As we approach Easter, it is worth reminding everyone why Jesus was killed: because of his opposition to animal sacrifice.
This opposition led him to go into the temple and disrupt the animal sacrifice business. Shortly thereafter he was crucified by the Romans, doubtless because of his actions in the temple. Christians often remember the incident in the temple as “Jesus drives out the dishonest money changers,” but it is clear from both the gospels as well as the history of Christianity that the money changers had little to do with it. It is one of the few incidents in Jesus’ life that is found in all four gospels (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17).
But to understand this incident, which was so obviously pivotal both for Jesus and early Christianity, we really have to understand, at least in outline, the whole history of primitive Christianity—before the gospels were written and theologians got hold of the business of interpreting what it all really meant. Here are a few questions that come up, for example:
How do we know anything about Jesus? Why was animal sacrifice such an important issue? What did the early followers of Jesus think about animal sacrifice? What did opposing animal sacrifice mean in the first century? How did early Christians understand animal sacrifice? What really happened when Jesus went into the temple?
How do we know anything about Jesus?
Jesus did not write any books and certainly made no YouTube videos. The early followers of Jesus may have created early documents about him, but there’s no direct surviving evidence of such writings before the destruction of the temple in the year 70, nearly four decades after Jesus left the earth. Hans-Joachim Schoeps, the leading twentieth century historian of Jewish Christianity, said that the gospels and indeed the entire New Testament “must surely be regarded as a tendentious, contrived product of the second century,” while Robert Funk, a Jesus Seminar scholar, said that the New Testament was a “highly uneven and biased record of various early attempts to invent Christianity” (quoted in Lost Religion of Jesus, p. 16). This seemingly leaves us adrift in mythology and speculation about the reality of the historical Jesus.
What we do have is various accounts of Jesus from various of his followers. The New Testament is an account edited by one group of his followers, those who established what eventually became the victorious party in early Christianity. But what about the early Jewish Christians? “Jewish Christianity” refers to those early Jewish followers of Jesus, including his brother James, Peter, John, and other disciples, who both followed Jesus and followed the Jewish law—as they understood that law. Aren’t their views just as valid?
Obviously they are. In fact, their views are more likely to reflect the historical Jesus than the views of any other of the early communities that followed Jesus. Jesus was a Jew, and all his very earliest followers (the disciples) were Jews as well. Yet somehow, Jewish Christianity eventually becomes a heresy. Jesus scholars have never resolved this paradox.
But there’s a problem here: none of the accounts from or about Jewish Christianity (mostly, about the Jewish Christian Ebionites) are very early either. We have descriptions from various of the early church fathers like Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius, but these are from the second, third, and fourth centuries. The Recognitions and Homilies (either written by Ebionites or heavily influenced by them) are from the third or fourth centuries. We’re still not that much closer to Jesus (in time, at least) than the gospels.
But wait! We’re in luck. We have a source on Christianity that’s from the middle of the first century, probably not more than a few decades after Jesus, when people were still alive who knew Jesus personally. These are the letters of Paul. The authentic letters of Paul (excluding letters like I and II Timothy which are clearly later pious forgeries) give us eyewitness information about the first followers of Jesus.
Scholars are nervous about citing the letters of Paul as giving information about the historical Jesus. Paul doesn’t quote Jesus or give very much biographical information, like the gospels do. And if we say that Paul is the best source of information about early Christianity, then does that mean that modern followers of Jesus have to follow his advice “slaves, obey your masters,” and that wives should obey their husbands, and everything else? This doesn’t sound very appealing.
But Paul does more than give evidence of his own views. He gives evidence of the views of his opponents, including his Jewish Christian opponents. And he gives first-hand, eyewitness accounts of a dispute in the early church which concerned vegetarianism and animal sacrifice. Paul’s opponents (by Paul’s own testimony) are advocating vegetarianism, vehemently condemn animal sacrifice, are Jews, and oppose Paul’s views and even his apostleship.
Thus, the controversy over vegetarianism and animal sacrifice is central to understanding early Christianity. Thus, our interest in Jesus’ attack on animal sacrifice.
The problem of animal sacrifice
Why is animal sacrifice such a big issue in early Christianity? There’s very little animal sacrifice in the modern world, though occasionally you will see things like kaparos, which is a modern animal sacrifice of a chicken, which many Jews are bravely opposing.
But we find animal sacrifice everywhere in the ancient world. Why did they need to “sacrifice” animals? Why didn’t they, if they wanted to eat meat, just go out, unceremoniously kill some animals, and then eat them? That’s what we do in the modern world, don’t we?
Well, actually, no. We hire someone else to do it. If we had to do this ourselves, we might have a very different idea about animal slaughter. Today, the job of actually killing animals is one of the lowest-paying and most dangerous jobs in America, with high turnover and high risk of psychological problems. It makes us uncomfortable, so we distance ourselves from the process.
Even today, paying someone else to slaughter animals elicits contradictory feelings. Most children, before they figure out that they are eating animals, naturally identify with cows, pigs, and chickens. Modern animal rights proponents go into factory farms and try to take pictures and expose the wickedness of this process. These proponents naturally assume that this will be bad for the meat business because it is repulsive and disgusting. Interestingly, the livestock industry evidently agrees, because they seek to prohibit taking such pictures. Psychologists are now documenting that meat-eaters often suffer from cognitive dissonance. Most people think of themselves as being kind to animals, yet they know (at some level) that they’re eating animals.
People in the ancient world were no different. They also sought to distance themselves from this process. Thus, we have all the mumbo-jumbo about animal sacrifice and carrying out a ceremony, which was widespread in the ancient world. Even the indigenous peoples often asked “permission” from the animals they hunted to be killed. These mixed feelings, bordering on guilt, are a universal human reaction to the killing of animals. Jews and their surrounding pagan neighbors carried out roughly similar rituals.
Thus, animal sacrifice is a central feature of many ancient religions.
Big business and its opponents in the first century
Animal sacrifice was big business in first century Jerusalem. The ancient temple in Jerusalem was completely unlike today’s synagogues or churches, and more like a butcher shop or a slaughterhouse (see Charles Vaclavik’s The Origins of Christianity). This was where one would bring animals to be sacrificed (butchered), with some of the meat going to support the priests. You could of course bring an animal, but for many people it was easier just to show up in Jerusalem and buy one. This is what the “buyers and sellers” were doing in the temple. At certain times of the year, the demand for animals was so high that the local supply of animals was completely insufficient. Archeological evidence has shown that animals had to be imported from all around the region.
Animal sacrifice was controversial in ancient Judaism, and remained controversial for centuries. The prophetic literature is full of denunciations of the practice. In Isaiah 1, the prophet declares that for God, “the reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me.” In Jeremiah 7, God delivers the message that he never commanded animal sacrifice: “when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt, I made no command about whole-offering and sacrifice; I said not a word about them.” Hosea 6:6 says, “loyalty is my desire, not sacrifice; not whole-offerings, but the knowledge of God.” This last passage, incidentally, is cited favorably both in Jewish Christian writings (Recognitions 1.37) and in the gospels (Matthew 9:13, 12:7), so we know that the early Christians were aware of this controversy.
Opposition to animal sacrifice was a central tenet of early Jewish Christianity.
Animal sacrifice in early Christianity
Animal sacrifice was also a key controversial element in the early history of the church. Paul describes a fierce controversy over whether Christians were allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols, a controversy which split the early church between the followers of Paul and the followers of the Jerusalem church (James, Peter, and John). We can see evidence for this controversy in Romans 14, I Corinthians 8-10, and Galatians 1-2. The apostolic decree (Acts 15:29; see also Homilies 7.4, Homilies 7.8) specifically addressed this controversy and forbade Christians, even gentile Christians, from eating anything offered to idols.
But Paul, in his letters, argues against this idea: “Eat anything sold in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience” (I Corinthians 10:25). Meat from a meat-market was often offered in sacrifice. Paul then adds an exception: whatever you do, don’t offend the “picky vegetarians” who are also your Christian brothers. “But if someone says to you, ‘this has been offered in sacrifice,’ then out of consideration for the man who told you, and for conscience’ sake—I mean his conscience, not yours—do not eat it.” (I Corinthians 10:28; emphasis added). In other words, you can eat meat, even meat sacrificed to pagan idols, that is offered to you at the dinner table. But if a Jewish Christian who objects to animal sacrifice is there, then don’t eat it, because of his conscience.
Paul adds in Romans, “do not, for the sake of food, undo the work of God. Everything is indeed clean [acceptable to eat], but it is wrong to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.” (Romans 14:20-21, emphasis added)
Paul’s letters are the bedrock of our historical knowledge of early Christianity. They precede anything in the gospels by decades, and were written by an eyewitness to the events that he describes. The knowledge of this controversy in the early church about vegetarianism and animal sacrifice, is more certain than anything we have in the gospels or anything else we know about Jesus or early Christianity.
Paul’s statement about the meat-market (I Corinthians 10:25) allows us to infer another informative detail about Jesus’ motivation, namely why animal sacrifice was especially targeted by Jewish Christians, rather than meat consumption per se. The rich were the only segment of ancient Roman society that would have even contemplated buying something at the meat-market.
Except for the top elite (the “1%”) of the ancient Roman world, everyone was mostly vegan almost all of the time, out of brutal economic necessity. Bread, and perhaps the welcome addition of a few herbs or other vegetables, were all that they could afford. At Homilies 12.6 and Recognitions 7.6, Peter describes his diet as bread, olives, and pot-herbs. This doesn’t appear to be a humble affectation: it’s actually pretty typical of what the ordinary non-wealthy person would eat.
When Paul tells his readers “eat anything sold in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience” (I Corinthians 10:25), he is not speaking to Jesus’ original audience, which was the poor and the downtrodden of the earth. He is talking to the wealthy. And this encounter at Corinth (or some similar encounter around the same time) was likely the first time that any of the primitive community had occasion to deal with the wealthy as Christian equals at all.
Paul is doing two things, not just one. He is trying to make eating meat acceptable, even meat offered as a pagan animal sacrifice, but he is also trying to take this message to the upper class of the ancient Roman world. (In defense of Paul, he thought that the world was going to end very soon, probably within his lifetime, and that the focus of his ministry should be in spreading the message of Jesus, not quibbling about dietary matters.)
Before this time, the question of eating meat would have rarely occurred to Jesus’ audience at all. For the ordinary person, or for the poor, the main “temptation” to eat meat would have been at festival times (e. g. pagan festivals or the Jewish Passover), when meat was widely eaten and distributed. Jewish Christian vegetarians would have been especially interested in rejecting animal sacrifice.
The incident in the temple
With this information, let’s look at what Jesus actually did that got him killed. Jesus’ crucifixion is the single event in his life that is certainly historical, and as I mentioned earlier, his disruption of the temple is one of the few events found in all four gospels. How did this simple, honest man, who did nothing but go around early Palestine telling people to love their neighbors, create such controversy that he wound up being crucified by the Romans?
Jesus was killed because he tried to defend animals. In defending animals, he was a palpable and physical threat to public order. That public order was embodied in the temple in Jerusalem, where animals were constantly sacrificed to appease the desires of a bloodthirsty God—or to appease the priests, depending on your point of view. But why did Jesus do this?
The incident in the temple is often described, in countless Sunday-school lessons, as “Jesus drives out the dishonest money changers.” But is it really about the money changers? Nowhere in these four accounts are the money-changers at the top of the list of people whom Jesus is targeting; in Luke, the money-changers are not even mentioned.
It is those who are buying and selling who are Jesus’ targets. “In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple” (John 2:13-14).
And what were they buying and selling? Animals to be killed as animal sacrifices. Jesus’ intentions would have been instantly understood by anyone who read Isaiah 1: “I have no desire for the blood of bulls, of sheep and of he goats. . . . The offer of your gifts is useless, the reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me . . . there is blood on your hands; wash yourselves and be clean.”
What do we find in later Jewish Christian Ebionites of the second, third, and fourth centuries? A group of people who are vegetarians, vehemently condemn animal sacrifice, are Jews, and oppose Paul’s views and even his apostleship. This is evidence that Jewish Christianity was at the core of primitive Christianity and that the Ebionites were the spiritual descendants of the first Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem. They also believed that eating sacrificed animals allowed demons to possess you (see Disciples, chapter 22), which adds another dimension to our understanding of the early church.
The Ebionites would have understood the incident in the temple in just this way: as an attack on animal sacrifice. Jesus’ mission specifically included the abolition of animal sacrifices (Recognitions 1.54). God never wanted animals to be sacrificed or to be killed at all (Homilies 3.45). The Ebionite gospel in fact has Jesus declaring, “I have come to destroy the sacrifices” and Jesus indignantly rejects eating the Passover meat (Epiphanius, Panarion 30.16.5, 30.22.4). Jesus says, “I require mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7).
This background enables us to understand why Jesus was killed. It was the Romans who killed Jesus. A sectarian dispute would not interest them. A disruptive demonstration, at the height of the Passover season when Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims and when riots could easily break out (and sometimes did), would interest them. Find the trouble-maker: crucify him. But the “trouble” that Jesus was about, was an act of animal liberation.