By James Van Alstine
Prior to beginning his active ministry, Jesus was influenced by or a part of an observant Jewish community known as the Essenes. This sect was known for its strict adherence to Jewish law and teaching.
Their practices were strict, yet guided by a spirit of truth rather than of superficial observance. This may have put Jesus at odds with the more mainstream practitioners of Judaism in his day. This background provides deeper understanding of New Testament incidents such as Jesus’ discussions with the priests and the Pharisees. Christians who eat meat often cite Jesus’ status as an observant Jew as evidence that he would have eaten meat at Passover, even if at no other time. This assertion overlooks the Essene perspective on the topic. Rooted in God’s admonishment of sacrifice and slaughter described in Isaiah, the Essenes declined the eating of flesh.
There is much to be considered in the brief incident of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15-16, Luke 19:45).
It speaks to matters of corruption, pretense and the coming of a faith open to all rather than only those of worldly means. Amid these lessons, it also reveals something of Jesus’ attitude toward animals.
By driving out the animal sellers, Jesus effectively halted the sale and slaughter of animals on the eve of the biggest feast in the largest city in the Jewish world. It was an act of animal liberation on a vast scale. Imagine halting the slaughter of turkeys before Thanksgiving in the United States.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is only described as personally eating an animal on one occasion. This occurs after the resurrection when Jesus consumes one small morsel of fish to prove to his disciples that that he is alive in the flesh, and not a mere apparition. Some people believe that Jesus was a vegetarian, with the morsel of fish a necessary anomaly. It is impossible to determine if Jesus was, in his time on earth, a practicing vegetarian. It may rather be more significant to ask, “What would Jesus eat today?”
Meat production today contributes to environmental degradation, worsens global hunger, and is rife with labor abuse. It relegates animals to intensive confinement, industrialized brutality, torturous transport conditions and inexact, often painful slaughter. It is hard to imagine that, in light of what modern meat production has become, Jesus would himself dine on the flesh of his fellow creations of God.