There are a variety of books advancing the argument that Jesus was a vegetarian, as will be explained in a moment. However, whether Jesus was or wasn’t a vegetarian, Christians today should be. For more on this argument, please read the question that begins, “I believe the Bible is literally true…” and the one beginning “I understand that many Christians embrace veganism…”
The basic argument for a vegetarian Christ:
The Garden of Eden, God’s perfect world, was vegetarian (Gen. 1:29-30). Immediately, God calls this ideal and non-exploitative relationship “good” (Gen. 1:31). This is the one time when God makes such a statement. There follow many years of fallen humanity, when people held slaves, waged war, ate animals, and committed various other violent acts. Although there are passages in the Scriptures that endorse eating animals, war, slavery, polygamy, animal sacrifice, and other practices that most people find immoral, these passages are a representation of what existed as a part of fallen humanity, not of God’s ideal plan or vision. Despite the fall, the prophets tell us to expect a new age, a return to Eden, God’s peaceable kingdom, when even the lion will lie down with the lamb and there will be no bloodshed or violence at all, “for the Earth will be filled with the knowledge of God” (Isaiah 11). If Jesus is “the new Adam,” who returns us to the Garden of Eden, as Christians believe, and if he is “the Prince of Peace” described in Isaiah 11, who ushers in God’s new (and vegetarian) vision, as Christians also believe, it would be inconceivable for him to dine on animal carcasses.
And in fact, the evidence is convincing that the historical Jesus was a vegetarian. There were many faith-based vegetarians Jews in Jesus’ time, for the same reason there remain so many today (visit http://www.JewishVeg.com for more on Judaism and vegetarianism). They understood that God’s ideal was the vegetarian Garden of Eden depicted in Genesis and the Peaceable Kingdom described by the Prophets. Three issues that distinguished the Jewish religious sects that advocated living the vegetarian ideal on Earth were: 1) baptism, in place of animal sacrifice, for forgiveness of sins; 2) opposition to selling animals for slaughter in the temple; 3) celebration of the Passover with unleavened bread, rather than lamb.
In Jesus’ day, preaching baptism for forgiveness of sins in place of animal sacrifice placed one clearly among the vegetarian sects of Judaism who were attempting to usher in the new age of Isaiah 11. It would not have been lost on anyone in first century Palestine that John, who came to “prepare a way for the lord,” was baptizing people, not sacrificing animals. Isaiah 11, of course, declares that God’s will is for compassion, for an age when even the lion lies down with the lamb, and there is no bloodshed at all.
For example, Luke explains that “the will of God” is Baptism for forgiveness of sins, “whereas the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, in not letting themselves be baptized, ignored this will of God.” Thus, John preached baptism for forgiveness of sins, Jesus was baptized, and the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles all clearly and consistently advocate baptism. For the Jews who were not vegetarians, animal sacrifice was the way to forgiveness (and of course, after the sacrifice, the animal was eaten), but for the vegetarian Jews, baptism was advocated.
Complementing the new focus on baptism were opposition to the Temple, where the animals were sacrificed, and celebration of Passover without the lamb (slaughtered sacrificially in the Temple). In fact, Jesus rails against the Temple, and his single act of direct confrontation with the authorities is in the Temple, the slaughterhouse of first century Palestine, when he engages in direct action by casting out all those selling animals for sacrifice. We can debate his reasons, but the practical effect was a Jew preventing others Jews from engaging in the Passover slaughter they felt was called for by God. Clearly, Jesus rejects this notion, claiming twice that they should all learn the meaning of Hosea when he says, speaking for God, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Additionally, there are no scriptures in which Jesus eats lamb, which he would surely have eaten at Passover, had he not been a vegetarian. Vegetarian Jews, as one significant aspect of their faith, celebrated a perfectly orthodox vegetarian Passover. We see Jesus eating on the Passover exactly twice, and neither time is lamb involved. John places the first multiplication miracle on the Passover, yet the disciples ask Jesus only, “Where will we buy enough bread to feed all these people?” giving not even a thought to lamb, which would have been eaten had they not been vegetarians opposed to animal sacrifice. The last supper was a Passover meal and was also, apparently, vegetarian. The nonvegetarians ate lamb at the Passover, but the vegetarians ate only unleavened bread as, it seems, did Jesus.
One final point to make is that many Christians of the first three centuries, including all of the “Desert Fathers,” were vegetarians and that they continued, despite being Jewish, to celebrate the Passover with bread and wine, not lamb’s flesh. It would be strange indeed for the first Christians to have adopted a diet not followed by Jesus himself.
The Fish Stories:
In fact, the only Scriptures that depict Jesus eating or providing meat of any kind involve fish: Post-resurrection, Jesus is depicted as eating fish with the disciples; during his life, he is depicted multiplying loaves and fishes to feed the peasants who have gathered to hear him preach. For additional analysis of these stories, please read the answer to the questions that begin “Doesn’t Jesus eat fish…?” and “I believe that the Bible is literally true…” From the perspective of the scholars who argue that Jesus was a vegetarian, the above arguments warrant a reconsideration of the fish stories.
Thinking about these stories in the light of all the evidence that Jesus was a vegetarian who took compassion for animals very seriously, it helps to remember that Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, the Gospels were written generations after the resurrection in Hebrew and Greek, and the earliest versions we have are Greek translations and transcriptions from the fourth century–more than 300 years, two translations, and many transcriptions post-resurrection. None of the four Gospel authors ever met Jesus.
Most scholars agree that the post-resurrection stories of Jesus eating fish were added to the Gospels long after they were written, in order to settle various schisms in the early Church. (e.g., the Marcionites and other early Christians believed that Jesus did not actually return in the flesh. What better way to prove that he did than to depict him eating?) The scribes who added the stories were not, apparently, averse to eating fish. But since this is the only depiction anywhere in the Gospels of Jesus eating any animals at all, and in light of all the additional evidence, above, it seems clear that Jesus was.
Although it would not contradict the technical definition of a vegetarian to multiply fishes who are already dead to feed people who eat aren’t opposed to eating fish (vegetarianism is based on compassion, not dogma), there are some interesting points to notice about this story. First, the disciples ask Jesus where they will get enough bread to feed the multitudes, never even thinking of buying fish or other animal products, and never suggesting a fishing expedition, despite being beside a sea. Also, evidence indicates that the story of the loaves and the fishes did not originally include fish. For example, the earliest (pre-Gospel) accounts of this miracle do not include fish, and Jesus, when he refers to it, refers only to the bread (e.g., Mt 16:9-10, Mk 8:19-20, Jn 6:26).
Fish were added to the stories by Greek scribes, probably because the Greek word for fish, ixous, is an acronym for the phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.” Indeed, the fish is still a symbol of Christianity today. In this very likely interpretation, the multiplication represents a prediction of the burgeoning Church, Jesus making his disciples ?fishers of men? as he promised, and has nothing to do with eating animals.
Also, some scholars contend that the Greek word for “fishweed” (a dried seaweed) has been mistranslated in this story as “fish” (see Rosen, Scholarly Works). It is certainly true that dried fishweed would be more likely in a basket with bread, and fishweed remains a popular food among Jewish and Arab peasants like the people to whom Jesus was speaking.
So what did Jesus definitely have to say about fishing? Jesus calls multiple fishermen away from their occupation of killing animals and pleads with them to show mercy to all beings, quoting Hosea: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” In each instance, they immediately abandon their occupation of fishing to follow Jesus (e.g., Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 5). This resembles Jesus’ call to tax collectors, prostitutes, and others, who are engaged in activities that are not in line with his message of mercy and compassion.
The evidence that Jesus was a vegetarian is strong, and the evidence that he would be one today is irrefutable. Quite simply, it is impossible to imagine Jesus paying people to treat God’s creatures like so many boxes in a warehouse, genetically manipulating and mutilating their bodies, pumping them full of hormones and antibiotics so they will live through the cramped and miserable conditions in which they’re kept, trucking them to slaughterhouses through all weather extremes with no food or water, and then hanging them upside down, slitting their throats, and hacking off their limbs, often while they are still conscious.