Jesus, a Vegetarian or Pescetarian? (Hint Money, not Convictions)

Jesus ate a kosher diet, but was it Vegetarian or Pescetarian?

Jesus was not a vegetarian but a pescetarian, and this was because of economic reasons, not religious convictions.

After reading a number of articles claiming Jesus was either a vegetarian or a bloodthirsty carnivore.

I turned to reading more about his life from the gospels, including the writings outside of the Bible. Researching the Ebbobinite’s writing recorded in Clementine Homilies and the Recognitions of Clement. Along with Eusebius and others mentioning the diet of many of the apostles and James the Just, Jesus’ brother.

Raising some very interesting questions about what did Jesus eat and not eat. And Why.

The why is what really drove me to my conclusion but I am getting ahead of myself.

Let’s first define terms and look at a few modern-day religious vegetarian groups for context.

What is a Vegetarian?

A vegetarian is an individual who chooses to exclude meat, poultry, fish, and other forms of animal flesh from their diet. The term “vegetarian” typically refers to someone who consumes plant-based foods only, including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

However, there are several sub-categories within the vegetarian community, which are based on the types and levels of animal products they consume. But for our conversation about Jesus, we are strictly discussing vegetarians in the broad sense as someone who does not eat meat.

Because of his proximity to the Sea of Galilee and its fishing industry, we will also consider did he make an exception for fish. Refraining from all meat except fish in his diet.

Several modern religions around the world encourage or require vegetarianism among their followers. This is often based on principles like compassion, non-violence, and respect for all life forms.

  1. Hinduism: Vegetarianism is highly encouraged in Hinduism, although not all Hindus follow a vegetarian diet. The principle of ‘Ahimsa,’ or non-violence, is central to Hinduism and extends to not harming animals. Many Hindus believe that consuming animal flesh can negatively affect one’s karma.
  2. Buddhism: Similar to Hinduism, Buddhism also promotes ‘Ahimsa.’ While there are varying interpretations, many Buddhists follow a vegetarian or vegan diet in an effort to avoid causing harm to living beings. However, this can vary greatly among different Buddhist cultures.
  3. Jainism: Jainism mandates a strict vegetarian diet due to the principle of ‘Ahimsa.’ Jains go to great lengths to avoid harm to any creature, even microscopic ones. They also avoid consuming root vegetables as harvesting these can harm the plant and small organisms in the soil.
  4. Sikhism: Sikhism doesn’t strictly require vegetarianism, but many Sikhs choose to follow a vegetarian diet out of respect for all life.
  5. Seventh-day Adventists: A Christian denomination that encourages a vegetarian diet for its followers, citing reasons of health, ethics, and environmental conservation.

As for historical accounts during the time of Jesus, it’s important to note that Jesus was born into a Jewish family. In Judaism, dietary laws known as ‘Kashrut’ dictate what can and cannot be eaten.

Acceptable food is known as being “kosher.”

These laws don’t require vegetarianism but do promote humane slaughter and the avoidance of certain animal products. Some first-century sects, like the Ebionites (Jewish Christian) and Essenes, practiced vegetarianism, but these were not mainstream views.

Another possible diet to consider is pescetarian.

What is a Pescetarian?

A version of vegetarianism with a slight twice, the inclusion of fish and often eggs and milk.

The term was coined in the 1990s, combining the Italian word “pesce’ (fish) with vegetarian. It is sometimes spelled “pescetarian” or peso-vegan. Despite being a relatively new word, its definition may work better with Jesus’s diet.

Jesus Eating in the Gospels

In one of Jesus’ more famous miracles, the feeding of the 5000 (Matt.14, Mk.6, Lk.9 Jn.6), fish were part of the menu. The same is true about the slightly smaller feeding of the 4000 (Matt.15, Mk.8).

Despite feeding the crowd, it does not directly say that Jesus ate fish. So you could argue that Jesus only provided the fish but did not eat it.

Eating fish with bread

After his resurrection, though, we have two stories where his consumption of fish is more clear.

“And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

Luke 24:41-43 NIV

Jesus shocks the disciples with his sudden appearance. Trying to calm fears and prove his existence, he asked for food and ate some fish.

Another story is in John, where some of the disples are fishing, and Jesus appears on the shore, calling out to them. They come and join him on the shore where he has prepared breakfast of fish and bread.

“Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”

John 21:13 NIV

Not directly saying Jesus ate fish, but we can probably assume. If he made breakfast and shared it with the disciples, that he also ate some with them.

Living in Galilee, close to the lake, we should not be surprised if Jesus and his disciples regularly had fish when he was alive.

Not as regularly, but we can also assume that he ate lamb during the Passover celebrations.

“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you”

Luke 22:15 NIV

This was and still is standard Jewish practice. The Jews celebrated while remembering God’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, eating a Passover meal, including lamb as the main dish (Ex.12).

Beyond these events, we know little about Jesus’ diet.

But we can extrapolate from these that he ate fish as a regular part of his diet. The disciples readily had fish available to share with him after his resurrection, plus both feeding miracles included fish.

But with only a limited amount of red meat (lamb) being eaten.

But this may be more of an economic consideration than personal convictions.

First-Century Jewish Diets

Unlike 21 century North Americans who regularly eat meat. Often multiple times a day. This was not the case for most people in the Roman Empire in the first century.

Meat was a luxury.

Jesus growing up in a trades household, the son of a carpenter. Most likely, they did not have money to buy meat regularly.

During his public ministry, money was probably even tighter. Jesus, at one time, commented that foxes have it better off than him with a place to live (Matt.8:20, Lk.9:58). Possibly showing how tight money and resources had become for him.

James, Jesus’ Brother, was a Vegetarian

A much later source but Eusebius (3 Century Church Historian) in The Church History quotes Hegesippus, a generation from the apostles, as Eusebius puts it.

“He drank no wine, or liquor and ate no meat. No Razor came near his head, he did not anoint himself with oil, and took no baths.”

Eusebius The Church History (Book 2, section 23)

The point was to show how holy James was, but it does mention that he did not eat meat. Raising the question, if James didn’t eat meat, did Jesus, his brother?

But we must be careful not to jump to conclusions.

This may not have been a lifelong practice, but part of James’ lifestyle as he led the early Jerusalem church. And again, was this out of necessity or conviction?

Another interesting group to consider is the Essenes. Never mentioned in the New Testament but mentioned by Josephus, was a Jewish sect that existed during the time of Jesus and possibly even influenced him and John the Baptist.

The Essenes (Before Jesus), Were Vegetarians

The Essenes rejected everything temple, considering it to be corrupted.

For second-temple Jews, most meat coming from the temple sacrificial system. With the meat from sacrifices often being shared or sold. Rejecting this system, they rejected all eating of meat and had a strict vegetarian diet.

I bring this up because John the Baptist, the mentor of Jesus, shares many of the practices and beliefs of the Essenes. The most obvious is ceremonial cleansing (baptism).

John’s diet was not as strict according to the gospels but was very simple, honey and locusts (Matt.3:4, Mk.1:6). With no mention of meat. Some even argue that it was not insects but a type of bean. Either way, we could consider John the Baptist living a form of Vegetarian.

Did Jesus pick up the same lifestyle while he was with John the Baptist?

The Ebionites or Nasoraeans (After Jesus) Were Vegetarians

There were many different types of Christian communities that formed after Jesus’ death. One such group was the Ebionites or Nasoraeans, a Jewish Christian sect that followed Jesus along with a strict form of Judaism. Part of this was the rejection of meat and only eating a vegetarian diet.

Many of their “scriptures” are collected in Clementine Homilies and the Recognitions of Clement, in which they clearly condemn the killing of animals for sacrifices and eating of meat.

There are also later sources, Clement of Alexandria, Clementine Homilies and Acts of Thomas, in which Peter, Thomas and Matthew are vegetarians, abstaining from eating meat. As I said, these are later sources with some doubts of historical accuracy, but it does raise the question.

If those who came before Jesus were vegetarians.

If those who came after Jesus were vegetarians.

Would it be safe to assume that Jesus, the bridge between the two, would be the same? That Jesus also was a vegetarian out of conviction.

It fits with the historians’ test of similarity.

The only problem is the recording in the gospel that he ate fish and lamb during Passover. And possibly other special occasions or religious festivals.

Conclusion

Considering all this, here is my conclusion.

Jesus was not a vegetarian but a pescetarian, and this was because of economic reasons, not religious convictions.

First, the gospels in the Bible record many of Jesus’ teachings, but never is it recorded that he condemned or taught against the eating of meat.

I accept that Ebionites record it differently. That their Jesus adamantly condemns animal sacrifice and the eating of meat.

But I do find it interesting that the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) advises the new Gentile believers to refrain from “food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals” but not the wholesale eating of meat. I would think if that was a universally held value by Jesus and his immediate disciples that they would have included it. This does not mean that sects of Christians may have been vegetarians, as even today, there are. But it does not seem to be something that was taught directly by Jesus.

Add to this Peter’s vision (Acts 10), where he sees a blanket full of animals and is told to kill and eat. It seems odd if Peter and his master did not eat meat that, he would have such a peculiar vision of eating meat.

This, along with the clear recording of Jesus eating fish in the gospels, along with the implied eating of lamb during Passover.

For these reasons, I do not think Jesus was a vegetarian.

But he ate a very simple diet. Not because of his faith but because he was poor.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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