Last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched a new ad campaign that features an image of the Shroud of Turin and the slogan “Make a Lasting Impression—Go Vegetarian.” PETA explained in a statement that it “chose Jesus as its new ‘poster boy’ because he is widely believed to have been a member of the Essenes, a Jewish religious sect that followed a vegetarian diet and rejected animal sacrifices.”
Jesus a weed-eater? It’s not a new claim, but a new spin on an old one. Vegetarianism’s true believers have long held that the Garden of Eden was a meatless paradise (“And God said, Behold, I have given you … the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat,” Genesis 1:29). They’ve also claimed that the New Testament supports Jesus’ vegetarianism, although that requires you to believe that Jesus’ frequent encouragement of fishermen was symbolic, “fish” being mere symbols of “disciples,” and that he cast the sinners out of the temple because he wanted to rescue the Passover lamb.
No mainstream theologian buys the vegetarians’ argument because the Gospels are fairly straightforward about the Messiah’s tastes in food. “Jesus said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of broiled fish. … And he took it, and did eat before them” (Luke 24:41-43). The story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes, not to mention that Passover lamb, argues against vegetarianism, too.
But with this new campaign PETA foils the scholars by ignoring the biblical evidence—and the Bible altogether—preferring sources from the fringe field of “vegetarian theology,” who depend on coincidence, historical speculation, and creative exegesis of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts to make their case that 1) Jesus was an Essene; and 2) that the Essenes practiced vegetarianism.
Was Jesus an Essene? Did the Essenes practice vegetarianism? And just who were the Essenes?
The Essenes were a Jewish ascetical sect that lived in the Judean desert on the western shore of the Dead Sea during the time of Jesus. Secretive and communal, the Essenes broke with official Judaism and retreated from the world because they thought both “had become polluted, unclean and ungodly,” says Marcus J. Borg, a religious studies professor at Oregon State University and a leading New Testament scholar. “They had rigorous understandings of purity that could only be met by separating themselves from others, and they looked forward to an apocalyptic war in which God would destroy their enemies.” (In that sense they were a little like the Branch Davidians, only without the automatic weapons.) Many scholars also believe the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
To prove Jesus was an Essene, the vegetarian theologians work backward from John the Baptist. A few scholars have speculated that John might have been an Essene. Indeed, he preached along the Jordan River near the Essenes’ Dead Sea settlement, he held political beliefs similar to those of the Essenes, and lines found in the Dead Sea Scrolls echo in his preaching. For instance, Isaiah 40:3 makes this reference to John: “The voice of him [John] that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The same passage appears frequently in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
So if John was an Essene—which is by no means certain—the vegetarian theologians maintain that he made Jesus one too by baptizing him. That’s quite a stretch. So is the vegetarian theologians’ second argument. The Gospels identify the two other major Jewish sects of the day, the Sadducees and Pharisees, as opponents of Jesus. But the Gospels don’t mention the Essenes, therefore Jesus must have been an Essene. This is what is known as an “argument from silence.” (William Phipps used a similar tactic for different ends in his controversial 1970 book, Was Jesus Married?) “It’s a lot of baloney, as far as I’m concerned,” says Father Joseph Fitzmeyer, a professor of biblical studies at Georgetown University and an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Then were the Essenes vegetarians? Not likely. Vegetarianism goes unmentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. And since the Essenes were purists, Borg points out, it’s likely they would have slaughtered a lamb at Passover. PETA draws its mainstream proof of Essene vegetarianism from a brief article in the May/June 1999 issue of Archaeology, which reports that a dig of what may have been an Essene settlement hasn’t unearthed any animal bones.
And while PETA is right about the Essenes rejecting animal sacrifice, it wrongly attributes this stance to compassion for God’s lesser creatures. When the Essenes split from the Jewish establishment they rejected all rituals performed in the temple by the priests, of which animal sacrifice was only one.
Assuming that you accept the “Jesus was an Essene” argument, you still have to resolve the fundamental differences in their teachings. “Wherever there’s an overlap in subject matter, there is significant disagreement,” Borg says. Jesus socialized with lepers. The Essenes rejected even healthy Jews. Jesus spoke of loving one’s enemy. The Essenes believed an apocalyptic war would wipe out theirs. Jesus taught that we’re all God’s children. The Essenes believed they were “children of light” while others were “children of darkness”—a lot like a certain group of proselytizing vegetarians.