Early Christians & Vegetarianism

An article written by Rt Revd John Austin Baker, former Bishop of Salisbury

Rt Revd John Austin Baker – ASWA President


A reader has kindly sent us a cutting about a group called “The Brotherhood of the Essenes”. Among their teachings is a welcome stress on the need to avoid any kind of cruelty to animals and, following on from that, “the message that everyone should refrain from the eating of animal flesh”. In addition to the moral arguments for this, which will be familiar to all ASWA members, the Brothers believe that the fear induced by the process of slaughter has adverse spiritual effects on the flesh on the animal, and that this then causes spiritual harm to those who eat it. While one may not be totally convinced by this particular explanation, we can surely agree that there must be spiritual harm in refusing to face the truth of what our meat-eating involves for animals.

The name which this organisation has adopted has strong resonances with the early days of Christianity; and I thought it might be of interest to say something about the original Essenes and other related groups, and especially their practice in the matter of food.

The Essenes were a devout Jewish sect, living and working in and around Palestine from about 180 BC to 135 AD. They were great admired by many for the prayerfulness and discipline of their lives, the moderation of their diet, and their simplicity in keeping possessions to a minimum. At their peak they numbered about 4000.

They were one of a range of similar groups at that time. In Judaism, there was the Community of Qumran (from whom we have the Dead Sea Scrolls) and the Therapeutae of “Healers”, who were most numerous in Egypt. Among Christians there were the Ebionites. It is now recognised that groups such as these were a powerful inspiration to the first Christian hermits and religious communities, who sprang up in Egypt in the 3rd century AD.

The Essenes, though they lived lives of strict self-denial, did not in fact abstain altogether from animal flesh. (St. Jerome, in the 4th century, said that they had done so, but it is now recognised that he had misunderstood his sources on this point.) Indeed, of the ancient sects I have mentioned, only the Christian Ebionites are definitely known to have renounced meat. But we do know of at least one prominent Christian individual who abstained, and that was Jesusís brother, James, who from 49 AD at the latest was head of the Church in Jerusalem.

Christian animal lovers in modern times have often wished that Jesus had been a non-meat eater, but have had to face the fact that the Gospels give us no reason to think he was. It is interesting to discover that this worry goes right back to the mid-third century AD, when the Ebionites flatly refused to accept that Jesus could have eaten meat. They had a theory that all the passages in the Bible which featured heroes of the faith doing or saying things that seemed to them wrong were the result of tampering with the text by false teachers. So, when the disciples ask Jesus, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?” (Matt. 26. 17), Jesus’s reply, they claimed, should have read, “Do you think I have desired to eat flesh at the Passover with you?”, thus ruling out any suggestion that he might have shared in the paschal lamb.

Nowadays there are still various texts circulating which claim to give lost teaching by Jesus on the subject of animals. But there is no need to resort to this kind of fiction. The Judaism or Jesus’s time was already humane in its treatment of working animals, and Jesus uses the image of the Good Shepherd to illustrate Godís attitude to his world. Above all, Jesusís message and practice of compassion for every kind of suffering is surely sufficient authority for us to extend that to all creatures, and to take whatever practical decisions we think are necessary to show that compassion in the circumstances of today.

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