Was Jesus a Vegetarian?

Jesus & Vegetarianism

By Grantley Morris


Was Jesus a Vegetarian?

Did Jesus eat meat?

Jesus & Vegetarianism

This discussion is not about fault-finding. It focuses solely on Jesus’ beliefs and behavior; not on whether, for example, it is honoring to Jesus to be a vegetarian or a meat eater. For those interested only in vegetarianism, this webpage may be read alone, even though it is part of a series examining whether Jesus visited India. If you wish to start here, please read Ground Rules.

I have no doubt that Jesus ate fruit and vegetables but one has to dig deep to find the slightest specific reference to Jesus doing so. This is indicative of how little we know of Jesus’ diet and of how thorough our search must be to find any conclusive evidence about whether Jesus was a vegetarian. Dig deep enough, however, and the evidence can be found.

Jesus & Fish

With at least one third (four out of twelve) of Jesus’ apostles, and all of his inner circle (Peter, James and John) being fishermen (Proof), Jesus spent most of his three years of ministry with fishermen. Additionally, he spent much time in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee or the River Jordan.

In Jesus’ era, meat would usually be less available and more expensive than fish. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, for instance, the father deemed the return of his son worthy of celebrating by killing the fatted calf. Both a servant and the elder brother made a big deal of this (Luke 15:27,29-30), and understandably so: it would have been costly and a significant loss. How many calves would you expect an average pre-industrial peasant farmer in a low rainfall country to have? So if Jesus were not a vegetarian, one would expect him to eat fish more often than meat.

Jesus likened the kingdom of God (something exceedingly holy) to being like a fisherman catching fish to eat. He thought it was perfectly natural for parents to feed children fish and called this “good”. Not once, but twice he supernaturally helped fishermen catch an unusually large number of fish and on yet another occassion he told Peter to catch a fish by line. Furthermore, on two additional occasions he not only encouraged people to eat fish, he fed it to large crowds. Instead of discarding the fish and feeding them only the bread (which is likely to have been considerably more wholesome than much modern bread) he opted to include fish in the meals he provided. The supernatural was involved, but the original fish had still been caught for food. Moreover, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the supernatural element displayed divine approval of the eating of fish. Jesus even cooked fish for the disciples to eat and on yet another occasion he is specifically stated to have eaten fish. (For confirmation of this entire paragraph, see Documented Proof.)

Jesus & Meat

Jesus felt tenderly toward animals. Nevertheless, his immense compassion ran deeper still for people. He repeatedly taught that people were significantly more precious than animals:

    Luke 12:24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!

    Luke 12:6-7 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

    Matthew 12:11-12 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
    (Emphasis mine.)

Jesus defines his God as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Matthew 22:32; Mark 12:26). All three of these were meat-eaters. Abraham, for example, slaughtered a calf and fed it to three heavenly visitors (Genesis 18). Isaac not only loved eating meat, Jacob cooked a special meat dish and served it to Isaac in order to receive a spiritually significant blessing (Genesis 27).

When Jesus taught, he never spoke into a vacuum. He was addressing specific people. For effective communication we all instinctively adapt our language according to our audience. So to use Jesus’ meaning, and use it as a mirror to his heart, we must understand the views of his original hearers. For instance, because he lived in a society that abhorred cannibalism Jesus was free to say, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” (John 6:54) without fear of people taking him literally. Similarly, one would expect that what he chose to denounce or remain silent about would depend on which unacceptable practices were rife in the society he lived in.

To correctly understand any statement one must consider not just the verbal context but what one might call the situational context (the circumstances in which it was uttered) and the cultural context (the way people in his society would have interpreted his words). This applies to everything any sane person says, but let’s choose an example highly relevant to our discussion. When Jesus said, “Thou shalt not kill,” was he forbidding the killing of anything – including weeds, microbes and plant pests? Did he mean one must not eat such things as sprouts and carrots and maybe even grains (since that involves the death of a plant)?

If these words had been addressed to Hindus, or Jesus was quoting from Hindu Scriptures, the statement might be intended to include animals as well as humans. However, Jesus introduced the statement with “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago,” (Matthew 5:21) and, on another occasion, “You know the commandments,” (Mark 10:19). He was clearly not inventing a new saying. He was speaking to Jews who knew their Scriptures well, and anyone even slightly familiar with the Jewish Scriptures knows it is from the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13; repeated in Deuteronomy 5:17), where the statement could not possibly include animals as both of these parts of the Jewish Scriptures emphasize the critical importance of animal sacrifice.

So for proof that Jesus was a vegetarian, we will have to look elsewhere and we will always have to consider how Jesus’ original audience would have understood him.

When Jesus was twelve, he spent even more time in the temple than his devout parents. He stayed there so long that his parents were a full day into their journey home before they realized that Jesus was nowhere among the large company of returning pilgrims. When they eventually found him, the anxious parents asked why he was there. He replied, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Years later, he again called the temple “my Father’s house,” (John 2:16).

The temple was not just the heart of Judaism; it was the place – in fact, the only place – where all the countless Jewish animal sacrifices were made. Jesus spent long periods of time there (Documented Proof). He got so angry at Jewish officials for not treating the temple with the reverence he believed it should be given that at considerable risk to himself he forcibly ejected moneychangers and the like (present for religious purposes) from the temple (Documented Proof). That is how much the temple meant to him and the extremes to which he would go to ensure that only what he approved of took place there. And yet this was the very place where animal sacrifices were made every day of the year. And he did nothing about it.

As gross as it is, mention of animal sacrifice cannot be avoided because animal sacrifice was seen as essential and foundational to the religion of the people Jesus lived with and taught. If Jesus actually accepted this practice, it is highly relevant to his views on vegetarianism, since eating meat involves the killing of animals. Moreover, portions of most Jewish animal sacrifices were eaten – a means whereby their death gave life. An understanding of Jewish animal sacrifices is also critical to any analysis of whether Jesus’ views and sensitivities had any kinship with Indian religion or might even have been influenced by it.

I feel for anyone who finds this section distasteful. I have no wish to offend but I must be true to the historical facts. In fairness, however, I should point out that this pivotal aspect of the religion of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries had to be distasteful. Animal sacrifices occurred because of human sin (the most minor of which is repulsive to the Holy Lord) and they prophetically pointed to the ultimate sacrifice for human sin – Jesus’ highly distasteful death. Nevertheless, Jewish animal sacrifices were actually considerably more merciful – a much quicker death – than Jesus’ prolonged, torturous death.

Back before the first sin – the only time when humanity enjoyed total innocence – God told them, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food,” (Genesis 1:29). And that’s the only mention of food. Animals receive attention in the account, but not as a food source. Many radical changes occurred immediately after the first sin, including Adam and Eve becoming aware of their nakedness. In compassion, God gave them “garments of [animal] skin” (Genesis 3:21). This implies the death of animals because of their sin. Soon after, we read for the first time of animal sacrifices. Cain and Abel, (Adam and Eve’s children) came to blows because Abel offered God an animal sacrifice, which was accepted by God. Instead of an animal, Cain offered God what he had grown from the soil and this was not accepted by God ( Genesis 4:1-8).

I should also mention that the religion of the Jewish Scriptures was compassionate toward animals (Documented Proof).

The New Testament summarized the Jewish Scriptures this way:

    Hebrews 9:22 In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

That the law of God (Old Testament religion) “requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood” (i.e. by the blood of sacrificed animals) is serious enough but it goes on to say that without these animal sacrifices there can be no forgiveness (i.e. without it, it is impossible for anyone to be close to, or accepted by, the Holy Lord).

Does it make sense to you that no one could approach the terrifyingly holy King of the universe unless the holy, eternal Son of God entered the human race to pay the death penalty for all human sin? Anyone for whom this does not make sense is living proof of the need for animal sacrifice to help people get their head around the concept (More).

Literally millions of animals were slaughtered as an act of worship. Just to celebrate a special day, 22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep and goats were sacrificed (1 Kings 8:63).

Additionally, during a lifetime, every individual needed very many animal sacrifices made specifically for him or her.

On top this, the firstborn of every domestic animal had to be sacrificed and eaten:

    Deuteronomy 14:23 Eat . . . the firstborn of your herds [cattle/oxen] and flocks [sheep and goats]

If the animal were an unclean species, it had either to be killed or a lamb was killed and eaten in its place (For relevant Jewish Scriptures see Commanded to Sacrifice & Eat Firstborn Animals). Likewise:

    Leviticus 27:32 The entire tithe of the herd and flock – every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod – will be holy to the LORD.

All of these cattle, sheep, goats were to be sacrificed and eaten (Scriptures).

Animal sacrifice is mentioned in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles . . . and the list keeps going on and on.

Also saturating the Jewish Scriptures is the concept of clean and unclean animals. Its entire purpose was to pronounce which species of animals could be eaten and sacrificed. Cows, the eating of which is regarded as taboo in Hinduism, were specifically designated as fit to eat (Documented Proof).

Shortly after the birth of any child, an animal and a bird (or just birds if the parents were poor) had to be sacrificed (Leviticus 12:1-8). The records specifically state that this happened in Jesus’ case (Documented Proof). Jesus, of course, was too young to arrange this himself but Joseph and Mary were divinely selected to be Jesus’ human parents (Documented Proof).

Moreover, when he healed a leper:

    Mark 1:43-44 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is a huge problem for anyone imagining that Jesus was influenced by or agreed with Indian religion and/or vegetarianism. It is bad enough to remain silent about a practice one disapproves of, but it is quite another to actually tell someone do it, and yet Jesus insisted that this man arrange sacrifices. This involved the killing of an assortment of several creatures (one to three lambs plus one to three birds) and two or three of them (of which at least one had to be a lamb) were to be eaten (Proof). The priests – in one sense the most holy people among the Jews as they were divinely chosen and consecrated for holy service – were divinely required to eat significant quantities meat. Jesus’ insistence on offering these sacrifices is repeated in Matthew 8:4 and Luke 5:14. Moreover, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the crowd, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar . . . First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift(Matthew 5:23 – emphasis mine).

In a parable, Jesus spoke approvingly of a father who slaughtered a calf for food. In fact, killing the calf for food is such a key part of the parable that it is mentioned three times in this short parable. Moreover, the father in Jesus’ parable represented not some heathen but God himself.

In yet another parable Jesus said:

    Matthew 22:2,4 The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. . . . and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

In a society that not only ate meat but emphatically believed it was commanded by God to do so, a vegetarian, unless he always ate in private, would stand out like an embarrassed giraffe hoping to blend in with a flock of sheep. However, not only was Jesus not renowned for having a restricted diet or eating in private, he was widely criticized for being on the opposite extreme of being indiscriminate about what he ate and who he ate with (Documented Proof). Moreover, if being poor by modern western standards caused many of Jesus’ contemporaries to view meat as somewhat of a luxury, that made it even more likely to have been provided for an honored guest.

If vegetarianism were of even minor importance to Jesus he would, at the very least, have encouraged his closest followers not to eat meat. And, given Jewish eating habits, for Jesus’ disciples to avoid meat they would have had to be extremely selective about accepting any meals their fellow Jews offered them. However, not only did Jesus not suggest his disciples refuse meat dishes, he did the exact opposite. He sent them out to stay in Jewish villages without any money and made them completely dependent upon whatever hospitality they were offered. Moreover, he insisted that they eat whatever they were given (Proof).

Jesus emphasized how much he delighted in partaking in the Passover Feast (Luke 22:15). Bread baked with a raising agent (leaven) was the staple food of Jesus’ contemporaries. So food over the Passover period stood out because only unleavened bread was allowed. Nevertheless, the central aspect of the Passover Feast was the eating of specially selected lambs that had to be slaughtered in the temple in Jerusalem, the city Jesus had travelled to for the Passover.

The Passover was such a significant event that, as declared in the Jewish Scriptures, it became the Jewish New Year. It commemorated the time when, immediately before the Israelites escaped from Egypt, young sheep and goats were slaughtered so that their blood could be used to sprinkle over the doorways to their houses, and because of this blood the Lord would pass over that house, sparing those inside from a plague that would have killed their firstborn. That night, those inside had to eat the animal.

The official account of the original event, plus the requirements for all Jews to celebrate the feast annually, are spelled out in the part of the Jewish Scriptures that is appropriately called the Law. There was nothing optional about it. Every Jew old enough to eat meat who could possibly travel to Jerusalem was obligated to eat the meat of the Passover lamb (or goat). Read for yourself what the Law requires of every Jew during the Passover. This is further confirmed in the rest of the Jewish Scriptures by many accounts of keeping the Passover. They document the slaughter and eating of very many thousands of animals for this purpose (Proof).

Note carefully what Jesus declared:

    Matthew 5:18-19 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

That’s a huge blow to anyone hoping that Jesus objected to animal sacrifices and eating of them as demanded by the Law (the Jewish Scriptures). Nevertheless, Jesus could have (hypocritically?) chosen to break the Law and not go to Jerusalem during the Passover. Or, peculiarly, he could have made the effort to travel all the way to Jerusalem – which he did – and then (hypocritically?) refused to partake of the feast. Nevertheless, the Last Supper was, in fact, the feast that revolved around the eating the roasted meat of the Passover (Documented Proof). In fact, it was Jesus’ custom since his early childhood to partake of the Passover Feast (Documented Evidence).

The Repulsiveness of Meat-Eating

Surely any soft-hearted person will squirm at the thought of killing innocent animals for food. For some people it induces such disgust as to even begin to approach the heart-wrenching repugnance God feels when his loved ones sin. Spiritually, however, it conveys a powerful truth. Eating meat allows the death of an innocent animal to bring life to the guilty (those directly or indirectly responsible for the animal’s death). This finds its ultimate spiritual fulfillment in Jesus, the only truly innocent human, whose death brings spiritual life to all who are willing to admit that they are so guilty – worthy of eternal death – that their sole hope of spiritual life is in partaking of the death of the Innocent One.

This is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man [Jesus] and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life . . .” (John 6:53-54). This saying was so offensive to Jesus’ followers that many left him because of it. Even those closest to him reeled at the incomprehensibility of what Jesus was saying. They knew he could not have meant it literally but whatever it meant, it sounded disgusting. Jesus asked if they, too, would leave him because of this saying. Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

What you eat not only gives life and energy; it builds and repairs the cells of your body, becoming an inseparable part of you. That astounding union is a picture of what God longs to do with you. If you let him, you can spiritually merge with Jesus. Through that inseparable union, your sin becomes his – that’s what killed him – and his moral perfection becomes yours – that’s what empowered him to defeat death and give you eternal life.

Animal sacrifice was divinely given as precursor to Jesus’ sacrifice because it helped prepare people for the concept that an innocent could somehow pay for the sins of the guilty. Like eating meat, however, animal sacrifice is unable to bring spiritual life. It was just a shadow of the real thing: the voluntary sacrifice of humanity’s only Innocent for the sins of all who dare admit they need it. Just as an animal’s death can bring life only if it is eaten, so we can benefit from Jesus’ death only if we spiritually partake of him.

Wrap Up

Certain followers of Indian religion – showing far more understanding of, and loyalty to, their religion than to Jesus – have claimed that Jesus was including animals when saying that one should not kill. This allegation shows such an appalling disrespect of Jesus as to ignore even the rest of Jesus’ sentence where he clearly indicates he was quoting the Jewish Scriptures. In the religion he regarded as foundational to his life and teaching, and in the sacred writings that Jesus kept quoting and revered as the very Word of God, killing (sacrificing) animals and meat-eating were not merely encouraged but were a fundamental religious requirement.

If the records were silent about Jesus and vegetarianism, that very silence would strongly suggest that he was not a vegetarian. Had Jesus been a vegetarian, it would have caused quite a stir among his observers and if he wanted anyone else to be a vegetarian, he would have had to emphasize it, because it was so contrary to their religious understanding. Nevertheless, we do not have to use silence to establish a case. We have not even relied on one or two isolated incidents but we have uncovered a very consistent picture both of Jesus’ teaching and his behavior.

Several times, Jesus told various disciples to catch fish and supernaturally helped them in the task. He cooked fish, served fish to large numbers of people and ate fish himself. He not only told a parable in which he likened God to a fisherman, in two parables he likened God to someone who in celebration kills animals for food. He put his followers in a situation where they were highly likely to be served meat and then told them to eat whatever they were served. And he ate meat himself.

What is of critical importance, however, is not whether or not we choose vegetarianism, but whether we choose to partake of the spiritual benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. For help with this, see You Can Find Love.

Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 2013. For much more by the same author, see www.net-burst.net   No part of these writings may be copied without citing this entire paragraph.