This is what the entry on “Vegetarianism” in Joel B. Green’s Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics has to say:


The term vegetarianism was not coined until the nineteenth century, but as a practice, vegetarianism

was widespread in the ancient world. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who lived in the sixth century BCE, is thought to have been the first Western vegetarian, and esoteric groups associated with his name carried on this dietary practice well into the first several centuries of the Christian era. Several church fathers, including Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, not only referred to the Pythagorean diet but also developed a Christian version of vegetarianism as an alternative to it.

Church fathers who defended a plant-based diet did so on several grounds. First, they were indebted

to Greek medical philosophy that attributed sexual and physical aggression to the consumption of

meat, especially the blood in meat. Second, they argued that Adam and Eve were vegetarians in the garden of Eden, since the animals were tame and there was no violence in paradise (Gen. 1:30). Third, they argued that God granted permission for humans to eat meat only after the flood, when

Noah and his descendants had to eat animals out of necessity (Gen. 9:1–4). Moreover, this permission was an accommodation to the fallen state of humankind. Fourth, they argued that the Jewish dietary law was evidence of a compromise between the peaceful diet of the garden of Eden and the gluttonous and cruel diet of the fall. Fifth, they argued that the council at Jerusalem, at which Paul and Peter divided their missionary responsibilities, kept in place the ban on consuming blood that was central to the Jewish diet (Acts 15:19–21). Sixth, and finally, they argued that the kingdom that God promised for the end times would include harmonious relations between people and animals, thus implying that vegetarianism was an appropriate way to anticipate the eschaton (Isa. 11:6–9).

Remarkably, all of these arguments were submerged in church history only to reappear in the nineteenth century, when many Christian groups rediscovered vegetarianism and began promoting

it for both theological and medical reasons. The modern case for vegetarianism is, thus, rooted in

the earliest Christian theologians.

Vegetarianism was never required as the daily diet for believers in the early church for a variety of reasons. First, it was associated with dualistic heretical groups such as gnostics and the Manichaeans. These groups identified the eating of meat with the consumption of fallen spirits embedded in animals, and they treated a plant-based diet as a work of merit necessary for the cleansing of the soul. They also were influenced by Eastern versions of reincarnation, which might have been one of the rationales behind Pythagoras’s version of vegetarianism.

Second, the early church was trying to distance itself from the more legalistic aspects of the Jewish tradition and, as a missionary movement, was not interested in erecting new barriers to fellowship. Third, many theologians argued that Jesus intended to free his followers from the more cumbersome aspects of Jewish legislation.

Nevertheless, vegetarianism remained as a sign of holiness, as demonstrated by two features of early Christianity. First, the church expected believers to fast on Fridays, a practice that slowly permitted the consumption of fish but no other animal flesh. The church also required a meatless diet for the period of Lent. Second, vegetarianism became the common diet of monasticism, with Benedict requiring it for monks in his rule, with the exception of the elderly and the ill.


Hobgood-Oster, L. Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition. University of Illinois Press, 2008;

Linzey, A. Animal Theology. University of Illinois Press, 1995;

Webb, S. Good Eating.

Brazos, 2001; Young, R. Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal

Rights. Open Court, 1999.

Stephen H. Webb (In Joel B. Green, ed., Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, 2011)

Prayer from the heart: A spiritual practice

For those of us who were taught that prayer is primarily saying the “right” words in the “right” way, it can be difficult to open up our whole selves to God, but author and spiritual director Teresa A. Blythe offers a wonderful practice that integrates mind, body, and heart.  

Deep within each of us is a prayer phrase longing to be expressed, what some have named the Prayer of the Heart. It consists of two simple phrases—one said on inhalation and one said on exhalation. Early Christians used to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” in this fashion. That was their deep longing, for Jesus to return and be among them in physical reality. We will spend time in this exercise finding those prayers that are as close to us as our very breath. The beauty of this prayer is the way it stays with us all day, all week, or even for a lifetime if we allow it. 

The Exercise 

  • Begin seated in a comfortable position. Make sure your body weight is distributed in such a way that you feel stable. Take about five deep, slow breaths and allow the tension of the day to flow out with each exhalation. After five deliberate breaths, turn your attention away from counting and allow your breath to find its natural pace. 
  • What is your deepest and truest longing for life with God at this moment? If you find that your longing feels “tacky” or too worldly, try suspending judgment and instead looking at what’s at the base of that desire. When you check in with your deepest and truest self, what is it that you seek from God? 
  • Give that longing a short phrase. For example, if your deep desire is inner freedom, then your phrase would be “freedom” or “inner freedom.” Make sure that your phrase is not too long. 
  • What is your favorite name for God? How do you image the Creator? Choose whatever name seems to fit best for you. Some examples include: Jesus, Wisdom, Father, Mother, or Mystery. Be as creative as you want to be. But again, keep the name rather short. 
  • Combine your name for God with your longing. For example, if my phrase is “freedom” and the name I choose for God is Christ, my prayer of the heart might be “Freedom, in Christ.” Spend a few moments coming up with your two-part prayer. 
  • Begin to say—either aloud or silently—your phrase. You may inhale on the name of God and exhale on the desire or vice versa. Spend several minutes breathing this prayer. Make it your own. Allow God to inhabit this prayer.  
  • After several minutes of repeating this prayer, sink into contemplative silence. Allow the love of God to fill you and surround you.
  • If you want to be sure to remember this phrase to pray it throughout the day, write it down. You might want to place it on the back of a business card and put it in your wallet or pocket. Place it on a sticky note next to your computer, or on the door of your refrigerator.  

Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times(Abingdon Press: 2006), 36-38.