Jesus, Animals and the Canaanite Woman

The most significant barrier to developing a vegan Christianity, in my view, is you have to either concede Jesus was in some sense fallible or insist his relationship with animals was perfect. While there is some interesting scholarship about vegetarianism in the early church, the truth is not much is known about the historical Jesus aside from what’s said in the Gospels.

For a host of reasons, claiming Jesus was a proto-animal activist seems like shaky ground on which to base a worldview. Arguing he was a great, but flawed, spiritual teacher, whose fundamental ethic of compassion we want to extend to nonhumans, seems like a much more promising approach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be one mainstream Christianity is open to.

There is, however, a fascinating section of the Bible which touches on this issue to a degree. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is approached by a non-Jew, a Canaanite woman, who asks for his help healing her daughter. Jesus tries to send her away. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The Canaanite woman counters that even dogs eat crumbs that fall from their master’s table. Jesus is impressed by her faith and heals her daughter. The passage is notable because it appears to show Jesus being wrong and learning from someone else. In other words, it seems to show Jesus was fallible.

I decided to ask some of the smartest people I know when it comes to Christianity and animal rights what they made of the story. Did it demonstrate Jesus was capable of learning? And, if so, could the treatment of animals have been another area in which he might have learned?

Victoria Moran has a degree in religious studies from North Central (United Methodist) College and she is a cofounder of the Compassion Consortium, an Interfaith ministry serving animal advocates. Her books include Shelter for the Spirit and Main Street Vegan.

Moran believed the story of the Canaanite woman showed the fully-human part of a fully-human and fully-divine being. “As in so many of the stories of Jesus, we see his divinity triumph, overpowering his humanity and, perhaps, surprising even him,” Moran said. “The Canaanite woman’s faith trumped his human view of his mission and his human inculcation in the mores of the day.”

This was what made Jesus so impressive. “He allowed the divine within him to triumph, overcoming the practical, the expected, the respectable,” Moran said. “We are asked repeatedly to tap the divine part of ourselves as we go through life. We most often choose the practical, the expected, the respectable, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we choose the divine.”

Moran saw Jesus’ at times callous view of animals as a symptom of his human side. “We’re all trapped in an era and an identity,” she said. “As impressionable children, we pick up prejudices as readily as commercial jingles, and without some conscious work to uproot them, they can stay with us just as long.”

Jesus, as God, loved every animal as himself because God is love. “Jesus, as a man, had been taught where dogs — and sheep and fishes, and Canaanites, for that matter — showed up in the social order,” she said. “His Divine needed to learn nothing. It was all-knowing. His human self had some overcomings to tend to. In my view, this doesn’t make his any less admirable, simply more relatable.”

Matthew A. King is president of the Christian Animal Rights Association, which he co-founded with his wife, Nina. He is also the author of I Will Abolish the Bow. King noted there is considerable debate about the story of the Canaanite woman, with many commentators arguing Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. Still, there were numerous other instances from the Bible in which Jesus seemed less than omniscient.

King drew my attention to these, highlighting the Olivet prophecy which did not come to pass, Jesus questioning who touched his garment, his uncertainty about when he would return, and descriptions of him growing in wisdom as a child. King made clear he could only speculate about what this meant, but the answer he arrived at was similar to Moran’s.

“Perhaps Jesus toggled between his two states of divinity and humanity,” he said. “That might explain why sometimes he was omniscient and other times lacked knowledge… I would like to think maybe Jesus did not realize how his actions towards animals in the Bible would be used later to justify factory farming and other animal torture in his name.”

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at