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When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome Paperback – July 10, 2000

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The Gospel narratives may suggest that Jesus was divine, but they do not insist upon it. Hundreds of years after Jesus' death, the Church councils made Jesus' divinity a central tenet of belief among many of his followers. When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome by Richard Rubenstein is a narrative history of Christians' early efforts to define Christianity by convening councils and writing creeds. Rubenstein is most interested in the battle between Arius, Presbyter of Alexandria, and Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Arius said that Christ did not share God's nature but was the first creature God created. Athanasius said that Christ was fully God. At the Council of Nicea in 325, the Church Fathers came down on Athanasius's side and made Arius's belief a heresy.

Rubenstein's brisk, incisive prose brings the councils' 4th-century Roman setting fully alive, with riots, civil strife, and spectacular public debates. Rubenstein is also personally invested in the meaning of these councils for religious life today: he wrote this book, in part, because he grew up in a mixed Jewish Catholic neighborhood and was bewildered by animosity between the religious groups on his block. Digging back in history, Rubenstein learns that before the Arian controversy, "Jews and Christians could talk to each other and argue among themselves about crucial issues like the divinity of Jesus.... They disagreed strongly about many things, but there was still a closeness between them." But when the controversy was settled, Rubenstein notes, "that closeness faded. To Christians, God became a Trinity and heresy became a crime. Judaism became a form of infidelity. And Jews living in Christian countries learned not to think very much about Jesus and his message." --Michael Joseph Gross --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers 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 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1st edition (July 10, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156013150
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156013154
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (174 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #68,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Let me start out with this caveat: for those Christians or other readers who aren't familiar with this whole area of Church history, a little bit of background reading on the Arian controversy might be necessary to be able to follow the names in this conflict. Not a great deal, but just maybe an article from an encyclopedia of religion regarding the Arian controversy.
With that in mind, this book is a very engaging account of the proto-Machieavellian tactics that took place (and the outside events that inadvertently played their part) in forging what most Christians accept uncritically as gospel truth. Richard Rubenstein is not a theologian, but a professor of conflict resolution specializing in religous disputes. Rather than hamper his qualifications, this background is ideal for studying the conflict between the Arians, who believed that Jesus was a great man who was adopted by God the Father, and the anti-Arians led by Athanasius, who believed that God the Son (Jesus) preceded all of creation. While this may seem like a rarefied topic of discussion today, 1700 years ago in North Africa and the Near East, it was as hot a topic as any political or religious dispute today.
The style of the book, once you are familiiarized with the people involved, is very easy to read. The prose of the book almost reads like an extended magazine article. I mean that as a compliment. Rubenstein depicts many episodes, both ridiculous and tragic, which bring an otherwise dry topic to life. For those who haven't examined their church history, this book should be an eye-opener; the ideological victory claimed by the trinitarians didn't come through ideological means at all.
Some theologians and apologists today may talk about the Arian debate as if Arius was a minor rogue, and as if Athanasius on the other side was a hero, and then leave the story at that. This book manages to tell the story without those blinders. For that alone, it's worth the price.
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Format: Hardcover
When the Forth Century dawned on the Roman Empire, the Emperors Diocletian and Galerius sought to unify the Empire by actively discouraging Christianity, whose insulting attitudes towards pagan gods and lifestyles smacked of fanaticism and created division. By the end of that century, the Emperor Theodosius had not only outlawed all religions except Christianity, but outlawed all Christian theologies except one and violently persecuted transgressors, also in the cause of unity. "When Jesus Became God" is the story of those intervening years, when religious politics became the principle instrument of power in the Roman Empire, Christianity rose and fell from fashion repeatedly and emerged a changed faith, and a once-great Empire became two. The story is dominated by the conflict between Arian and Athanasian Christianity, both named for their most vocal 4th Century proponents, two religious men with a mission from Alexandria. Arius was a priest with strong support in the Eastern Empire, whose eloquent advocacy of the idea that Jesus was a prophetic human being who became divine through his own virtue, a true Son of Man, sent to Earth to teach by example, earned him many followers in the West. Athanasius was a Bishop of Alexandria, who thought that any theology that denied that Jesus was God, himself, was anathema, as only the suffering of God himself could redeem humanity from its sins. It was these two opposing forces which the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, essentially an Athanasian, tried unsuccessfully to reconcile at the Council of Nicaea. His son, the Emperor Constantius II, was an Arian. Constantius' nephew, the Emperor Julian, was pagan.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
When Jesus Became God illuminated an era for me. Rubenstein managed to convey an epic struggle, both between paganism and Christianity, and within Christianity. Christians were divided between those who saw Jesus as a man with whose holiness and kinship to God elevated him and made him a model for mankind and those who saw him as wholly divine. Arius and his followers felt that the humanity of Jesus brought him closer to them--wheras Athanasius and his followers believed this view of Jesus was heresy. This book conveys the political struggles between these bishops and their allies, and between the bishops and emperors, and the religious struggle among priests, christian emperors, and laity to define the nature of Christ. As someone raised as a born-again Christian, I was amazed at how much controversy there was on the nature of Christ more than 300 years after the birth of Christianity--further, it was very interesting to read how engaged people were in the religious conflict of the time. They were engaged enough to have pitched street battles between mobs--Alexandrians took their religious conflicts seriously. I saw many parallels to religious and ethnic conflicts today. For example, persecutions by the Roman state divided those christians who tried to collaborate or flee and those who suffered--similar to the experience people of occupied countries in World War II, who faced similar problems after that conflict ended.
Although not someone who normally reads books on religious topics, this was one I could not put down. This book is a page-turner--really vivid and alive. At the end, I had a deeper understanding of the roots of Christianity and the power of faith to change empires such as Rome.
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