Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark

Jesus in Delicatessen

Most scholars say Jesus rejected the Torah's kosher laws in the Gospel of Mark, but did he? A closer look at Mark 7 reveals a Jewish Christ—not a "parting of the ways" between Judaism and Christianity. Credit: Laura Beckman (

In conventional readings of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s relationship to the Jewish dietary laws is taken as a watershed moment in religious history, when one set of fundamental beliefs is cast out in favor of a new worldview. For centuries, Christian preachers, scholars, and lay readers of Mark have read the Gospel as teaching us not only that Jesus did not keep kosher but also that he permitted all foods that the Torah had forbidden Jews to eat. This would be a shift of no small moment, as indeed the dietary laws were then and remain today one of the very hallmarks of Jewish religious practice. If Mark has been misread, however, and his Jesus did not abandon or abrogate such basic Jewish practices as keeping kosher, then our entire sense of where the Jesus movement stands in relation to the Judaism of its time is quite changed. In short, if the earliest of Christians believed that Jesus kept kosher, then we have good reason to view that Christianity as another contending branch of Judaism.

The question of the “Jewishness” of Mark lies at the very heart of our understanding of the historical meaning of the Jesus movement in its earliest period. Jesus was, according to the view I defend here, not fighting against the Jews or Judaism but with some Jews for what he considered to be the right kind of Judaism. This kind of Judaism included the idea of a second divine person who would be found on earth in human form as the Messiah (and in the person of that Jesus). The only controversy surrounding Jesus was whether this son of the carpenter of Nazareth truly was the one for whom the Jews were waiting. Taking himself to be that very Jewish Messiah, Son of Man, however, Jesus surely would not have spoken contemptuously of the Torah but would have upheld it.

As read by most commentators, Mark 7 establishes the beginning of the so-called parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. This is because, according to the traditional interpretation and virtually all modern scholarly ones, in this chapter Jesus declares a major aspect of the Torah’s laws, the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), no longer valid, thus representing a major rupture with the beliefs and practices of virtually all other Jews, Pharisaic or not. The representatives of what are arguably the three most central and important scholarly biblical commentary series in the United States, ranging from the Word series for evangelical scholars to the Anchor Bible for the non-confessional and more general (but advanced) audience and then to the very scholarly and secular Hermeneia—which, taken together, represent the closest thing we have to an authoritative modern reading of the passage—all agree on this in their commentaries on Mark 7, even while disagreeing on much else. Thus Adela Yarbro Collins, in her Hermeneia commentary, writes of verse 19 (“and thus he purified all foods”), “The comment of v. 19c [third clause of v. 19] takes a giant step further and implies, at the very least, that the observance of the food laws for followers of Jesus is not obligatory.”

In the evangelical scholarly Word commentary, Robert A. Guelich too writes, “Jesus’ saying in 7:15 explained with reference to what one eats by 7:18b–19 means that no foods, even those forbidden by the Levitical law (Lev. 11–15), could defile a person before God. In essence, Jesus ‘makes all foods clean.’” In his commentary in the time-honored Anchor Bible, Joel Marcus writes that “anyone who did what the Markan Jesus does in our passage, denying this dietary distinction and declaring all food to be permissible (7:19), would immediately be identified as a seducer who led the people’s heart astray from God (cf. 7:6) and from the holy commandment he had given to Moses (cf. 7:8, 9, 13).” This view is the commonly held interpretation of the passage in both the pious and scholarly traditions.

But did the Markan Jesus do this sacrilegious thing, and is this passage truly a parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity? Reading the text backward from later Christian practices and beliefs about the written Torah and its abrogations, interpreters and scholars have found a point of origin, even a legend of origin, for their version of Christianity in this chapter. In contrast, reading the text through lenses colored by years of immersion in the Jewish religious literature of the times around Jesus and the evangelists produces a very different perspective on the chapter from the one that has come to be so dominant. Anchoring Mark in its proper historical and cultural context, we find a very different text indeed, one that reveals an inner Jewish controversy, rather than an abrogation of the Torah and denial of Judaism. ...

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Daniel Boyarin, Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. His books include A Radical Jew, Border Lines, and Socrates and the Fat Rabbis. Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Boyarin. This text originally appeared in The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Source Citation

Boyarin, Daniel. "Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark." Tikkun 27(2): 43.

tags: Christianity, Judaism   
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2 Responses to Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark

  1. Vasu Murti May 26, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Abrogation or a Higher Standard?

    Jesus was Jewish. Paul invented Christianity. Nothing in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) suggests a fundamental break with Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi” 42 times in the gospels. Jesus’ ministry was rabbinic.

    Jesus related scripture and God’s laws to everyday life, teaching by personal example. He engaged in healing and acts of mercy. He told stories or parables–a rabbinic method of teaching.

    He went to the synagogue (Matthew 12:9), taught in the synagogues (Matthew 4:23, 13:54; Mark 1:39), expressed concern for Jairus, “one of the rulers of the synagogue” (Mark 5:36) and it “was his custom” to go to the synagogue (Luke 4:16).

    Jesus called himself “Son of Man.” The prophet Ezekiel was addressed by God as “Son of Man.” (Ezekiel 2:1) In Hebrew, “son of man” (“ben adam”) was a synonym for “man.” Psalm 8:4 uses it in plural. Simon (Peter) referred to Jesus as “a man certified by God.” (Acts 2:22)

    When a scribe asked Jesus what is the greatest commandment in the Torah, Jesus began with “Hear O Israel, the Lord, thy God, is One Lord.” This is the Shema, which is still heard in every synagogue service to this day. “And you shall love the Lord with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength…And you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus concluded.

    When the scribe agreed that God is one and that to love Him completely and also love one’s neighbor as oneself is “more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” Jesus replied, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:29-34; Luke 10:25-28)

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus himself said:

    “Do not suppose I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill…till heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle pass from the Law till all is fulfilled.

    “Whoever, therefore, breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven…

    “…unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

    Jesus also upheld the Torah in Luke 16:17: “And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest portion of the Law to become invalid.”

    Nor do these words refer merely to the Ten Commandments. Jesus meant the entire Torah: 613 commandments. When a man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied, “You know the commandments.” He then quoted not just the Ten Commandments, but a commandment from Leviticus 19:13 as well: “Do not defraud.” (Mark 10:17-22)

    Jesus’ disciples were once accused by the scribes and Pharisees of violating rabbinical tradition (Matthew 15:1-2; Mark 7:5), but not biblical law. At no place in the entire New Testament does Jesus ever proclaim Torah or the Law of Moses to be abolished; this was the theology of Paul, a former Pharisee who never knew Jesus, but who persecuted Jesus’ followers. Paul openly identified himself not as a Jew but as a Roman (Acts 22:25-26) and an apostate from Judaism (Philippians 3:4-8)

    Sometimes Christians cite Matthew 7:12, where Jesus says “Do unto others…” and this “covers” the Law and the prophets.

    But Jesus was merely repeating in the positive what Rabbi Hillel taught earlier. Hillel was asked, “What is Judaism?” He replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. That is Judaism. All the rest is commentary.” No one took Hillel’s words to mean the Law had been abolished — why should we assume this of Jesus?

    If Jesus really came to abolish the Law and the prophets, Simon (Peter) would not have resisted a divine command to kill and eat both “clean” and “unclean” animals (Acts 10), nor would there have been a debate in the early church as to the extent the gentiles were to observe Mosaic Law (Acts 15).

    When Paul visited the church at Jerusalem, James and the elders told him all its members were “zealous for the Law,” and that they were worried because they heard rumors that Paul was preaching against Mosaic Law (Acts 21).

    None of these events would have happened if Jesus really came to abolish the Law and the prophets!

    Paul was arrogant enough to boast if anyone has confidence in Mosaic Law, “I am ahead of him” (Philippians 3:4-8).

    Would that mean Paul places himself ahead of Jesus, who said he did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets?

    Would that mean Paul places himself ahead of Jesus, who said whoever sets aside even the least of the laws demands shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-19)?

    Would that mean Paul places himself ahead of Jesus, who taught that following the commandments of God is the only way to eternal life (Mark 10:17-22)?

    Would that mean Paul places himself ahead of Jesus, who said that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest portion of the Law to become invalid (Luke 16:17)?

    Paul may have regarded his previous adherence to Mosaic Law as “so much garbage,” but it should be obvious by now that JESUS DIDN’T THINK THE LAW WAS “GARBAGE”!

    If Christians assign greater value to Paul’s teachings over those of Jesus, then “Christianity” really is “Paulianity”. Bertrand Russell referred to Paul as the “inventor” of Christianity.

    In his essay, “Jesus Kept Kosher: the Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark,” appearing online in the Spring 2012 issue of Tikkun, Professor Daniel Boyarin says: “Taking himself to be that very Jewish Messiah, Son of Man… Jesus surely would not have spoken contemptuously of the Torah but would have upheld it… rather than an abrogation of the Torah and denial of Judaism.”

    Professor Boyarin’s words indicate Jesus’ response to rabbinical law and the excesses of the Pharisaic tradition is often misunderstood by Jews and Christians alike.

    “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him;” taught Jesus, “but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.”

    Jesus’ disciples did not understand.

    “What comes out of a man,” Jesus explained, “that defiles a man. For from within out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders. Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness…blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matthew 15:11-20; Mark 7:14-23)

    Jesus was more concerned with one’s internal nature that he was with one’s external behavior. Jesus attacked not just killing, fornication and adultery, but the inner mentality and desires which cause such actions. (Matthew 5:21-22,27-28) Jesus went to the root cause of sin, looking past social factors and one’s surrounding environment to the individual conscience before God.

    Proof of this can be seen in Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisaic method of saving sinners. “For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. Did He who made the outside make the inside also?” (Matthew 23:25-26; Luke 11:37-40)

    A person’s heart or conscience can be known by his words and his deeds. Jesus warned his followers to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Therefore, by their fruits you will know them..

    “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.” (Matthew 7:15-20, 12:34-35; Luke 6:43-45)

    According to Mark (a gentile writer, and not one of Jesus’ direct disciples), Jesus’ conclusion that nothing from the outside can defile a man indirectly made all foods permissible.

    If this were true, however, Simon (Peter) would not have resisted a divine command to kill and eat both “clean” and “unclean” animals. (Acts 10:9-16)

    Nor would James, the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19), who held a leading position at the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:13), have required all gentile converts to Christianity to abstain from blood, strangled meat, fornication, and foods offered to pagan gods. (Acts 15) The risen Jesus himself demanded that his followers refrain from eating food offered to pagan gods (Revelations 2:14).

    It is significant that the idea that all foods are permissible is not recorded in Matthew (a direct disciple of Jesus), only in Mark (a gentile writer who never knew Jesus). Even if true, would it justify unnecessarily harming or killing animals to begin with? Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, the kingdom of God, the higher moral standards given by God at the beginning of creation, and God’s compassion for all living creatures suggest otherwise.

    Secular scholar Keith Akers writes in A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983):

    “The Jewish historian Josephus, who participated in the Jewish wars against Rome, described the basic principle of all the Jewish laws as mercy. The laws, he says, do not neglect the care of animals. ‘Ill treatment even of a brute beast is with us a capital crime.’”

    According to Christian scholar W. Barnes Tatum, the disagreements between Jesus and the Pharisees merely indicate that for Jesus acts of love and mercy take precedence over narrowly understood religious requirements. Love is the fulfillment of the Law. (Tatum, W. Barnes, In Quest of Jesus [Atlanta, GA, John Knox Press, 1982])

    Love as the fulfillment of the Law occurs in the Jewish tradition. Dr. Richard Schwartz relates:

    Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the most distinguished Orthodox rabbis of the nineteenth century, failed to appear one Yom Kippur eve to chant the sacred Kol Nidre prayer. His congregation became concerned, for it was inconceivable that he would be late or absent on this very holy day. They sent out a search party to look for him. The rabbi was found in the barn of a Christian neighbor. On his way to the synagogue, Rabbi Salanter had come upon one of his neighbor’s calves, lost and tangled in the brush. Seeing that the animal was in distress, he freed him and led him hone through many fields ad over many hills. His act of mercy represented the rabbi’s prayer on that Yom Kippur evening.

    Were Jesus’ teachings an “abrogation of the Torah” as Professor Boyarin suggests, or was Jesus calling his followers to a higher moral standard?

    Vegetarianism IS a higher standard of biblical morality!

    In his essay, “The Dietary Prohibitions of the Hebrews,” Jean Soler finds in the Bible at lest two times when an attempt was made to try the Israelites out on a vegetarian diet. During the period of exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews lived entirely on manna. They had large flocks which they brought with them, but never touched.

    The Israelites were told that manna “is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” (Exodus 16:5) For forty years in the desert, the Israelites lived on manna (Nehemiah 9:15,21). The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (16:20) calls manna the food of the angels. Manna is described as a vegetable food, like “coriander seed” (Numbers 11:7), tasting like wafers and honey (Exodus 16:31).

    On two separate occasions, however, the men rebelled against Moses because they wanted meat. The meat-hungry Hebrews lamented, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots.” God ended this first “experiment in vegetarianism” through the miracle of the quails.

    A second “experiment in vegetarianism” is suggested in the Book of Numbers, when the Hebrews lament once again, “O that we had meat to eat.” (Numbers 11:4) God repeated the miracle of the quails, but this time with a vengeance: “And while the flesh was between their teeth, before it was even chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and He struck them down with a great plague.” (Numbers 11:33)

    The site where the deaths took place was named “The Graves of Lust.” (Numbers 11:34; Deuteronomy 12:20) The quail meat was called “basar ta’avah,” or “meat of lust.” The Talmud (Chulin 84a) comments that: “The Torah teaches a lesson in moral conduct, that mean shall not eat meat unless he has a special craving for it, and shall eat it only occasionally and sparingly.” Here, according to Soler, as in the story of the Flood, “meat is given a negative connotation. It is a concession God makes to man’s imperfection.”

    In his excellent A Guide to the Misled, Rabbi Shmuel Golding explains the orthodox Jewish position concerning animal sacrifices: “When G-d gave our ancestors permission to make sacrifices to Him, it was a concession, just as when He allowed us to have a king (I Samuel 8), but He gave us a whole set of rules and regulations concerning sacrifice that, when followed, would be superior to and distinct from the sacrificial system of the heathens.”

    Some biblical passages denounce animal sacrifice (Isaiah 1:11,15; Amos 5:21-25). Other passages state that animal sacrifices, not necessarily incurring God’s wrath, are unnecessary (I Kings 15:22; Jeremiah 7:21-22; Hosea 6:6; Hosea 8:13; Micah 6:6-8; Psalm 50:1-14; Psalm 40:6; Proverbs 21:3; Ecclesiastes 5:1).

    Sometimes meat-eating Christians foolishly cite Isaiah 1:11, where God says, “I am full of the burnt offerings…” These Christians claim the word “full” implies God accepted the sacrifices.

    However, in Isaiah 43:23-24, God says: “You have not honored Me with your sacrifices… rather you have burdened Me with your sins, you have wearied Me with your iniquities.”

    This passage suggests, as Moses Maimonides taught and Rabbi Shmuel Golding confirms above, that “the sacrifices were a concession to barbarism.”

    There is considerable evidence within the Bible suggesting God’s plan is to restore His Kingdom on earth and return mankind to vegetarianism. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of prestate Israel, wrote: “It is inconceivable that the Creator who had planned a world of harmony and a perfect way for man to live should, many thousands of years later, find that this plan was wrong.”

    Rabbi Kook believed the concession to eat meat (Genesis 9:3) was never intended to be a permanent condition. In his essay, “A Vision of Peace and Vegetarianism,” he asked: “…how can it be that such a noble and enlightened moral position (Genesis 1:29) should pass away after it once has been brought into existence?”

    Rabbi Kook cited the messianic prophecies (Isaiah 11:6-9), in which the world is again restored to a vegetarian paradise. The Bible thus begins and ends in a Kingdom where slaughter is unknown, and identifies the one anointed by God to bring about this Kingdom as “Mashiach,” or the Messiah.

    Humanity’s very beginning in Paradise and destiny in the age of the Messiah are vividly depicted as vegetarian. “In that future state,” taught Rabbi Kook, “people’s lives will no longer be supported at the expense of the animals.” Isaiah (65:25) repeats his prophecy again. This is God’s plan.

    Rabbi Kook taught that because humans had an insatiable desire to kill animals and eat their flesh, they could not yet be returned to a moral standard which calls for vegetarianism. Kook regarded Deuteronomy 12:15,20 (“Thou mayest slaughter and eat…after all the desire of thy soul,”) as poetically misleading. He translated this Torah verse as: “because you lust after eating meat…then you may slaughter and eat.”

    In his book Judaism and Vegetarianism, Dr. Richard H. Schwartz notes that God’s blessings to man throughout the Bible are almost entirely vegetarian: products of the soil, seeds, sun and rain. (e.g., Deuteronomy 8:7-9; Isaiah 30:20,23; Nehemiah 9:25)

    The inconsistency in Judaism’s sanctioning the slaughter of animals while worshiping a God who has mercy on all His creatures is dealt with in Rabbi Jacob Cohen’s The Royal Table, an outline of the Jewish dietary laws. His book begins: “In the perfect world originally designed by God, man was meant to be a vegetarian.”

    The same page also quotes from Sifre: “Insomuch as all animals possess a certain degree of intelligence and consciousness, it is a waste of this divine gift, and an irreparable damage to destroy them.”

    During the 1970s, Rabbi Everett Gendler and his wife studied Talmudic attitudes towards animals, and came to “the conclusion that vegetarianism was the logical next step after kashrut—the proper extension of the laws against cruelty to animals.” After becoming a vegetarian, a rabbinical student in the Midwest said, “Now I feel I have achieved the ultimate state of kashrut.”

    In their book, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin explain: “Keeping kosher is Judaism’s compromise with its ideal vegetarianism. Ideally, according to Judaism, man would confine his eating to fruits and vegetables and not kill animals for food.”

    Along with the concession to eat meat, many laws and restrictions were given. Rabbi Kook taught that the reprimand implied by these regulations is an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people away from their meat-eating habit.

    This idea is echoed by Jewish Bible commentator Solomon Efraim Lunchitz, author of K’lee Yakar:

    “What was the necessity for the entire procedure of ritual slaughter? For the sake of self-discipline. It is far more appropriate for man not to eat meat; only if he has a strong desire for meat does the Torah permit it, and even this only after the trouble and inconvenience necessary to satisfy his desire. Perhaps because of the bother and annoyance of the whole procedure, he will be restrained from such a strong and uncontrollable desire for meat.”

    A similar statement was made by a modern rabbi, Pinchas Peli:

    “Accordingly, the laws of kashrut come to teach us that a Jew’s first preference should be a vegetarian meal. If however, one cannot control a craving for meat, it should be kosher meat which would serve as a reminder that the animal being eaten is a creature of God, that the death of such a creature cannot be taken lightly, that hunting for sport is forbidden, that we cannot treat any living thing callously, and that we are responsible for what happens to other beings (human or animal) even if we did not personally come into contact with them.”

    “In the killing of animals, there is cruelty.”

    –Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Israel

    “The dietary laws are intended to teach us compassion and lead us gently [back] to vegetarianism.”

    –Rabbi Shlomo Raskin

    “A higher form of being kosher is vegetarianism.”
    –Rabbi Daniel Jezer

    “If you do not eat meat, you are certainly kosher… And I believe that is what we should tell our fellow rabbis.”

    –Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Israel

    “It is not necessary for any human benefit to consume the flesh of animals. In fact it is harmful to human health, destructive of the environment, and wasteful of valuable resources that could be better used to feed the hungry and provide for the needy. All of these are Torah values.”

    –Rabbi Hillel Norry

    “Even the Torah itself recognizes that eating meat is not an ideal thing for the human being. It’s not the ideal diet for the human race.”

    –Rabbi Simchah Roth

    Keith Akers notes that “Compassion for animals is firmly rooted in Judaism,” and concludes in his chapter on the Jewish tradition in A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983):

    “Judaism does not unequivocally condemn meat eating as a sin. But a strong case can be made that Judaism does revere vegetarianism as an ethical ideal. All Jews are enjoined to have respect and compassion for animals…Jews would have absolutely no problem in becoming vegetarians, while still remaining loyal to their religion.”

    Jesus’ own teachings suggest he was not contradicting the Torah, but merely calling his followers to a higher moral standard.

    Repeating Psalm 37:11, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) Here Jesus refers to Isaiah’s vision (11:6-9) of the future Kingdom of Peace, where the earth is restored to a vegetarian paradise. (Genesis 1:29-31) Jesus taught his followers to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and to do God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-10)

    The kingdom of God belongs to the gentle and kind. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:7-9) “Be merciful, just as your Father is also merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

    Jesus called the peacemakers or pacifists sons of God, because they emulate God’s universal and unconditional love. “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Therefore, be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:45-48; Luke 6:32-35)

    Although the Ten Commandments teach “thou shalt not kill,” Jesus extended this morality to the point where one must never even get angry without cause. (Matthew 5:21-22) And although the Ten Commandments teach “thou shalt not commit adultery,” Jesus taught that “whoever looks upon a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

    The Bible limits compensation to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but Jesus taught his followers not to defend themselves against attack or aggression. “All who take up the sword must perish by the sword,” Jesus warned. (Matthew 26:52) The Bible teaches men to love their neighbors and hate their enemies, but Jesus taught them to love their enemies and bless and pray for their persecutors. (Matthew 5:38-44; Luke 6:27-29)

    Jesus forbade divorce, except for unfaithfulness. When asked why Moses permitted divorce, Jesus replied that it was a concession to the hardness of the heart. He insisted upon the moral standards given by God at the beginning. (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18)

    Jesus told his followers there is no need to pray to God for material blessings or even necessities. (Matthew 6:8,31-33; Luke 12:29-30) God’s compassion extends to all creation and He will easily provide for all of man’s needs:

    “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither toil nor spin. And yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field…will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:26-30; Luke 12:24-28)

    Jesus and his disciples lived lives of voluntary poverty and preached God’s word among “the poor.” When asked why he ate with sinners, he replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Matthew 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-32)

    In the 1986 edition of A Vegetarian Sourcebook, Keith Akers notes that there was a link in Judaism between meat-eating and animal sacrifices, that the prophetic tradition to which Jesus belonged attacked animal sacrifices, and that Jesus attacked the practice of animal sacrifice by driving the money-changers and their animals out of the Temple. He concludes, “The evidence indicates that for those who first heard the message of Jesus… the rejection of animal sacrifices had directly vegetarian implications.”

    Jesus taught humility and servitude. “You know the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave.” (Matthew 20:25-27; Mark 10:42-44; Luke 22:25-27)

    When his disciples argued amongst themselves who would be the greatest, Jesus told them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” (Matthew 23:11; Mark 9:33-35) On another occasion he explained, “For he who is least among you all will be great.” (Luke 9:48) According to Jesus, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11)

    Jesus told his disciples they were to think of themselves as unprofitable servants who simply do their duty. (Luke 17:7-10) Jesus even washed the feet of his disciples after the Last Supper, to set an example to his disciples about humility and equality before God. (John 13:1-16)

    Jesus taught that before God, no one can be called good. (Matthew 19:17; Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19) He saw the righteous and the wicked with equal vision. When Jesus was informed about Galileans who suffered at the hands of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, he responded: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.

    “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them,” Jesus continued. “Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

    The Pharisees apparently claimed religious leadership without such humility before God. “If you were (spiritually) blind,” Jesus told them on one occasion, “you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore, your sin remains.” (John 9:41)

    According to Luke, the Pharisees trusted in their own righteousness and therefore looked down upon others. Jesus told a parable of two men—a Pharisee and a tax collector—praying at Temple. The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like the other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I possess.”

    Meanwhile, the tax collector stood off in the distance. He would not even raise his eyes towards heaven, but merely prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus said it was the tax collector who went home justified, not the Pharisee, for “everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

    Jesus instructed his followers to perform their charity, prayer and fasting in private. Religious devotion must never become a means to adulation, fame and social recognition. (Matthew 6:1-6,16-18) Jesus’ disciples did not fast in the same manner as the disciples of John the Baptist or the Pharisees (Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39), but they fasted. (Matthew 6:16-18) Jesus even taught that certain kinds of demons could only be exorcised through prayer and fasting. (Matthew 17:14-21; Mark 9:17-29)

    Jesus taught constant prayer. (Luke 21:36) He often withdrew into the wilderness to pray. (Luke 5:16) At least once, Jesus went to the mountains and spent the night in prayer. (Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46; Luke 6:12)

    Jesus explained that celibacy is not something everyone can practice; it is meant only for those whom God has ordained it. He used the euphemism “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” recalling his euphemism about denying or dismembering bodily urges rather than having the entire body destroyed by sin. (Matthew 5:29-30, 18:8-9, 19:10-12)

    The apparent celibacy of Jesus is unusual by ancient Hebrew standards. The Bible does call for temporary abstinences, under certain circumstances. According to the Talmud, Moses voluntarily chose to give up sexual relations with his wife after he received his call from God. He reasoned that if the Israelites, to whom the Lord spoke only once and briefly, were ordered to abstain from sexual relations temporarily (Exodus 19:10,15), then he—being in continual dialogue with God—should remain celibate.

    Philo of Alexandria tells us that to sanctify himself, Moses cleansed himself of “all the mortal calls of nature, food and drink and intercourse with women. This last he had disdained for many a day, almost from the time when, possessed by the Spirit, he entered on his work as a prophet, since he held it fitting to hold himself always in readiness to receive the oracular messages.”

    Given this information, Jesus’ apparent voluntary embrace of celibacy, from the time of his baptism and reception of the Spirit of God, becomes meaningful to Jews and Christians alike.

    Aside from the Pharisees, the gospels and Book of Acts mention the Sadducees as the only other major school of Judaic thought. The Sadducees tended to be rich, nationalist and secularist.

    The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that the “Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances… which are not written into the laws of Moses and” which “the Sadducees reject,” but they “are able to persuade none but the rich,” whereas “the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.”

    Thus Jesus never rejected Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:17-19; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 16:17); only the excesses of the Pharisees with regards to its observance.

    (It was Paul, not Jesus, who taught that the Law was abolished. A completely different theology!)

    Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:9-10), the kingdom of peace, in which the entire world is restored to a vegetarian paradise (Genesis 1:29; Isaiah 11:6-9). Recalling Psalm 37:11, he blessed the meek, saying they would inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5) The kingdom of God belongs to the gentle and kind (Matthew 5:7-9) Christians are to “Be merciful, just as your Father is also merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Those who take up the sword must perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

    Jesus repeatedly spoke of God’s tender care for the nonhuman creation (Matthew 6:26-30, 10:29-31; Luke 12:6-7, 24-28). Jesus taught that God desires “mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:10-13, 12:6-7; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-32)

    The epistle to the Hebrews 10:5-10 suggests that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets (which Paul, and not Jesus, regarded as “so much garbage”), but only the institution of animal sacrifice, as does Jesus’ cleansing the Temple of those who were buying and selling animals for sacrifice and his overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. (Matthew 21:12-14; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:14-17)

    Jesus not only repeatedly upheld Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:17-19; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 16:17), he justified his healing on the Sabbath by referring to commandments calling for the humane treatment of animals.

    When teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, Jesus healed a woman who had been ill for eighteen years. He justified his healing work on the Sabbath by referring to biblical passages calling for the humane treatment of animals as well as their rest on the Sabbath. “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham…be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” Jesus asked. (Luke 13:10-16)

    On another occasion, Jesus again referred to Torah teaching on “tsa’ar ba’alei chayim” or compassion for animals to justify healing on the Sabbath. “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:1-5)

    Jesus compared saving sinners who had gone astray from God’s kingdom to rescuing lost sheep. He recalled a Jewish legend about Moses’ compassion as a shepherd for his flock.

    “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. What do you think? Who among you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?

    “And when he has found it,” Jesus continued, “he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’

    “I say to you, likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance…there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Matthew 18:11-13; Luke 15:3-7,10)

    Jesus insisted upon the higher moral standards given by God in the beginning (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18), and this did not go unnoticed by early church fathers such as St. Basil and St. Jerome.

    St. Basil (CE 320-79) taught, “The steam of meat darkens the light of the spirit. One can hardly have virtue if one enjoys meat meals and feasts…In the earthly paradise, there was no wine, no one sacrificed animals, and no one ate meat. Wine was only invented after the Deluge…

    “With simple living, well being increases in the household, animals are in safety, there is no shedding of blood, nor putting animals to death. The knife of the cook is needless, for the table is spread only with the fruits that nature gives, and with them they are content.”

    St. Jerome (CE 340-420) similarly wrote to a monk in Milan who had abandoned vegetarianism:

    “As to the argument that in God’s second blessing (Genesis 9:3) permission was given to eat flesh—a permission not given in the first blessing (Genesis 1:29)—let him know that just as permission to put away a wife was, according to the words of the Saviour, not given from the beginning, but was granted to the human race by Moses because of the hardness of our hearts (Matthew 19:1-12), so also in like manner the eating of flesh was unknown until the Flood, but after the Flood, just as quails were given to the people when they murmured in the desert, so have sinews and the offensiveness been given to our teeth.

    “The Apostle, writing to the Ephesians, teaches us that God had purposed that in the fullness of time he would restore all things, and would draw to their beginning, even to Christ Jesus, all things that are in heaven or that are on earth. Whence also, the Saviour Himself in the Apocalypse of John says, ‘I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.’ From the beginning of human nature, we neither fed upon flesh nor did we put away our wives, nor were our foreskins taken away from us for a sign. We kept on this course until we arrived at the Flood.

    “But after the Flood, together with the giving of the Law, which no man could fulfill, the eating of flesh was brought in, and the putting away of wives was conceded to hardness of heart…But now that Christ has come in the end of time, and has turned back Omega to Alpha…neither is it permitted to us to put away our wives, nor are we circumcised, nor do we eat flesh.”

    St. Jerome was responsible for the Vulgate, or Latin version of the Bible, still in use today. He felt a vegetarian diet was best for those devoted to the pursuit of wisdom. He once wrote that he was not a follower of Pythagoras or Empodocles “who do not eat any living creature,” but concluded, “And so I too say to you: if you wish to be perfect, it is good not to drink wine and eat flesh.”

    From history, too, we learn that the earliest Christians were vegetarians as well as pacifists. For example, Clemens Prudentius, the first Christian hymn writer, in one of his hymns exhorts his fellow Christians not to pollute their hands and hearts by the slaughter of innocent cows and sheep, and points to the variety of nourishing and pleasant foods obtainable without blood-shedding.

    Were Jesus’ words “an abrogation of the Torah and denial of Judaism,” as Professor Boyarin suggests, or was Jesus merely calling his followers to a higher standard of biblical morality? I think it’s safe to conclude the latter.

    –Vasu Murti

  2. Brian Griffith July 2, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Thanks Vasu,

    That was an excellent presentation, and I suspect all the rabbis you cite are right, that any law of compassion leads toward renunciation of of all cruelty to animals.

    I’ve suspected that the rift between Jewish disciples of Jesus and the Gentile followers happened partly due to war. In the Jewish anti-colonial rebellions of around 70 and 135 CE, Rome suspected all Jews as enemies of the state. All Gentile followers of Jesus felt the pressure to deny their links to the rebel faith. They increasingly insisted they were utterly different than Jews. They denied knowing the offenders, and stood aside as Rome basically crucified the whole Jewish nation.

    Thanks again for your great efforts to generate a real discussion of these things,

    –author of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story

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