Christianity and Animal Rights, Part 1
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10

This is the first of a series of essays that will make a case for incorporating the secular ethic of animal rights into Christianity. I will argue that we cannot avoid bringing extra-biblical knowledge and experience to our reading and interpretation of the Bible. Although the Bible does not explicitly endorse animal rights, I am convinced that animal rights is consistent with Scriptures and, crucially, Scriptures lose much of their meaning and relevance for humanity and for the rest of Creation if it fails to embrace animal rights. This week’s essay sets some groundwork for this thesis by showing that secular, non-biblical knowledge and experiences not only influence our interpretations of the Bible, they are essential for making the Bible comprehensible.

We make sense of the countless observations and experiences we encounter every day by applying our vast resources of knowledge and personal experiences to everything we do and experience, including deciding what to eat for breakfast to comprehending the sport pages. By the same token, without prior knowledge and experiences that comes from all facets of our lives, the Bible’s sayings and stories would make no sense to us. Because our experiences and knowledge bases differ, each of us receives the Bible in our own, unique ways. There is considerable overlap, of course, particularly among people with similar cultures and who have had similar life experiences, but no two people receive any aspect of the Bible in the exact same way, just as each snowflake is similar and also unique.

Another way in which we are all unique is that none of us has the same language. Our understanding of the meaning of words comes from how we have heard or understood the words used. There is usually sufficient overlap in our understandings of words’ definitions to allow us to communicate with each other. When this overlap is not as close, misunderstandings can occur, which is more common among people who do not share the same native language. Most fundamentally, words don’t have absolute meaning. Words only gain meaning by virtue of how they relate to other words. A chair, for example, is understood by how it relates to words such as “seat” and “legs” and how it differs from other words such as “couch.” “Courage” obtains meaning by how it relates to “perseverance,” “risk-taking,” “cowardice,” and many other words.

Translators have been challenged by this situation. For example, they have tried to infer what ancient Hebrew words mean by how they are used elsewhere in the text. However, there is inherent uncertainty in this process, particularly when it comes to seldom-used words. For the same reason, it is difficult to discern the meaning of the Greek words of the New Testament, particularly since the meaning of Greek words (as is true of words in all languages) evolved over time. Adding to the difficulties, subtleties of meanings are invariably lost when translating from one language to another, because all languages have many words that reflect the unique culture of the people using that language. When translating, aspects of the meaning of words are often lost. Assuming that Jesus’ words and actions were faithfully recorded (an assumption about which scholars have raised doubts), we have Jesus speaking in Aramaic, which was translated into Greek, which was then translated into other languages, including English.

I hope readers will stay with me over the next few essays as I make a Christian case for animal rights.

Go to Part 2

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