Yeshua and the early Christians- Was Christ Vegetarian?

The following arguments are to be found, for the most part, in Keith Akers’ very useful, A Vegetarian Sourcebook, 1989. Another sourcebook I would also highly recommend for its scholarship is Lewis Regenstein’s Replenish the Earth: The History of Organized Religion’s Treatment of Animals and Nature–Including the Bible’s Message of Conservation and Kindness Toward Animals, 1991. 

“I require mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13 & 12:7)

This is a significant message when we remember that in the context in which this was said meat eating was commonly considered part of these sacrifices. Sacrificial offerings often entailed meat consumption and a strict reading of Leviticus 17: implies that, indeed, all meat consumption necessitated a sacrifice. Also, the noted confrontation of Jesus in the Temple suggests that he was not at all pleased by the desecration of the Temple by the money changers AND by “those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons” (John 2:14-15) since these animals were being sold for sacrifice before being eaten. 

No Unequivocal Biblical Reference to Christ Eating or Buying Meat

Consider the verse where it is said that Jesus’ disciples “were gone away unto the city to buy meat” (John 4:8). This translation from the King James version has been misunderstood as meaning literally “meat”. In fact, the Greek word for “meat” from which the James translation based its choice for this word, simply meant nutrition in the generic sense. Hence, the Revised Standard Version now simply translates this same passage as “his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food”. 

Regenstein notes that nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus depicted as eating meat and “if the Last Supper was a Passover meal — as many believe — there is, interestingly, no mention of the traditional lamb dish”. 

Did Christ at Least Eat Fish? (e.g., Luke 24:43)

Note that on the two occasions where he is said to have eaten fish, these were after his death and resurrection. Also, we should maybe keep in mind that fish was a well known mystical symbol among these early Christians. The Greek word for fish (Ichthys) was used as an acronym whose initials in Greek stood for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. Given how the early Christians employed the term, there is therefore good historical evidence for the argument that all of the “fish stories” that managed to get into the gospels were intended to be taken symbolically rather than literally. 

Biblical Breaks and Contradictions

We should not forget that the Bible is not complete and its many inconsistencies require thoughtful interpretation. For instance, we have the contradiction between Genesis 1:29-30 with Genesis 9:2-3. Some scholars interpret the first prescription for vegetarianism as the preferred diet, and suggest that it was only after God became grievously disappointed with human sin and flooded the earth did the second provision become permitted, and not without qualification (and maybe only as an expedient for the situation). To take another example, the New Testament makes repeated attacks on meat offered to pagan idols (Acts 15:20; Revelation 2:14), but Paul gives assurances that eating such flesh is all right if no one is offended (Corinthians 10:14-33). Paul, then, would seem to be contradicting Christ. 

Examples of Early Christians

Not a few Christian scholars have concluded vegetarianism to be the more consistent ethic with respect to the spirit of Christ’s teachings. For example, we have the Ebionites, Athanasius, and Arius. Of the early church fathers we have Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Heronymus, Boniface, St. Jerome, and John Chrysostom. Clement wrote, “It is far better to be happy than to have your bodies act as graveyards for animals. Accordingly, the apostle Matthew partook of seeds, nuts and vegetables, without flesh”. One of the earliest Christian documents is the `Clementine Homiles’, a second-century work purportedly based on the teachings of St. Peter. Homily XII states, “The unnatural eating of flesh meats is as polluting as the heathen worship of devils, with its sacrifices and its impure feasts, through participation in it a man becomes a fellow eater with devils”. Many of the monasteriesboth in ancient times to the present practiced vegetarianism. For instance, Basilius the Great‘s order, Boniface’s order, Trappists monks, etc. Also, we have the examples provided by the stories around some saints like Hubertus, Aegidius and Francis of Assisi

Indirect Historical Evidence

Knowledge about how the Essenes, the Nazoreans and Ebionites lived suggests that Christ was probably a vegetarian. The Essenes were Jews who were remarkably similar to the early Christians as evinced in their deemphasis upon property and wealth, their communalism and in their rejection of animal sacrifices. The first Christians were known as the Nazoreans (not to be confused with Nazarenes), and the Ebionites were a direct offshoot from them. All three groups were vegetarian which is suggestive of the central role such a practice once played in Early Christianity. 

Paul’s need to constantly deal with these vegetarians is also evidence of how prevalent they were and not a few fellow Christians, it would seem, took issue with Paul. Paul, if he is consistent with his words, would have been vegetarian (Corinthians 8:13), notwithstanding his opposition to the Ebionites. According to Clement of Alexandria, Matthew was a vegetarian. Clementine `Homiles’ and `Recognitions’ claim that Peter was also a vegetarian. Both Hegisuppus and Augustin testify that the first head of the church in Jerusalem after the death of Christ, namely Christ’s brother James the Just, was a vegetarian and raised as one! If Jesus’s parents raised James as vegetarian then it would be likely that Jesus was also so raised. 


Given the above points, it is reasonable to believe that vegetarianism would be consistent with, if not mandated by, the spirit of early Christianity, a spirit that advocated kindness, mercy, non-violence and showed disdain towards wealth and extravagance. Meat eating would hardly have been considered the way of the humility, non-extravagance and love for all of God’s creation. Hence, the orthodox early church father, Christian Hieronymous, could not but be compelled to conclude: 

The eating of animal meat was unknown up to the big flood, but since the flood they have pushed the strings and stinking juices of animal meat into our mouths, just as they threw quails in front of the grumbling sensual people in the desert. Jesus Christ, who appeared when the time had been fulfilled, has again joined the end with the beginning, so that it is no longer allowed for us to eat animal meat. 

Postscript: What Happened After Christ?

Maybe an even more important question than that of whether or not Christ was a vegetarian, was why Christianity later abandoned its vegetarian roots. Steven Rosen in his book, Food for the Spirit, 1987, argues: 

The early Christian fathers adhered to a meatless regime…many early Christian groups supported the meatless way of life. In fact, the writings of the early Church indicate that meat eating was not officially allowed until the 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine decided that his version of Christianity would be the version for everyone. A meat eating interpretation of the Bible became the official creed of the Roman Empire, and vegetarian Christians had to practice in secret or risk being put to death for heresy. It is said that Constantine used to pour molten lead down the their throats if they were captured. 

Ironic indeed that pagan Rome here would have this longstanding influence upon Christianity. 

In any case, I think we can all be thankful that it is a lot easier today to be a vegetarian. The occasional rudeness and social disapproval a vegetarian must tolerate is a pretty small inconvenience in comparison to Constantine’s way of dealing with vegetarians. 

To cite another sad example: in southern France a group of Albigensian vegetarians (a Cartharist religious group) were put to death by hanging in 1052 because they refused to kill a chicken!


The Compassion of Vegetarianism, Yeshua and the Essenes. Yeshua was a vegetarian

Based on historical documents and the research of many Christian scholars, Jesus Christ and the early Christians were vegetarians. 

It is believed that Jesus was a member of the Nazarenes, an Essene group living near Mount Carmel in Israel. The Essenes were one of the main religious sects in first century Palestine. Members wore white and followed a vegetarian diet. 

According to the 4th century church historian, Epiphanius, and Jewish philosopher Philo, the Essenes were Jews who kept all the Jewish observances, but were nonviolent toward all living creatures and considered it unlawful to eat meat or make sacrifices with animals. As a member of this group, Jesus would have to have been a vegetarian, as was His brother James (Jacob) and all His disciples. 

The main Essene scripture is the Gospel of the Holy Twelve, also known as the Gospel of the Nazarenes. This is the Gospel repeatedly mentioned, described and quoted by many commentators of the first century Church. However, this ancient scripture was hidden away for centuries in a Tibetan monastery and was rediscovered only in 1888. Many of the most revered early church fathers, as well as a surprising number of scholars today, have declared that the Gospel of the Holy Twelve is nothing less than the long-lost original Gospel. According to legend, this Gospel was collectively written by the 12 apostles immediately following Christ’s death, and it is the scripture upon which all of the Biblical synoptic Gospels are based.  It so happens that this version of the New Testament also portrays Jesus as a strict vegetarian. 

In the modern-day New Testament, there is a story about Jesus feeding bread and fish to 5,000 people (Mark 6:31-44). As seen in the following story from the Gospel of the Holy Twelve, the food involved was only bread and grapes; there is no fish. Jesus fed the 5,000 people with six loaves and seven clusters of grapes. 

(Gospel of the Holy Twelve, Lection XXIX, 1-8) 

1. And the Feast of the Passover drew near. The Apostles and their fellows gathered themselves together to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught. And He said to them, “Come you yourselves apart into a desert place and rest a while.” For there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. 

2. And they departed into a desert place by ship privately. And the people saw them departing, and many knew Him, and ran afoot away, out of all cities, and out went them, and came together to Him. 

3. And Jesus, when He came forth, saw many people and was moved with compassion towards them, because they were as sheep having not a shepherd. 

4. And the day was far spent, and His disciples came to Him and said, “This is a desert place, and now the time is far passed. Send them away, that they may go into the country round about into the villages, and buy themselves bread, for they have nothing to eat.” 

5. He answered and said to them, “You give them to eat.” And they said to him, “ Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat?” 

6. He said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” And when they knew, they said, “Six loaves and seven clusters of grapes.” And He commanded them to make all sit down by companies of fifty upon the grass. And they sat down in ranks by hundreds and by fifties. 

7. And when He had taken the six loaves and the seven clusters of grapes, he looked up to Heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and the grapes also, and gave them to his disciples to set before them, and they divided them among them all. 

8. And they did all eat and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that were left. And they that did eat of the loaves and of the fruit were about 5,000 men, women and children, and He taught them many things. 

This evidence indicates that the story of feeding the mass did not originally include fish. 

There are countless passages in the Gospel of the Holy Twelve where Jesus teaches us to love animals and not eat meat. For example: 

And some of the people said, “This man cares for all creatures. Are they his brothers and sisters that he should love them?” And He said to them, “these are your fellow creatures of the great household of God. Yea, they are your brothers and sisters, having the same breath of life in the eternal. And whosoever cares for one of the least of these, and gives it to eat and drink in its need, does the same to me. And who so willingly suffers one of these to be in want, and defends it not when evilly entreated, does the evil to me. For as you have done in this life, so shall it be done to you in the life to come.” (Lection XXXIV, 9-10) 

And again that one asked, “If anyone comes to us who eats flesh and drinks strong drink, how shall we receive them?” And Jesus said to him, “Let such a person abide in the outer court until they cleanse themselves from these grosser evils; for till they perceive, and repent of these, they are not fit to receive the higher mysteries.” (Lection XCI, 8) 

“You shall not take away the life of any creature for your pleasure, nor for your profit, nor yet torment it.” (Lection XLVI, 10) 

“You shall not eat the flesh , nor drink the blood of any slaughtered creature, not yet anything which brings disorder to your health or senses.” (Lection XLVI, 12) 

“You shall cherish and protect the weak, and those who are oppressed, and all creatures that suffer wrong.” (Lection XLVI, 18) 

Another scripture, The Essene Gospel of Peace, was discovered in 1923 in the secret archives of the Vatican. The following are some sections of the words that Jesus shared with the Essenes taken from this scripture: 

‘Thou shalt not kill,’ for life is given to all by God, and that which God has given, let not man take away. For-I tell you truly, from one Mother proceeds all that lives upon the earth. Therefore, he who kills, kills his brother. And from him will the Earthly Mother turn away, and will pluck from him her quickening breasts. And he will be shunned by her angels, and Satan will have his dwelling in his body. And the flesh of slain beasts in his body will become his own tomb. For I tell you truly, he who kills, kills himself, and whoso eats the flesh of slain beasts, eats of the body of death. For in his blood every drop of their blood turns to poison; in his breath their breath to stink; in his flesh their flesh to boils; in his bones their bones to chalk; in his bowels their bowels to decay; in his eyes their eyes to scales; in his ears their ears to waxy issue. And their death will become his death. (Book 1) 

Kill not, neither eat the flesh of your innocent prey, lest you become the slaves of Satan. For that is the path of sufferings, and it leads unto death. But do the will of God, that his angels may serve you on the way of life. Obey, therefore, the words of God: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is breath of life, I give every green herb for meat. (Book 1) 

But I do say to you: Kill neither men, nor beasts, nor yet the food which goes into your mouth. For if you eat living food, the same will quicken you, but if you kill your food, the dead food will kill you also. For life comes only from life, and from death comes always death. For everything which kills your foods, kills your bodies also. And everything which kills your bodies kills your souls also. And your bodies become what your foods are, even as your spirits, likewise, become what your thoughts are. (Book 1)

Why were some of Jesus’ teachings in the Essene scriptures excluded from or revised in the Bible? Why did Christianity later abandon its vegetarian roots? According to Steven Rosen in his book, Food for the Spirit, “The early Christian fathers adhered to a meatless regime…many early Christian groups supported the meatless way of life. In fact, the writings of the early Church indicate that meat eating was not officially allowed until the 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine decided that his version of Christianity would be the version for everyone. A meat eating interpretation of the Bible therefore became the official creed of the Roman Empire, and vegetarian Christians had to practice in secret or risk being put to death for heresy. It is said that Constantine used to pour molten lead down their throats if they were captured.” 

Some groups that claim spiritual descent from the ancient Essenes and whose members currently describe themselves as Essenes believe that the 27 books we now call the New Testamentof the Bible and even some translations of books considered canonical were changed to censor certain beliefs such as transmigration, the feminine aspect of Divinity, and vegetarianism. These groups use the Nazarean Bible of the Essene Way, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadhi Library manuscripts and other recently discovered gospels as the basis for much of their beliefs. 

Although the Bible is not complete and its many inconsistencies about meat eating and vegetarianism require thoughtful interpretation, countless passages that refer to vegetarianism remain. The following are some examples from the King James version: 

Old Testament 

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. (Genesis 1:29-30) 

But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. (Genesis 9:4) 

Thou shalt not kill. (Exodus 20:13) 

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. (Proverbs: 15:17) 

Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh. (Proverbs 23:20) 

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats…And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil. (Isaiah 1:11, 15-16) 

New Testament 

Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. (1 Corinthians 6:13) 

(Jesus said,) I will have mercy, and not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13 & 12:7) 

(St. Paul, one of Jesus’ disciples, said in his letter to the Romans) It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. (Romans 14:21) 

Many Christian scholars have concluded that vegetarianism is the ethic more consistent with the spirit of Christ’s teachings. Many Christian groups from the time of Christ have practiced vegetarianism, among them, the Seventh Day Adventist maybe being the most well known. 

Throughout history, many Christians have become aware of the cruel and un-Christ like behavior of the meat eating habit. Nowadays, an increasing number of Christians are becoming vegetarian as a more merciful and compassionate way to live. 


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.