From history, 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.
It’s possible historically that Christianity began as a vegetarian religion, but was corrupted over the centuries. Secular scholar Keith Akers writes in his as of yet unpublished manuscript, Broken Thread:
“The ‘orthodox’ response to vegetarianism has been somewhat contradictory…The objection to meat consumption has been taken as evidence of heresy when Christians have been faced with outsiders; however, vegetarianism met with a kinder reception among the monastic communities…Vegetarianism does attain a certain status even in orthodox circles.
“Indeed, a list of known vegetarians among the church leaders reads very much like a Who’s Who in the early church. Peter is described as a vegetarian in the Recognitions and Homilies. Hegesippus, quoted by Eusebius, said that James (the brother of Jesus) was a vegetarian and was raised as a vegetarian. Clement of Alexandria thought that Matthew was a vegetarian…
“According to Eusebius, the apostles—all the apostles, and not just James—abstained from both meat and wine, thus making them vegetarians and teetotalers, just like James. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nanziance, John Chrysostom, and Tertullian were all probably vegetarians, based on their writings…they themselves are evidently vegetarian and can be counted on to say a few kind words about vegetarianism. On the other hand, there are practically no references to any Christians eating fish or meat before the council of Nicaea.
“The rule of Benedict forbade eating any four-legged animals, unless one was sick. Columbanus allowed vegetables, lentil porridge, flour, and bread only, at all times, even for the sick. A fifth-century Irish rule forbids meat, fish, cheese, and butter at all times, though the sick, elderly, travel-weary, or even monks on holidays may eat cheese or butter, but no one may ever eat meat.
“The Carthusians were especially strict about vegetarianism. The origin of their order is related by the story of St. Bruno and his companions, who on the Sunday before Lent are sitting before some meat and are debating whether they should eat meat at all.
“During the debate, numerous examples of vegetarians among their monastic predecessors are mentioned—the Desert Fathers, Paul (the Hermit), Antony, Hilarion, Macharius, and Arsenius, are all cited as vegetarian examples. After much discussion, they fall asleep—and remain asleep for 45 days, waking up when Archbishop Hugh shows up on Wednesday of Holy Week! When they wake up, the meat miraculously turns to ashes, and they fall on their knees and determine never to eat meat again.
“It is true that the church rejected the requirement for vegetarianism, following the dicta of Paul. However, it is interesting under these circumstances that there are so many vegetarians. In fact, outside of the references to Jesus eating fish in the New Testament, there are hardly any references to any early Christians eating meat.
“Thus vegetarianism was practiced by the apostles, by James the brother of Jesus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nanziance, John Chrysostom, Tertullian, Bonaventure, Arnobius, Cassian, Jerome, the Desert Fathers, Paul (the Hermit), Antony, Hilarion, Machrius, Columbanus, and Aresenius—but not by Jesus himself!
“It is as if everyone in the early church understood the message except the messenger. This is extremely implausible. The much more likely explanation is that the original tradition was vegetarian, but that under the pressure of expediency and the popularity of Paul’s writings in the second century, the tradition was first dropped as a requirement and finally dropped even as a desideratum.”
In her 2004 book, Vegetarian Christian Saints: Mystics, Ascetics & Monks, Jewish scholar Dr. Holly Roberts (she has a Master’s degree in Christian theology) documents the lives and teachings of over 150 canonized saints:
St. Anthony of Egypt; St. Hilarion; St. Macarius the Elder; St. Palaemon; St. Pachomius; St. Paul the Hermit; St. Marcian; St. Macarius the Younger; St. Aphraates; St. James of Nisibis; St. Ammon; St. Julian Sabas; St. Apollo; St. John of Egypt; St. Porphyry of Gaza; St. Dorotheus the Theban; St. Theodosius the Cenobiarch; St. Sabas; St. Fugentius of Ruspe; St. Gerasimus; St. Mary of Egypt; St. Dositheus; St. Abraham Kidunaja; St. John the Silent; St. Theodore of Sykeon; St. Lups of Troyes; St. Lupicinus; St. Romanus; St. Gudelinis; St. Liphardus; St. Maurus of Glanfeuil; St. Urbicius; St. Senoch; St. Hospitius; St. Winwaloe; St. Kertigan; St. Fintan; St. Molua; St. Amatus; St. Guthlac; St. Joannicus; St. Theodore the Studite; St. Lioba; St. Euthymius the Younger; St. Luke the Younger; St. Paul of Latros; St. Antony of the Caves of Kiev; St. Theodosius Pechersky; St. Fantinus; St. Wulfstan; St. Gregory of Makar; St. Elphege; St. Theobald of Provins; St. Stephen of Grandmont; St. Henry of Coquet; St. William of Malavalle; St. Godric; St. Stephen of Obazine; St. William of Bourges; St. Humility of Florence; St. Simon Stock; St. Agnes of Montepulciano; St. Laurence Justinian; St. Herculanus of Piegaro; St. Francis of Assisi; St. Clare of Assisi; St. Aventine of Troyes; st. Felix of Cantalice; St. Joseph of Cupertino; St. Benedict; St. Bruno; St. Alberic; St. Robert of Molesme; St. Stephen Harding; St. Gilbert of Sempringham; St. Dominic; St. John of Matha; St. Albert of Jerusalem; St. Angela Merici; St. Paula; St. Genevieve; St. David; St. Leonard of Noblac; St. Kevin; St. Anskar; St. Ulrich; St. Yvo; St. Laurence O’Toole; St. Hedwig; St. Mary of Onigines; St. Elizabeth of Hungary; St. Ivo Helory; St. Philip Benizi; St. Albert of Trapani; St. Nicholas of Tolentino; St. Rita of Cascia; St. Francis of Paola; St. John Capistrano; St. John of Kanti; St. Peter of Alcantara; St. Francis Xavier; St. Philip Neri; St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi; St. Jean-Marie Vianney; St. Basil the Great; St. Jerome; St. Ephraem; St. Peter Damian; St. Bernard; St. Catherine of Siena; St. Robert Bellarmine; St. Peter Celestine; St. Olympias; St. Publius; St. Malchus; St. Asella; St. Sulpicius Severus; St. Maxentius; St. Monegundis; St. Paul Aurelian; St. Coleman of Kilmacduagh; St. Bavo; St. Amandus; St. Giles; St. Silvin; st. Benedict of Aniane; St. Aybert; St. Dominic Loricatus; St. Richard of Wyche; St. Margaret of Cortona; St. Clare of Rimini; St. Frances of Rome; St. James de la Marca; St. Michael of Giedroyc; St. Mariana of Quito; St. John de Britto; St. Callistratus; St. Marianus; St. Brendon of Clonfert; St. Kieran (Carian); St. Stephen of Mar Saba; St. Anselm; St. Martin de Porres; St. Procpius; St. Boniface of Tarsus; St. Serenus.
In the (updated) 1986 edition of A Vegetarian Sourcebook, Keith Akers similarly observes: “But many others, both orthodox and heterodox, testified to the vegetarian origins of Christianity. Both Athanasius and his opponent Arius were strict vegetarians. Many early church fathers were vegetarian, including Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Heironymus, Boniface, and John Chrysostom.
“Many of the monasteries both in ancient times and at the present day practiced vegetarianism…The requirement to be vegetarian has been diluted considerably since the earliest days, but the practice of vegetarianism was continued by many saints, monks, and laymen. Vegetarianism is at the heart of Christianity.”
History shows that Christianity, like Buddhism, began as a pacifist religion, and was pacifist until the time of Constantine, when it became a state religion. Before Constantine, Christians who took up arms were excommunicated. After Constantine, Christians who laid down their arms were excommunicated!
I’m not saying we should lay down our arms (the Bhagavad-gita, after all, was spoken on a battlefield!), but that it’s not hard to imagine Christianity similarly beginning as a vegetarian religion, and being corrupted over the centuries…the corruption beginning, perhaps, with the apostle Paul?