There are some who believe that Jesus was a vegetarian. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is one group that often makes this claim. PETA argues: “Jesus was compassionate, but slaughterhouses are cruel to animals. Thus, Jesus must have been a vegetarian. He opposed the animal sacrifices of the Jews, and He especially had compassion for fish, calling multiple fisherman away from their occupation of killing innocent animals.” Is there any merit to this argument and the arguments of those who believe Jesus didn’t consume meat? What does Scripture actually say?
The Gospels are fairly straightforward about the Messiah’s diet and tastes in food. The Old Testament describes numerous animal offerings commanded by God, including the Passover. Since Jesus was born under the Law, He participated in the Passover meal, which required a lamb to be slaughtered and consumed and he celebrated Passover annually since childhood.
“Jesus said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they have him a piece of broiled fish…And he took it, and did eat before them” (Luke 24:41-43).
Jesus often ate meat. The story of Jesus multiplying fish and bread, not to mention the Passover lamb, argues against vegetarianism too. In a vision to the apostle Peter, Jesus declared all foods to be clean, including animals (Acts 10:10-15). After the flood in Noah’s time, God gave humanity permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:2-3). God has never rescinded this permission.
If Jesus opposed the slaughter and consumption of animals, the New Testament tells nothing of it. Paul even warns against such a doctrine of demons, requiring others to abstain from God-given food (1 Timothy 4:3). Then there’s the argument that Jesus called multiple fisherman away from their occupation of killing animals. Twice Jesus led disciples to a catch so large that the nets nearly broke (John 21:5011). The risen Lord ate fish in front of the disciples (Luke 24:42,34), guided them in another massive catch, and had them bring the fish to eat with Him (John 21:9-12).
PETA’s campaign ignored biblical evidence and the Bible altogether, preferring sources from the fringe field of “vegetarian theology,” who depend on coincidence, historical speculation, creative interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts to support their case that Jesus was an Essene and that the Essenes practiced vegetarianism. Is there any merit to this argument?
The Essenes were a Jewish religious sect that lived in the Judean desert on the western shore of the Dead Sea during the time of Jesus. Secretive and communal, the Essenes broke with official Judaism and retreated from the world because they though both had become polluted, unclean and ungodly. Many scholars believe the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
To prove Jesus was an Essene, the vegetarian theologians work backward from John the Baptist. A few scholars have speculated that John might have been an Essene. Indeed, he preached along the Jordan River near the Essenes’ Dead Sea settlement, he held political beliefs similar to those of the Essenes, and lines found in the Dead Sea Scrolls echo in his preaching. For instance, Isaiah 40:3 makes the reference to John: “The voice of him [John] that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The same passage appears frequently in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The vegetarian theologians maintain that John the Baptist made Jesus an Essene by baptizing Him which is quite a stretch.
The Gospels identify two other major sects of the day, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, as opponents of Jesus. Given the Gospels don’t mention the Essenes; Jesus must have been an Essene. This is known as an argument from silence. This argument has little merit. It also isn’t likely that the Essenes were even vegetarians. Vegetarianism goes unmentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls and since the Essenes were purists, it’s likely they would have slaughtered a lamb at Passover.
Finally, there were fundamental differences in the teachings of Jesus and the Essenes. Jesus socialized with lepers. The Essenes rejected even healthy Jews. Jesus spoke of loving one’s enemy. The Essenes believed an apocalyptic war would wipe out theirs. Jesus taught that we’re all God’s children. The Essenes believed they were “children of light” while others were “children of darkness.”
It is clear from Scripture that Jesus ate meat and did not condemn others for doing so, there is nothing wrong with a Christian being a vegetarian. The Bible does not command us to eat meat. There is nothing wrong with abstaining from eating meat. What the Bible does say is that we should not force our convictions about the issue on other people or judge them by what they ear or do not eat. Romans 14:2-3 says, “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.”
God gave humanity permission to eat meat after the flood (Genesis 9:3). In the Old Testament law, the nation of Israel was commanded not to eat certain foods (Leviticus 11:1-47), but there was never a command against eating meat. Jesus declared all foods, including all kinds of meat, to be clean (Mark 7:19). As Christians, we are still called to treat animals with kindness. God made everything that lives on the earth – including the animals and the Bibles us to take care of the animals under our care.