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Loaves and Fishes

Jesus' miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes is often cited as evidence that he did not favor the vegetarian way of life. His first disciples Simon, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus called them away from their livelihood. "Follow me," he commanded, "and I will make you fishers of men."

Jesus then performed a miracle illustrating that God can easily provide for human sustenance. He wanted people to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. (Matthew 6:8, 26-33; Luke 12:24-31) On the Lake of Gennesaret, Jesus told Simon to drop his nets. Huge numbers of fish were caught to the point where the nets began to break and the boat began to sink. The fish presumably went back into the lake. Simon knelt before Jesus and called himself a sinner. "Do not be afraid," Jesus replied. "From now on you will be catching men." They forsook all and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)

After John the Baptist's execution, Jesus withdrew into solitude. The multitudes followed him on foot from the cities. Jesus healed many. When evening came, his disciples said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food." And Jesus replied, "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat."

"Shall we go and buy them two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?" they asked. "We have here only five barley loaves and two fish," which had been given to the disciples by a boy in the crowd. Jesus took the loaves and the fish, "and looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes." Over five thousand ate and were satisfied. (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:11-17; John 6:9)

On another occasion, Jesus multiplied seven loaves and a few fish for over four thousand people. Jesus explained: "I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with me three days and have nothing to eat. And I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way." (Matthew 15:32-38; Mark 8:1-9)

Jesus raised no objection to the eating of already dead fish when there was no other food available. This is consistent with the vegetarian way of life. The prophet Elisha raised people from the dead. (II Kings 4:32-37) Elisha also multiplied twenty barley loaves to feed one hundred men. (II Kings 4:42-44) Jesus appears to have repeated the same miracle on a larger scale, using what little resources were available to him.

Matthew 14:19 reads as follows: "he took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes." This text implies only loaves, and not fish were multiplied to give the crowds something to eat.

Jesus' own recollection of the events suggest only loaves were multiplied. Jesus warned his disciples about "the yeast (teachings) of the Pharisees and Sadducees." The disciples, having forgotten to bring bread, misunderstood. "O you of little faith," exclaimed Jesus. "Do you not... remember the five loaves of the five thousand... the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up?" (Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 8:14-21)

The Fourth Gospel describes the event in almost mystical terms. Jesus multiplied five barley loaves and two fish for over five thousand. Yet he later told the crowds, "I say to you, you seek me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you... I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst."

These verses suggest Jesus really satisfied the multitudes spiritually, giving them "the food which endures to everlasting life." (John 6:1-35)

According to contemporary Christian teacher Abbot George Burke, "...there is a very interesting distinction made between the bread and the fish in the Gospels of Saints Matthew (14:19), Mark (6:41) and John (6:11). When writing of the feeding of the five thousand, all three Evangelists are careful to note that Jesus first took the bread, blessed it, divided it and gave it for distribution. But the fish He simply gave for distribution! He gave no blessing to the eating of fish because it was not given by God to man for food. Moreover, since it was already dead He did not kill anything -- He just made more of it."

The New Testament mentions the feeding of the multitudes on four separate occasions, and fish is listed as one of the items present. However, the church father Irenaeus, in his great thesis Against Heresies (180-188 AD), wrote: "He there, seeing a great crowd had followed Him, fed all that multitude with five loaves of bread and twelve baskets of fragments remained over and above." Irenaeus makes no mention of fish. In a later text, Irenaeus again says, "Our Lord after blessing the five loaves, fed with them five thousand men."

How do we explain this discrepancy? Our oldest existing Greek manuscript of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus, can be found in the British Museum. It was written in 331 AD. We have no New Testaments from before this time. It is possible that early copies of the gospels made no mention of fish being fed to the multitudes, while later copyists added this symbol in order to enhance the miracle.

Students of the Bible are familiar with the use of bread as a mystical symbol of Jesus' body, or divine substance. In the early Christian church, the fish was also a divine symbol. The symbol of the fish was a secret sign, used in times of persecution. It can be found in the catacombs of ancient Rome and it remains in popular use today. The Greek word for fish is "ichtus." This word was used in the early church as an acronym for the Greek phrase "Iesus Christos Theou Uious Soter," or "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."

The early church father Origen wrote, "while every passage of Scripture has a spiritual meaning, many passages have no other meaning, but that there is often a spiritual meaning under the literal fiction."

Gospel references to fish may be symbolic. The earliest depictions of the Eucharist in the catacombs were inspired by the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; believed to symbolize the Eucharist. A bishop in the early church wrote, "Faith hath provided me as my food a fish of exceedingly great size, and perfect, which a holy virgin drew with her hands from a fountain." In the 2nd century, the church father Tertullian wrote, "We little fish, after the image of our Ichtus (Fish) Jesus Christ, are born in the water."

"Jesus raised no objection to the eating of already dead fish when there was no other food available..."

This passage is consistent with the vegetarian way of life by not killing, since the fish were already dead, and in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Jesus didn't kill anything. This is the position of Abbot George Burke.

Jesus himself makes no mention of fish when recounting the miracle to his disciples, and neither does the early church father Irenaeus, in Against Heresies (180 - 188 AD).

Gospel references to fish may be symbolic. Jesus called his disciples away from fishing, saying, "I will make you fishers of men."

The Fourth Gospel describes the multiplication of loaves and fishes in almost mystical terms, suggesting Jesus really satisfied the multitudes spiritually, giving them "the food which endures to everlasting life." The fish symbol itself was widespread in early Christianity, and remains popular today.

James Dawson, raised Catholic and now a Buddhist, commented that Dr. Tony Page's attempts (in his 2000 book, Buddhism and Animals) to show from the Mahayana sutras that the Buddha advocated strict veganism is really stretching it, but worth studying further. Similarly, in the late '90s, Catholic vegetarian Al Fecko in Michigan shared some of his research suggesting that Abel might have offered milk rather than the fat of slaughtered animals. That still won't satisfy the vegans.

Along these lines, it's possible that when Jesus performed his miracle on the Lake of Gennesaret and the fish which were netted presumably went back into the lake. This won't satisfy the vegans, either! PETA literature points out that the "catch and release" of fish is cruel.

In his 1984 book, The Philosophy of Vegetarianism, professor Daniel Dombrowski studies the classical Greek and Roman vegetarian philosophies (the Pythagoreans and the Platonists) said there was no need for Christianity to have taken the anti-vegetarian turn which it did, and notes that while Jesus performed a miracle for others to eat fish, Pythagoras saved fish!

But even Pythagoras' paying fishermen to throw their catch back into the sea, would not satisfy the vegans, with PETA literature condemning "catch and release" as cruel. Ironically, Pythagoras himself claimed to have been a fisherman in a previous life.

First century Pythagoreanism is described in detail in The Life of Apollonius of Tiana. The ancient texts record this neoplatonic philosopher and miracle worker as having a divine birth, absorbing the wisdom of Pythagoras, practicing celibacy, vegetarianism, as well as voluntary poverty; healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, exorcising demons, foretelling the future, and teaching the innermost secrets of religion. Finally, the text says he never died, but went directly to heaven in a physical assumption.

Sound familiar?

The late Reverend Janet Regina Hyland (1933 - 2007) once commented wistfully, "Christians accept Jesus as the savior, but they (animal activists) want Pythagoras to be the savior."

Anglican priest Reverend Andrew Linzey says in Christianity and the Rights of Animals that Christian vegetarians do not have to claim it is always wrong to kill. There might be circumstances where one might have to eat flesh to keep from starving (a point admitted to by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in a 1973 conversation with French Roman Catholic Cardinal Jean Danielou) and that geographical considerations alone make it hard to envision Palestine in the first century without some kind of primitive fishing industry. But, Reverend Linzey says, when we are free to do otherwise, the killing of Spirit-filled living entities requires moral justification, and even then, it remains a consequence of original sin.

Bruce Friedrich, who distributed copies of his essay Veganism and Nonviolence to the Catholic Worker communities before finishing his degree at Grinnell College in Iowa and joining PETA in 1997, wondered if it's possible Lent was originally a vegan observance. (Animal rights groups in England are now promoting a Veg4Lent program, encouraging parishioners to make the transition to veganism). And the late Reverend Janet Regina Hyland (1933 - 2007) similarly wondered during that time if the original basis for vegetarianism in the Christian monastic communities was based upon the ethical treatment of animals, rather than asceticism.

That would be very hard to prove! As early as the third century, Origen (185 - 254 AD), whose influence upon the early church was second only to that of Augustine, and who openly espoused belief in reincarnation (and belief in rebirth in lower species as a punishment for sinning), followed the epistles of Paul and contrasted Christian asceticism with the vegetarianism of the Pythagoreans, when debating the Pythagoreans in Contra Celsum. He wrote:

"...when we do abstain (from eating meat), we do so because 'we keep under our body and bring it into subjection' (I Corinthians 9:27), and desire 'to mortify our members that are upon the earth, fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence' (Colossians 3:5); and we use every effort to 'mortify the deeds of the flesh.' (Romans 8:13)"

Similarly, in his 2004 book, The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, Norm Phelps, Spiritual Outreach Director for the Fund For Animals says the debate in Romans 14 concerns whether or not it is acceptable for Christians to eat food offered to pagan idols -- like Krishna-prasadam -- Madhavendra Puri dasa (Steve Bernath) of the Bhaktivedanta Institute reports that at a Jewish-Vaishnava interfaith conference in 1986, none of the rabbis would take prasadam, because they considered it food offered to idols... whereas Catholic and Episcopal clergy have defended Krishna devotees from charges of "idolatry" from Christian fundamentalists and have favorably compared prasadam with the Eucharist.

Norm Phelps says Paul was not discussing vegetarianism based upon the ethical treatment of animals. "That issue isn't even on Paul's radar screen!" says Norm.

Apologists might argue that issue was "decided" after the Flood, but Paul (and the gnostics that followed him) rejected the Law and the Old Testament.

In the late '90s, when someone wrote into the Animals' Agenda saying how Dr. Laura Schlesinger had said, "After the Flood, all bets are off for animals," Dr. Richard Schwartz wrote in and said animal activists should follow the example of Bruce Friedrich, highlighting the humane and compassionate teachings of Jesus.

In the late '90s, Rachel MacNair, past president of Feminists For Life, and a vegan Quaker pacifist, moderated an email list for pro-life vegetarians and vegans (debunking the Republican lie that animal activists are all pro-choice). She said she was put off by the Catholic doctrine of vegetarianism as "penance," rather than seeing it as life-affirming: respect for all life... like being pro-life!

Is carrying a child to term "penance"?

"Both Hegisuppus and Augustine, 'orthodox' sources, testify that James (the brother of Jesus) was not only a vegetarian, but was raised a vegetarian,' writes Keith Akers in the 1986 (updated) edition of A Vegetarian Sourcebook. "If Jesus' parents raised James as a vegetarian, why would they not also be vegetarian themselves and raise Jesus as a vegetarian?"

Christianity remained a part of Judaism even after the death and resurrection of Jesus. From the Acts of the Apostles (2:22), we learn that St. Peter believed Jesus to be "a man certified by God..."

It was God who made Jesus Lord and Messiah (2:36), and they hoped Jesus would soon "restore the kingdom of Israel" (1:6) The first Jewish Christians went to Temple daily (2:46), celebrated the festival of Weeks (2:1), observed the Sabbath (1:12), and continued to worship the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob..." (3:13)

Christ's return, Judgment Day, and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth were believed to be imminent. The earliest generations of Christians lived with this expectation. (Matthew 24:29-25:46; Mark 13:24-37; Luke 21:25-36; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; James 5:7-9; I Peter 5:7; II Peter 3:3-12; I John 2:18; Jude 17-18; Revelations 22:20). Vegetarianism was practiced in expectation of Christ's coming kingdom. Among the various early Christian sects, the Montanists practiced vegetarianism with the belief that Christ would soon return.

From history, we learn that the earliest Christians were vegetarians as well as pacifists. For example, Clemens Prudentius, the first Christian hymn writer, in one of his hymns exhorts his fellow Christians not to pollute their hands and hearts by the slaughter of innocent cows and sheep, and points to the variety of nourishing and pleasant foods obtainable without blood-shedding.

Seneca (5 BC - 65 AD), a leading Stoic philosopher and a tutor of Nero, was an ardent vegetarian. He started a vegetarian movement during one of Rome's most decadent periods. Yet he had to abandon his cause. The early Christians were vegetarian. The Emperor became suspicious that Seneca might also be a Christian, so he went back to eating animal flesh. He wrote:

"Certain foreign religions (Christianity) became the object of the imperial suspicion and amongst the proofs of adherence to the foreign culture or superstition was that of abstinence from the flesh of animals. At the earnest entreaty of my father, I was induced to return to my former habits."

Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia, where Peter had preached, wrote a letter to Trajan, the Roman Emperor, describing the early Christian practices:

"...they met on a day before it was light (before sunrise) and addressed a form of prayer to Christ as to a god, binding themselves by a solemn oath never to commit any sin or evil and never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust, after which it was their custom to meet again to take food, but ordinary and innocent food."

The church father Irenaeus preserved a fragment of a quote by Papias, disciple of John the Evangelist:

"Papias related how the elders and John heard the Lord teach that creation renewed and liberated shall yield an abundance of all kinds of food, seeds, grass, fruits, grains, and flour in corresponding proportion, and that all animals will use these foods and become in turn peaceful and in harmony with another and with man."

This teaching of Jesus corresponds to the vision of peace and vegetarianism given in Isaiah (11:6-9, 65:25).

Clement I, Bishop of Rome, in an epistle to the Corinthians (AD 88 - 97) similarly wrote: "Perennial springs, created for enjoyment... offer their life giving breasts to man and even the smallest of animals that they get together in peace. All things the Creator ordered to be in peace and harmony... take refuge through our Lord Jesus Christ."

The Clementine Homilies, Ebionite or Jewish Christian teachings written during the 2nd century, give us a picture of the life of Clement I, Bishop of Rome. Clement is portrayed as a spiritual seeker, going to various schools of thought, looking for solutions to his doubts about the origin of the world, the immortality of the soul, etc. Eventually, he hears about how Jesus appeared in Judea. He undertakes a long journey through Egypt to Palestine, where he meets the apostle Peter in Caesarea. Clement becomes a Christian and is invited by Peter to accompany him on his missionary journeys.

The text includes debates between Peter and Simon Magus. Peter refers to Jesus as "Teacher" and "Master," teaches Clement to love his enemies and persecutors, insists upon the renunciation of worldly goods, and connects flesh-eating to idolatry. In the Clementine Homilies, we read:

"The unnatural eating of flesh-meats is as polluting as the heathen worship of devils, with its sacrifices and impure feasts, through participation in which a man becomes a fellow-eater with devils."

Steven Rosen comments in his 1987 book, Food for the Spirit: Vegetarianism and the World Religions: "Who are we to argue with St. Peter?"

Secular scholar Keith Akers writes in his as of yet unpublished manuscript, Broken Thread, The Fate of the Jewish Followers of Jesus in Early Christianity:

"...a list of known vegetarians among the church leaders reads very much like a Who's Who in early Christianity. Peter is described as a vegetarian in the Recognitions and Homilies. Hegesippus, quoted by Eusebius, said that James (the brother of Jesus) was a vegetarian and was raised as a vegetarian. Clement of Alexandria thought that Matthew was a vegetarian...

"According to Eusebius, the apostles -- all the apostles, and not just James -- abstained from both meat and wine, thus making them vegetarians and teetotalers, just like James. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nanziance, John Chrysostom, and Tertullian were all probably vegetarians, based on their writings... they themselves are evidently vegetarian and can be counted on to say a few kind words about vegetarianism. On the other hand, there are practically no references to any Christians eating fish or meat before the council of Nicaea...

"Thus vegetarianism was practiced by the apostles, by James the brother of Jesus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nanziance, John Chrysostom, Tertullian, Bonaventure, Arnobius, Cassian, Jerome, the Desert Fathers, Paul (the Hermit), Antony, Hilarion, Machrius, Columbanus, and Aresenius -- but not by Jesus himself!

"It is as if everyone understood the message except the messenger. This is extremely implausible. The much more likely explanation is that the original tradition was vegetarian..."

In the (updated) 1986 edition of A Vegetarian Sourcebook, Keith Akers concludes: "But many others, both orthodox and heterodox, testified to the vegetarian origins of Christianity. both Athansius and his opponent Arius were strict vegetarians. Many early church fathers were vegetarian, including Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Heironymus, Boniface, and John Chrysostom.

"Many of the monasteries both in ancient times and at the present day practiced vegetarianism... The requirement to be vegetarian has been diluted considerably since the earliest days, but the practice of vegetarianism was continued by many saints, monks, and laymen. Vegetarianism is at the heart of Christianity."

In her 1991 essay, "The Bible and Peace and War," Ursula King asks, "...how are we to explain that Jesus, the founder of Christianity, is often called 'the Prince of Peace' and yet Western civilization so deeply shaped by the Christian story which is clearly pacifist in origin and essence, has become so militaristic from an early stage in its history?"

King quotes Christian pacifist John Ferguson from War and Peace in the World's Religions, "The historic association of the Christian faith with nations of commercial enterprise, imperialistic expansion and technological advancement has meant that Christian peoples, although their faith is one of the most pacifistic in its origins, have a record of military activity second to none."

According to King, "In the early Church, pacifism was the dominant position up to the reign of Constantine, when Christianity became a state religion. Until then no Christian author approved of Christian participation in battle, whereas in AD 314 the Council of Arles decreed that Christians who gave up their arms in time of peace should be excommunicated."

Robin Gill has written: "The situation of the pre-Constantine church appears all the more remarkable when it is realized that no major Christian church or denomination has been consistently pacifist since Constantine. Indeed, Christian pacifism has been largely confined to a small group of sects, such as the Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Brethren and Jehovah's Witnesses. Further, pacifists within the churches, as distinct from sects, have in times of war been barely tolerated by their fellow Christians."

Vegetarians are like pacifists. Just as there have been persons throughout history morally opposed to militarism and war, so have there been vegetarians, morally opposed to killing animals. Like pacifists or pro-lifers, vegetarianism in itself is merely an ethic, but has served as the basis for entire religious traditions: Buddhism, Jainism, Pythagoreanism, and possibly early Christianity immediately come to mind. (According to vegetarian historian Rynn Berry, the evidence -- Scriptural, theological, historical, etc. -- that Jesus was a vegetarian is circumstancial, but nonetheless compelling.)

St. Peter referred to Jesus as "a man certified by God." (Acts 2:22) Victor Paul Wierwille, founder of The Way International, wrote an entire book on the subject, entitled, Jesus Christ Is Not God. It is unclear to some Christians, having studied the Sanskrit literatures, whether Jesus is jiva-tattva (one of God's children, like ourselves) or vishnu-tattva (an expansion of God Himself, like the Trinitarian conception).

And is God limited to expanding Himself into a mere Trinity? According to secular scholar Keith Akers, the Valentinian gnostics believed God could expand Himself into multiple Supreme Beings yet still remain one, and the Valentinian gnostics referred to these thirty manifestations of the Deity with names like Father, Only-Begotten, Word, Life, Faith, Hope, Love, Grace, Church, Advocate, etc.

According to Dr. Klaus Klostermaier, Vaishnavas, or the worshippers of Lord Vishnu, like their Christian brethren, view Jesus Christ differently. "Some Vaishnavas consider him an avatar or some kind of divine incarnation. Others see him as a great teacher of moral codes and ethical principles, a saint whose selfless spirit of sacrifice is a great inspiration to mankind. Then there are those who see him as a miracle worker, a sort of yogi... There are quite diverse conceptions of Christ both in the minds of Vaishnavas and in the minds of Christians.

"Peter's confession to Jesus, saying, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God' ... Now, this becomes a difficult passage to explain to Hindus... Isvar ke putr -- 'the son of God' -- is a very common expression in Hindu India. In the epics and Puranas are countless stories of 'sons of gods' -- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva beget sons from princesses and queens. Hindus will say: 'What is so special about Jesus? We are all sons of God.' So the idea does not convey the notion of uniqueness as it does in the West."

Pro-life feminist Mary Krane Derr (1963 - 2012), a vegetarian, served as guest editor for a special online issue of Studies in Pro-Life Feminism in the Fall of 1998, which can be viewed online at www.fnsa.org .

Pax Christi USA contributed an article to the Fall 1998 issue, "Radical Roman Catholics Affirm a Seamless Garment Position." The Seamless Garment Network (SGN) is a coalition of peace and justice organizations on the religious left, taking a stand against war, abortion, poverty, racism, the arms race, the death penalty, and euthanasia. The missing doctrine in restoring the church to its pristine condition is not giving up the false doctrine of the godhood of Jesus, but rather embracing vegetarianism, which was arguably, like pacifism, an original part of church teaching.

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