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When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome Hardcover – August 26, 1999

162 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0151003686 ISBN-10: 0151003688 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 267 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1 edition (August 26, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151003688
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151003686
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (162 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #888,471 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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233 of 246 people found the following review helpful By grapabo on December 1, 2001
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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129 of 139 people found the following review helpful By mirasreviews HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 10, 2004
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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145 of 168 people found the following review helpful By George R Dekle on May 21, 2006
Format: Paperback
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.
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