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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Appropriating Jesus for Veganism?

I NEVER thought this would be a topic for my blog, even though I'm Christian and even though I have a degree from Harvard Divinity School.

But never say never.

I've run across some *interesting* claims this week on various vegan blogs, all having to do with Easter, animal rights, Christianity and Jesus. The gist is the following: Christianity is about tolerance (that's certainly debatable!); Jesus was an accepting and caring person; Jesus would not have abused animals; Jesus preached against animal sacrifice.

The blogs then end with: AND THEREFORE...Christians shouldn't a) dye eggs, b) have pet bunnies, c) eat meat. One blog even claimed that Jesus was certainly a vegan.

(Aside: this is a quick thought piece, as were the other blogs I've read on this topic. Please don't vilify me for not quoting chapter and verse here.)

Here's the gist of what I know from living my life as a Christian and spending some quality time studying my own religion with some of the best scholars available.

1) From what we know of the historical Jesus, he was concerned with "reforming" his own religion, which he felt at the time was too controlled by one group of Jews (the Pharisees), thus excluding other groups. He also felt that the religion, as then taught by the Pharisees, had gotten away from what he perceived to be its most important tenants. (Much of the writings in the gospel of Matthew -- the oldest Gospel -- are so similar to rabbinic writings of the time that it is clear that, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount is basically a summary of widely-held rabbinic teachings that have been put into the mouth of Jesus. Jesus, at least in the eyes of his contemporary and first-century followers, was trying to get people to remember the tenants of the "true Judaism". Like all religions, there are debates then and now about what that is. Jesus didn't particularly like a legalistic interpretation of his religion, which was very much a Pharisaic view of it, but that does NOT mean that he didn't believe in the importance of good works. He did. And Christians worth their salt do too. Prayer is not enough.)

2) From what we know of the *church*, followers of Jesus had several agendas and, like all groups with agendas, worked through politics and accepted local belief systems to gain followers. Not all writings about Jesus ended up in the "canon;" what ended up in our Bibles is the result of POLITICAL (read: human) choice, not "God's pen". There is plenty of Greek influence in our religion; plenty of pagan and (obviously) Jewish influence too. Christianity didn't spring from God anymore than any other religion did. (Yeah, I know millions disagree with me. Sorry, but history shows that I'm right.)

3) Jesus was a product of his time. People ate meat. People sacrificed animals. People drank milk. People wore leather. People used honey for food and for medicinal purposes. People raised animals. People ate what was in season and what grew locally. Meat was important in order to get through those months when nothing much was growing. To think otherwise is pure fantasy.

4) The story of Jesus throwing over the tables in the temple (my kids refer to it as "Jesus' temper tantrum") is a story of Jesus' fury over people using a sacred space for profane activities (exchanging money). It is NOT about his desire to save the poor turtle doves from being sacrificed. (At the time, there were two main forms of tithing to the temple -- giving turtle doves or giving *I believe* Roman coins. The poorer people brought the animals; the wealthier people brought the coins. Jesus was upset with both groups, not just the ones bringing the animals, and his concern wasn't about the animals' welfare but about the propriety of exchanging money in a house of worship.) Some vegan blogs I've read like to say that what Jesus was really concerned with is the welfare of the animals.


I have no problem with, basically, a vegan worldview. I have no problem with criticisms of traditions that exploit animals or people. The world has changed since Jesus' time and it will continue to change. We can change. (Religions can change too, albeit they usually do so at glacial speed.) Frankly, the example of the rise of Christianity (or the rise of Islam or...) is a great example of how societies and worldviews change.

I *DO* have a problem with people propagating crazy interpretations of scripture and/or history. If there's EVIDENCE of Jesus being a vegan, I'm happy to hear of it. If it's just what somebody thinks we SHOULD believe about Jesus because he was so caring or so tolerant, that's a whole other ball of wax and hardly supportable with available historical or scriptural evidence.

And it really isn't why Christians "should" or "should not" dye eggs or eat meat.

Or have pet bunnies.


  1. E: This is a great example of American narcissism. Let's take a centuries old world religion and impose our own belief system onto it.

    We are supposed to be transformed by faith, not the other way around.

  2. Great post, Elaine. And I really appreciate our discussion on twitter as well. (I'm TheVeganRD). For the record, I wasn't actually making the case that Jesus was an ethical vegetarian or that the cleansing of the temple was about animal liberation. Rather, I was exploring the idea that Jesus opposed animal sacrifice--maybe not for reasons of animal welfare or rights, of course. Also, there are some interpretations related to Paul's discussion of meat in Acts that suggests the early church was vegetarian. I'm fuzzy on this, though and can't remember where I read it--maybe it was in the blog post I sent you?

    Anyway, I'm reading "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman right now, which has me convinced we don't know a whole lot about what Jesus thought or said about anything.

    Have you read Andrew Linzey's "Christianity and the Rights of Animals?" It's a fairly alternative interpretation of the Bible. I'd love to know what you think of it!

  3. Hi Ginny! Thanks for your comment. I have not, unfortunately, read either of the books you mention. My career has taken me far away from my theology training. (I'm a sociologist now.) I *Totally* agree that, in general, we know very little about the historical Jesus. We know what certain communities of followers wanted us to believe. We know, basically, how Christianity has mapped itself onto religions of the time (hence, holds things in common with Judaism, paganism, Greek and Roman thought).

    When I come up for air (after the term is over), I will read the books you mention (I've got a LONG list of books to read!).

    I so appreciate your taking the time to comment, both here and on Twitter.

  4. Hi Elaine... I'm not "religious" in any traditional sense... But I do believe a great, compassionate and wise philosopher named Christ did exist. And after having heard the views of Andrew Linzey and Norm Phelps I'm inclined to believe that Christ may very well have lived on a vegetarian diet. And here are some of my reasons:

    Christ was supposed to have traveled with the Desert Fathers who lived on bread cakes, figs, nuts, seeds, etc. They were vegetarians.

    All his teachings follow the Gospel of the Essenes - Which is basically Ahimsa - To do no harm.

    There is no mention of Christ ever consuming flesh... In any bible that I know of...

    And finally, I don't think it's too hard to believe that a man who valued peace and life so much that upon seeing the mass brutalization of innocents at Temple - could go in a rage from the anger of bloodshed.

    Having this view of a rational and loving man, all these situtations seem quite reasonable to me... Not the acts of a man as Son of "gOd"; But rather the responses of a man who valued justice.

    I don't think people should advocate going vegan because Christ (or any holy figure) was vegan ---But I can't honestly say that it's not the right step towards a more harmonious and spritutal life either.

    And finally, there is the beautiful account of our perfect plant based existence in the Garden of Eden: Genesis 1:29

    If you ever get caught up on your reading, you may find this site of interest too! :)


  5. Bea -- Thanks for your comment. I will, after the term is over, get somewhat "caught up" on Jesus-and-vegetarianism readings.

    However, the article whose link I've posted below is, I think, quite reasonably argued and researched. It argues that the claims that Jesus was a vegetarian are based on flimsy evidence.

    I have several friends who are NT scholars; I'm going to send out some emails later today and attach this and several other articles and see if they have time to respond.

    I think, at best, there are few reputable biblical scholars who believe that the Essenes were *definitively* vegetarian OR that Jesus was an Essene (in fact, that is not a traditional claim, though an interesting one). As this article explains, it takes quite a few leaps of logic to claim either fact.

    As a sociologist, I find it *fascinating* that many vegans feel compelled to find ways to "prove" that Jesus was vegetarian, or that John was a "raw foodist" (where is THAT evidence!) or that Peter...you get it.

    It should be OK to be both Christian and vegan, regardless of whether Jesus or his followers wore wool, used leather, ate meat, drank milk or used honey (which I think, in all likelihood, most or all did).

    Here's the article:


  6. It shouldn't be "fascinating" that people try to use myths to justify a position. Bea's argument is perfectly reasonable within a discourse that uses Jesus' consumption, or so the argument goes, of fish to justify eating flesh, dairy, and eggs today. Both sides present claims and counter-claims by taking a common myth and deploying it.


Politeness is always appreciated.