Was Jesus a vegan? (older version)

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (public domain image)

NOTE (December 14, 2020): I’ve now expanded and revised this post here.

The historical Jesus, as I’ve argued elsewhere, was clearly vegetarian. To recap:  (1) The controversy in the early church over vegetarianism shows that the leadership of the early church promoted vegetarianism and opposed animal sacrifice. (2) The testimony of later Jewish Christianity echoed and preserved this vegetarian, anti-sacrifice tradition. (3) Jesus himself was killed after disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the temple. But can we say that Jesus was a vegan? This is somewhat trickier.

Most non-elite people in the Mediterranean in ancient times ate a vegan diet most of the time out of necessity. The main exception would be at festival times when animals were sacrificed and eaten. But we know that Jesus didn’t like animal sacrifice; his opposition to animal sacrifice was what got him killed. Dairy products and eggs were fairly uncommon in the ancient world, except among the elite classes. And Jesus was definitely not part of the elite class. So we can say that even with no direct historical evidence one way or the other about his diet, the historical Jesus probably never ate dairy products or eggs.

What about other animal products? James, the brother of Jesus, didn’t wear wool (according to Hegesippus). So James, at least, avoided at least one animal product.

Honey is more problematic. Jesus (in some versions of Luke) is presented as being offered honey after his resurrection (Luke 24:42-43), though this story is implausible as straight history. In the New Testament, John the Baptist eats locusts and honey. While the Ebionite (Jewish Christian) gospel rejected the idea of John the Baptist eating insects, they did think John ate honey. So that Jesus ate honey is hardly proven, but does seem possible.

The most serious problem for Jesus’ veganism is the use of animals for labor. In the ancient world, there was widespread use of animals for transportation and agriculture. Jesus is casually depicted as riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (e. g. Matthew 21:1-11).

What do we do with this story? We could argue that this is a later myth created after the fact, but do we therefore think that he never rode on a donkey? Or that he, or his family, never ate food grown with the help of animal labor? We might imagine Jesus walking everywhere, but it’s a bit of a stretch to see Jesus inquire about food offered to him, “was animal labor used in growing this food?”

Proverbs 12:10 says, “A righteous man cares for his beast, but a wicked man is cruel at heart.” This animal-friendly verse, however, presupposes a world in which humans are dependent on their “beast” for labor and transportation. Because this use of animals was so common, we could plausibly ask whether anyone before the industrial revolution was a strict vegan. So when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, does this prove that Jesus was not vegan?

We could plausibly appeal to the modern definition of veganism by the Vegan Society, which stipulates that we do not exploit animals “as far as possible and practical.” It was probably not possible or practical to avoid using animal labor in ancient times. Perhaps the best Jesus (or anyone else) could do would be to treat animals as fellow laborers in their household and to “care for their beast.”

There is a sharp contrast between the origins of the concepts of vegetarianism and veganism. Even though the word “vegetarian” comes from the 19th century, the concept of vegetarianism is clearly very ancient. This concept goes back to the beginnings of philosophy (Pythagoras) and religion (Buddha). It’s not hard to find ancient authors who complained about the eating of animal meat. But the concept of veganism is completely modern. It arose only after the advent of fossil fuels and farm machinery.

As far as I know, no one in ancient times rails against the hypocrites who don’t eat meat, but who do eat dairy products and eggs. There were some ancient injunctions against animal cruelty. For example, the verse from Proverbs cited above, the cow-cult in Hinduism, and the first precept of Buddhism, which (in some translations) enjoins us not to injure any sentient being.

These principles, though, seem to presuppose that humans will naturally use animals for some purposes, and only ask that this use be compassionate. This is a key reason why you often see lists of “famous vegetarians” that go back in time to ancient Greece, China, and India. But any list of “famous vegans” comes almost entirely from the 20th and 21st centuries.

We should be hesitant to hold people in ancient times to an impossible modern standard of ethical behavior. We should also be careful about condemning people in modern times who use animals for labor or transportation, when they live in poorer areas of the world where these are the most practical ways to get around or get things done. Finally, it is possible that in some post-collapse era of limited energy supplies, using animals for agriculture may again become a practical necessity.

If you are willing to countenance eating honey, it is quite probable that Jesus ate a vegan diet; and even if you aren’t, it’s still quite possible. If you are also willing to accept using animals for labor in ancient times on the grounds that totally avoiding animals was not practical or possible, then we can say that Jesus was vegan.

But we should remember that veganism is a modern and ambiguous concept. At its heart, ethical veganism is not about purity; it’s about compassion.

11 Replies to “Was Jesus a vegan? (older version)”

  1. Hi Keith,

    Nice blog. I agree that probably out of necessity animal labour was used in much of the ancient world. But there are a couple ancient vegan arguments.
    Porphyry (3rd Century) wrote: “If, however, someone should think it is unjust to destroy brutes, such a one should neither use milk, nor wool, nor sheep, nor honey. For as you injure a man by taking from him his garments, thus also, you injure a sheep by shearing it. . . . milk, likewise was not produced for you, but for the young of the animal that has it. The bee also collects honey as food for itself; which you, by taking away, administer to your own pleasure.”

    And Al-Ma’arri (10th-11th Century) wrote a poem:
    “I No Longer Steal from Nature

    You are diseased in understanding and religion.
    Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.
    Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
    And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
    Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught
    for their young, not noble ladies.
    And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;
    for injustice is the worst of crimes.
    And spare the honey which the bees get industriously
    from the flowers of fragrant plants;
    For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
    Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
    I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I
    Perceived my way before my hair went gray!”

    Both of which have vegan connotations. 🙂

    Quick question about point 1:
    “The controversy in the early church over vegetarianism shows that the leadership of the early church promoted vegetarianism and opposed animal sacrifice.”
    And maybe you addressed this in your book (I read them awhile ago), but in Acts 21:26 it mentions the Jerusalem church apparently requests Paul to make a purification sacrifice. Although it’s not explicitly clear what this was, but most purification sacrifices seems to be animals. Could you explain your thoughts on this? I know many things regarding Paul were contentious with the Jerusalem Church.

    1. Excellent comment! I stand corrected. I read Porphry’s “On Abstinence from Animal Food” years ago but had forgotten about it. But I had never heard of Al-Ma’arri. So perhaps we can describe Porphyry as history’s first known vegan!

      I discuss Acts 21:26 and related verses in Disciples, chapter 15 (pp. 150-159). The quick answer is that Acts has completely sanitized the disputes between Paul and the early Jerusalem church. The letters of Paul were written by an eye-witness and participant in these disputes. They contradict the book of Acts, written sometime in the second century, on numerous points, including this one. The later theological needs of Acts were to present Paul as slavishly following Jewish precepts, even though in this case animal sacrifice was one precept that Jesus and the Jerusalem church themselves vehemently rejected.

      1. After looking at the text again and discussing this a bit, Porphry is a bit more ambiguous than it seems. Porphyry does say (1.21) that “if” someone should “think it is unjust to destroy brutes”, then logically they should abstain from milk, honey, etc. But then later in that paragraph, he says “But if these things were produced for our sake, then the bee, being ministrant to us, elaborates honey, and the wool grows on the back of sheep, that it may be an ornament to us, and afford us a bland heat.”

        So what exactly is Porphyry saying? He seems to give arguments on both sides. It’s clear that he’s vegetarian, but does he think that wool and honey were “produced for our sake”? Later (2.36) he says that Pythagoreans and Pythagoras offered honey instead of animal sacrifices. At 2.13 it seems to be all right to take excess honey (“that which is useless to them, and beneficial to us”) from bees, which is a product of our own labor because we take care of the bees to enable them to produce this excess. Is he waffling, or just trying to explore the logic of the early Pythagoreans?

        On the other hand, from multiple other sources it appears that the Pythagoreans did not wear wool. (Neither did James, the brother of Jesus). On balance I think that Porphyry probably did not wear wool, because the Pythagorean tradition against wool appears in many different places, and he does appear to accept the premise of the statement that prefaces 1.21; it is unjust to destroy brutes. On ascetic grounds, he may not have eaten honey either, although he can’t find a good knock-down argument against honey. He clearly sees that animal products pose an ethical problem, but I can’t find anything explicitly in the text which states his position or his personal behavior.

  2. When the evidence is a toss up or something close to it, we need to start looking to the moral implications of what we choose to believe and assert. David Hume famously emphasized this. If he was right – and he was obviously right – then we should assume Jesus was some sort of ethical vegetarian, regardless of whether he was truly vegan.

  3. I am visiting this post after reading your Ebionite Christian Church I and II (with comment threads) and several of your related articles, Keith, and I want to reinforce how much I appreciate the seriousness and sensitivity of your reluctant church-growing inquiry. Clearly, you have a tremendous charism in this area, despite your legitimate reservations concerning the work and risk involved. As you know, I was desperately anxious to find my home in a Coloradoan “vegan Christian church” back in the mid-2010s. At that time I suffered from an excess of manically alarmed idealism over practical resources, if not from one or two delusions of vegan grandeur. Now I still tell myself that I am serious as a vegan constitutionalist (without so much as a law degree), but I am much more tentative and patient in my contemplation of a possible religious calling, including the question of a religious response to the work you are doing in Denver. I am not even certain it is responsible to call myself a “Christian,” for both terminological and normative reasons. Wrestling with your contribution to the discipline is an important part of my discernment process.

    There is a curious relationship between Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and Don T-rump moving the US emb-ass-y into Jerusalem – for those with an interest in the possible significance of such linguistic peculiarities. This is not to say that White House staff are necessarily administering a professional Jesus complex. But Trump did sign a new law making cruelty to animals a federal crime back in November of 2019. A good abolitionist start, or federal overreach?

    May I also add to your good earlier discussion of the fish stories that Pisces (the fish) and Virgo (the grain) are directly opposite one another in the tropical zodiac (with relevance to the biblical Jewish calendar). So the grain and the fish go together in a precessional dispensational bucket (created by the celestial dome) in a way that would be apparent to some readers of the text. But I do not mean to absolutely assert that Rabbi Yeshua must therefore have been a pesco-vegetarian dispensationalist pending the synthetic B-12 rapture.

    Ethical vegetarians and vegans may be out of the contemporary Christian majority, but we are not necessarily out of the eschatological Christian majority, and we may not even be condemned to contemporary heterodoxy – relative to certain Catholic religious orders, for example – depending on how all other ethical and doctrinal issues are resolved in lived fellowship.

    A few scholars argue that some of the references to honey in the Tanakh are in fact references to cannabis resin, and that Rabbi Yeshua himself may have dispensed a medical cannabis chrism. This seems far more challenging to the majority Christian viewpoint than the ethical vegetarianism of Jesus, but perhaps these two biblical interpretations both poll down near the bottom at present! Or we might take issue with Yeshua’s references to porneia – just how sexually strict do we think Jesus may have been? Are some of these verses false, too? If the old can be saved, but only after it has been edited, then who determines what gets cut, and under what claims, to reasonable degrees of independent scholarship, life experience and divine inspiration?

    Let us agree for the moment that Jesus was as vegan as the historical circumstances responsibly allowed, with a gentle sense of what we mean by “vegan” that is both more narrowly plant-based (under good circumstances) than “vegetarian,” yet more broadly pacifistic/abolitionist than “plant-based,” and simultaneously more empathetic toward all Christians and persons of goodwill than a rigorous doctrine of dietary exclusion might otherwise tend to suggest. Do we also agree that the discovery and mass synthesis of B-12, coterminous with the emergence of modern veganism and several other signs, including nuclear power, must strike at least some of us as a dispensational progression of the Gospel? Is there something about our discovery and synthesis of B-12, in other words, on top of all our other nutritional knowledge, that fundamentally clarifies the Gospel of non-violence equation? That Rabbi Yeshua therefore MAY have been a little something of a pesco-vegetarian dispensationalist pending the synthetic B-12 rapture?

    You may be familiar with the Fourteen Precepts of the (vegan) Order of Interbeing (Buddhism) founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. If so, I wonder what you think of these precepts as a potential example for the church discernment discussion underway here? This is a semi-rhetorical question for possible discussion the next time you take a look at Buddhism.

    This is already far too much to load you up with in a single comment, but at some point down the road, perhaps you can address whether you are familiar with the work of the retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, and specifically with “The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love” (2009)? His YouTube talk on the same topic is striking and appears quite relevant to some of the questions we are wrestling with.

    Thanks for your excellent work, and the patience with my comments. The amount of labor and love involved in this blog is humbling. I do not expect a response unless and except as time allows.

    1. I have long since given up any attempts to influence Christianity, and don’t have any contacts with local Christian groups. It’s a worthy cause but not the best use of my time. It’s true that there were no ancient vegan B-12 supplements, but there was no need, because B-12 was in the dirt and was everywhere. Today, our food supply is so “hygienic” that even cattle need B-12 supplementation.

      I am familiar with, and practice in, the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, who is vegan and who asks all his lay followers to be vegan at least 15 days out of the month. I was under the impression that many people in the Order of Interbeing are not vegan and that (the first precept or “mindfulness training” notwithstanding) veganism was not a formal requirement. I haven’t actually made inquiries or a survey, I just observe that of the people I know in OI, many are not vegans and some even feel a bit defensive on the subject. One advantage of Buddhism (at least the Plum Village strand) over Christianity is that in the world of Plum Village, vegans can position themselves as the “traditionalists” rather than the radical fringe. It’s much easier to take the message to them than to the Christians. The parable of the sower comes to mind here.

      1. While you may not see yourself as a virtual vegan Christian minister, Keith, that is how many readers may first come to know you, is it not? I myself am wanting to use virtual Covid-19 shelter-in-place community-building as a valid steppingstone back into some local group work. Your blog is helping me sort that all out. Perhaps OI is better than UU. Perhaps I should start a meetup. Perhaps I am failing to see the best way forward.

        Before my morning meditation today: easy to defend Jesus, hard to defend myself, hardest to defend American Christians. After my morning meditation: easy to defend Jesus, harder to defend American Christians, hardest to defend myself.

        Put another way: Jesus invites me to contemplate whether there is a risk our conversation might turn inquiring, churched vegans-to-be away from the body of believers? And if so, is this not problematic? Do we thereby become a stumbling block not only to faith in the body of Christ, but in the body of all the Abraham traditions? As a vegan, I daily experience gratitude for a multitude of non-vegan goods, services and products that make my mental health recovery possible. Things like the heat in my room, or this computer interface between us, with all of the intermediate non-vegan families who are keeping it running, so that we can make the best use of our time.

        Am I closing myself off from daily expression of love and appreciation for the good done by all of these non-vegans, because they are not called by God to subscribe to my opinion of what Basic Interspecies Law should be in my version of an interfaith vegan Zionist satellite state? Honestly, sometimes no, sometimes yes. That is why it is fair to say that I am still very much working to express two opposing but complementary truths: some vegans need their own communities and even their own state(s), but all vegans need to love their non-vegan neighbors as children of God like themselves.

        While I am fairly convinced that B-12 rich soil clinging to the tubers first chewed raw and eventually cooked over fire by our increasingly amylase-mouthed ancestors is the key to understanding our species’ large brain size, I am not so convinced that B-12 was widely enough available, except from animal products, after urbanization. I’d need to review some scientific literature to feel more comfortable with your assertion here.

        I had no idea OI was this factionalized on the ground over veganism. But I am aware that in South and Southeast Asia, as in the case of HH the 14th Dalai Lama’s teachings on Tibet, for example, Buddhism at the state level has put certified nuclear weapons-free ahimsa status ahead of certified vegetarian or vegan ahimsa status. And this is very good neighborliness, I think, on the traditionally Buddhist states’ part. Religious Indian politics, of course, is probably where the ahimsa debate presently gets the most heated and complex. The vegan Jesus is probably Israel-Palestine.

        As always, the best to you and your readers this week.

        1. Promoting veganism among Christians is a worthy task, but there are others (I think of Robert Munro, Frank Hoffman, Steve Kaufman, and others) who are doing a great job from a variety of perspectives. In the meantime the revolution is coming and my help is desperately needed there. I want to be part of a local community that honors vegetarianism / veganism. That is readily available in Buddhism in a variety of traditions, but almost impossible to find in Christianity. I wrote about this nearly a decade ago. Don’t cast your pearls before swine: Jesus himself counsels us in this path. Once again, the parable of the sower comes to mind.

          I am not part of OI, which is a worthy organization. My impression is not that it’s factionalized, and I’m aware of at least one vegan who is in OI. It’s just that, as far as I know, they haven’t imposed this discipline of veganism or pretty-much-veganism on themselves. I try to weigh “not to force others . . . to adopt our views” (3rd of the 14 trainings for OI) versus “not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life” (first of the original five trainings, matching the 12th of the 14 trainings). This has become my own personal “koan.”

          1. Great koan and thanks for the additional Christian vegan references. Of course, welcoming Christians to promote Christianity among vegans is also part of your diplomatic equation. I believe it is safe to say you are writing at this vegan/Christian intersection.

            Confidence in the shared open-mindedness and open-heartedness of Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious groups, including cross-cutting vegan and vegetarian groups, is vital to our mutual survival. We certainly do not want to suggest that non-vegan Christians are the swine in that pearl parable. The parable is much more holistic than this, as I am sure you intend to communicate. And we know that regardless of what the US Bill of Rights may say, we exist as a tolerated, stateless, interfaith vegan guest minority among non-vegan Christian, Jewish and Muslim majorities, all of whom have their own states. As I listen to “The role of religious leaders in addressing the multiple challenges of COVID-19” on UN Web TV, I am reminded how important it is to repeatedly stress that we are all members of one human family. Let us be sure to always preach respect for diversity and love of our neighbors.

  4. There is an old saying that still rings true, and that self-righteous vegans could take to heart: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Convincing people to not eat meat, because it involves the suffering and slaughter of animals, is the good. Convincing people to go further, and abstain from dairy/eggs/honey, might be the perfect — but if it’s presented as a necessary part of a package deal, many will reject the entire package. Let’s promote compassion, not purity or perfection.

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