In our series on whether or not Jesus ate animals, we have seen Jesus enable others to eat animals through his miracles and mention animal consumption in parables. But there were ancient Christians who argued that Jesus and John the Baptist before him were vegetarians.
The Gospel of Ebionites – as reported by Epiphanius – presents a vegetarian version of the gospels. It begins with John the Baptist:
And so John was baptizing, and Pharisees came out to him and were baptized, as was all of Jerusalem. John wore a garment of camel hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was wild honey that tasted like manna, like a cake cooked in olive oil.Epiphanius, Panarion 30.13.4-5 (trans. Ehrman and Plese, Apocryphal Gospels, 213).
In it, John the Baptist does not eat locusts, but has John the Baptist eat pancakes instead. It is meant to recall the manna of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. “Locusts” and “pancake” have only a couple letters difference in Greek, perhaps a bit of wordplay going on here. He, however, still wears camel’s hair and a leather, so the gospel does not seem to be opposed to using animal products, but just eating them.
Jesus is also virulently anti-sacrifice, whereas in the canonical gospels, Jesus is fairly ambivalent about sacrifice, in the Gospel of the Ebionites, Jesus is virulently anti-sacrifice:
“I have come to destroy the sacrifices. And if you do not stop making sacrifice, God’s wrath will not stop afflicting you.”Epiphanius, Panarion 30.16.4-5 (trans. Ehrman and Plese, Apocryphal Gospels, 215)
Finally, Jesus’ vegetarianism is also established when he refuses to eat the Passover lamb. Whereas the other gospels simply omit whether Jesus ate lamb, here Jesus directly opposes eating animals. Epiphanius writes:
For they [Ebionites] had the disciples say, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover lamb?” And they made him respond, “ I have no desire to eat the meat of this Passover lamb with you.”Epiphanius, Pan. 30.22.4 (trans., Ehrman and Plese, Apocryphal Gospels, 215)
It appears that the Ebionites were likely ancient Christian vegetarians who – like Christians everywhere – imputed their beliefs onto Jesus (and here John the Baptist). For John the Baptist, this involved changing a few letters to shift “locust” to “pancake.” For Jesus, this involved disambiguating the Jesus’ ambivalent attitude to sacrifice in the canonical gospels as well as the unclarity around whether or not Jesus ate the Passover lamb.