“Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” (Albert Einstein)
When it comes to vegetarianism and Christianity the first question people always ask is: “In the scriptures aren’t there passages describing Jesus as serving fish, as well as eating lamb during the Jewish holiday known as Passover?” Some might also cite a verse about John the Baptist eating insects (locusts). This of course is based on a couple of quotes from the Orthodox New Testament that people are familiar with.
For those not acquainted with Judeo-Christian history and the various collections of writings or scriptures from that period that have survived, at first glance it appears as if Jesus ate fish and that John the Baptist dined on bugs. Certainly the well-known writings of European Christianity portray it that way. But not so fast. These gospels represent writings used by a religious sect following the Apostle Paul’s Western version of Christianity, which was attempting to recruit followers from around the Roman Empire. Paul did advocate eating meat, but he himself supplies us with evidence in his own letters (‘epistles’) dating back to the early decades of the First Century AD (around 50 AD) that others in early Christianity disagreed with him about diet and many other issues. It turns out that Paul dropped the vegetarian requirement as part of his attempt to make new converts. If you read his New Testament Epistle to the Galatians closely however, you can notice there was quite a bit of tension between Paul and the original Jesus Movement based in Jerusalem. Paul gives them ‘left-handed compliments,’ calls them “weak,” “of the circumcision,” and even “Judaizers.” Given their solid credibility and affiliation with the historical Jesus, Paul couldn’t completely denounce them, but he does greatly marginalize them. They are barely mentioned at all in the New Testament.
Those in the Jerusalem part of the Jesus movement, Jesus’ own family and spiritual successors headed by the Apostle James, the brother of Jesus and next leader of the Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem community, were all vegetarian. They disagreed with Paul’s group or sect about diet: “The consumption of animal flesh was unknown up until the great flood. But since the great flood, we have had animal flesh stuffed into our mouths. Jesus, the Christ, who appeared when the time was fulfilled, again joined the end to the beginning, so that we are now no longer allowed to eat animal flesh.” (Hieronymus)
The earlier Essene movement within Judaism adhered to a vegetarian diet. That’s the context within Judaism. The Essenes (of Dead Sea Scrolls fame), the John the Baptist group, and the Jesus movement had much in common and are somehow related to each other. Scholars frequently debate the exact nature of their relationship. In any case, they shared many of the same values, scriptures, and spiritual beliefs.
How could it be that Jesus’ own family, the actual group of direct, spiritual successors and disciples, would have it all wrong about diet, and Paul, who never physically met Jesus and was never directly affiliated with the original disciples, got it right? The truth of the matter is that the Hebrew gospels did not portray Jesus as eating fish or Passover lamb, and in those gospels, John the Baptist did not eat any insects. Paul’s group had their literature, but so did the Ebionites, the Hebrew Christians. There were pro-meat gospels, as we all know, but there were also vegetarian gospels: the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Nazarenes, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and other Ebionite literature including the Clementine Homilies and the Recognitions of Clement. These are not channeled or recently composed writings, but scriptures that have long been known to scholars and were used by other branches of Christianity from the Middle East in antiquity. Sometimes these books are called “extra-canonical writings” or “lost books of the Bible.” These are books of someone else’s Bible; in other words, sacred texts once used by other forms of Apostolic Christianity long ago in Israel, Syria (Mesopotamia), Turkey (Asia Minor), Egypt, Ethiopia, the Mediterranean region, etc.
The Jewish Christians called themselves “Ebionites.” “Ebionite” is a word derived from Hebrew meaning “The Poor.” They traced their vow of poverty back to the first Christian community described in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles (4:32-35), and were a spiritual or intentional community that shared all of their possessions in common.
Epiphanius quotes their gospel, the Ebionite or Hebrew Gospel, as ascribing these words to Jesus: ‘I have come to destroy the sacrifices’ (Panarion 30.16.5), and as ascribing to Jesus' rejection of the Passover meat (Panarion 30.22.4), and these are analogous to numerous passages found in the Recognitions and Homilies (e.g., Recognitions 1.36, 1.54 and Homilies 3.45, 7.4, 7.8).
The Ebionite or Hebrew Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “I have come to abolish the sacrifices, and if you cease not from sacrificing, my wrath will not cease from you.” (Panarion 30.16.5)
One of the earliest Ebionite Christian documents is the Clementine Homilies, a work based on the teachings of Saint Peter. Homily XII states, “The unnatural eating of flesh meats is polluting, with its sacrifices and its impure feasts.”
Paul was OK with the practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols that came from various temples, but, like their Essene ancestors, the original Jesus Movement categorically rejected this. The author of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament also denounced this practice. (See Book of Revelation 2:12-17). The passage from Revelation actually contradicts other verses in the New Testament authored by Paul.
The first followers of Jesus, also known as Ebionites or Nazoreans, were not only kosher, but also strictly adhered to a vegetarian diet. The largest surviving collection of Ebionite scriptures is the Clementine Homilies and the Recognitions of Clement, which are vegetarian gospels that condemn animal sacrifice in any form. For example, the Book of Homilies states that God does not want animals killed at all (3.45), and condemns those who eat meat (7.4, 7.8). And the passages below also show that the Ebionites’ diet was vegan – plant-based (no eggs, no dairy, and no animal products).
Peter said, “I live on olives and bread, to which I rarely only add vegetables.” (Clementine Homilies 12,6; also see, Recognitions 7,6)
“And happiness is found in the practice of virtue. Accordingly, the Apostle Matthew partook of seeds, and nuts, hard-shelled fruits, and vegetables, without flesh.” (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 1)
“John never ate meat.” (Church historian Hegesipp according to Eusebius, History of the Church II 2:3)
“James, the brother of the Lord, lived on seeds and plants and touched neither meat nor wine.” (Epistulae ad Faustum XXII, 3)
“James, the brother of the Lord was holy from his mothers womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh.” (Hegesippus, quoted in The Church History of Eusebius, book 2, chapter 23)
And James became the successor of Christ and next leader of the Jesus Movement! The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 12: “The disciples said to Jesus; ‘We are aware that you will depart from us. Who will be our leader?’ Jesus said to him, ‘No matter where you come, it is to James the Just that you shall go, for whose sake heaven and earth have come to exist.’”(Bently Layton’s translation)
Though never seeing eye-to-eye with the original Jerusalem community on many things including the issue of meat eating, in his epistles even Paul the rogue Apostle, confirms this leadership role of James the Just, “the Lord’s brother” in Jerusalem, and he himself went to visit him to seek his blessings on a couple of occasions.
The following passage is from the Recognitions of Clement. This Ebionite Christian author has very nice things to say about those in India who worship One God, follow peaceful customs and laws, and are vegetarian or vegan. Imagine! Clearly he sees parallels between his own religion and that of his brothers and sisters “in the Indian countries.” This is one of the most amazing passages I know of in the extra-canonical scriptures, as it is a rare example of one religion (Ebionite, Hebrew Christianity) recognizing “Truth” in another religion (Hinduism), a rare inter-faith moment in human history. The Recognitions of Clement, and The Clementine Homilies are surviving Jewish-Christian texts representing an Ebionite vegetarian point of view:
“There are likewise amongst the Bactrians,
in the Indian countries,
immense multitudes of Brahmans,
who also themselves,
from the tradition of their ancestors,
and peaceful customs and laws,
neither commit murder nor adultery,
nor worship idols,
nor have the practice of eating animal food,
are never drunk,
never do anything maliciously,
but always fear God.”
Recognitions of Clement, Book 9, Chapter 22, Brahmans Volume Eight, of the, Ante-Nicene Fathers, page 187, T & T Clark Eerdmans edition.
More Wisdom from the East
The harshest words that Kabir, a great spiritual Master and poet-mystic from Northern India (loved by Sufis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Sants and Hindus alike) ever spoke were directed against the slaughter or consumption of innocent animals.
Kabir says, “Keep away from the man who eats meat – his company will ruin your meditation."
James Bean explores the world of spirituality, comparative religion, Sant Mat Mysticism, and Inner Light & Sound Meditation via Spiritual Awakening Radio as well as satsangs (meetings) around Maine. Address questions or comments to: