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



CREDO: Vegetarianism and the Bible

From The Vegetarian of July/August 1982:

It can happen to us all: that moment when beliefs clash, yet both seem worthy. Vegetarianism is a joy we wish to share with the world, but not all beliefs share its concern about meat consumption. One such is that of the Christian Church.

Of course, there are Christian vegetarians; Christian teaching does not condemn such a life-style. Non-vegetarian Christians can, however, refer to meat eating in the Bible, as evidence that God allows such a diet. How does the vegetarian pursue his case in this potentially difficult situation?

George Bernard Shaw commented wisely that the correct way to reach a man is "through his own religion, not yours". Any answer must be sought in the Bible.

The first thing to realise is that only in comparitively recent usage has 'meat' come to mean exclusively animal flesh. In biblical times the word meant any food, as some passages show. (1)

In early times, before the Flood (perhaps about 1500 BC), that man was vegetarian is confirmed by other ancient texts. Herbs, seeds and fruit were eaten, (2) and later grains. (3) Immediately after the Flood, God instructed Noah about life in the newly cleansed earth. For the first time man is told, "Every moving thing that lives shall be meat for you." (4)

From this passage we must concede that the Christian God allows the eating of animal flesh. The next verse, however, makes a clear exception: blood must not be eaten. (5)

The Old Testament has many references to food. The staple was grains and flour, supplemented with fruits, nuts, beans, herbs and vegetables, eggs, butter, milk and honey. It becomes clear that animal flesh was only eaten during festivals, or when a guest visited. The rich may have eaten it more frequently, but it was not an everyday food.

In the time of Moses, God gave man much more detailed rules, listing "clean and unclean" foods. (6) Unfortunately, the examples given do not rule out much from the conventional Western diet. But swine, hare and rabbit (coney) are specifically named as unclean, (7) and as fish-eating birds are forbidden, the eating of duck might be questioned. Sea-creatures with fins and scales are permitted, which rules out lobsters, crabs and shellfish.

Blood is rather discussed, (8) and man eating it will be "cut off from among his people". (9) Blood had to be thoroughly drained from all meat, a practice still followed by the Jews, who will only eat "kosher" meat. Animal fat has a similar prohibition in the Old Testament, (10) though non-food purposes were allowed. We also learn that the law against eating blood and fat is a "perpetual statute". (11) Divine punishment came to those ignoring these laws. (12)

In the New Testament, the diet of the typical Hebrew family was still mainly vegetarian. I can find only one specific reference to Jesus eating meat or fish, (13) though others may be claimed by implication. Abstention from blood is recorded among the early Christians, (14) a practise historians believe continued for some centuries.

Jesus does make two references to eating. One is a parable in which He says it is not that which is taken into the mouth which defiles a man, but that which comes out (i.e. spoken), (15) which can be taken to imply there is no longer any restriction on food. This makes the later reference to blood abstention above confusing.

The second is an instruction to disciples about to embark upon missionary work to "eat things as are set before you." (16) It could equally be interpreted as a concession to avoid offence among the peoples they will meet, thus easing the mission.

After the death of Christ, the Apostle Paul refers often to food in his letters.. He believes that everything on earth has been provided for man by God, and should be received with thanksgiving. He repeats that we may eat all that is set before us, (17)and refers to differing views as to which foods are permissable. (18)

This is a reference to the evident disagreements among early Christians about the nature of their teaching. The resultant contradictions in the New Testament have received much debate, and are evident upon study of the Gospels and Epistles. Paul's interpretation may not be the correct one.

Paul concludes that it is all right to eat everything, but to abstain from flesh if others present might be offended. (19) He over-rules the Law of Moses, giving Jesus as his authority. (20) Against this must stand the words of Jesus: "I come not to destroy the law... but to fulfil." (21) Jesus also supports the Mosaic Law in John. (22) Unfortunately, He is not recorded as specifically speaking about animal flesh as food in like manner to Paul. It is from Paul's writings that the present Christian view mainly derives.

We must conclude that meat was eaten in the Bible, but on nothing like the present scale. Feasts including animal flesh are not often mentioned. Proverbs actually singles out "riotous eaters of flesh" in a passage condemning gluttony. (23) Fat, and particularly blood, are expressly forbidden in any form. Interestingly, they are still listed as sins among the wrongs of Israel in Ezekiel's prophetic vision of a future judgement before the coming of the New Jerusalem. (24) Daniel and his companions gain "knowledge and skill in learning and wisdom" by choosing pulses and water instead of meat and wine. (25)

No harm can come from making these points. Remember, too, that the Bible respects vegetarianism.

Finally, there can be no argument with the statement that cruelty is unChristian, or that an important part of Christian life is kindness. With this in mind, all Christians would be wise to familiarise themselves with the methods of modern animal husbandry, methods which are supported by all who buy intensively produced meat. Is such treatment of animals Christian? Is it a Christian act to support it? These are questions all people should be asking themselves.

Or, more correctly, asking God.

Chris Hall

References: (1) Genesis 1:29-30; Ezekiel 47:12. (2) Genesis 1:29-30; 2-16. (3) Genesis 4:2 (4) Genesis 9:3. (5) Genesis 9:4. (6) Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14:3-21. (7) Leviticus 11:5-8; Deuteronomy 14:7-8. (8) Leviticus 7:26-27; 17:10-16; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23-24; 15:23. (9) Leviticus 17:10. (10) Leviticus 7:22-25 (11) Leviticus 3:17. (12) l Samuel 14:32-37; Isaiah 66:17; Ezekiel 33:25, 29. (13) Luke 24: 42-43. (14) Acts 15:20, 29. (15) Matthew 15:11, 17; Mark 7:15-20. (16) Luke 10: 7-8. (17) I Corinthians 10:27. (18) Romans 14:2, 20; I Corinthians 8:8. (19) See Romans 14: 1-3; 14-23; I Corinthians 8:4-13; 10:25-33; I Timothy 4:3-5. (20) Hebrews 2:9, 14; 3:1-6. (21) Matthew 5:17. (22) John 7:19. (23) Proverbs 23:20. (24) Ezekiel 39:17-19. (25) Daniel Chapter 1.

Reproduced with the kind permission of the Vegetarian Society:

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