When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

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by Richard E. Rubenstein

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The story of Jesus is well known, as is the story of Christian persecutions during the Roman Empire. The history of fervent debate, civil strife, and bloody riots within the Christian community as it was coming into being, however, is a side of ancient history rarely described. Richard E. Rubenstein takes the reader to the streets of the Roman Empire during the fourth


The story of Jesus is well known, as is the story of Christian persecutions during the Roman Empire. The history of fervent debate, civil strife, and bloody riots within the Christian community as it was coming into being, however, is a side of ancient history rarely described. Richard E. Rubenstein takes the reader to the streets of the Roman Empire during the fourth century, when a fateful debate over the divinity of Jesus Christ is being fought. Ruled by a Christian emperor, followers of Jesus no longer fear for the survival of their monotheistic faith but break into two camps regarding the direction of their worship. Is Jesus the son of God and therefore not the same as God? Or is Jesus precisely God on earth and therefore equal to Him? The vicious debate is led by two charismatic priests. Arius, an Alexandrian priest and poet, preaches that Jesus, though holy, is less than God. Athanasius, a brilliant and violent bishop, sees any diminution of Jesus' godhead as the work of the devil. Between them stands Alexander, the powerful Bishop of Alexandria, who must find a resolution that will keep the empire united and the Christian faith alive. With thorough historical, religious, and social research, Rubenstein vividly recreates one of the most critical moments in the history of religion.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Gospel stories of Jesus' life, death and resurrection are familiar tales in Western literature. Yet, the Gospel narratives do not themselves pose or answer the theological question of Jesus' divinity. None of the disciples become engaged in disputations about whether Jesus is fully God or fully human. It took almost 300 years for these questions to be raised in such a serious way that Christianity was changed forever. Rubenstein, a Jew who proclaimed in a now famous book (After Auschwitz, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) that God died "after Auschwitz," examines the details of the fractious period in early Christian history when Christianity was defining itself against other religious sects through a number of councils and creeds. Although he focuses on several of the controversies surrounding the divinity of Jesus, Rubenstein zeroes in on the fiery battle between Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, and Athanasius, who was Bishop of Alexandria. Arius contended that Christ did not share God's nature but was simply the first creature created by God the Father. Athanasius, on the other hand, argued that Christ was fully God, asserting that the incarnation of God in Jesus restored the image of God to fallen humanity. With a storyteller's verve, Rubenstein brings to life the times and deeds of these two leaders as well as the way that the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 established the Christian orthodoxy that was later used to judge and exile Arius as a heretic. As a result of Nicea, the author says, "To Christians God became a Trinity. Heresy became a crime. Judaism became a form of infidelity." Rubenstein's lively historical drama offers a panoramic view of early Christianity as it developed against the backdrop of the Roman Empire of the fourth century. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Few 20th-century Christians know of the intense religious, social, and political struggle surrounding the Arian Controversy, which spanned 60 years of the 4th century. But Rubenstein, a scholar specializing in the analysis of violent religious and social conflict, explains that the elements of this theological struggle reflected a monumental historical shift: Christianity, once a persecuted sect, became the Roman Empire's official religion, and the Church councils decided once and for all that Jesus was fully divine--to believe otherwise became heresy. The Arians believed that Jesus was "the holiest person who ever lived, but not the Eternal God," explains Rubenstein. On the other side were followers of Athanasius, who believed that Christ was fully God. After much strife, the Church adopted the Nicene Creed, which settled the matter in favor of Athanasius and made the Arian belief heresy. The decision resonated long afterward, Rubenstein writes, leading to the break between the western and eastern Catholic church and to centuries of distrust between Christians and Jews. Before the conflict, "Jews and Christians disagreed strongly about many things, but there was still a closeness between them. They participated in the same moral culture." When it ended, "when Jesus became God--that closeness faded. To Christians, God became a trinity and heresy became a crime. Judaism became a form of infidelity." Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Richard A. Nenneman
He has taken one of the major religious controversies of the early Christian church and turned it into a flesh-and-blood encounter of real people that reads like an adventure story. And he has portrayed the elements of the doctrinal debate with understanding and sensitivity.
The Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
One of the most compelling stories of Church history, insightfully told. As a Harvard Law School graduate, a professor of conflict resolution (George Mason Univ.), and a Jew, Rubenstein casts himself as an odd choice to chronicle early Christianity's crucial theological question: was Jesus human or divine? But as he demonstrates, the fourth-century controversy over the nature of Jesus had ramifications far beyond a simple christological dispute. As he puts it, "the main doctrinal issue acted like a magnifying glass" for all sorts of other questions: how would Christianity make the transition from persecuted sect to the established religion of Constantine's Roman Empire? Who would resolve theological disagreements and define orthodoxy? The chief players in Rubenstein's narrative are Athanasius, the scrappy, ruthlessly ambitious young priest who believed that Christ was fully human and fully divine, and his mortal enemy Arius, the popular advocate of subordinationism, the belief that Christ was subordinate to God's will. Athanasius built his power base through violence and the threat of it, hiring thugs to beat and harass clergy who opposed him. Arius was no saint either, and his theological disagreements with Athanasius and his followers quickly escalated into personal attacks. Rubenstein presents both theologians' views so persuasively that it•s easy to understand why Constantine was swayed by first one, then the other, as he tried to preserve harmony in the Church and the empire. The Council of Nicaea (325 a.d.) was supposed to resolve the christology once and for all, but Constantine kept changing his mind, as did his successors (Athanasius was exiled and then welcomedhome no less than five times before his death in 373). By 381, advocating Arian views or possessing Arian writings had become a crime punishable by death. Nicene Christianity finally triumphed, but the doctrinal seeds had been planted for a major schism with the East seven centuries later. Perceptive, well-written Church history.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Meet the Author

RICHARD E. RUBENSTEIN is professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University and an expert on religious conflict. A graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, he was a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford University. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One would not have expected a book on early Christian doctrinal controversies by a professor of contemporary conflict resolution to have in the few short years since it was published become almost a bestseller and standard work. One reason for this is the objectivity that an academic outside the normal inner circle of writers on patristics brings to bear on the subject - coupled with the added objectivity that a Jewish (and one suspects agnostic) writer has in treating a controversy that is still live among Christians today. However I feel the real reason for this book's success is in the quality of the writing. Without 'dumbing down' Rubenstein has managed to communicate a substantial amount of information and argument in a compelling, almost novel-like journalistic narrative. This ability to communicate complex ideas and events is where the book really earns its five stars. A third reason why this book has struck a cord is that it fills a void in terms of human treatment of the Arian-Athanasian controversy. Classic historians of dogma such as Harnack concentrate on the ideas to the exclusion of the personalities - which has its place, but not to the point where key events such as Athanasius' murder of Arius by poisoning are ignored (as in some histories of doctrine). Not here - Rubenstein treats the doctrinal battles through the people who fought them. The book naturally does not cover the pagan background (J. G. Griffiths), nor much in the way of source material (W.G. Rusch), nor a scriptural critique of the Trinity (J.H. Broughton or A.F. Buzzard) but what it does cover is done excellently.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Here's an interesting take on early Christian church history by a Jewish scholar who is curious about this guy Jesus. Most Christians who ritually speak the creeds of the church probably have no idea about the origin of the words they're uttering. The time frame is the 4th century of the Common Era. The battles, both verbal and physical, then surrounding the choice of words and their meaning is fascinating to follow. Jesus as a great personage in the history of religion is an easily accepted interpretation by Jews and Muslims. The struggles that ended with Jesus being seen as more godlike than human, is worth exploring. This book takes a reader on that journey.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To agree to disagree did not exist or was not even contaplated, a very good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Godly parent is demeter
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NAME: Grace Hawthorn AGE: 13 GODLY PARENT: Athena WEAPONS: a bow and arrows, twin daggers, my wit LOOKS/CLOTHING: plain black tshirt, jeans, a form fitting northface jacket, laceup black boots, my quiver and a belt with my daggers. I am 5'2", with long blond hair in a high ponytail, and bluegreen eyes. PERSONALITY: I am super smart and not afraid to show my wit and knowledge. I am very protective of my friends because they are my family. I can get a bit bossy at times but will always stay true to myself. I am often the negotiator and am kind and friendly. I get along with practially everyone. I will get offended if somone stereotypes me for being a blond girl, I am not afraid to slap them. Overall I am courageous, smart, loyal, and kind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good idea would be to Reply once and awhile to your readers in the next result
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately I have not yet read this story so I don't believe it would be fair to rate this book just yet. This is why I just gave it 3 stars and for no other reason.