Customer Reviews: When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome
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on December 1, 2001
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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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. And so it went on, Christianity in one decade and out the next, Arians and "orthodox" Christians at each other's throats all the while, until the Emperor Theodosius came to power in 379 and decided to use more force than his predecessors to impose one theology on Rome's citizens: that of the Cappadocian doctrine. The Holy Trinity entered the Christian faith.

"When Jesus Became God" is an enlightening exposition of the theological conflicts and chaos that dominated the late Roman Empire, made Christianity the cultural standard that it has been ever since, and forged -or at least galvanized- the ideological and religious division between Latin and Eastern Christians. We see these events through the perspective of the Arian and Athanasian rivalry. This isn't a comprehensive look at religious politics in 4th century Rome, but it revolves around two of that century's most influential men, who represented one of Christianity's most significant theological struggles. The author gives Cappadocian doctrine short shrift, summarizing the doctrine's place in history without providing much detail. But,as far as it goes, "When Jesus Became God" provides an essential piece of cultural and religious history in a concise, readable form.
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on August 25, 1999
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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on May 21, 2006
Rubenstein protrays the Arian controversy as a conflict between two groups. The first was a group of proto-humanists [the Arian Christians] led by a good-guy [Arius] who believed Jesus was a very good man elevated to be God's son by his goodness. The second was a group of fanatics [the Nicene Christians] led by a bad-guy [Athanasius] who thought Jesus was God. Neither depiction is accurate. Both sides believed Jesus to be divine and in some way to share God's nature. Arians believed [with the proto-orthodox Bishop Origen] Jesus was begotten as God's son before the creation of the Universe. Nicene Christians believed Jesus was always an aspect of God's nature. As it turned out, the thesis of Arianism and the antithesis of Nicene Christianity gave us the synthesis of the Doctrine of the Trinity (coincidentally worked out by three theologians led by St. Basil the Great). They played rough in those days, and more than a few knuckles were bruised and heads bloodied on both sides. Rubenstein catalogs each and every sin of the Nicene side of the controversy, usually taking the Arian propaganda against Athanasius at face value, and pretty much overlooks the sinful tactics of the Arians.

If you read the book through the lens of the knowledge of Rubenstein's sympathies, you can separate the wheat from the chaff and learn a good deal about the course of the Arian controversy.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Rubenstein goes so far off base that he's out of the ballpark. He attributes the mass conversions to Islam in the former Byzantine territories to the superiority of Islamic theology about Jesus over Trinitarian theology about Jesus. This is statement is a prime example of why experts should not undertake to render opinions outside their field of expertise. Rubenstein's field is conflict resolution, not sociology. Rodney Stark, a sociologist who has devoted much study to how and why people convert to new religions (e.g. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force .... and The Rise of Mormonism) teaches that theology has next to nothing to do with the conversion experience. Read one of his "Rise of ... " books to see why people do convert. In the case of the Islamic conversions in the former Byzantine Empire, a simple explanation is readily at hand. The conversions were occasioned, not by the Moslem's superior theology, but their superior muscle. Look at the situation in Spain after the Reconquista. Was Christian theology superior in Spain but not in Asia Minor? Or was Spain reconverted to Christianity because Castilian muscle was superior to Moorish muscle?

One facet of the Arian controversy that Rubenstein should have explored more thoroughly was the effect of persecution on Christian solidarity. Under the persecution of Diocletian, Christians of all confessions closed ranks together. When Constantine made Christianity the official Roman religion, they began squabbling and backbiting. Under the renewed persecution of Julian the Apostate, they again closed ranks and patched up their differences. It was in the wake of Julian that the two sides arrived at a consensus that only the radicals on either side rejected.
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on August 26, 1999
Written with a grace of style that makes this book hard to put down, When Jesus Became God is far more than a mere history of Christology. The question that drives Rubenstein's story is why would essentially reasonable people who share a belief in the divinity of Jesus turn to open conflict, dehumanization of their opponents and violence in support of their point of view concerning the exact nature of Christ's divinity? His chronicling of the Arian-Athanasian controversy is an engaging history that explores these questions: Why did the contestants believe that toleration of serious religious differences seems grossly negligent? What about the contest prompted the contestants to move from attempts at persuasion to attempts to defeat the other side? How and why was the contest really resolved?
Anyone who reads this book to answer questions of the essential nature of Christ's divinity will be disappointed for Rubenstein's story is not a theological disputation. Anyone who wonders why those of us who are less than divine are willing to take up arms in defense of the truth as we see it will be fascinated and enlightened by this book. Read it!
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on September 20, 2000
Think that the "orthodox" doctrines of the Trinity and Jesus as Almighty God have their basis in Scripture? This well-written, fascinating book reveals that in fact they are the result of politically motivated manueverings and sociological phenomena spanning several centuries after the time of Christ. Rubenstein takes what would be dry history in the hands of a lesser-skilled writer and breathes life into it with a narrative that reads like a novel. The author reveals the conflict waged between the adherents of Arius and Athanasius, detailing its skullduggery, deception and largely secular essence, skillfully placing it within the context of the Roman Empire of the 2nd through 5th centuries.
Perhaps the most striking truth to emerge from the pages of this book is how political in nature the Church had become by the 2nd and 3rd centuries. When Constantine pronounced "Christianity" as the state religion, an intimate (and often fiery) relationship between the Church and the State was established which remains to this day. While Jesus stated unequivocally that "My kingdom is no part of this world", this book shows how within a relatively short time after his death those who claimed to be his followers were not only knee-deep in politics, but that their bishops and popes had actually become quasi-political figures themselves. Ultimately, this led to the acceptance of doctrine which viewed Jesus not as an inferior Son of God who was to be imitated, but rather as Almighty God incarnate to be worshipped as part of the "divine mystery" of the Trinity. As Rubenstien explains, Greek philosophy (in the form of such non-Biblical concepts as homoiousios and homoousios) combined with theology based on politically expedient motives eventually won out. ("The Christ...wanted and needed was a High God who could save them...through the ministrations of his Church. In fact, Arian theology implicitly reduced the role of the institutional Church. If Jesus' life and character were supposed to serve ordinary Christians as a usable model of behavior, the principal mission of the clergy would be to help people transform themselves, not maintain theological and political unity throughout the empire. This was another reason Constantine would probably favor the doctrine of...Athanasius. The Church he needed was one that would help him keep order among ordinary folk..."--pg.64)
"When Jesus Became God" is an excellent retelling of how politics and culture displaced Scripture in the formation of the central doctrine of "orthodox Christianity" many centuries ago. Just as significantly, the account contained within its pages establishes the precedent for subsequent, similarly politically-motivated actions of Christendom throughout history, from the Crusades and Inquisition right down to the support of Hitler and the existence of the "Religious Right."
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The only three star book I've read that I consider a must read.

I knew from the many reviews on this title that this book has hit on a lot of passions within the Christian, Jewish, and secular community. What I didn't expect to see was that many of the passions of my fellow Amazon reviewers would in fact reveal themselves in this book. Granted, no one is plotting murder, providing false witness (at least not to my knowledge), or threatened with being excommunicated from Amazon (thank God we are all more mature than that), but I was shocked at how history often repeats itself within us. Although in our case it's just the war of ideas. It's too bad the main players during this time period didn't do the same.

I honestly feel that every Christian should read this book. Some pro-Trinitarians I have spoken with despise this book with a passion. I would ask why? The epistles clearly speak about false Christianities popping up long before the events in this book ever transpired. Should we be persuaded by the conclusions of the counsel of Nicea or any other counsel during this time? What if emperor Valens (the pro Arian) had not died? What if a pro-Arian faith developed that eventually looked more like modern day Unitarianism? Would we be calling Trinitarians heretics? The main players that lived during this period of time showed very little similarities (if at all) to the apostles of The Bible. The word of God is where every Christian should draw his/her conclusions from.

Much has been said to Richard Rubenstein's ability to be unbiased. Well he's not unbiased. As a matter of fact no one is! The reader must be willing to draw from the facts written, and not confuse the author's conclusions as fact (though they are often very helpful). I have never read any work where the author has not at least attempted to draw conclusions, or sum up the main points concerning a particular event. No one says you have to come to his same conclusions. This should not discredit this book.

Richard Rubenstein truly brings a religious conflict to life. Christians murdering Christians, false witnesses, scandals, and men running churches who no one in their right mind would trust to watch their dog. Many of the men from this time looked, resembled, and sounded more like the Pharisees and Sadducees that crucified our Lord Jesus Christ than holy men of God. This is a book that you should read, draw your OWN CONCLUSIONS from based on scripture, and use to recognize these same attributes in others. This is a worthy read.

I give Mr. Rubenstein 3 stars for lack of clarity. This book is badly in need of multiple appendices not just a who's who in the back. The historical events happen so quickly as you move through the book it can be difficult to keep the minor players, and movements straight. A chart with a time-line is really needed. I could have moved much quicker through the book with a little more help. That aside Mr. Rubenstein gets the honor of being the only 3 star book I consider a must read.
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on August 31, 1999
It takes genius to make such cerebral material not only comprehensible but gripping to a Kansas housewife (such as myself). One of the best books I've read in a long, long time.
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on July 24, 2013
Having grown up on the "winning side" of this debate, I've never giving much thought to the trajectory that would eventually define the nature of Jesus. I knew that there was conflict over his nature, starting with Paul and the Jerusalem church. Paul elevated Jesus to god, a doctrine that completely riled the brother of Jesus, not to mention his disciples. But that was only the beginning.

This book follows the conflict over the major theological doctrines that Paul would soon leave in his wake, and it's not pretty. It starts out with the man who kind of started it all, Arian, a priest who "believed" that Jesus was elevated by god, but not god, and follows the battles in the east, (Egypt) over that doctrine, which would involve Constantine, and finally lead up to the Nicene Creed... only that's just the beginning. That's just a speed bump in the battle for Jesus' position in the cosmos.

One thing that is surprisingly consistent, is that `to a man,' there are no good guys in this story. These bishops and priests were cantankerous, mean, vindictive, petty, deceitful, and in some cases, murderous. They would stop at nothing to assure that their ideology would triumph over their enemies.

One character in particular (I don't want to spoil it--but you'll know the minute you read about him) was so awful that I spent most of the book wondering, "When is this monster going to die." Only he didn't. Like so many of the worst of human beings, he went on to live a long life, killing hundreds, probably thousands, and responsible for the deaths of thousands more. Although he was exiled over five times, in constant conflict in Alexandria, and wasn't necessarily able to live a peaceful life. There was some justice in that.

Bottom line, the early church was simply a group of mobsters all fighting for territory, each once worse than the next.

The book details council after council, creed after creed, decree after decree, sabotage, treachery, murder... and even treason. The only thing I didn't like about this book was that I felt it could have used a map, as long as a timeline, since you've got emperor's dying, councils being called in various cities, capitols moving... very much a country and an ideology in violent flux.

You don't come away from this book the same as you went into it. It's a common misconception that Christianity was sort of an underdog, and that it was a homogenous group of people simply looking for the freedom to worship. That is completely false. In fact, in this book, the author talks quite at length about the persecutions of the early church, and then goes on to show how the persecuted would soon become the persecutors, a phenomenon that we see happening at this very moment in American politics.

This may even help to explain the profound dysfunction of the church even now, as it continues to fight and argue over ideologies and battle science, and attack each other, all in the name of who they think Jesus is, who they want him to be, and how willing they are to allow dissent.

This is a wonderfully amazing recounting of the battles and struggles that would mark the beginning of Christianity, the beginnings of the greater Catholic Church, and the fall of Rome to be superseded by the church afterwards. If you're at all interested in the history of Christianity, and the people who brought it to you, this is a wonderful book. I strongly recommend it.
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on October 2, 2002
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.
A supplementary reading list in this area would include:
--- Patristic source material:
[1] Rusch W.G. The Trinitarian Controversy (reader) ****
[2] Rusch W.G. The Christological Controversy (reader) ****
--- Orthodox apologia for the Trinity:
[3] Dunn J.D. Christology (essays) ***
--- Egyptology
[4] Griffiths J.G. Triads and Trinity (distinguished egyptologist's account of pagan origins of the Trinity, heavy going) ***
--- Apologia for non-Trinitarian views:
[5] Broughton J.H. & Southgate P.J. The Trinity True or False (the most comprehensive scriptural arguments against both the Trinity and the related doctrine of Preexistence, with, interestingly, two alternative approaches to John 1)*****
[6] Buzzard A.F. & Hunting C.F. The Doctrine of the Trinity (broadly similar to Broughton & Southgate but less comprehensive on the scripture sections, and not as strong in the treatment of Preexistence. The book's plus point is a fuller treatment of historical development)****
[7] Holt B. Jesus God or the Son of God (critique of the concept of Jesus as "god" which goes considerably further down this road than the two previous books, but paradoxically contains an apologia for the literal preexistence of Jesus in heaven before birth).***
[8] Graeser M.H., Lynn J.A., & Schoenheit J.W. One God and One Lord (popularist and unfortunately sloppily proofread critique of the Trinity, no substitute for either Broughton or Buzzard, or both)*
NB: some of these books are currently only available from Amazon's international websites - although shipping rates and times are very reasonable.
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