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Vegetarianism and the Bible
By Gary F. Zeolla
NOTE: This article was revised and expanded for a chapter in the book God-given Foods Eating Plan. See the book for further details on the Biblical evidence and for scientific research that shows meat can and should be included in a healthy eating plan.
Part One of this two-part article looked at what the Torah (the first five Books of the Bible) has to teach in regards to the eating of meat. This second half of this article will continue this discuss by first looking at prominent figures from the rest of the Old Testament. It will then turn to the New Testament and Jesus and the apostles.
Old Testament verses are taken from The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1982.
New Testament verses are taken from the Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible: Second Edition. Copyright © 2005 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org). Previously copyrighted © 1999, 2001 by Gary F. Zeolla.
1And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the LORD God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word." 2Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 3"Get away from here and turn eastward, and hide by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. 4And it will be that you shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there."
5So he went and did according to the word of the LORD, for he went and stayed by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. 6The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the brook (1Kings 17:1-6).
If the LORD disapproved of meat eating, it would be rather strange for Him to use a miracle to feed meat to one of His prophets. And Elijah ate this meat, so he obviously was not a vegetarian.
2And when David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD. 3Then he distributed to everyone of Israel, both man and woman, to everyone a loaf of bread, a piece of meat, and a cake of raisins (1Chron 16:2,3).
David provides meat to "everyone of Israel." So it would seem this faithful king approved of meat eating.
31"If the men of my tent have not said, 'Who is there that has not been satisfied with his meat?' 32(But no sojourner had to lodge in the street, For I have opened my doors to the traveler)" (Job 31:31,32).
Job is describing his hospitality. And part of this hospitality was to share meat with his guest. So yet another faithful person of God serving meat to others.
1Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn out her seven pillars; 2She has slaughtered her meat, She has mixed her wine, She has also furnished her table. 3She has sent out her maidens, She cries out from the highest places of the city, 4"Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!" As for him who lacks understanding, she says to him, 5"Come, eat of my bread And drink of the wine I have mixed. 6Forsake foolishness and live, And go in the way of understanding." (Proverbs 9:1-6).
So personified "Wisdom" serves meat, wine, and bread to her guests.
Conclusion to the Old Testament
Starting immediately after the flood, people ate meat throughout Old Testament Biblical times. This was because God clearly gave human beings permission to do. At times, God even commanded the eating of meat as part of religious ceremonies, and the faithful obeyed. And many faithful Old Testament figures are specifically said to eat or serve meat: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron and his sons, Elijah, David, Job, and Wisdom personified. Even angels and the LORD Himself are recorded as eating meat.
So in no way can it be said that the Old Testament teaches or promotes vegetarianism. Eating meat is considered a normal part of life, with no negative moral or spiritual associations connected to it.
That brings us to the New Testament. We will first look at the apostles.
18Now walking about by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon, the one being called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19And He says to them, "Come after Me, and I will make you* fishers of people." 20Then immediately, having left their nets, they followed Him. (Matt 4:18-20).
So the first two apostles Jesus calls are fisherman. They leave their nets at this time. But later, after Jesus' crucifixion, they went back to fishing:
3Simon Peter says to them, "I am going away to be fishing." They say to him, "We are also going with you." (John 21:3).
So it would seem that in the three plus years Peter and the other apostles spent with Jesus, Jesus never taught them there was anything wrong with fishing. In fact, as we shall see shortly, He probably taught them the exact opposite.
12And on the first day of the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, when they were sacrificing the Passover [or, Paschal Lamb], His disciples say to Him, "Where do You desire [that], having gone away, we should prepare, so that You shall eat the Passover?" 13Then He sends out two of His disciples and says to them, "Be going into the city, and a man will meet you* carrying a pitcher of water. Follow him. 14And wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says, "Where is the guest room, where I shall eat the Passover with My disciples?'" 15And he will show to you* a large, upstairs room, having been furnished [and] ready. There prepare [it] for us." 16And His disciples went out and came into the city, and they found [everything] just as He said to them. And they prepared the Passover (Mark 14:12-16).
It was discussed in Part One of this article that the eating of lamb was an integral part of the Passover ceremony. In fact, the Greek word for "Passover" (pascha) can also be translated "Pascal Lamb" as indicated in my translation. You simply cannot have Passover without the lamb. And this passage shows that this practice was still going on at Jesus' time and that the apostles just assumed they would be partaking of it.
1Now be receiving the one being weak in the faith, not for disputes over opinions. 2One believes [it is permissible] to eat all [things], but the one being weak eats [only] vegetables. 3Stop letting the one eating despise [or, look down on] the one not eating; and stop letting the one not eating judge the one eating, for God [has] accepted him….
14I know and have been persuaded in [the] Lord Jesus that nothing [is] unclean by means of itself, except to the one considering anything to be unclean, to that one [it is] unclean. 15But if on account of food your brother is distressed, you are no longer walking about [fig., conducting yourself] according to love; stop ruining with your food that one on behalf of whom Christ died. 16So stop letting your good be slandered [or, be spoken of as evil]. 17For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in [the] Holy Spirit (Rom 14:1-3; 14-17).
I quote this passage as many vegetarians have a self-righteous attitude that they are somehow "better" than meat eaters. But Paul makes it clear that what you eat or don't eat is not a spiritual or moral issue as vegetarians try to make it out to be. What matters is "righteousness and peace and joy in [the] Holy Spirit."
Note also that it is the "weak" who eats only vegetables. The "strong" know that "nothing [is] unclean by means of itself" and this would include meat (v. 21). But Paul does say that if what you eat offends someone, then you should restrain while with that person. So if a vegetarian friend would be offended your eating a juicy steak in front of him, then refrain. But the vegetarian has no place to judge me for eating steak in the privacy of my own home.
8But food does not present [or, commend] us to God, for neither if we eat do we excel [or, are we better off]; nor if we do not eat do we fall short [or, are we inferior]. (1Cor 8:8:).
This verse simply repeats the idea of Romans 14:17. What you eat or don't eat is not a moral, ethical, or spiritual issue. So vegetarians have no cause for thinking they are somehow morally superior to meat eaters, and vice-a-versa.
23All [things] are lawful for me, but all [things] are not advantageous [or, beneficial]. All [things] are lawful for me, but all [things] do not build up [fig., edify]. 24Let no one be seeking his own [concern], but each the [concern] of the other. 25Whatever is sold in the meat-market, eat, examining nothing, for the sake of the conscience. 26"For the earth [is] the LORD's and its fullness." [Psalm 24:1; 50:12; 89:11] 27But if someone of the unbelieving invite you*, and you* want to go, eat all the [food] set before you*, examining nothing, for the sake of the conscience. 28But if someone says to you*, "This is [meat] sacrificed to an idol," stop eating [it], for the sake of that one having made [it] known and his conscience, "for the earth [is] the LORD's and its fullness." (1Cor 10:23-28).
Several points on this passage. First, as emphasized above, what you eat or don't eat is not a moral, ethical, or spiritual issue. However, there are important physical implications to what you eat. Although it is "lawful" to eat whatever you want, some foods are beneficial health-wise and some are not. So it is important in this respect to be wise about your food choices.
But you need to keep things in perspective. Your diet simply should not become the most important thing in your life. What Paul wrote about exercise would apply to a following a healthy diet as well: "For bodily exercise is beneficial for a few [things], but godliness is beneficial for all [things], having promise of the present life and of the coming [life]" (1Timothy 4:8).
Second on this passage, Paul writes, "Whatever is sold in the meat-market, eat." So Paul simply assumes Christians will be buying and eating meat. He gives no indication whatsoever that eating meat is somehow wrong.
Third, the context of this passage is eating meat sacrificed to idols. But what Paul says in this regard could apply to the person who chooses to follow a vegetarian diet. If you're eating at someone else's home, and a dish does not obviously contain meat, then don't ask any questions; just eat it. I say this as I know vegetarians who will throw a fit if they find out they are served a dish that contains even the smallest amount of animal food. But such an attitude is not only unnecessarily legalistic, but it puts food above your relationship to the person serving the food. And that is a decidedly unchristian attitude.
We now come to the most important Person in the Bible. But what was Jesus' attitude towards the eating of meat?
First, in the passage about the Passover quoted above, it was Jesus who instructed the disciples to prepare the Passover. And after giving them the location, He specifically says, "There prepare [it] for us." Note the "us." Jesus fully intended to partake of the Passover. In fact, He had no choice.
Jesus was sinless. He obeyed God the Father in all points. And, as was discussed in Part One, one of God's commands is for lamb to be eaten at Passover. If Jesus had not partaken of lamb at this time, it would have been a sin; and you can be sure the Pharisees, who were trying to trap Him in something, would have jumped on this clear breaking of the Law. But Jesus could challenge them "Who out of you* convicts Me concerning sin?" (John 8:45). So there is no doubt that Jesus ate lamb at least once a year.
9Or what person is [there] from you*, whom, if his son asks [for] a loaf, he will not give to him a stone, will he? 10And if he asks for a fish, he will not give to him a snake, will he? 11Therefore, if you*, being evil, know [how] to be giving good gifts to your* children, how much more will your* Father, the [One] in the heavens, give good [things] to the ones asking Him! (Matt 7:9-11).
So Jesus considered the giving of a fish for food to someone a "good gift."
13And having heard, Jesus departed from there in a boat privately to a desolate place. And the crowds having heard followed Him on foot [or, by land] from the cities. 14And having come out, Jesus saw a large crowd and was moved with compassion for them and healed their infirm [or, sickly] [ones]. 15But evening having come, His disciples came to Him, saying, "The place is desolate, and the hour already passed by [fig., the time is already late]. Send away the crowds so that, having gone into the villages, they should buy food for themselves."
16But Jesus said to them, "They do not have need to go away; you* give [something] to them to eat." 17But they say to Him, "We do not have [anything] here except five loaves of bread and two fish." 18Then He said, "Be bringing them here to Me." 19And having commanded the crowds to be reclined on the grasses [or, areas of grass], having taken the five loaves of bread and the two fish, having looked up to heaven, He bestowed a blessing; and having broken, He gave the loaves of bread to the disciples, and the disciples [gave them] to the crowds. 20And they all ate and were filled! And they took up the leftover broken pieces of bread-twelve handbaskets full! 21Now the ones eating were about five thousand men, besides women and young children (Matt 14:13-21).
This is, of course, the famous story of the feeding of the 5000. But note what Jesus fed to the multitude-fish! This same miracle is repeated later with the feeding of the 4000 (Matt 15:32-37). So Jesus had no qualms about feeding fish to thousands of people.
24Now when they came into Capernaum, the ones receiving the didrachmas [i.e. a temple-tax of a silver coin worth about a quarter of an ounce or seven grams of silver] approached Peter, and said, "Your Teacher does not pay the didrachma, does He?" 25He says, "Yes." And when he entered into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, "What does it seem to you [or, What do you think], Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth receive custom or tribute [or, a tax]? From their sons or from the strangers?" 26Peter says to Him, "From the strangers." Jesus said to him, "In that case, the sons are free. 27But so that we do not cause them to stumble [fig., offend them], going up to the sea, cast [in] a hook, and take up the first fish coming up. And having opened its mouth, you will find a stater [i.e. a silver coin worth two didrachmas]. Having taken that, give [it] to them for Me and you" (Matthew 17:24-27).
Here, Jesus specifically tells Peter to go fishing. Now the text does not say what Peter did with the fish after he took the coin out of its mouth, if he threw it back or kept it for dinner. But I quote this passage as many animal rights advocates consider the mere act of fishing to be immoral. But Jesus told Peter to go catch a fish.
4Then when He ceased speaking, He said to Simon, "Put out into the deep [water] and let down your* nets for a catch."
5And answering, Simon said to Him, "Master, having labored through the whole night we caught nothing, but at Your word I will let down the net." 6And having done this, they caught a great number of fish, but their net began breaking. 7And they signaled to their partners, the ones having come in the other boat, to help them. And they came and filled both the boats, with the result that they were being sunk.
8But Simon Peter having seen, fell down at the knees of Jesus, saying, "Depart from me, because I am a sinful man, O Lord!" 9For astonishment seized him, and all the [ones] with him, at the catch of the fish which they caught (Luke 5:4-9).
Jesus aids Peter and his fellow fishermen to catch such a large quantity of fish their nets began to break. So once again, we see Jesus had nothing against fishing. And this time, there is no doubt that this large catch of fish would have been sold at the market for people to buy for food.
40And having said this, He showed His hands and His feet to them. 41Then while they [were] refusing to believe from the joy, and marveling, He said to them, "Do you* have anything edible here?" 42So they gave to Him a piece of a broiled fish and a honeycomb from a beehive. 43And having taken, He ate before them (Luke 24:40-42).
This scene occurred after Jesus' Resurrection. Jesus proved to the disciples that He had a real physical body and was not just an apparition of some sort by eating before them. And what did He eat? Fish!
5So Jesus says to them, "Young children [or, [My] dear children], you* do not have any fish, do you*?" They answered to Him, "No." 6But He said to them, "Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you* will find [some fish]." So they cast and were no longer able to drag it [in] as a result of the large number of fish. 7Therefore, that disciple whom Jesus was loving says to Peter, "It is the Lord!" So Simon Peter, having heard that it is the Lord, tied his outer coat around himself (for he was naked [or, poorly dressed]), and he cast himself into the sea. 8But the other disciples came by the small boat (for they were not far from the land, but about two hundred cubits away [about 100 yards or 90 meters]), dragging the net of the fish (John 21:5-8).
Once again, Jesus miraculously enables the disciples to catch a large number of fish.
9So when they disembarked onto the land, they notice a charcoal fire lying [there], and fish lying on [it], and bread. 10Jesus says to them, "Bring [some] from the fish which you* now caught." 11Simon Peter went up and dragged the net onto the land, full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus says to them, "Come, eat breakfast." But none of the disciples were daring to inquire of Him, "Who are You?" knowing that it is the Lord (John 21:9-12).
When the disciples arrive on land, Jesus had already prepared breakfast for them. And what did He prepare for them? Fish!
Conclusion on the Apostles and Jesus
Jesus and the apostles participated in the Passover. And God had commanded that lamb be eaten as part of this ceremony. So at least once a year Jesus and the apostles ate lamb.
Paul assumes in his writings that people will be eating meat and even refers to those who do not eat meat as "weak." But he makes a point to note that what you eat or don't eat has no moral, ethical, or spiritual implications.
Some of the apostles were fisherman. They were fisherman before they met Jesus, and they continued fishing to some degree during Jesus' ministry. And Jesus never in any way discouraged them from this activity.
Jesus Himself served fish to other people. He miraculously served fish to thousands at once, and He cooked fish as part of a small breakfast He prepared for His disciples. He instructed and even miraculously aided the disciples in the catching of fish. And He ate fish Himself.
So fish has a prominent place in the ministry of Jesus, so much so that an outline of a fish was the earliest symbol of the Christian faith. I used such a symbol as part of the logo on the cover of my Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament.
So given their eating of lamb and their catching, serving, and eating of fish, in no way can it be said that Jesus and the apostles were vegetarians and in no way did they encourage vegetarianism. In fact, if we were to follow their example, we would eat a lot of fish. And given this example, it is no surprise we now know the eating of fish has my health benefits associated with it.
The only way someone can come to the conclusion that the Bible teaches vegetarianism is if one only reads the first three chapters of the Bible and nothing else. But if you keep reading, there is no way you would come to this conclusion. The Bible simply assumes people will eat meat, with no negative implications associated with it.
Many prominent, faithful people of both the Old and New Testaments are recorded as serving or eating meat: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron and his sons, Elijah, David, Job, Wisdom personified, Peter and the other apostles, angels, the LORD in the Old Testament, and Jesus in the New Testament.
So the example we have from all of these is to eat meat. There are even times when God commanded the eating of meat. As such, it is simply absurd to claim the Bible teaches vegetarianism.
It is even more absurd to claim Jesus was a vegetarian. Jesus ate lamb as part of the Passover ceremony, and fish held such a prominent part in His ministry that it became the earliest symbol of the Christian faith.
So the final conclusion to this article is: "you may eat as much meat as your heart desires" (Deut 12:15,20,21).
Vegetarianism and the Bible Copyright © 2005 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).
The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light
It was posted on this Web site in July 2, 2005.
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