Early Christian Vegetarian Comunities

29 May 2012AuthorLindsay Johnson

During the time of early Christianity, different sects practiced different lifestyles. The Encratites were early Christian ascetics. The word Encratite is derived from the Greek word for self-control, which alongside love, joy and peace, is a fruit of the spirit. The latter part of the second century in Mesopotamia saw the rise of a Jewish- Christian, vegetarian Encratite community founded by Tatian, a pupil of Justin Martyr (born 100 AD). Tatian played an important role during the beginning of the early Church, and would have known the Apostle John or his followers.:

With the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE came the destruction of the Temple and the disappearance of priestly slaughterers. The community at Qumran, associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls, appears to have already disappeared. But documentation proves that there were others involved, as well: the Nazirites, Rechabites, Essenes, Therapeutae, and Zakokites. A central trait of some of these Jewish ascetic groups was abstinence from eating meat, celibacy, fasting, and other forms of privation, which also marked the ascetic regimen. However, vegetarianism was considered the prominent symbol of the ascetic life. Many scholars and modern-day experts recognize that in order to fulfill the laws of the Torah, the vegetarian lifestyle is the ideal. Certain Jewish-Christian groups abstained from particular foods, including the Encratites, Ebionites, Marcionites, Manichaeans, and Priscillianists. Some of the members of such communities considered Jesus a vegetarian, while others claim that Saint Peter ate only bread, olives and herbs. However, there is solid evidence that James was a vegetarian. According to the early Christian historian Hegesippus of the second century, “James, the brother (technically a cousin) of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh.” All of these groups lived in the same general area of Galilee, Nazareth, and the Dead Sea. They all practiced similar beliefs and ideals; they were neighbors but they were also friends. Jesus lived, ate, and taught with these early communities. In addition, almost all of his disciples and followers came from these groups, some of which were founded on a plant-based diet.

During the time of Jesus, there were three major Jewish groups: the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes. The Essenes were forced to leave Jerusalem about 50 years before the time of Jesus because they did not believe in or practice animal sacrifice. Instead they offered fruits and vegetables as offerings to God. One of the earliest groups of the Essene community is identified as the community at Qumran. Writers, such as Philo, Pliny, Dio Chrysostom, Josephus, Hippolytus and Epiphanius, discuss the Essenes within their texts. The Jewish historian, Josephus, claims to have spent time with the Essenes at age 16 (c. 53-54 AD). Both historians Philo and Josephus agree that the total number of Essenes was over four thousand and that they lived in many cities in Palestine and in some villages and near the Dead Sea. Another early writer said there were around 10,000 Essenes. The Essenes were Orthodox Jews and thus kosher, and some were vegan. Because the kosher laws deal primarily with meat and milk, avoiding these two wouldn’t conflict with maintaining a strict kosher household. Although the Essenes refused to sacrifice animals in the temple, once a year they made offerings of fruits, vegetables and breads.

The Essenes were devoted to the law with a great reverence to Moses and a strict observance of the Sabbath.

Josephus notes that, “Many reached advanced ages over 100 years old.” This important passage illustrates the longevity of a meat- and dairy-free diet, showing that many people lived to over a hundred years old most likely because of their diets. The Hunza community has a similar lifestyle to the early Christian communities. Many of the Hunzans live well into their 90s and some live to be over one hundred years old. The Hunzans are about 97 percent vegetarian, yet they do eat some raw goat cheese and goats milk.

The Nazoreans (or Nazareans) were Christian Jews in first century Jewish Palestine. Jesus typically went by the name, Jesus the Nazorean. Now the Nazarenes are considered part of the Essenes. The name ‘Essenes’ was a larger group, an umbrella for many smaller groups and the Nazoreans being one of them. Jesus developed his ministry in the regions of the Nazarenes because he felt at home with the Pharisees and safe from the hassles. Great crowds followed Jesus as he preached in Galilee where the Nazarenes lived. This explains why his popularity grew rapidly with great multitudes. He chose his apostles from among the disciples in Galilee, many of whom could have been either Nazarenes or Essenes. They were primarily followers of a kosher diet.

The first two issues of the early Church were kosher diet and circumcision. Some of these early Christian communities, like the Encratites, were vegan and believed that Jesus was as well. The Essenes seemed to have disappeared a century or so after Jesus’ death and became followers of The Way. Christianity grew enormously during this same time period. Jesus spent only a week or two in Jerusalem and nearly all of his time in the greater Galilee area where the Essenes were located. Perhaps many of these converts to Christianity came from the Essenes, Therapeutae and the Nazarenes, who were all looking for the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps this is why the Essenes disappeared a century after Jesus’ death, because most of them became the first Christians. Therefore, we can conclude that most early Christian communities were vegetarian, that Jesus and the apostles were part of these communities and that these communities believed Jesus was a vegetarian.


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