by Keith Akers
Lantern Books (128 2nd Place, Garden Suite Brooklyn, NY 11231), 2001. 260 pages, paperback. $20.00.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Denver vegetarian advocate Keith Akers, perhaps best known for compiling A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983), earned his B.A. in philosophy 45 years ago at Vanderbilt University. Akers turned to computer programming to make a living, but never forgot his philosophical interests. Decades of meticulous study later, Akers in 2000 authored The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living & Nonviolence In Early Christianity, joining the growing legion of historians and theologians who have come 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.
Considered a radical thesis when The Lost Religion of Jesus appeared, Akers’ interpretation of opposition to animal sacrifice as among Jesus’ primary concerns is still controversial 15 years later. Perhaps it always will be. But even Pope Francis in his recent Enclycical on Climate Change & Inequality is now interpreting much of Jesus’ message as Akers did, lending The Lost Religion of Jesus new currency.
(See Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality, reviewed by Eric Mills.)
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.
Applied computer programming approach
Akers sought 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 noted 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 reminded, “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, Jesus 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 emphasized, “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.
Moneychangers were not the issue
“The conventional interpretation of Jesus’ motivation,” Akers wrote, “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 argued. 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,” Akers asserted.
Ezekial & Isaiah
Objecting to animal sacrifice, Akers explained, 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, the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain concept of avoiding doing injury to other living beings.
Akers, however, concluded 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 cited 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.”
The Jerusalem church
As Akers portrayed 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 argued 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’ theory, based on a confluence of geography and teachings about animals, is 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. This view has been strengthened by other scholarship since Akers wrote.
Jesus in Islamic tradition was vegetarian
“Jesus is not an unknown figure in Islam,” Akers acknowledged, “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 summarized. “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 illustrated 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 reviewed their examples, and explained 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.
Animals have souls in Islam
“Notwithstanding the approval of meat consumption and animal sacrifice in Islam,” Akers wrote, “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 concluded, “it would appear that [in Islam] animals can be saved on the Day of Judgement.”
Akers hoped in writing The Lost Religion of Jesus, and hopes still, that as growing numbers of Christians become vegetarian, they will return to the religion of Jesus. In the strictest sense, this was the religion of the Jerusalem church, which continued to identify closely with Judaism, whose core teaching, according to Akers, 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.