Several years ago PETA sponsored a billboard campaign, featuring statements like, “Jesus was a vegetarian. Shouldn’t you be, too?” (It is odd to think that PETA considers the life of Jesus to be morally normative, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) They based their campaign on some actual historical research into Jesus’ possible dietary habits.
The basic story goes like this: John the Baptist lived out in the desert with the Essenes, who we know were vegetarians. Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist, so we can assume he probably ate a similar diet. This assumption is further bolstered by the fact that several historical documents refer to James, Jesus’ brother (or step-brother) as one who refrained from drinking alcohol or eating meat. James’ community in Jerusalem may have been a vegetarian Christian community in fact (the story goes), as evidenced by the fact that after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, a vegetarian Christian community called the Ebionites appeared on the far side of the Jordan River, where John and the Essenes had lived originally. But the Pauline tradition represents an anti-vegetarian Christianity that became more prominent, and eventually edited the gospel accounts to make Jesus a wine-drinking, meat-eating glutton.
This theory is full of holes, of course, but the most damning one is this: vegetarianism was not a category in Jesus’ culture. Neither the Essenes, nor John the Baptist, nor Jesus, nor James, nor the Ebionites were vegetarians, regardless of whether they ate meat or not. In the Jewish culture, meat didn’t mean what meat does for us. It had meaning only in relation to the sacrificial system. The Essenes didn’t eat meat, but it wasn’t because they were vegetarians, it was because they considered the temple profaned and its sacrifices unacceptable. They weren’t vegetarians; they were keeping kosher.
James and many of the early Christians did not eat meat, but it had nothing to do with the animals that meat came from. In Roman thought, food was divided into a number of binary poles: hot/cold, light/heavy, dry/wet, etc. Roman philosophers had long taught that balance was necessary for health, because the various poles related to various poles in human life: spicy foods made you act spicier, so to speak. For a variety of reasons, meat was associated with sexual virility. The early Christians, then, abstained from meat as a means of living pure lives.
What is more, fish was not considered meat, so any “vegetarian” living in Jesus’ time would still eat fish as a matter of course. Likewise, John the Baptist ate locusts (which are a clean food according to Leviticus), because his concern wasn’t vegetarianism, but living off of God’s immediate providence: honey and locusts in the wilderness. On the other hand, abstention from alcohol universally accompanied abstention from meat-eating, whereas vegetarians and vegans today have no particular qualms about alcohol.
So was Jesus a vegetarian? The question is all wrong. It can’t be answered, regardless of whether Jesus ever ate meat (besides fish) at all.* Jesus couldn’t have been a vegetarian or non-vegetarian – the category simply didn’t exist. And that’s the point I’ve been building up to all along. We simply cannot determine our ethical norms based on the question, “Was Jesus a __________?”
The most common place I see this is in discussions about Christian commitments to nonviolence. Should a Christian be a pacifist, or support a just-war doctrine, or offer dual allegiances to Christ and to his nation, regardless of the relative justice of the conflict? Critics of Christian pacifism rely on the argument that “Jesus wasn’t a pacifist,” while Christian pacifists make the equal mistake of claiming that Jesus was a pacifist.
Jesus was not a pacifist. Such a category did not exist. Granted that Jesus never engaged in direct violence (the disruption of the temple services was not violent in any sense that a Christian pacifist would protest – if it had been, he’d have been arrested on the spot) or counseled violence, there still was no neat category of pacifism for him to fit into. For Christians today, the question isn’t whether Jesus was a strictly defined pacifist (he also was not a just-war advocate or promoter of Lutheran dual allegiance), but how we translate his teachings about enemy-love and God-trust into our modern context.
Likewise, when we discuss whether or not Jesus was a Republican or Democrat, or Pro-life, we are being intellectually lazy and ethically irresponsible. Whether Jesus would have supported a Roman form of universal healthcare is a question so far outside of any plausible historical context that we can only shake our heads in response. To ask if Jesus would have supported enhanced interrogation techniques is an offense to his public torture and execution.
I don’t know what to say, except to beg Christians to get to know Jesus. We have to stop trying to take him captive to our politics, stop trying to get his name on our agendas. I am a Christian pacifist who needs you to realize that Jesus was not a pacifist, but that if you follow him you should consider being one.
*Did Jesus eat meat? It’s possible he didn’t. Lamb is conspicuously absent from his passover meal, but that could be for theological reasons. Jesus did judge the temple [or did he cleanse it?], so perhaps he considered its sacrifices unkosher and never ate the temple meat. On the other hand, Jesus frequently engaged in intentional table fellowship with all sorts of people. It seems unlikely that his refusal to accept whatever food they offered would go unrecorded. Jesus was also accused of being a glutton, of refusing to follow Jewish ceremonial law concerning dining, and taught that what goes into a person is not defiling, so it’s probable Jesus was not opposed to the practice of eating meat.