BOOKS: The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living & Nonviolence In Early Christianity
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2001:
The Lost Religion of Jesus:
Simple Living & Nonviolence In Early Christianity
by Keith Akers
Lantern Books (1 Union Square W., #201, New York, NY 10003),
2001. 260 pages, paperback. $20.00.
Denver vegetarian advocate Keith Akers, best known for compiling A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983), earned his B.A. in philosophy 30 years ago at Vanderbilt University. He turned to computer programming to make a living, but never forgot his philosophical interests. Decades of meticulous study later, Akers has joined the growing legion of historians and theologians who are coming to believe that the real focal issue of Jesus’ life and death was opposition to animal sacrifice–and, by extension, to all meat-eating, since animal sacrifice was practiced in Judaism as a means of sanctifying the consumption of any flesh. According to Genesis, God explicitly excluded meat from the human diet at the time of Creation. Only through the invention of animal sacrifice, purporting to “share” meat with God at God’s alleged own request, could the Hebrews rationalize transgressing their oldest commandment.
Others have made the same argument, but Akers’ examination of the evidence is unusually free of sectarian bias, since– unlike most Biblical scholars–he is not aligned with any one religion. Akers seeks the truth of Biblical history by painstakingly finding and removing corrupted bits to resolve each system conflict. Comparing the Biblical accounts of Jesus clearing the temple, Akers notes that, “There are several groups whom Jesus directs his anger against, and the moneychangers are nowhere at the top of the list. In Luke they are not even mentioned. Rather,” Akers reminds,
“it is the ‘dealers in cattle, sheep, and pigeons,’ ‘those who sold,’ or ‘all who sold and bought’ who are his primary targets. In John, he speaks only to the dealers in pigeons, and in Luke he speaks only to ‘those who sold.’ The primary practical effect of the cleaning of the temple was in John to empty the temple of the animals who were to be sacrificed, or in the synoptic gospels, to drive out those who were taking them to be killed or were selling them. We must remember,” Akers emphasizes, “that the temple was more like a butcher shop than like a modern-day church or synagogue. ‘Cleansing the temple’ was an act of animal liberation.
“The conventional interpretation of Jesus’ motivation,” Akers writes, “is that the moneychangers and dealers in animals were overcharging Jews who had come to the temple to make a sacrifice…Nowhere else in the New Testament is there any suggestion that profiteering by animal dealers was a problem.” Jesus did not visit the temple as a consumer advocate, Akers believes. Rather, “Jesus did something that struck at the core of temple practice. The priests wanted Jesus killed, and even after Jesus was dead, they wanted to destroy his followers. Was all this effort simply to safeguard some dishonest moneychangers? It is much more plausible that Jesus objected to the practice of animal
sacrifice itself…It was this act, and its interpretation as a threat to public order, that led immediately to his crucifixion,”
Objecting to animal sacrifice, Akers explains, was consistent with the interpretation of Judaism that Jesus otherwise
advanced, following a line of Biblical prophets including Ezekial and Isaiah. Opposition to animal sacrifice, moreover, was a growing trend within Judaism at the time, possibly though not necessarily as result of increasing commerce with India, where many Jews fled less than a century later after the Diaspora.
Apocryphal stories and some scholarly investigators long have postulated that Jesus spent part of his youth in India, and that the Golden Rule was a recast form of ahimsa. Akers, however, believes from examination of Jesus’ words about animals that he did not need to go so far to be immersed in similar teachings: they were already current in his time and place. Akers cites passages indicating that, “The principle of compassion for animals is a presupposition of all
of Jesus’ references to animals…Jesus in the gospels does not argue the question of whether we should be compassionate to animals; rather, he assumes it from the outset.”
As Akers portrays Jesus, he was not well-traveled and worldly. Having possibly grown up away from animal sacrifice, he suffered a profound shock upon encountering it in the temple. He responded in outraged naivete, and was in effect sacrificed himself because of his apparent innocence of the force of the institution he challenged.
Akers argues that bits of Gospel such as accounts of the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the Last Supper, which seem to show Jesus condoning flesh consumption, were corrupted by the Paulists who took Christianity away from Judaism. Key evidence is that the Jerusalem church first led by James (who claimed to be Jesus’ brother) kept vegetarianism as a central tenet for all of the 300-odd years that it existed.
Akers argues, based on a confluence of geography and teachings about animals, that remnants of the teachings of the
Jerusalem church were incorporated into the Sufi branch of Islam, which much later originated where the last branch of the Jerusalem church had settled after fleeing Jerusalem. “Jesus is not an unknown figure in Islam,” Akers acknowledges, “but the Sufis express an extraordinary interest in Jesus and have sayings of Jesus and stories about Jesus found nowhere in Christianity. Especially interesting and significant is the treatment of Jesus by al-Ghazali, an 11th century Islamic mystic who is widely credited with making Sufism respectable within Islam.”
The Jesus described by al-Ghazali “lives in extreme poverty, disdains violence, loves animals, and is vegetarian,” Akers summarizes. “It is clear that al-Ghazali is drawing on a tradition rather than creating a tradition because some of the same stories that al-Ghazali relates are also related by others both before and after him, and also because al-Ghazali himself is not a vegetarian and clearly has no axe to grind. Thus, these stories came from a pre-existing tradtion that describes Jesus as a vegetarian,” which Akers illustrates with examples from al-Ghazali.
Vegetarian saints, poets, and teachers, including women, have been prominent among the Sufis from the beginning of the tradition. Akers briefly reviews their examples, and explains how the pro-animal descendants of the Jerusalem church could have found a place in Islam after suffering violent rejection by both Judaism and mainstream Christianity –largely due to their vegetarian teachings.
“Notwithstanding the approval of meat consumption and animal sacrifice in Islam,” Akers writes, “animals have a status in the Qur’an unequaled in the New Testament. According to the Qur’an, animals are manifestations of God’s divine will, signs or clues for the believers provided by God. The animals in fact all praise and worship Allah. The beasts pay attention to God and the birds in flight praise him as well. Allah has given the earth not just for human domination, but for all his creatures.
“Animals have souls [in Islam] just like humans, for we read, ‘There is not an animal in the earth, nor a creature flying
on two wings, but they are peoples like unto you…Unto their Lord they will be gathered.’ “Indeed,” Akers concludes, “it would appear that [in Islam] animals can be saved on the Day of Judgement.”
Akers hopes that as growing numbers of Christians become vegetarian, they will return to the religion of Jesus, which he argues was the practice of ahimsa, whether Jesus knew the term or not, and is the oldest and purest theme common to every religion based upon ethical teaching.