Bloomsbury Food Library - Biblical Vegetarianism? A Critical and Constructive Assessment
Eating and Believing
Eating and Believing

David Grumett

Dr David Grumett is Research Fellow in Theology in the University of Exeter, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Rachel Muers

Dr Rachel Muers is Lecturer in Theology in the University of Leeds, UK. She is author of Keeping God’s Silence: Towards a Theological Ethics of Communication (Blackwell, 2004). She also edited The Modern Theologians (Blackwells) together with David Ford. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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A Continuum, 2008


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Book chapter



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Biblical Vegetarianism? A Critical and Constructive Assessment

DOI: 10.5040/9780567678140-ch-003
Page Range: 44–59

As with other areas of dispute and debate in Christian ethics, theological arguments about whether it is right to kill and eat animals inevitably appeal, inter alia, to the Bible, in a variety of ways, to justify or ground their proposals and convictions. My own interest in this area arises from my involvement in a research project concerned with a related but not identical set of concerns, namely the appeals to the Bible in discussions of the environment, and the possible contribution of biblical texts, via an ecological hermeneutic, to an ecological reconfiguration of Christian theology and ethics.[1] In both areas of Christian ethics, it seems to me, a critical appraisal of the kinds of appeal that are made to the Bible is a necessary precursor to any constructive proposals about the ways in which the Bible might inform contemporary thinking.[2]

As is the case with Christian environmentalism, where the first point of engagement is often a defensive one, addressing the notion (or the accusation) that the mandate to dominate and subdue the earth (Gen. 1.26, 28) legitimates the kind of aggressive human domination of the earth that has caused our ‘ecologic crisis’,[3] so proponents of a Christian vegetarianism have to address a point that appears to favour their opponents: that the Bible clearly allows the eating of meat.[4] This ‘permission’ is given to Noah and his descendants after the flood (Gen. 9.1–4), along with the prohibition of eating meat with its ‘life-blood’ in it.[5] Both the permission and the prohibition are fundamental to the Torah’s food regulations, which presume the acceptability of eating (‘clean’) meat (Lev. 11) and reiterate the proscription of blood (e.g. Lev. 3.17; 17.14; 19.26; Deut. 12.23). Animal sacrifices are central to the functioning of the priestly cult (e.g. Lev. 17).

In the early Christian traditions, Jesus—to whom we shall later return—was evidently understood as having ‘declared all foods clean’ (Mk 7.19), a position that Paul also presents to the Christians at Rome, perhaps echoing the dominical teaching in this matter (Rom. 14.14). Paul also cites Psalm 24.1 as a basis for instructing the Corinthians to ‘eat everything sold in the market’ (1 Cor. 10.25–26),[6] despite the fears of some Corinthians about being defiled by eating food offered to idols. Luke records a visionary experience in which Peter is instructed that even unclean animals may be eaten (Acts 10.9–16), though the point of the vision is evidently to legitimate a mission to (‘unclean’) Gentiles (Acts 11.3–12). The author of 1 Timothy, like Paul before him, appeals to God as creator of all things to argue against an ascetic rejection of certain foods (4.3–4). A good deal remains open to scholarly debate here. Did Mark and Paul, for example, mean to imply that all foods were acceptable, including animals prohibited in the Torah and even food that had been offered to idols, or are they presenting teaching which remains within the bounds of loyalty to the Law?[7] Whichever way we interpret this material, however, it unambiguously points in the direction of permission to eat (all? some?) meat.

Apart from the positive arguments to which we shall turn, the ‘biblical vegetarian’[8] response to such material is essentially to argue that it represents a permission rather than a positive command, and that it is a permission which reflects the fact that human–animal relationships are not what they should be; it constitutes ‘an accommodation to human sinfulness’.[9] In terms of a positive argument for ‘biblical vegetarianism’, the most important and often-cited texts are those which depict both the original creation and the new, eschatological creation as vegetarian.[10] In the account of Genesis 1, it is clearly stated that for both human and animal, plants are to provide their food (Gen. 1.29–30). The terms of this provision are repeated after the flood, when the new permission to eat meat is introduced:‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything’ (Gen. 9.3, NRSV). This aspect of the creation story finds a clear parallel in the prophetic depictions of an eschatological future in which all creation is at peace. Most influential is the Isaianic vision: ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox’ (Isa. 11.6–7). This is later reiterated, in the context of God’s promise to make ‘a new heavens and a new earth’ (Isa. 65.17, 25; cf. Hos. 2.18).

This vision of a peaceable, non-violent existence for humans and animals continued to be influential in subsequent Jewish literature. As Richard Bauckham has shown, there seem to be two main ways in which humanity’s peaceful existence with creation was envisaged as coming about. One was in the existence of the righteous person, for whom God would ensure a harmonious relationship with the nonhuman world—‘you shall not fear the beasts of the earth. For you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you’ (Job 5.22–23). The second was in the messianic/eschatological age, as shown in a variety of texts that echo the themes of Isaiah 11.6–9.[11] It is this messianic/eschatological theme that Bauckham argues underpins the concise comment by Mark that Jesus was ‘with the wild animals’ (Mark 1.13); Jesus has established his messianic peace with the animals.[12]

While the ‘protological’ and the ‘eschatological’ visions of creation are by no means identical, there are significant points of contact and correlation.[13] Most crucial for our topic, of course, is the fact that both depict a vegetarian world from which the violence of predation is absent. Other notable motifs in the Isaianic visions include the promise of longevity (Isa. 65.20; cf. Gen. 5.1–6.3; Ps. 90.10) and the serpent’s assignment to dust-rations (Isa. 65.25; cf. Gen. 3.14). In the New Testament, Revelation’s vision of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (21.1) is clearly different from that of creation in Genesis; it is an emphatically urban vision, for a start (21.12–21). Yet again, motifs from Eden are significant: the tree of life and the river (22.1–2; cf. Gen. 2.10), the promise of an end to pain and death (Rev. 21.4; cf. Gen. 2.17; 3.3, 16–19).[14] The new Jerusalem is, as John Sweet comments, ‘paradise regained’.[15] This correlation of protological and eschatological vision is significant here insofar as it adds weight to the argument for biblical vegetarianism: the vision of a future (non-predatory) peace is also a return to the Creator’s original intention, and in living eschatologically, in anticipation of the realization of God’s peaceable kingdom, Christian vegetarians are, it is argued, aligning themselves with this original intention and ultimate goal.

Jesus the vegetarian?

Arguments for Christian vegetarianism also, and understandably, attend to the figure of Jesus, finding in his teaching and conduct some degree of support for commitment to vegetarianism. Some argue for a thoroughgoing vegetarianism on the part of Jesus. According to Charles Vaclavik, for example, Jesus (born around 23 BCE and influenced by Pythagorean commitment to vegetarianism) became the leader of a Judaic Nazarene-Essene movement whose members were vegetarian. This Judaic Christianity was subsequently opposed by Gnostic (Gentile) Christianity represented by Paul, then later excluded as heresy by the Catholic Church, and its communalistic, pacifist and vegetarian ethic swept aside.[16] A great deal of this reconstruction is highly questionable and historically unconvincing. The ‘evidence’ for such vegetarian practice and conviction on the part of Jesus is heavily dependent on the (fragmentary) evidence of the Jewish-Christian gospels (especially that of the Ebionites), often as reconstructed from ‘orthodox’ antiheretical writers such as Epiphanius, and on other apocryphal and non-canonical literature. These depictions date from some considerable time after the first century, and are heavily shaped by distinctive (often ascetic) agendas. The Synoptic Gospels, though undoubtedly also shaped by theological agendas subsequent to the lifetime of Jesus, are generally regarded as more reliable historical sources.[17]

More cautious treatments are also offered by proponents of a Christian vegetarianism. Andrew Linzey, for example, feels the need to address ‘one major—and some would say conclusive—objection to my pro vegetarian thesis . . . Jesus was no vegan and probably no vegetarian.’[18] Linzey immediately goes on to note that ‘there are no recorded examples of Jesus eating meat in the Gospels’. The ‘possible exception’ of the Passover is uncertain, since ‘it is not entirely clear that Jesus ate the traditional Passover meal’.[19] Linzey concedes, nonetheless, that Jesus ate fish, and sees this as the issue needing a response.[20] There are four ‘possible answers’. One ‘is that the canonical Gospels are mistaken and Jesus was actually a vegetarian’.[21] The second ‘is that Jesus was not perfect in every conceivable way’.[22] The third ‘is that the killing of fish is not a morally significant matter, or, at least, not as significant as the killing of mammals’.[23] The fourth answer, which Linzey finds ‘the most convincing’, is that ‘sometimes it can be justifiable to kill fish for food in situations of necessity . . . real necessity for human survival, such as may be argued in the case of Jesus himself ’.[24] Furthermore, Jesus is presented in the Gospels as ‘identifying himself with the world of animals’.[25]

A broadly similar argument is presented by Stephen Webb, who notes that ‘we do not see Jesus eating any meat in the Gospels’. He comments that ‘there is no biblical evidence that the Passover lamb was served’ at the Last Supper, though the evidence ‘seems slightly [sic!] weighted toward the conclusion that Jesus ate fish’.[26] There is sufficient evidence, moreover, to justify calling Jesus ‘a lover of animals’.[27] Webb concedes that ‘we simply do not know the detailed answer to the question of what Jesus ate’, though his overall conclusions regarding Jesus are as follows:

My best guess is that Jesus was not a strict vegetarian, because the earliest Gospels do not mention this belief and, more importantly, Jesus was against erecting food rituals that separate people. However, since there is no mention of him eating meat (besides fish) in the New Testament . . . it seems likely he avoided meat whenever that was consistent with his ministry. He was especially critical of self-righteousness, which would have made it difficult for him to defend his diet as superior to the alternatives . . . He was, in all probability, a ‘loose’ vegetarian, one who abstains from meat without drawing undue attention to that dietary choice.[28]

It is a long time since Albert Schweitzer presented his devastating criticism of the lives of Jesus written before his rigorously ‘historical’ quest, in which writers had made a Jesus in their own image, finding their own (often Victorian) moral values anticipated and reflected in his teaching.[29] More recently, of course, we have learned to be suspicious of any claim to present an objective historical account of Jesus, since we have come to recognize—pace Schweitzer—that our various readerly contexts and presuppositions decisively shape our enquiry. Nonetheless, it is interesting not only that portraits of a vegetarian, animal-loving Jesus rather perspicuously present a Jesus made in the image of his contemporary interpreters but also that these depictions are presented, with considerable energy and industry, as historical portraits based on careful assessment of the best evidence. Thus there are both historical and hermeneutical issues to probe here.

It is difficult, both historically and exegetically, to sustain the claim that Jesus was a ‘loose’ vegetarian who showed a concern for animals and ate (only) fish under pressure of necessity. For a start, while Jesus does mention animals in his teaching, in a way which broadly affirms God’s providential care for all creatures, this is clearly in the context of an a minori ad maius argument intended to stress the value of human life (Mt. 6.25–34//Lk. 12.22–31). The fact that Jesus uses animals and other images from rural life in his parables does not reveal anything significant about any moral value he might place upon them, despite the arguments of many ecotheologians to the contrary.[30] This is not to say that Jesus is inimical to an agenda of care for animals, but simply that he expresses no significant convictions on the subject; anything relevant to the topic only represents an implicit affirmation of established Jewish teaching—by no means an insignificant observation, but one which indicates that Jesus neither innovates nor emphasizes any aspect of a Jewish Torah-based animal ethic.[31] As Richard Bauckham puts it: ‘Jesus, in his recorded teaching, does not teach compassion for animals, but he places himself clearly within the Jewish ethical and legal tradition which held that God requires the people to treat their fellow-creatures, the animals, with compassion and consideration.’[32] Similarly, ‘the Gospels do not record specific instances of Jesus exercising compassion for animals’,[33] and certain incidents, most obviously the drowning of the Gerasene/Gadarene pigs (Mk 5.1–20 and pars) raise questions about any priority for animal welfare on the part of Jesus.[34] Bauckham deals with the difficulty by regarding this as an instance, ‘unique in the Gospels’, where the ‘principle that human beings are of more value than other animals’ calls for a choice to be made, and where Jesus thus ‘permits a lesser evil’.[35] There is, however, no indication in the story that the drowning of the pigs is a regrettable ‘lesser evil’, and no comment whatsoever that indicates any measure of concern about the pigs on Jesus’ part. Clearly this is not a story which is ‘about’ animal welfare, but rather an exorcism story with various levels of political imagery and meaning.[36] Nevertheless, the absence of any indication that the pigs’ suffering even registers in Jesus’ thinking casts doubt on the portrayal of him as an animal-loving vegetarian.

There is also little, apart from silence, to commend the view that Jesus opposed animal sacrifice and ate fish only out of human necessity. Most recent scholarship has located Jesus firmly within a Jewish framework and argued that, with a few possible exceptions (notably Mt. 8.22//Lk. 9.60), he upheld and observed the Torah (though he disagreed with some Pharisaic interpretation of it).[37] As Bauckham notes, since Jesus’ attitude to animals belongs firmly within the Jewish tradition, in which ‘it was permitted to kill certain animals for sacrifice to God in the temple and for food’, it would have been a very ‘significant innovation’ for Jesus to reject either of these practices, and one which the Gospel writers would have been likely to record, especially as they were addressed to Christians who had abandoned participation in Temple sacrifice.[38] On the contrary, Jesus is recorded as commanding the healed leper to offer the sacrifice that Moses required (Mk 1.44), and as attending the Temple himself, notably at the season of Passover (Mk 11.1ff; note 14.1–2, 49). Moreover, the earliest Christians continued to attend, which is difficult to understand if Jesus had somehow rejected its practices in toto (Acts 3.1). Jesus’ action in the Temple (Mk 11.15–17 and pars) is often cited by proponents of biblical vegetarianism as a key incident where Jesus opposes the Jewish sacrificial system because of his opposition to the killing of animals.[39] However, this important incident, the subject of various scholarly interpretations, is unlikely to reflect a rejection of Temple worship and animal sacrifice per se. Even if Jesus here reiterates a prophetic critique of the functioning of the sacrificial system (cf. Mt. 9.13; 12.7; quoting Hos. 6.6), that is a long way from showing that he intended to reject sacrifice as a whole, and still further from indicating that he did so because of a concern for animal welfare, of which there is scarcely a hint in the Synoptic Gospels.[40]

Similar points apply to the Gospels’ silence as to Jesus’ eating of meat or including it in a Passover meal. Since meat was an occasional luxury in most ancient societies, including Jewish Palestine, it is unlikely that Jesus ate it frequently. But to imply from silence that Jesus actively avoided meat, and did so on grounds of concern for animals, is historically implausible.[41] First, we would have expected some comment, from Jesus, or his disciples, or his critics, on this unusual behaviour. What we have, on the contrary, is the (no doubt polemical) report that he was a ‘glutton and a drunkard’, in contrast to the more ascetic John the Baptist (Mt. 11.18–19//Lk. 7.33–34). Ebionite concerns to depict Jesus and John as ascetic vegetarians—for example, changing John’s diet from locusts (akrides) to cakes (enkrides)[42]—reveal more about the convictions of this later ascetic JewishChristian group than they do about the historical Jesus.[43] Second, insofar as Jews avoided meat in this period, this was most likely to reflect either a perceived need to avoid contact with Gentile idolatry (Dan. 1.5-16) or a (temporary) commitment to self-denial, such as in fulfilment of a Nazirite vow (Num. 6.3; Judg. 13.4). Again, we find little indication of such an ascetic lifestyle on the part of Jesus (in contrast to John); his disciples are asked why they do not fast (Mk 2.18). Third, as we have already mentioned, there are no explicit expressions of concern for animals on the part of Jesus, making it very difficult to see him as any kind of model for a modern ethical vegetarianism in which concern for animals is a central consideration.

What is hermeneutically interesting is that (some) modern arguments for Christian vegetarianism feel the need to invest such energy into depicting Jesus as a proto-vegetarian. The presumption seems to be that an argument for what Christians must do needs, ideally at least, to be based on what Jesus did and taught: if one wants to convince Christians to be vegetarian, one must show, inter alia, that Jesus was (more or less) a vegetarian. Yet this approach to using the Bible (including the Gospels) in ethics seems both problematic and inadequate in a number of ways. First, it reflects a questionable approach to the Gospel material, seeking to find in the teaching and actions of Jesus precise, rule-like precedents on specific ethical issues that can be straightforwardly transferred to our time. Not only do such rule-seeking approaches to the Bible soon run into insurmountable problems—since the ethical rules that accumulate are neither consistent nor morally acceptable[44]—but they also arguably fail to take proper account of the genre of the Gospels, as Richard Burridge has recently suggested.[45] Second, such an approach gives inadequate consideration to the vast cultural and historical gap that separates the Bible in general and Jesus in particular from our time and place. Depictions of Jesus as a ‘loose’ vegetarian on the basis of his (supposed) love and concern for animals are anachronistic.[46] Third, such an approach reflects a theologically superficial notion of the imitation of Christ, operating at the level of asking what Jesus did and copying it, rather than seeking a deeper christological pattern that might inspire what Stephen Fowl calls ‘non-identical repetition’, an imitation of Christ differently enacted in our own (diverse) contemporary contexts.[47]

A constructive biblical contribution?

All this might seem to imply a general view that the Bible cannot really be expected to inform Christian ethics and a specific view that the Bible cannot offer support to contemporary Christian vegetarianism. I intend to imply neither of these positions. I do mean to imply that arguments about whether Jesus was a vegetarian cannot make a positive or convincing contribution to the case for contemporary vegetarianism. On the other hand, certain themes from the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus can valuably inform ethical reflection, particularly when linked with other biblical material. In what follows, then, I will reassess the contribution of selected biblical themes to the case for a ‘biblical vegetarianism’. There are three such themes I wish to consider, and, eventually, to link together and relate to the issue at hand—though given the limits of space, the treatment will have to be partial and illustrative only.

The first such theme is asceticism. Having pointed out above that Jesus was, in many respects, no ascetic, this may seem an unpromising start. However, there are respects in which Jesus may be regarded as ascetic, most obviously in his renunciation of family, home and marriage, and his life of voluntary itinerant poverty: ‘Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Mt. 8.20//Lk. 9.58). Moreover, Jesus commands his disciples to abandon even the minimum of protection and possessions as they conduct their mission (Mk 6.8–9 and pars). This pattern of itinerant radicalism, as Gerd Theissen has shown, was an important role-model for the first disciples of Jesus and in the earliest Church.[48] Paul too follows and promotes a lifestyle of sexual asceticism, recommending to the Corinthians that they follow his example of single-minded devotion to God (1 Cor. 7.7, 29–35). Paul can depict this pattern of discipleship as requiring an almost violent disciplining of one’s own body (1 Cor. 9.27), and in practical terms the renunciation of one’s own rights and privileges—including the freedom to eat meat (Rom. 14.21; 1 Cor. 8.13)—out of concern for one’s sisters and brothers. This kind of early Christian asceticism has often been criticized with the now wellworn accusation that it entails a negative view of the body, and of the physical and sexual dimensions of human existence. However, recent studies have begun to attempt a more positive appraisal, following an influential article by Richard Valantasis, who defines asceticism as ‘performances within a dominant social environment intended to inaugurate a new subjectivity, different social relations, and an alternative symbolic universe’.[49] From this perspective, ascetic practices are indications of early Christians’ attempts to construct and inhabit an alternative social world, one which stands at odds with the dominant society and its imperial order.

Furthermore, the kind of self-renunciation Paul practises, and presents as a model for the Corinthians to imitate, follows a christological pattern, a praxis Paul regards as rooted in the self-giving and self-emptying of Christ.[50] This might give a particular and ethical shape to Christian asceticism, which would not be simply about the disciplining of bodily desires and actions, but the disciplining of bodily practices for the sake of the other. This, I would suggest, offers a richer notion of the imitation of Christ than is implicit in the arguments for Jesus’ vegetarianism surveyed above, though one which, being less rule-specific, requires considerable contemporary and contextual work to discern its practical ethical demands. For example, an obvious question for contemporary reflection, and one which immediately takes us beyond the anthropocentric focus of New Testament ethics, is whether, and in what sense, animals can or should be regarded as ‘others’ worthy of generous other-regard.[51]

Ascetic considerations such as the avoidance of luxury loomed largest in the dietary disciplines of later (monastic) Christian communities, while moral concern for animals is little in evidence as a motivation for abstaining from meat. It is easy to criticize this focus not only for its failure to make animal welfare a significant consideration, but also for its apparent denigration of the body and its ethos of denial. Yet, as the comments above will already have suggested, it is at least possible to see such asceticism, and the moral virtue it is intended to develop, as both a powerful rejection of the dominant social order and a christologically shaped praxis which, at its best, has regard for the other at its heart.

The second theme is creation’s praise. As Terence Fretheim, Richard Bauckham and others have shown, the idea that all of creation praises the creator is a significant biblical theme, particularly in the Psalms, but elsewhere too.[52] For Bauckham what this indicates is that ‘all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves and fulfilling their God-given roles in God’s creation’.[53] Moreover, Bauckham sees this as having considerable significance for ecology: wary of the notion of ‘stewardship’, with its implication that nature functions best when ‘managed’ by humans, he urges that we learn to let nature be, to resist the urge to dominate and control every last corner of ‘wilderness’.[54] It should be noted, however, that none of the biblical texts cited by Bauckham explicitly states that creation worships ‘simply by being itself ’. Many are a call to praise, with no necessary assumption that nonhuman or human creation responds to that call, or already fulfils it (Dan. 3.52–90; Ps. 69.34; 96.11–12; 98.7–8; 103.22; 148; 150.6; Isa. 42.10–11; Joel 2.21–22). Other texts have (or in some cases, also have) a clearly eschatological context in view (Ps. 96.11–12; 98.7–8; Isa. 42.10–11; Joel 2.21–22; Phil. 2.10–11; Rev. 5.13). Still other texts indicate that creation stands as testimony to God’s glory and greatness (Ps. 19.1–4; 104). As I (along with Dominic Coad) have argued elsewhere, via an engagement with Luke 19.40, it might therefore be more fruitful—ethically as well as exegetically—to regard creation’s praise not only as something which creation simply and already does, by its very existence, but also as its eschatological telos.[55] Like human praise, one might suggest, the praise which creation currently offers is as yet imperfect and incomplete.

This theme does not, of course, get us very far in terms of practical guidance for Christian ethics, nor specifically in terms of whether it is right to eat animal meat. But it does offer a theological basis for the intrinsic worth of all creation—each individual part, animate and inanimate, as well as in toto—which in turn invites reflection on the implications of that intrinsic worth in ethics and practice. The ethical imperative, Coad and I have elsewhere suggested, should not be taken simply to imply a demand to leave nature alone, even if that were possible, but instead invites consideration of what it might mean to enable and foster creation’s praise.[56] Here I suspect that notions of beauty, integrity, diversity and so on—nonutilitarian and non-consumption-focused criteria—would find their place in a central topic for serious theological and ethical reflection.

The third theme is eschatology. As has already been noted, the prophetic visions of ‘paradise restored’, when the violence of predation is no more, have been key biblical contributions to arguments for Christian vegetarianism. But it is here, I want to suggest, that the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus, as well as the contribution of Pauline theology, might also be most valuable. It is widely agreed that the Synoptic Gospels (and quite possibly the historical Jesus) present the kingdom of God neither as entirely future nor as entirely present, but as breaking-in to the present. Their eschatology, in other words, is neither future nor realized, but inaugurated.[57] Paul’s theology, similarly, is often seen as profoundly characterized by an eschatological tension: the new creation is ‘already but not yet’.[58] What this means is that whatever the biblical vision of the age to come, the Christian vocation is to live that vision in the present, to anticipate already the new creation that is not yet fully come. Already in the Hebrew prophets, of course, visions of a glorious future are intended to inspire the people to righteous living now (Isa. 2.1–5; Mic. 4.1–5).

The Gospels do not record Jesus as referring to those aspects of the prophets’ vision that concern the peaceable relations among animals as well as humans, though if Bauckham is right, Mark 1.13 hints as his establishing his messianic peace with the animals.[59] The aspects Jesus refers to are those which concern the healing and liberation of human beings (cf. the echoes of Isa. 61.1–3 in Mt. 5.3–4// Lk 6.20–21; Mt. 11.5//Lk 7.22, 4.18–19). So for the idea that the eschatological peace will encompass animals as well as humans, we remain largely dependent on the prophets (though note also Phil. 2.10; Rev. 5.13). What the Jesus of the Gospels adds is the conviction that the eschatological transformation, the inbreaking of God’s reign on earth, is already underway.

Many Christians would agree, I suspect, that eschatological living, inspired by the vision of the peaceable kingdom, implies an ethical commitment to work for the healing and liberation of suffering humanity, for a peaceful end to human conflicts and so on. There is a strong case, then, as the Christian vegetarians argue, to include the vision of peace with the animals as another aspect of this ethical commitment. As Sibley Towner puts it, reflecting on the Isaianic vision: ‘If peace is the hallmark of the new age (Isa. 11:1–9), then our work in this time of tribulation is to abolish war and to effect reconciliation between people, as well as between people, wolves, and snakes.’[60] Yet, inspiring though this sentiment might be, there are also difficulties in discerning what the ethical implications of this vision ought to be. These arise particularly when we try to take account of the insights science has given us into the evolution and characteristics of the species that now populate our planet. Put briefly, there are two crucial insights: one is that there was never a time when the animals, let alone humans, existed in a pre-predatory herbivorous paradise.[61] The second is that the very shape and form of the animals we know— both hunter and hunted—reflect their activity in the chains of predation. Lions would not be lions—have lion-like jaws and lion-like limbs—if they did not hunt prey and tear it apart. Gazelles would not be sleek and swift if they did not have to run from predatory lions.[62] Leaving aside speculation as to what sort of ‘new creation’ could possibly allow a lion to be a lion without its hunting prey, it seems clear enough that this aspect of eschatological transformation cannot be achieved, nor is it even desirable to achieve, in the world as we know it. Whatever Christian responsibility for eschatologically orientated action might be, it cannot include a this-worldly imperative to bring predation to an end.

The Christian vegetarian will immediately reply, with some justification, that while it may not be possible, this side of the eschaton, for lions to ourish themselves on straw, it is certainly possible for humans, at least for those who have the necessary resources and opportunity, to nourish themselves adequately on a vegetarian diet.[63] But whether this is what—on the basis of the biblical vision[64]—humans should therefore do, remains at least open to discussion, given the questions about the extent to which the vision of a non-predatory ‘peace’ among all animals and humans is in any sense a realizable or even desirable vision, and also a different set of questions about whether the use and killing of animals could realistically be eliminated from sustainable patterns of agriculture.[65]


In conclusion, and in a brief attempt to draw my three biblical themes together, it seems to me that the Bible cannot, on this and on many other topics, adequately serve as a source of substantive contemporary ethics—or to be more specific, sufficiently undergird an argument for Christian vegetarianism. What the Bible can contribute, however, is broader facets of a worldview which inspires and sustains a commitment to discipline bodily practices out of a christologically shaped regard for the other, to foster the flourishing and praise of the whole of creation, and to anticipate in practice the eschatological renewal of all creation. Whether one takes these biblical themes, and particularly the eschatology, as sufficient reason to adopt a specifically vegetarian diet will depend in large part on how one assesses the ethical implications of the eschatological vision of a peaceable new creation in which killing and predation will be no more and in which lions as well as humans will once again be herbivores.

While we might disagree, as Christopher Southgate and Michael Northcott do in their chapters in this collection, about whether a commitment to vegetarianism is the most appropriate sign of present commitment to this eschatological vision, a broader agreement, shared by Southgate and Northcott, should finally be stressed. The kind of biblical theology I have tried to sketch here might remain inconclusive on the question of vegetarianism, depending in part on how we integrate our scientific understanding of the world into our appropriation of it. But it clearly calls for disciplined, self-giving patterns of human interaction with the nonhuman world marked by a concern for the welfare and the flourishing of all creation; and for patterns of community—including animals as well as humans—that embody the justice and peace of the prophets’ vision. Given the negative consequences of industrial-scale agribusiness, for corn as well as cows, for humus as well as humans, it may well be that the vegetarian question is only one facet, and perhaps not the most crucial one, of the critical battles that surround the politics of food.[66] While a commitment to vegetarianism is certainly one possible way to express a critical ‘ascetic’ rejection of dominant systems of industrial food production—though by no means a certain way, since vegetables too (even organic ones!) can be produced on a mass scale and flown around the world to satisfy consumer demand—a commitment to humane, small-scale, diverse and locally focused patterns of agriculture might be a more crucial step.

[1] The project is on ‘Uses of the Bible in Environmental Ethics’, and is funded by an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Grant No. AH D001188/1). I would like to thank the AHRC for their support and the members of the project team—Cherryl Hunt, Christopher Southgate, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Dominic Coad and Jonathan Morgan—for the ways in which our shared work has shaped my thinking as expressed here. I am especially grateful to Christopher for comments on a draft of this chapter.

[2] In relation to the issue of the environment, see David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate, ‘Appeals to the Bible in Ecotheology and Environmental Ethics: A Typology of Hermeneutical Stances’, Studies in Christian Ethics 21, 2 (2008), pp. 53–72 .

[3] Here, of course, I echo the critique of Christianity classically presented by Lynn White, Jr, ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis’, Science 155 (1967), pp. 1203–07 . As Ernst Conradie remarks, many biblical contributions to ecological theology have been ‘deliberately aimed at defending Christianity against the accusations of Lynn White’. See his ‘Towards an Ecological Biblical Hermeneutics: A Review Essay on the Earth Bible Project’, Scriptura 85 (2004), pp. 123–35 (126).

[4] For example, Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (London: SPCK, 1994), pp. 125–28 ; Stephen Webb, Good Eating (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001), pp. 25–26, 70–72 .

[5] The identification of life with blood is suggested here in both the Hebrew and Greek versions of v. 4: benapšō dāmō (MT); en haimati psuchēs (LXX).

[6] Pan, ‘everything’, is placed emphatically at the beginning of the sentence.

[7] A well-established view is that both Mark and Paul represent a Christian rejection of Jewish food laws, but for alternative arguments see for example, James G. Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004) , who argues that Mark depicts Jesus as always observant of biblical laws, and Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), pp. 145–73 , who argues that Paul’s view is that Jews should keep the Torah and Gentiles should keep that which pertains to them, namely, the Noachide laws.

[8] In using this label I am following Stephen Webb, who promotes a ‘biblical vegetarianism’ as ‘a clear alternative to the utopian rigor of the animal rights movement’ (Good Eating, p. 13, et passim).

[9] Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 127; cf. Webb, Good Eating, p. 71: ‘God’s acceptance of meat-eating should be seen in the context of God’s reluctant approval of the death-penalty [cf. Gen. 9.5-6] to stem the human tide of violence.’

[10] See Webb, Good Eating, pp. 59–81; Linzey, Animal Theology, pp. 125–37. Gen 1.29–30 has been especially important in inspiring Christian vegetarianism from Victorian times onwards, as Samantha Calvert discusses in this volume.

[11] Cf., The Sibylline Oracles, 3.788–95, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. J. H. Charlesworth; 2 vols; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1983–85) ; Philo, On Rewards and Punishments, 88–90, in The Works of Philo (trans. C. D. Yonge; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993) .

[12] Richard Bauckham, ‘Jesus and the wild animals (Mark 1:13): a christological image for an ecological age’, in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ: Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology , eds Joel B. Green and Max Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994), pp. 3–21 ; idem, ‘Jesus and animals II: what did he practise?’, in Animals on the Agenda, eds Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto (London: SCM, 1998), pp. 49–60 (54–60) .

[13] Pace Christopher Southgate, elsewhere in this volume. Otto Kaiser, for example, writing on Isa. 11.6-9, states: ‘According to priestly belief, peace had prevailed in the beginning between men and animals. The end of this peace was not affirmed by God until after the flood (Gen. 9.2f.). The people . . . longed for the restoration of the lost peace . . . Like his contemporary Hosea, Isaiah also expects that in the time of salvation which is to come, peace will be restored between men and animals.’ See Isaiah 1–12: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1972), p. 160.

[14] George Beasley-Murray, for example, comments that ‘the conjunction of the river with the tree of life (v. 2) shows that the author has in mind in the first place the river which flowed through Eden (Gen. 2:9f.)’ along with ‘Ezekiel’s description of the river in the vision of the new temple’ (Ezek. 47.1-9). See The Book of Revelation (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1974), p. 330; also David E. Aune, Revelation 17–22 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), pp. 1175–78 .

[15] John Sweet, Revelation (London: SCM, 1979), p. 308 .

[16] Charles P. Vaclavik, The Vegetarianism of Jesus Christ (Three Rivers, CA: Kaweah, 1986) . A similar but more cautious and cogent argument is presented by Keith Akers, The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity (New York: Lantern, 2000) , who also sees Jewish Christianity, and especially the Ebionites, as having best understood and preserved Jesus’ message of communalism, simplicity, non-violence and vegetarianism.

[17] See the brief but judicious consideration of the sources in Bauckham, ‘Jesus and animals II’, pp. 51–53. Webb, Good Eating, pp. 102–29, discusses theories such as Vaclavik’s and Akers’s under the (rather loaded) category of ‘conspiracy theories’, finding the arguments mostly unpersuasive.

[18] Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 132.

[19] Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 132; cf. Akers, Lost Religion, p. 126.

[20] Linzey, Animal Theology, pp. 132, 134.

[21] Linzey, Animal Theology, pp. 132–33.

[22] Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 133.

[23] Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 134.

[24] Linzey, Animal Theology, pp. 134–35.

[25] Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 135.

[26] Webb, Good Eating, pp. 129, 150, 131. Vaclavik, Vegetarianism, pp. 258–82, also makes many of the same points in arguing for the vegetarianism of Jesus, but proposes (implausibly) that Jesus did not eat fish and that the references to his having done so reflect the later influence of a Christianity which had abandoned its original vegetarian principles (277–80). Similarly Akers, Lost Religion, p. 129, suggests that the fish stories ‘were later additions to the gospel accounts, and not present in the original tradition’.

[27] Webb, Good Eating, p. 137.

[28] Webb, Good Eating, pp. 134–35.

[29] See Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: SCM, 2000 [1913]) .

[30] Cf. Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 135; Sean McDonagh, The Greening of the Church (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990), pp. 158–59; idem, Passion for the Earth (London: Chapman, 1994), p. 140.

[31] Furthermore, while the Jewish legal traditions demanding compassionate treatment of animals are certainly relevant to considerations of animal welfare, they can hardly provide much impetus for an argument for biblical vegetarianism as such.

[32] Richard Bauckham, ‘Jesus and animals I: what did he teach?’, in Animals on the Agenda, pp. 33–48 (38); also Akers, Lost Religion, pp. 124–25.

[33] Bauckham, ‘Jesus and animals II’, p. 49.

[34] Paul famously cites Deut. 25.4, the saying about the threshing ox, only to apply it to an issue of human conduct, questioning rhetorically whether God is concerned about oxen (1 Cor. 9.9).

[35] Bauckham, ‘Jesus and animals I’, p. 48.

[36] On which see Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), pp. 190–94 .

[37] See for example, E. P. Sanders, ‘The synoptic Jesus and the Law’, in Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah: Five Studies (London: SCM, 1990), pp. 1–96 . Sanders concludes (p. 90): ‘The synoptic Jesus lived as a law-abiding Jew.’

[38] Bauckham, ‘Jesus and animals II’, p. 50.

[39] For example, Vaclavik, Vegetarianism, pp. 260–71; Webb, Good Eating, pp. 93–97; and Akers, Lost Religion, pp. 113–34, who states (117): ‘“Cleansing the temple” was an act of animal liberation.’

[40] Cf. Bauckham, ‘Jesus and animals II’, p. 50.

[41] On this subject, see the judicious discussion by Bauckham,‘Jesus and animals II’, pp. 50–54, some of whose key points I summarize in what follows.

[42] The Gospel of the Ebionites, as quoted by Epiphanius, Pan. 30.13.4: ‘His food was . . . wild honey, of which the taste was that of manna, like cakes in olive oil (hōs enkris en elaiō).’ Epiphanius then comments (30.13.5): ‘They say this to turn the word of truth into a lie and they say honey-cakes (enkrida en meleti) instead of locusts (anti akridōn)’. Cf. Mt. 3.4//Lk. 3.6. For the Greek text and Jewish-Christian Sects (Leiden: Brill, 1973), pp. 178–79.

[43] Pace Akers, Lost Religion, p. 131; cf. p. 218 et passim: ‘the Ebionites best understood Jesus’.

[44] Cf. John Rogerson, According to the Scriptures? The Challenge of Using the Bible in Social, Moral and Political Questions (London and Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2006), pp. 1–7 .

[45] Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007) .

[46] Also anachronistic is another facet of Webb’s depiction of Jesus as a ‘loose’ vegetarian, that is, as someone who, because of his criticism of self-righteousness, avoided ‘drawing undue attention to that dietary choice’ (Good Eating, p. 135)—a rather convenient explanation for the lack of explicit evidence in the Synoptic Gospels!—in contrast to ‘self-righteous vegetarians’ Jesus ‘doubtless would have known’ (p. 132). This makes Jesus remarkably like the kind of vegetarian Webb most likes, namely one who remains humble and nonjudgmental about their own and others’ dietary choices. As Schweitzer comments: ‘It was not only each epoch [of Theology] that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Jesus in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus’ (Quest, p. 6).

[47] See Stephen Fowl, ‘Christology and ethics in Philippians 2:5-11’, in Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2 , eds Ralph P. Martin and Brian J. Dodd (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998), pp. 140–53 (148) . Burridge argues in Imitating Jesus for a New Testament ethics shaped by the imitation of Jesus, not in the specific words of his teaching so much as in his practice of generous inclusion.

[48] See Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus (London: SCM, 1978) = Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1978); and idem, ‘The wandering radicals’, in Social Reality and the Early Christians: Theology, Ethics, and the World of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), pp. 33–59.

[49] Richard Valantasis, ‘Constructions of Power in Asceticism’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (1995), pp. 775–821 (797) , italics original. See further Asceticism and the New Testament, eds Leif E. Vaage and Vincent L. Wimbush (London and New York: Routledge, 1999) .

[50] See further David G. Horrell, Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2005), pp. 204–45 ; also Christopher Southgate’s call in this volume for a kenotic pattern to characterize humanity’s relation to animals.

[51] See for example, the section on the right treatment of animals, the question of animal rights, etc., in Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings, eds Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan (London: SPCK, 1989), pp. 113–44 .

[52] Terence E. Fretheim, ‘Nature’s Praise of God in the Psalms’, Ex Auditu 3 (1987), pp. 16–30 ; Richard Bauckham, ‘Joining Creation’s Praise of God’, Ecotheology 7 (2002), pp. 45–59 .

[53] Bauckham, ‘Joining Creation’s Praise’, p. 47; cf. idem, God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), pp. 176–77.

[54] Cf. Richard Bauckham, ‘Stewardship and relationship’, in The Care of Creation , ed. R. J. Berry (Leicester: IVP, 2000), pp. 99–106 , esp. 102–03; idem, God, pp. 168–72.

[55] David G. Horrell and Dominic Coad, ‘“The Stones Would Cry Out” (Luke 19.40): A Lukan Contribution to a Hermeneutics of Creation’s Praise’, forthcoming.

[56] See Horrell and Coad, ‘The Stones Would Cry Out’.

[57] See for example, Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (London: SCM, 1998), pp. 240–80 .

[58] See further David G. Horrell, An Introduction to the Study of Paul (London & New York: T&T Clark, 2nd edn, 2006), pp. 69–73 ; James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), pp. 461–98 . Specifically in relation to Paul’s ethics, see J. Paul Sampley, Walking Between the Times: Paul’s Moral Reasoning (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1991) .

[59] See above, with n. 12.

[60] Sibley Towner,‘The Future of Nature’, Interpretation 50 (1996), pp. 27–35 (33).

[61] Michael Lloyd’s argument that evil in the natural world—which he takes to include the ‘evil’ of predation—‘is the result of the distortion of creation brought about by the angelic Fall’ (p. 160), does not get around this problem, since taking Darwin seriously (as Lloyd does, see p. 156) makes it impossible to accept that animals ever existed in some prelapsarian herbivorous paradise, even if a pre-human Fall can be conceptualized, albeit speculatively. See Michael Lloyd, ‘Are animals fallen?’, in Animals on the Agenda, pp. 147–60.

[62] Cf. Holmes Rolston, III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 134 . I owe this reference to Christopher Southgate. For theological engagement with the issues this raises, see Christopher Southgate, ‘God and Evolutionary Evil: Theodicy in the Light of Darwinism’, Zygon 37 (2002), pp. 803–24 ; idem, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008). Kaiser, Isaiah 1–12, p. 161, already makes a similar observation: ‘The present-day reader . . . is unable to look forward, like the Old Testament, to a time in which lions eat grass, because of his knowledge of natural history. He believes that there was conflict in the animal world at the very beginning, before there were men.’

[63] But to argue, as Vaclavik does (Vegetarianism, pp. 1–14, 318) that humans are genetically herbivores, and that the consumption of meat is responsible for generating our warlike urges, is to move well beyond the bounds of rational science.

[64] In other words, I do not claim here any judgement on whether the theological, moral and philosophical arguments presented in this volume and elsewhere might or might not be convincing.

[65] On this last point, see the reflections of Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), pp. 304–33 .

[66] See Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma. One of the many things Pollan shows so well (see the section on 'Corn; pp.lS-119) is how ethical consideration of contemporary food production requires as much attention to patterns of plant production as to the treatment of animals, and an appreciation of how inextricably intertwined these are.