Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jesus and the Ebionites: Animal Rights in the Early Church

Keith Akers: The Lost Religion of Jesus, Lantern Books, 256 pp.

In each of the four Gospels we read of Jesus entering the Temple and overturning the tables of the money changers. In John's account, it is added that he drove out the sheep and cattle. Mark and Matthew say he overturned the benches of those selling doves. Christian tradition suggests Jesus was reacting to the fact of the money changers and others having made a business of the Temple, that the spirit of prayer and worship had taken second place to a desire for profit. But is it possible Jesus' action was an attack on sacrifice as such? That the problem was not the profit being gained from selling sacrificial animals, but the whole machinery of sacrifice per se? Is it possible Jesus taught, as the Ebionites later did, that animal sacrifice was a corruption of Mosaic law and therefore must be ended?

In The Lost Religion of Jesus, Keith Akers seeks to demonstrate that ancient Jewish Christians such as the Ebionites were closer in doctrine to Jesus than the largely gentile Christianity that developed under the influence of Paul. Akers musters a barrage of hard-hitting arguments to this end. If he's right, Jesus considered himself a prophet whose calling it was to bring Israel back to God's true law, a law still present in the scriptures but burdened down and obscured by false additions made over the centuries by scribes. In this version of Christianity, Jesus and his followers would have stressed not only voluntary poverty and pacifism, both of which we find in the New Testament accounts, but also opposition to the Temple elite and the practice of animal sacrifice. Attendant on this opposition to sacrifice, Jesus and the apostles would also have been vegetarian.

To most modern Christians the argument that Jesus and the apostles were strict vegetarians sounds somewhat tendentious or even silly. But in fact it is not. Some of the earliest writings refer to central Christian figures as vegetarians, not least of which James the Just, brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church. As Akers writes:

[A] list of those described as vegetarians reads very much like a Who's Who in the early church: Peter (Recognitions 7.6, Homilies 12.6), James (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23), Matthew (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 2.1), and all the apostles (Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel 3.5). (132)
Akers adds to this an impressive list of church fathers who also practiced vegetarianism, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Naziance, John Chrysostom, Jerome and Tertullian. There seems little doubt that many in the early church believed a holy life meant abstention from meat. But why? And why didn't later Christianity maintain even a trace of this early practice?

Paul famously argued that no food is unclean of itself. Akers interestingly points out that the apostle was not only arguing against believers who insisted on a kosher diet. Rather, it seems, he was also arguing against a sizable contingent of Christian vegetarians. Paul writes: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables." (Rom. 14:1-2) Obviously the "weak men" referred to here are not simply following a kosher diet, they are vegetarians. Given that that the Epistle to the Romans was most likely written in the 50s of the first century, this line proves the existence of vegetarians among the very earliest Christians. If Akers is right, it is just this contingent that most closely followed the teachings of Jesus.

Akers insists that ancient Jewish Christianity is most characteristically represented by the sect that called itself the "Ebionites" (Hebrew "the poor ones") and argues that this sect, based on what we can learn of them from remaining sources, was strictly vegetarian.

Akers' starting position, namely that we are likely to find a more accurate picture of Jesus in the teachings of the Jerusalem church and the Ebionites than in Paul, is eminently reasonable on the surface. Jesus, after all, was a Jew among Jews, and Peter and James knew him during his lifetime, whereas Paul did not. What's more, the churches founded by Paul consisted largely of gentile believers, while the Jewish churches, represented by the Ebionites, would have had a direct cultural and religious link back to the original apostles and Jesus. Akers develops his argument on a number of fronts: he surveys the often critical portrayal of animal sacrifice in the prophets, considers likely differences between Jerusalem and Galilee as regards ritual observance, and offers close readings of New Testament texts. He even, in a later chapter, discusses the portrayal of Jesus in Muslim sources, and speculates, not unreasonably, on what may be Ebionite echoes in Islam. On the whole he shows an impressive ability as historical sleuth, particularly apt at noting connections between hints in the New Testament and what can be gleaned from heresiologists like Epiphanius. But there are problems.

Akers' first problem concerns how much we can know about the Jerusalem church or the Ebionites. Though several verses in the New Testament might be construed as arguments for the existence of vegetarianism, among them Paul's line quoted above, there's certainly no smoking gun as regards Jesus' own dietary practice. The Gospels, after all, show him eating fish and taking part in the Passover meal, while different parables refer unproblematically to eating meat or fishing. Somewhat conveniently, Akers neglects the fact that Peter and others of the first apostles were fishermen, from families of fishermen. Though he offers arguments that put the Gospel references to meat eating in question, and his arguments are not bad, still the weight of references to meat eating mean the case cannot finally be substantiated. Akers' strongest suit is in his general assertion that history is written by the winners and that, obviously, the Pauline camp won.

What can we know of the Ebionites? The most complete portrait we have comes from the 4th century work of the heresiologist Epiphanius. As usual with the heresiologists, there are good reasons to doubt the accuracy of what he tells us, or, in this case, the authenticity of the "Ebionites" Epiphanius got his information from (cf. the article by P. Luomanen, "Ebionites and Nazarenes," in Matt Jackson-McCabe ed. Jewish Christianity Reconsidered).

Nonetheless, if we accept Akers' general portrait of the Ebionites, and if the group, as he suggests, represented the purest doctrinal and practical continuation of Jesus' work, this would mean that:
1) Jesus was in favor of adherence to Mosaic law, but believed that much in the written law, being the work of mere scribes, was invalid;
2) Jesus preached voluntary poverty;
3) Jesus was a strict pacifist; followers were not to take part in military action of any kind;
4) Jesus was critical of the Temple and vehemently against animal sacrifice;
5) Jesus was a vegetarian.
According to Akers, the crucial sticking point, the element that meant the two paths, Ebionite and orthodox, could not converge, was the last one: the insistence on vegetarianism. Jewish and Gentile Christians may have been able to overcome their different assessments of the validity of the law, but the Jewish Christians' insistence on refraining from "blood" of any kind--i.e., in Akers' understanding, the killing or consuming of any creature--meant the two groups could not finally tolerate each other. It seems to me that a strict adherence to Mosaic law would have been a more serious sticking point vis-a-vis Pauline Christianity than vegetarianism.

Did Ebionite teachings really go back to Jesus and the apostles? Further, were the "Ebionites" as we see them in the heresiological record really representative of Jewish Christianity? It's hard to be certain. The earliest mention of the Ebionites comes from the second century (Irenaeus) and the most complete descriptio of them comes from the fourth (Epiphanius). Neither of these is a Jewish source. What's more, against these second and fourth-century texts, the letters of Paul and the Gospels were all written in the first century. Had Jewish Christianity really been as Akers describes it, one suspects it would have left a more distinct mark on the New Testament, regardless of gentile redactions. Though Akers makes much of the above-quoted verse from Paul and James' decision at the Jerusalem Council, do these really support his thesis of an unbroken tradition of vegetarianism going back to Jesus?

In fact there are places where Akers' book is hampered by heavy-handedness, where an obvious tendentiousness undermines the good work he does elsewhere. This almost always occurs in regards to the major axe he grinds--namely the vegetarian argument. The clearest instance of such heavy-handedness is in Akers' attempts to explain James' verdict at the Council of Jerusalem.

The story of the Council is related in Acts, how Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to discuss the problem of circumcision with the leaders of the Jerusalem church. At issue was the question of whether or not pagan Christians needed to be circumcised and, by implication, to what degree they needed to follow Mosaic law. After some discussion James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, gave his verdict: pagan converts need not be circumcised, but must follow the law on at least four points. They must
. . . abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. (Acts 15:20)
According to Akers, this verse is somewhat mysterious. Unchastity is clear enough, he says, as is "pollutions of idols"--the latter obviously being a prohibition against eating food sacrificed to idols. But the reference to "blood" Akers finds less than clear. In his understanding, it is most likely a prohibition against killing either animals or humans: a prohibition against bloodshed, and, implicitly, in terms of diet, against eating meat. But what of "strangled"? Here Akers is quite ingenious. Since, as he claims, animals weren't strangled in the ancient world, it might very well be a prohibition against eating fish, as fish normally died by "strangulation"--i.e., once out of the water they are unable to breathe! This, I believe, is too ingenious by half. When one looks at the final results of Akers' reading, he has managed to make three of James' four injunctions into arguments for vegetarianism, almost as if James were saying that pagan converts needed to abstain from:
1) unchastity,
2) meat sacrificed to idols,
3) the meat of fish, and
4) meat
It's hard to believe the leader of the Jerusalem church would find it useful to be so redundant.

James' verdict is not nearly as mysterious as Akers implies. The prohibition against "blood" is clear in the context of Judaism. Weneed only turn to various passages in Leviticus, or to the following in Deuteronomy:
When the LORD your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, "I would like some meat," then you may eat as much of it as you want. If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put his Name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the LORD has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want. Eat them as you would gazelle or deer. Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat. But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat. You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. Do not eat it, so that it may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is right in the eyes of the LORD.(12:20-25)
Blood was considered the life principle of the animal, and as such belonged to God. It was not on any account to be eaten. This did not, however, mean animals could not be slaughtered for their meat. James' prohibition against eating things "strangled" also relates directly to the need to avoid consuming blood: if an animal is strangled the blood remains in the flesh. James' prohibitions are not, then, arguments for vegetarianism or animal rights.

Akers does have some interesting things to say on the prophets' frequent condemnation of animal sacrifice, and indeed one can find texts critical of the practice in Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah and Hosea. This suggests a longstanding debate between the priesthood, which naturally stressed the importance of its centralized cult, and the prophets, who cried out for the good works of justice and mercy and railed against the high living of the elites (priesthood and aristocracy) centered around the Temple. But Akers' suggestion that these prophetic denunciations stem from of a sense of animal rights is harder to substantiate. Were the prophets advocating strict vegetarianism? It doesn't seem likely.

The second bit of tendentiousness in Akers' book comes in the writer's depiction of Paul. For instance in chapter 10 we read:
Paul makes a number of disturbing statements often quoted to justify the repression of women and slaves that contrast with the social egalitarianism evident in the words ascribed to and behavior of Jesus. Women should keep silent in church, should keep their heads covered, and obey their husbands: "wives, be subject to your husbands," says Paul, and follows this up with "slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters". . . . (141)
Akers knows very well that most such statements (as is the case with the two direct quotes here) come from letters that are contested, which is to say that many scholars believe the words in question don't come from Paul at all. It is mere mudslinging to use things written in Paul's name to make the apostle look bad. Pseudo-Paul is not Paul: the apostle's authentic letters show an extraordinary respect for women, as Jesus also did, if the Gospel accounts are to be believed.

Akers' thesis has two parts: that Jewish Christianity was the true bearer of Jesus' teachings and that Jewish Christianity was uniformly vegetarian. To support the latter assertion he depends mainly on texts from the heresiologists, supplemented by (not always convincing) readings of biblical texts and by passages in the Clementine writings (the Homilies and Recognitions). His argument also gets substantial help from the fact that many of the early church leaders were depicted by ancient writers as vegetarians. If one sets aside the New Testament then--Akers only finds a single verse in Paul to prove vegetarianism existed in apostolic times--the portrait one gets is of an impressive amount of evidence for the importance of vegetarianism in the early church, especially in Jewish Christianity. But there are omissions in Akers' pool of evidence, omissions that don't make sense if he's really trying to piece together a profile of Jewish Christianity. What of the Epistle of James? What of the Didache?

Though probably not written by James himself, many scholars believe the Epistle of James is a product of the community of James and as such consider it an important witness to Jewish Christianity in the New Testament. Why doesn't Akers even mention the book? Is is perhaps because there is nothing it in related to Akers' dietary concerns?

As for the Didache, it is the only surviving complete work of Jewish Christianity outside the New Testament. It is dated quite early, around the end of the first century, and some scholars believe it was composed in the same community that composed Matthew, the most Jewish of the four Gospels. For Akers, the Didache should be essential evidence. Why doesn't it get so much as a footnote in his book? Again, one suspects it might be because the text doesn't offer ammunition for Akers' vegetarian argument. In the Didache's sixth chapter one finds the following:
See that no one causes you to err from this way of the Teaching, since apart from God it teaches you. For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able. And concerning food, bear what you are able; but against that which is sacrificed to idols be exceedingly careful; for it is the service of dead gods.
As this passage may very well refer to vegetarianism, one might expect Akers to mention it somewhere in his book. But note: the passage also seems to be exhorting the believer to "do as well as you can" with dietary holiness--i.e., try to abstain from such and such food, but if you cannot, so be it. Is such flexibility regarding diet anathema to Akers, who has staked his case on the Jewish Christian movement's strict vegetarianism? Why is the Didache left out of Akers' consideration of the Jewish Christian record?

These are some of the problems I find in Akers' arguments. But I don't want to give the impression his book is not worth reading. Though flawed, The Lost Religion of Jesus is an accessible and wide-ranging treatment of the issues, biblical and otherwise, that surround the question of Ebionite Christianity and the role vegetarianism may have had in the early church. Akers is an able historical sleuth; though not a professional scholar, he's probably made some original contributions to the ongoing debates about Jewish Christianity. His arguments in the last chapter for vegetarianism are, in my view, on a solid ethical footing. That Jesus and the first apostles were strict vegetarians--of this I'm not persuaded, though I suppose it is at least a possibility. In any case, one could certainly be a Christian and believe the things Akers stresses as central. There are Christians who reject the the doctrine of the Trinity and others who reject Paul's theology. As I've written elsewhere, I believe the minimum credo defining whether one is a Christian should be something like: "Jesus is God's Messiah." In the present case, it would be possible to reverence Jesus and the Gospel depictions of him while believing, like Akers, that the Gospels as we know them have had a major theme edited out: Jesus' vegetarianism and opposition to animal sacrifice. I myself, however, remain unconvinced.

The letters of Paul and the Gospels are imperfect documents, but I believe they were composed in large measure under the real influence of the Holy Spirit. Paul had visions of and discourse with the risen Christ, and Paul's theology, though again imperfect, is based on the impact of his experiences. For me the New Testament is not, then, the attempt of charlatans to steal Christianity from the Jews, but instead the written record of a real outpouring of the Spirit, an outpouring meant to bring the Good News of the Messiah to the world. This is not a repudiation of Judaism, but a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham: that all nations of the earth would be blessed through his seed, i.e., through the Jews (cf. Genesis 12 and 22). The degree to which Paul thought in Jewish terms has been documented in recent decades by scholars in the New Perspective on Paul movement. Akers could strengthen his appreciation for the depth (and the deep Jewishness) of Paul's thought by considering some of this work.

Check The Lost Religion of Jesus at

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Added August 7, 2009: Keith Akers offers a detailed online response to some my comments under the title "The Gorilla in Early Christianity." I agree with him that all of us, when approaching ancient texts, are gorilla-blind on a number of levels, meaning that we always underestimate the challenge of interpretation. In his post he expands on the arguments in his book. I definitely think his case is more strongly made. Am I convinced? I would say there's much that's persuasive, but that, again, there is a specificity and tradition related to the prohibition against "blood" that makes it hard to agree that Akers' interpretation is right. There is also the fact that this prohibition against blood is recorded in the Talmud as part of the Noahide laws, i.e., those laws Jews traditionally said Gentiles must follow in order to be considered righteous (at least as far as any Gentile could be considered such). Arguing for Akers' interpretation however are Jesu,s' statements in Matthew that his followers must exceed the righteousness of the tradition: "You have heard that it was said . . ., but I tell you . . . ."

Many thanks to Keith for his comments.

1 comment:

Anders Branderud said...

I recommend you and the reader of this post to do an extensive research of NT and Pauls doctrines (and learn what the followers of Ribi Yehoshua – the Netzarim - said about Paul; see the below website) to find about its origin.

Learn essential and well-documented information about the ebionites in the “History museum” in the below website. -- "Christians" in the first page

Anders Branderud
Geir Tzedeq, Netzarim