I noticed here, too, the statement, "The Jewish Christian groups believed that Jesus was a vegetarian and that Paul undermined this teaching."
Jesus and Animals
We live in a time when over fifty billion animals are slaughtered for food each year around the world. Humans now keep billions of animals in cages and pens where they never see the sun, feel the earth or are allowed to establish normal relationships with others of their species. Billions of tonnes of grain and beans are grown to feed these animals which could have been more efficiently fed to humans. The excrement and blood of farm animals are major environmental pollutants. This overwhelmingly large and brutal industry is destroying our planet, our compassion and probably our health. Since the fourth century Christian theology has been at the forefront of creating ideas that have devalued non-human animals. This devaluation has given licence to humans to view animals as morally worthless thus allowing unbelievable acts of heartless abuse to be perpetrated on them. Religious people who respect, sympathise or love animals, are faced with this question: Does the unmerciful philosophy towards animals that has dominated Christianity for so long derive from Jesus Christ? What did Jesus really think the non-human animals that we share the planet with? Unfortunately very little is recorded about this but with a bit of investigation we can make some very educated guesses. We only know that he is quoted as saying that not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing about it and then goes on to say that humans are worth much more than sparrows. There would be no doubt that he had a lot more to say on this matter but for some reason or other his thoughts on this issue did not make it into the New Testament.
Jesus was a Jew (albeit a radical one) and saw himself as such: Jesus declared that he had not come to abolish, but to fulfil the law; that the law and the prophets are summarised in the two commandments to love God and to love your neighbour; and that following the commandments is the path to eternal life (Matthew 5:17-20, 19:17, 22:37-40). Jesus would have been well versed in Jewish teachings and understandings, so let us take a look at the Old Testament attitudes to animals. In Genesis, God created the non-human living creatures on the same day as He/She created the human creatures and saw that it was good. The Hebrew translation of Genesis describes humans and animals as having the same essence: nephesh (Kaufman/Braun p5). He/She gave all creatures a plant based diet (Gen 1:29-30). This sets the tone of a general concern for the welfare of animals throughout the Old Testament. After the flood God made His/Her covenant with Noah and all living creatures - and repeats this six times. Proverbs 12:10 states that: "A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast," and Psalm 145:9 teaches that "The Lord is good to all, and his compassion rests upon all his creatures." The bible forbids cruelty to animals in Deuteronomy (22:10, 25:4) and says they are to share in the Sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10, Deut 5:14). The Psalms even have the animals praising God -148:7-10: 150:6.
Jesus was born among animals and would have known well the high regard that the Old Testament holds the non-human animals. It is true that the Old Testament allows the human exploitation and eating of non-human creatures but it was not like this in the beginning. When Jesus was questioned about the right to divorce given by Moses, he replied that it was not like that at the beginning - it was because of mankind's stubbornness that Moses gave permission. He then goes on to forbid divorce in Matthew (19:3-9). If Jesus was consistent he would have had the same teaching on the killing and eating of animals - harking back to the instruction in Genesis 1 to eat nothing but plant foods. This teaching is reflected by the fact that ancient sources depict James (Jesus' brother) and all the apostles as abstaining from flesh (Kaufman/Braun p8). It is true that Genesis holds humans as special and gives them dominion over the other animals. What type of dominion or kingship would Jesus have us exercise over those who are less than us? We can know that Jesus was especially concerned with compassion. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says "Blessed are the merciful" (Mat 5:7) and, "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:36). He twice repeats Hosea 6:6 - "I require mercy, not sacrifice." (Mat 9:13/Mat 12:7). This accords with the teaching of the psalmist (145;9) that God's compassion rests on all His creatures. Jesus also emphasises the notion and attitude of service. So the dominion of humans who are faithful to the spirit of Jesus' teachings would be a rule of service and compassion to each other and all of creation. The fact that the historical prevailing dominion of Christians has been one of tyranny and brutality to non-human animals is a travesty whose terrible fruits can be seen in the factory farms, slaughterhouses and destroyed forests of our planet today.
If there is one prophet from the Old Testament that Jesus holds especially dear, it is Isaiah. He is quoted four times in the Gospel of Luke and several times in the other gospels. Jesus obviously had strong faith in the authenticity of Isaiah's vision and prophecies. Isaiah himself describes the Kingdom of God twice, in chapter 11 and chapter 65. He describes a place where animals and humans live in peace together and there is 'neither hurt nor harm in all my holy mountain.' Isaiah also says that "Sacrificing an ox is like killing a man." Isaiah strongly opposes the temple worship and especially the sacrifice of animals: "Your countless sacrifices, what are they to me? I am sated with whole-offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed cattle; I have no desire for the blood of bulls, of sheep, and of he-goats, when you come into my presence. Who has asked you for all this?" (Is 11-12). The opposition to animal sacrifice and temple worship in general found in Isaiah is reflected by Jesus' attack on the temple which is one of the few events described in all four gospels. Jesus' strong connection to Isaiah is more evidence for him being very sympathetic to the lives and sufferings of the non-human animals. If he believed in Isaiah's prophetic vision of God's kingdom there is little doubt that he would have avoided the killing of animals for food.
If it makes logical sense that Jesus was a vegetarian or close to it, why have we not heard about it before and why has Christian theology undermined compassion for animals for so long. For this we have to look at what type of document the New Testament is. Fundamentalist Christians say the Bible is the word of God, but this is clearly not the case. The New Testament was put together around three hundred years after Jesus died, and a lot can happen in three hundred years. What we do know is that there were many factions of Christianity with diverging views before the fourth century. There were Gnostics who believed that the God who created this world is different from the God of Jesus. The Jewish Christian groups believed that Jesus was a vegetarian and that Paul undermined this teaching. There were church fathers who taught about reincarnation. Paul's gentile followers had their own theology. One thing that was common among them was the persecution they suffered at the hands of state authorities. The rise of the Emperor Constantine in 312 stopped the persecution of only some Christians. In fact, Constantine helped to engineer the establishment of forced orthodoxy, in which one faction of Christianity became dominant. In 323 the New Testament was put together, which involved a process of appointed men choosing some writings and throwing out other writings. After this a creed was decided on, a set of orthodox beliefs were put in place and a power hierarchy was set up. Unfortunately Christians who disagreed with this system were soon on the receiving end of brutal persecution. Some Christians say that God wouldn't have allowed the New Testament to be anything but the word of God. If this was the case why did God allow Christianity to become a tyrannical and brutal sect for at least the next 700 years. The same fundamentalist Christians would have been imprisoned, tortured or murdered for their views back in those days. There is strong evidence that the New Testament is a document that is highly biased towards the particular Christian thinking that came into favour with the Emperor Constantine. Of course the New Testament holds views that were common to all the different groups of Christians but there is no doubt that it is an edited and inconsistent document that is the outcome of early Christian history not the record of it. It is not in the scope of this essay to explore this issue further but I would recommend "The Lost Religion of Jesus' by Keith Akers for anyone who is interested in this issue.
Unfortunately for most of those beings born as non-human animals over the last 1700 years or so, Christianity in general has encouraged people to use and abuse them and therefore repress our God given feelings of compassion. Anna Sewell, the author of Black Beauty, once said "There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion but if it does not teach people to be good and kind to the beasts as well as man then it is all a sham." So in these terms most of Christianity has been a sham. Certainly, many good works for the poor have been done in the name of Christianity, but so have many barbarous activities and scams. I personally had to confront the possibility that Jesus Christ gave no moral worth to the non-human animals. I decided that if this were the case then I could give no credence to him or his teachings at all. The preceding arguments in favour of a vegetarian Jesus were stumbled upon by myself and are the result of much investigation by dedicated people. This leaves me in the position of having to give credence to the teachings of Jesus Christ and this is somewhat uncomfortable as I don't measure up to many of the standards that he apparently believed in. These days I take comfort in his words "Blessed are the merciful for mercy will be shown to them" and as one Buddhist teacher put it: "If you can only practice one thing in this life then let it be compassion". The Buddha is also quoted as saying, "Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good , the benefit, the welfare of all beings, that doctrine believe and cling to, and take as your guide."
Akers, Keith. The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity. Lantern Books, New York, 2000.
Kaufman, Stephen R and Braun, Nathan. Good News for All Creation: Vegetarianism as Christian Stewardship. Vegetarian Advocates Press, 2004.