The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973


Vegetarianism and the Early Church

By Terence Lane

From The Vegan (Winter 1974)

(I use the more widely known term Vegetarians, which of course will include Vegans for the purpose of this paper.)
The Bible and other writings are often quoted against us; but let us look more closely at the question and see what we can find.
We will use the Authorised Version of the Bible and will not quote from material later than 300 A.D., and only from recognised Early Christian authorities, using works which can be found in any good theological library. There are many pseudo-Gospels and Acts, many of which are interesting and informative, but as they are doubtful for our purpose, we will ignore them. The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls has widened the view of Biblical scholars.
Regarding the term "meat" in the scriptures - this does not mean flesh, but merely food of all descriptions.
It is obvious that God intended the world to live on a vegetarian diet for we find in Genesis 1. 29/30, "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat: and it was so." You will see that not only men were to be vegetarians, but the animal kingdom and even the insects were to live on the green herb.
Idealism is expressed many times in the Old Testament, especially in the well-known passages in Isaiah, then all the animals shall lie down together and "the lion shall eat straw like the ox and they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain." A vegetarian diet was more common among the Israelites than most of us believe. We have the four Israelite princes, in Daniel, who refused all food except pulses and water, and after a test, they amazed the King Nebuchadnezzar.
Coming to New Testament times, all the Gospels tell us that John the Baptist lived on locust beans and wild honey. We are told by Eusebius (264-340 A.D.) the historian of the early church, that James, the Lord's brother, abstained from animal food and fermented liquors and, in addition, wore linen and not woollen garments. Jesus had four brothers and two sisters and one wonders if this was a vegetarian household. James was very influential in the early church and became the leader in Jerusalem after the death of Jesus. John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus and it is now generally assumed that James and John the Baptist were Essenes. The Essenes were a strong movement at the time, as set out in Josephus and other writers, and although not mentioned in the New Testament, they seem to have been as prominent as the Pharisees. They were a vegetarian group. We know more about them since the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
We know that Peter and Matthew were vegetarians; Peter took bread and olives (Clementine Homilies, Clement of Rome, died about 100 AD); Matthew lived on seeds and nuts, fruit and vegetables without flesh (Clement of Alexandria, died about 200 AD). The Clementine Homilies also tells us that Jesus put out the fires under the altars when he cleared the money changers out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Was this because He objected to animal sacrifice? He often quoted from Hosea "The Lord requires mercy and not sacrifice -". Paul may also have been a vegetarian because he said both in Romans 14-21 and 1st Corinthians 8-13 "- It is good neither to eat flesh nor to drink wine ---"
The question of Jesus eating fish is difficult - nowhere does it actually say he actually did eat fish, except in the dubious event, after the Resurrection on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus in all the appearances after the Crucifixion, is shown as a shadowy figure, - often his disciples did not at first recognise him - so we can discount his actually eating or taking part in other forms of normal life. You will remember he disappeared as quickly as he appeared. He was no doubt often present before the Crucifixion, at meals when fish and possibly meat was eaten, but he may not have eaten such food himself. Personally, I feel that he was a vegetarian.
There is also the question of the Last Supper. It is now generally accepted that John's chronology is correct and the Last Supper was not the Passover meal but an ordinary supper on the evening before the Passover; so the sacrificial lamb would not be used.
Both Luke and John mention that many other works were written about Jesus and it is a pity that they are nearly all lost and only odd little fragments remain. Some have been found on leaves of papyrus, dug up in the dry sand and some quoted in works of the early Christian Fathers.
Papias, a disciple of John, who died about 160 AD, wrote five books on the Sayings of the Lord. Only scraps have come down to us. One which is too long to quote, visualises plenteous Harvest of grapes, wheat, fruits, seeds, grass and herbs and continues " - all animals using for their foods what is received from the earth, shall become peaceful and in concord -". A further saying from another source is " I came to put an end to sacrifice -".
To sum up, it seems that vegetarians can take a more positive line in regard to the Bible and other works of the early Christian Church and insist that the "Meateaters" should read the Scriptures more intelligently. Origen (one of the Christian  Fathers, martyred in AD 202) thought that the Gospels were the Word of God, but should be read in the Light of the Spirit, which can sift the Truth in the Bible. Tertullian (another of the Christian Fathers died 220AD) used a now lost Latin version of the Gospels, because he felt that the Greek version was corrupt. Comparison between the doctrines of the Essenes and the Sermon on the Mount suggest that Jesus was familiar with them. Mention of them may have been suppressed at a very early date. Vegetarianism may have been more widely spread in the early church than is apparent in the New Testament.
Reproduced with thanks to the Vegan Society.

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