On my recent visit to York Minster I was captivated by a poster that asked how the Romans transitioned from their old pagan religious rituals to Christian rituals after Constantine adopted the Christian God as the state God. It’s a good question. It is challenging on a number of fronts.
After the visit I went online and found this summary of end of sacrifice.
I understand sacrifice simply to represent slaughter and safe processing of the meat that can be eaten from carcasses and critically the safe disposal of what was left over. This was overlayed with prayers of thanksgiving but the aim of the practice and ritual was to ensure meat was safe to eat. It had to be free from disease and for sure there were public health consequences is the unusable carcass was not disposed of safely.
Clearly in Biblical times and earlier there was not concept of bacteria but it is not difficult to understand that the priests of the day would have made an association between bad practice and disease. Disease would easily have been construed as punishment – especially for the maltreatment of animals at slaughter in particular.
The screen grab starts with the pro-vegetarian attitudes of pre-Christian religions originating in Asia and the Orient. No doubt some of these ideas must have spread westwards. At least the most devout and pious followers of many religions were questioning the practice of eating meat. As it was Jews and many other cults had long since recognised the need for centralised slaughter under the supervision of priests. Slaughter/sacrifice was typically done on a special occasion when there was a reason for a large family or community gathering (a street party, you could say).
John the Baptist, Jesus and their immediate associates appear to have been vegetarian and as a consequence disengaged from the tradition Jewish slaughter practice. We know from the gospels that Jesus fell out with the Temple authorities big time and the principal business of the Temple was slaughter. The Temple was the public slaughterhouse of its day. As well as merely killing animals to eat priests performed what today we know as “meat inspection”. Priests had worked out was constituted wholesome or healthy meat. They had also worked out that the safest way to find dispose of what was left over was to burn it. The smell must have been something. Incense was used to mask it. When they gathered for the Passover festival the slaughter must have appeared very gruesome. If you had a prior aversion to killing animals just for their meat the whole experience would have been off-putting (as would a visit to a large commercial slaughterhouse today if they weren’t so secretive).
Critically the whole meat-eating process was controlled. In Greek tradition I read that meat had to be eaten within the confines of the sacred place, temple, or consecrated ground. Today we run into trouble if we store meat badly. Very clearly the priests were aware that if people took meat away to eat later and let it go off, because they didn’t know how to and did not have facilities to keep meat pure, the consequent food poisoning would not be good. The priests and community leaders would not uncontrolled disposal of meat in spoil pits or middens, which could attract rats and potential infection from them.
The origin of prayer at slaughter can easily be surmised. People clearly had a concept of the sanctity of life and guilt at taking life – witness the vegetarian ideology of Hinduism and the religions associated with it. The prayer thanks Our Maker, The Giver of Life, or whoever, for His bounty while seeking forgiveness for taking a life. You could also interpret it as asking the animal, even, for permission to take its life. One way or another it is intended to be a spiritual and solemn occasion – unlike modern Secular industrialised slaughter.
Most of this knowledge was held by priests and passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Novice priests would have taken years to train. The meat inspection, for example, could not be taught from illustrated text books. They also would need to have learn how to craft or supervise the crafting of knives to provide a blemish free blade. A blade that had nicks in it would tear flesh as it cut and cause pain. If the animal pulled away from a blunt blade the cut may not be quick and successful thereby causing great suffering.
Now assuming that Jesus and his associates were not engaging fully with the Temple authorities they would not be understanding the import of the ritual. Indeed they had issues with washing hands before eating. (Mark 7:5; Matthew 15:2; Luke 11:38)
This interaction between Jesus and his associates and the Temple authorities was/is hugely significant. None of these gospel writers were contemporaries of Jesus. Matthew and Luke worked from Mark’s gospel. The import is that the occurrence was significant enough to have been remembered and passed down.
When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70CE the public slaughterhouse was destroyed and the Jewish authorities codified the ritual thereby enabling others to perform slaughter safely. In the meantime as St Paul took the Christian message into Southern Europe it seems that they adopted gentile practices that were far less strict than kosher – seemingly pigs were on the menu – but they were not so far removed that they bore no resemblance to kosher. The method of kill was more or less the same; there were meat inspection; and the remainder was burnt.
I am undecided to what extent Christians ate meat. Was the persecution of Christians in part because they were not following good sacrificial practice? How many Christians were there in the Roman Empire because of the persecution? Seemingly until his conversion Constantine punished vegetarian Christians. Christians had to keep their vegetarianism secret – presumably avoiding public festivals. Constantine’s wife was Christian but presumably cannot have been vegetarian. How could she have kept that from her family members? I can only assume that many Christians were meat eaters. Constantine accepted Christian practice and ended their persecution. The adoption of Christianity came about fifty years after his death. There may not have been any momentous change in practice in the Principia at York.
The tone from the screen grab suggests that as the Roman Empire came to a close formal organised sacrifice/slaughter had all but been abandoned with Christian emperors making sacrifice illegal. But what was made illegal and why? If the whole population of the Roman Empire had been banned from eating meat we have to assume that Europe and most of the world that came under its jurisdiction at some point would still be vegetarian today. That is not the case. What was abolished was the formal humane slaughter and hygiene practice. Animals were still sacrificed and eaten but without any reverence.
We have to assume that Christians may even have associated sacrifice with idol worship.
Fast forward to the industrial revolution and we see that in Britain the increase in meat consumption, as people migrated to towns and cities, placed huge strains on the supply side. Conditions in many slaughterhouses were dire. Keir Robertson, writing about “The Bovine Scourge” painted a grim picture of rat infested facilities. One can only assume that attention to humane slaughter may not have been brilliant. Kosher practice on the other hand was highly regulated and must have been several orders of magnitude superior – leading to exemptions for religious practice. Secular authorities introduced the idea of the public slaughterhouse where health and hygiene practices could be supervised and regulated – thereby mimicking ancient religious practice.
The last two sentences in the screen grab are of interest.
The Roman Empire, at least in Western Europe, fell within a hundred years of Christian being adopted formally as the state religion at the back-end of the fourth century. Why?
Could it be that the learned structures than must were associated with temples acting as effective community and municipal centres disintegrated? That’s really speculative, or is it?
The last sentence in the screen grab says that when Mohammed and Islam took centre stage on the seventh century sacrifice was not included as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. On the other hand at this time the principles of good animal welfare, especially at slaughter, and hygiene were re-introduced. In parts of Africa slaughterhouses are co-located with mosques. Mosques are community centres. Slaughter was once again brought under the supervision of community leaders (imams, presumably). Hygiene and spirituality are essential components of eating meat, which early Muslims presumably did only on special occasions – seemingly gathering at their community centre to do so. Coincidentally Islam flourished and as it flourished so science advanced – eventually, it seems, spreading west and laying the foundations of western academia.
This post is the third of a series asking, “Why do Christians eat meat?” There is no reason why they should but my reading is suggesting very strongly that the first Christians were vegetarian and zealously opposed eating meat. As a consequence the “inner circle” or “controlling mind” of the first Christian movement disconnected from essential rituals that were integral to the practice of preparing and eating meat. Having done so the movement’s followers were never going to be taught the importance of hygiene. Indeed it seems that hygiene was actually eschewed.
What I am seeing is that good practice promulgated by Jews before Christianity to this day was corrupted under Christian influence until Mohammed and Islam re-codified the practices. Islam never penetrated far into Western Europe. It reached Southern Spain but was expelled. Turkey marks the boundary of Islamic influence in Eastern Europe. Curiously Western Christianity has retained the vestiges of sacrifice in many of its rituals, which now have symbolic form.
I believe that Christians disconnect with sacrifice is a cause of many of today’s ills. There can be no doubt that anti-Semitism (anti-Jewish sentiment) is in part fuelled by Christianity’s disconnect from Jewish rituals. Muslims more or less follow many or most food hygiene practices so it is no surprise that Christians have difficulty accepting Islam.