish”; so it’s possible to translate it as five loaves and two “relishes,” “dainties,” or “tidbits.”

Professor Berry mentioned in his lecture that “relish” is the primary meaning of the original word used, and “little fish” only the tertiary meaning. Furthermore, bread with some sort of relish was a commonplace meal in first-century Palestine:

In Jesus’s time, they dipped their loaf in relish or they tore off pieces of bread from the loaf and dipped it in the opsarion, or relish, which might have consisted of finely chopped olives with spices or ground sesame paste.

In other words, “The Loaves and the Fishes” might rightfully be retranslated as “The Loaves and the Hummus.” Of course, Rynn Berry and his colleagues have pointed out other mistranslations; considering man’s place among the animals, for instance, “dominion” is very different from “stewardship.” It’s the difference between a guardian and a slave driver. As the Rev. Andrew Linzey says in his Food for the Gods interview, “The original author [of Genesis] was seeking to describe a relationship—not of egotistical exploitation—but of care for the earth. It’s extraordinary that almost 2,000 years of biblical exegesis should so often have overlooked the radical vegetarian message in Genesis I.”

As I sat through the rest of the sermon that morning, I knew I had a choice to make. I could behave as I always had—i.e., fuming in silence—or I could push past the nervous twisting in my guts to speak my mind in a calm, rational, mature way. I really didn’t want to walk to the back of the church when the service was over, and wait in the vestibule doorway while a mother and her young son spoke to the reverend about some ordinary piece of church business—but I knew I had to if I was going to become the person I’d been saying I wanted to grow into. (I’m reminded of something else Rev. Linzey said in his interview: “At particular moments, almost against oneself, one finds the energy to do seemingly impossible things.”)

So I waited. And once the parishioners had said goodbye, I stepped forward. “Reverend, may I tell you what’s on my mind?” He said yes, of course, and I went on, “I was upset by the Little Bo Peep joke you made at the beginning of your sermon. I believe that if we want to see peace in the world we have to start with our own stomachs”—he laughed when I said this, but not unkindly—”and that’s why I’m vegan. I’m not going to try to convince you of anything, I just needed to express this to you.”

The minister replied in a warm and genuinely concerned attitude, apologizing if he had offended me and remarking that he had several colleagues who were vegan. I thanked him for allowing me to “speak my truth” and rejoined my friends in the pew. But I couldn’t focus on their conversation; my whole body thrummed with excited energy. I’d been able to turn that knot of frustrated nervous disappointment in my stomach into something constructive, and there is no way I can adequately describe to you just how wonderful it felt.

I guess we’ll never know for certain that Jesus was a vegetarian, but there is far too much “circumstantial” evidence to overlook the idea. He taught his followers to love God, and love one another—indeed, the entire religion is based upon this simple principle!—and if we are to conduct our lives in this way, it ultimately makes no sense to practice compassion only for our fellow humans.

In this blog post I am truly only scratching the surface of this topic; if you are a devout Christian, I highly encourage you to read these books, and think long and critically about what you believe in. I’ve put together this (non-exhaustive) reading list for myself (drawn from the extensive bibliographies of Berry and Akers), and it includes titles by veg(etari)an theologians:

Is God a Vegetarian?: Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights by Richard A. Young

The Vegetarianism of Jesus Christ by Charles Vaclavik

The Birth of Christianity: Reality and Myth by Joel Carmichael

Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church by Hans-Joachim Schoeps [this one I’ll have to find at a good library!]

The Master: His Life and Teachings by John Todd Ferrier

The Other Gospels: The Non-Canonical Gospel Texts
, edited by Ron Cameron

Animal Theology and Christianity and the Rights of Animals by Rev. Andrew Linzey

Dominion: the Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully

For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action by Charles Camosy.

I no longer feel comfortable identifying myself as a Christian for reasons outlined above—and yet, as a vegan, I want to follow Jesus’s example in a way I never felt inspired to do when I was a card-carrying Catholic.

4 Comments to The Lost Religion of Jesus

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    September 25, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    To me the bible is full of so many awful things that I would not look to it for confirmation of any of my beliefs. Not that this is your point exactly, but I just thought it was worth noting.

  2. January 16, 2014 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    Neither the bible nor the church are very familiar to me, but I believe I hold the basic principals, ‘love your neighbour..’ as my everyday guide. And that’s what I believe Jesus would want of us.

  3. Walter's Gravatar Walter
    January 24, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Their need not be one single source from which you can obtain spiritual guidance from. I have always strived to follow the example of those I look up to, and treat friends and strangers alike with kindness and respect. I think often about the choices I have made, and wonder if some of my shortcomings make me needlessly harmful. For instance, I believe that all animals, and in particular, domesticated farm-raised animals are treated with casual distain, and baseless, nightmarish, torturous violence by people. Subject of to inhospitable living environments and brutal, agonizing death, and unnecessary experimentation.

    Despite my knowledge of this, I continue to eat meat. I’m particularly fond of fish, which I regularly catch and prepare on my own. Since I am not ignorant of the plight these animals face or the implications of my actions, does this make me callous, even cruel?

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.