Does the fact that Jesus ate fish weaken my position as a Christian vegetarian?
We can be sure that a fish in the hands of Jesus is not the same as a fish extracted from the sea by today’s industrial fisheries. Industrial fishing practices have created serious problems. Scientists estimate that sea creature populations have reduced by 90 percent since commercial fishing began harvesting them. By draining the sea’s abundance and contaminating its waters, we have violated the principles that govern the health and well-being of all living creatures. “Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air; and even the fish of the sea are taken away” (Hosea 4:3, RSV).
Given these threats to our oceans, it is only a matter of time before millions of people will find it impossible to feed themselves. Commercial overfishing has depleted the fish populations, rendering them unable to recover without hard work. Reckless fishing and the exploitation of nature around the world have left us on the brink of disaster. Our overconsumption and greed have left us with little hope.
I think one may safely say that just because Jesus ate some unpolluted fish doesn’t mean He would approve of today’s unfettered destruction of the sea via global fishing. If we followed Jesus, only consuming the kind of fish that He did, that alone would spare most of the sea creatures harvested today, as it would exclude scaleless fish such as catfish, shrimp, crabs, clams, eels, paddlefish, sharks, and rays as well as octopuses, whales, and dolphins (Leviticus 11:9–12). In fact, the ancient fishermen on the Sea of Galilee probably only knew a few species of freshwater fish (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, 2004, p. 112; Mendel Nun, The Sea of Galilee and Its Fishermen, 1989).
So what does it mean to follow Jesus’ example in today’s world, where it is reported that over 90 percent of large fish are gone? Given the ocean pollution and the fishing crisis that have the world’s fish teetering on the brink of extinction, might choosing not to eat fish be a valid way to follow the example of Jesus?
Since we are blessed with a great variety of plant-based foods, I am sure Jesus would prefer that we choose a healthy plant-based diet, but on the other hand, I don’t see Jesus taking a position of privilege. Jesus chose a bunch of impoverished fishermen to start His mission—rugged fishers of the sea whose lives were turned over to Jesus. Rather than helping them expand their fishing work, Jesus called them to follow Him in compassionate actions and missions of love (Matthew 4:8–12). In a way, Jesus beckoned them from extreme industrial methods that threatened sustainability. Jesus’ actions for these struggling fishermen brought abundance, replenishing the depleted waters with large numbers of fish. “Most of [Jesus’] fishing stories were filled to the brim with hope, calling us to move forward with contemplative and compassionate actions that replenish our seas and restore soulful communities” (Gary Paul Nabhan, Jesus for Farmers and Fishers, 2021 p. 66).
Through eating small quantities of fish both before and after His resurrection, Jesus showed His solidarity with those who couldn’t afford the luxury of being health-championing vegans. If Jesus occasionally ate clean fish for nourishment, it must be an acceptable practice. If Jesus ate healthy finned and scaled fish and fed them to those He loved, it can’t be wrong for us to supplement our diets with fish. However, we’ve reached the point where there’s no good reason for us to kill and eat fish. A closer look at Jesus’ dietary intentions limits the fish permissible to eat, pointing us back to creation and the vegetarian ideal (Jiøí Moskala, The Validity of the Levitical Food Laws of Clean and Unclean Animals, 2011, p 8–12).
So, what are we to make of the reference to Jesus eating fish in Luke 24:41–43? Scholar Gerald O’Collins argues that we shouldn’t read Jesus’ fish-eating literally but rather theologically (Did Jesus Eat the Fish? 1988, p 65–76; Interpreting the Resurrection, 1988, p. 51). The passage is not about the suitability of eating fish but the importance of bodily resurrection and its relationship to the material world. Rather than promoting a dietary regimen for modern Christians, the passage shows what transformative embodiment looks like, which carries profound implications for creation. It shows us what will happen when heaven and earth meet. The world will be healed of its curses just like those who are to be resurrected (Romans 8:22–23).
Those who argue that Jesus’ consumption of fish justifies modern fisheries fail to recognize that Jesus lived in a different time with different food traditions, which changes the meaning of fish-eating. When Jesus fed the multitudes fish, He was not condoning the modern horror of plundering our oceans with miles of netting. Neither Jesus nor His disciples faced globally depleted oceans caused by massively effective predation, though they did feel Rome squeezing the sea of Galilee by exploiting and taxing its abundance. Joining the fishermen on their boats, Jesus expressed compassion. I confidently choose vegetarianism by joining what Jesus is doing today—He is always about justice, compassion, and restoration.
I am bothered by Christians who say that Jesus would have been a health-reforming vegan if He had only had enough “light” to avoid fish-eating. I find this a blasphemous claim against the particularity of Jesus’ humanity and His perfect revelation of love. That Jesus ate fish and gave it to those He loved should not be glossed over or dismissed because of the scandal it creates to our perception of what is essential and important. We can’t model Jesus after our own image.
Some Christians legitimize their vegetarian convictions by simply insisting that Jesus never ate meat, reinterpreting the Scripture passages that imply He did. This is not a new approach, as one translation reports that Jesus fed the multitudes with loaves of bread and clusters of grapes—not fish (The Gospel of the Holy Twelve, Lection XXIX, 1–8). Can we accept that Jesus was not a health-reforming vegan and yet still protest today’s exploitation of God’s creatures?
Recognizing the particularity of Jesus’ humanity is essential, as we do not want to turn Jesus into our topic of interest and carry our personal convictions as the standard of truth. Identifying Jesus’ ethic as the healing and flourishing of creation is a compelling vision we all can imitate. To follow a resurrected Jesus is to manifest what a peaceful creation will soon look like.
So, what to make of the New Testament accounts of Jesus eating fish, catching fish, and even feeding fish to others? Why would Jesus cook a fish breakfast rather than prepare a delightful fruit salad (John 21:9–1)? Instead of grilling fish on the beach, couldn’t He have made seaweed cakes or another veggie substitute that didn’t require death? Why not create a vegetarian analogue that matches the taste, texture, and nutrition of fish? If Jesus is always kind to creatures and notices every sparrow that perishes, why didn’t He spare the fish? Don’t fish also warrant God’s compassion?
I think it is safe to say that had Jesus done anything differently on these occasions, it would have appeared unnatural to the fishermen. Jesus placed Himself within the vulnerabilities and limitations of everyday life in ancient Galilee. To Peter and the other fishermen, Jesus was replenishing their lake, surprising them with bounteous provisions in a spirit of sustainability and compassion. Jesus gave them a whole new vision of their relationship with the world and a way to effect change. I don’t want to characterize Jesus’ life as being unable to relate to the world’s present crisis. Knowing that He still intercedes for us today is much more valuable to me than considering Him a self-help guru telling me whether I can eat fish in my sushi.
Retrofitting Jesus into our own issues misses the essential implications of who He truly is. He entered our human condition to draw us into divine fellowship. Following Jesus today includes addressing depleted seas, environmental justice, and caring for creation. I want Jesus to be fully present with me in the situations I face today, just as He was with the fishermen at the lake. The humanity of Jesus, which is still Jewish and still incarnate, is important; it is the decisive factor in healing creation’s scars, which will culminate in the flourishing of all creation—not only human but also non-human creation, including the fish that are part of that eschatological renewal (Ezekiel 47).
Following Jesus will always look like justice and restoration. We don’t have to wait for the future to participate in the life that is already renewed. We can be inspired by what Jesus is doing today and practice true justice and healing. Today, worshiping the One who made the seas and springs calls us to practice resurrection and renewal by advocating stewardship of the land and sea because Jesus is the ruler over all. I confidently conform my life to follow what Jesus tells me to do about today’s emerging global food crisis. This lifestyle might be different from those of the fishermen 2,000 years ago, but it reflects a similar understanding of Jesus.
So, what can be said to those who use Jesus’ fish-eating to justify destroying the world’s fish populations and contaminating the world’s waters? The fact that Jesus ate a piece of fish does not undermine today’s reasons to become a vegetarian or be concerned with justice. Those eating as compassionately and mercifully as possible will find that Jesus eating a piece of fish does not conflict. In the end, it doesn’t matter what Jesus ate but how He wants us to address the present crisis and choose what we eat today according to His original intentions. Bringing us into a heart of compassion, Jesus has shown us that sustaining abundance is possible.
Jesus was not a vegetarian while He was here on earth, but might we consider Him one now? Though predation has dramatically diminished the abundance of the waters, don’t sea creatures deserve God’s blessing? God created them to “be fruitful, multiply and fill the waters” (Genesis 1:22). The oceans must be replenished, allowing the fish to fill God’s seas and streams as He intended. I choose to be a vegetarian to fulfill God’s original commandment of caring stewardship. I do not carry that conviction as a standard for everyone, but I believe to follow the ethics of Jesus is to live in the spirit of sustainability and compassion, with a view towards God’s future peaceable kingdom.
Craig Ashton Jr.