What Does The New Testament Say About Eating Animals?

What Does The New Testament Say About Eating Animals?
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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

From the Garden of Eden – a peaceful place where animals are not eaten – to the meaning of dominionism, to the biblical controversy over which animals can and cannot be eaten, the Bible includes many passages and teachings about animals. Inevitably, this creates much discussion amongst people of faith today about what – or who – they should and shouldn’t eat.

Does the Bible Say It’s Okay To Eat Animals?

In the Old Testament, in the book of Genesis, when God creates the world in seven days, we can see quite clearly His intentions: “God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’”

In other words, says Christan philosopher Simon Kittle: “God created the world vegan. And it is this vegan world which God proceeds to declare very good (Genesis 1:31).”

Christian Vegetarians and Vegans UK explain further: “From a biblical perspective the concept of eating anything but plants by any animal – human or otherwise – only entered the world after The Fall. That surely should tell the reader something.”

Only after the Flood – where God washed away the sinful world – did He permit the eating of animals. So, are we to eat animals with God’s blessing? Rabbi Marc Gellman writes of Genesis chapter 9:3-6: “This passage makes clear the biblical belief that eating meat is, in God’s eyes, a regrettable concession to human weakness, not a virtue.”

Says Kittle: “These passages are best interpreted… in light of that overarching theme of peace, a theme embodied, of course, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible makes clear that at every turn, Jesus actively, though non-violently, resisted oppression and evil.”

What Animals Are Unclean?

Later, in Leviticus 11, the Lord speaks to Moses and Aaron and sets out which animals can be eaten and which are to be avoided. It makes an interesting list. Any animal that has cloven hooves and chews the cud can be eaten. Aquatic animals can be eaten so long as they have fins and scales. Winged insects are permissible so long as they have joints in their legs above their feet. All other animals falling outside of these definitions were seen as ‘unclean’. Various types of birds were not to be eaten and eating bats was expressly prohibited.

What Does The New Testament Say About Eating Unclean Animals?

In the New Testament, Jesus swept away these rules when He “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:18-19): “There is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.”

Thus, with this declaration, what people ate became their own choice, and rested solely on their conscience.

What Does The New Testament Say About Animals?

The Bible is filled with contradictory messages about animals, and in the New Testament, humans’ hierarchical dominion over animals continues to be taught:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

And:

Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” (Luke 12:24)

The Meat Controversy In Bible

One significant biblical controversy was the acceptability of eating meat that had first been sacrificed to idols and later sold in the marketplace, as was common practice. The biblical website Got Questions explains it: “The Jews would have nothing to do with such meat, wary of “unclean” food-handling practices and believing that to partake of consecrated meat was to give tacit approval of idol worship—kind of a “second-hand” idolatry. The Gentiles rejected the notion that such meat was tainted and held that they could eat meat sacrificed to idols without endorsing idolatry—they had not actually offered the sacrifice, after all. The matter was becoming a point of contention within the church.”

Today, the real biblical controversy tends to come via this important question: But didn’t Jesus eat meat? In fact, it is written that Jesus ate fish after the resurrection but there is no explicit mention of him eating meat other than fish. At the Last Supper (Luke 24), there is mention only of bread and wine.

SARX, the Christian charity that champions the wellbeing of animals responds: “There were many undesirable elements to living in 1st century Palestine. Surely the fact that Jesus was lawfully permitted to keep slaves doesn’t mean we should do likewise? Also what would a church equality opportunities board say if Jesus’s choice of disciples, an exclusively male and monoethnic selection, was adopted as a model of church leadership today?

“Maybe, as we peruse the supermarket aisles, we should ask ourselves a different question. Indeed for we, who are not living in first century Galilee but rather in a time and country when meat eating necessitates terrible suffering and the devastation of the environment, perhaps the key question to ask is, “what would Jesus have us eat now”?”

Peter’s Vision

In the Acts of the Apostles, St Peter had a vision, which some believe removes the limitations on which animals can be eaten. It reads:

“He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.”

But there is another interpretation, that this has nothing to do with permission to eat all animals at all. Some Christians urge us to read this in context and say that, in light of Jesus’s mission, “Peter was actually being taught that the Gospel was for all peoples, even ‘unclean’ Roman Centurions.”

Paul’s Letters and Intent

It was traditionally believed that Paul’s writing in Romans, the book before his letters to the Corinthians, denotes a retraction of God’s law on which animals are permissible to eat. But, given the timing of it – and that the issue of eating meat that had been offered to idols was a hot topic of the day – others believe that this it was the latter issue he was was referring to when he wrote:

“I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.”

Weight is added to this interpretation by Paul’s writing In Corinthians. Here he clarifies that because an idol is nothing at all, there is nothing immoral about eating meat that has been offered to one, and it is not necessary to inquire about whether it had been first offered as a sacrifice. However, he says, we should be sensitive to the views of others, and in those cases it is better not to eat meat at all than to cause offence.

Timothy’s Instructions

Paul’s first letter to Timothy speaks out against false teachers who urge others to abstain from certain foods. Some people believe that this passage again indicates that we are to abandon the differentiation between clean and unclean animals, and permits people to eat whatever they want. Others believe that Paul is reminding us to be guided by the Scriptures, and that the distinction between clean and unclean animals remains.

Conclusion

While some individuals focus on the distinction between clean and unclean animals as a guide to what they will eat, there is a compassionate movement which seeks to remind us that the Garden of Eden – to which people of faith strive to return – was a place of love, compassion and veganism.

It’s not that we are forbidden to eat meat, but that it is not a virtue to do so. As Rabbi Marc Gellman says: “Eating meat is OK, but we can do better.”

Kittle reminds us that many of our beliefs about animals “stem not from the Bible but from cultural habit,” and an understanding of that “might enable us to evaluate honestly the violence we are now implicated in, not so that we can condemn ourselves or be condemned by others – but so that we can turn from it, and join with God in seeking that Peaceable Kingdom. As we read the Bible, our prayer should be that God would deliver us from the evil of causing unnecessary violence to animals.”


For those wishing to read more about the Bible, animals and veganism, we recommend these articles by SARX.

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