Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 8, 1999
Was Jesus a vegetarian?
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
He wasn't one 2,000 years ago, but he might have been one today.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) contends Jesus was a vegetarian -- and have drafted him as spokesman for their radical animal rights campaign.
Some of PETA supporters' other publicity stunts (such as appearing or posing nude to protest the fur industry), incline one to suspect that spreading the Christian Gospel is not their main objective.
Rather, they are attempting to enlist Jesus into their agenda, rather than doing their best to make sure they are part of his. They are also wrong in fact as well as emphasis.
The New Testament record simply does not support the notion that Jesus was vegetarian. Contending that he was in any political or ideological sense is spurious.
In the first-century Middle East, common people were mainly vegetarian, but of necessity -- not conviction. It's safe to infer that the same would apply to Jesus' diet. Even today in that region, the average Lebanese eats only 12 pounds of meat per year, versus 202 pounds for Canadians and 225 pounds for Americans.
Meat-eating in first-century Palestine was a luxury, reserved for special feasts, as Jesus' parable of the slaughter of the fatted calf on the prodigal son's return home affirms (not a metaphor a doctrinaire vegetarian would have chosen).
However, lots of fish was consumed, and it's significant that Jesus' first disciples were commercial fishermen whom he accompanied on fishing trips. He fed the multitude with five loaves and "two small fishes." Twice Jesus led the fishermen-disciples to (or miraculously caused) great catches of fish.
He ate fish at least once after his resurrection (Luke 24:42-43), and perhaps a second time (John 21:9-13). He makes positive reference to eating fish and eggs in Luke 11: 11-12.
Nevertheless, while I am unmoved by the emotional sentimentalism of most animal-rights rhetoric, the treatment of cattle and fowl in feedlot and factory-style poultry operations is disgusting and cruel exploitation of our fellow-creatures, with only economic efficiency to recommend it. PETA is right about that, at least.
But their selective invocation of Jesus' words out of context is theologically illiterate and/or ethically bankrupt. Their earnest assertion that "he was crucified for condemning the Temple culture -- the culture of selling animals for slaughter in the Temple" is completely false, and their unqualified assertion that "Jesus was a vegetarian" is a simply untrue.
So is there a legitimate case for vegetarianism on the basis of biblical teaching? Actually, yes -- but not in support of an animal rights agenda.
Theologian Karl Barth wrote: "Whether or not we find it practicable and desirable,the diet assigned to men and beasts by God the Creator is vegetarian.
"Man was explicitly created to 'till the ground.' In Genesis 1:29, God prescribes a specifically vegan eating regime, reiterated after the Fall. Only after the Flood did God endorse eating flesh-foods, and then more as a concession than a recommendation."
The once and future ideal of universal vegetarianism is clear. Isaiah tells us that: "when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, . . . the lion shall eat straw like the ox," and "they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain."
This is symbolized in God's favouring Jacob the farmer, with his red lentil soup, over Jacob's older brother, Esau -- the mighty hunter who relished savory game. Another case in point is found in Daniel chapter 1, which could pass for a vegetarian tract.
Francis Moore Lapp‚ (Diet For A Small Planet) tells us that anytime we sit down with an eight-ounce steak, we should imagine 40 or 50 people with empty bowls watching us eat it. For the "feed cost" of our single meat serving, each bowl could be filled with a full cup of cereal grain. Forty per cent of world grain production (79 per cent in North America) is fed to livestock.
If everyone ate a grain and legume based diet, there would be enough food at present rates of production to the current world population (six billion) adequately. Once modest amounts of eggs, poultry and meat are included, only 80 per cent can be fed.
At current North American nutrition guidelines, only 50 per cent would eat adequately. Today, about 20 per cent of the world's people go to bed hungry, while the less than five per cent who live in North America eat 30 per cent of the world's meat and 50 per cent of its milk.
So while Jesus wasn't a vegetarian 2,000 years ago, when there were only about 100 million people alive on earth, it is reasonable to speculate that he might be one today with 60 times that many passengers riding spaceship earth.
It's hard to justify meat and dairy production and consumption at present North American levels as being even remotely in accord with Divine Will.
(Charles Moore is a Nova Scotia based freelance writer and editor.)
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