Cover image for 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
Rubenstein, Richard E.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt Brace & Co., [1999]

Physical Description:
xviii, 267 pages : map ; 24 cm
General Note:
Map on lining papers.
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library BT216 .R83 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



We all know the story of Jesus' life, his death, his resurrection, and the persecution of his early followers. Less well known is the struggle the early Christians had in deciding whether Jesus was God Himself or the holiest of men, adopted by God and raised to divine rank. This controversy was at the heart of the most fateful conflict in Christendom until the Reformation. It was characterized by fervent debate, riots, a series of ecumenical councils, and civil strife. The key players weretwo priests, Arius and Athanasius, brothers in Christ, ideological opponents, and mortal enemies. Arius, a firebrand bishop, intelligent and eloquent, preached that Jesus was less than God. Athanasius, a brilliant and violent deacon, ardently opposed Arius's subversive preaching. Between them stood Alexander, the powerful bishop of Alexandria, the man on whose shoulders lay the need for a speedy resolution, which was essential both to keeping the empire united and to the continuation of the Church. Richard Rubenstein presents a vibrant portrait of the thriving Roman Empire in the centuries after the birth of Jesus Christ, as he brings to life the ideas of the most influential leaders and shows us a major religion at the crossroads of its faith.

Author Notes

Richard E. Rubenstein is a professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where he specializes in religious conflict

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Rubenstein's popular account of the Arian controversy should revive and spread awareness of that decisive moment in Christian history and the formation of Europe. Rubenstein reads the controversy not only as a turning point for Christianity but also as an example of the struggle that entangles politics and religion, with which anyone aware of contemporary news is painfully familiar. He traces the historic split between Eastern and Western Christianity to fallout from the "epic fight" of his subtitle, which isn't particularly controversial but may be news to those unfamiliar with early church history. More controversial and potentially more important is the connection he makes of that struggle to the rise of religious intolerance. He notes several times that Arian Christians, anti-Arian Christians, Jews, and pagans could carry on heated but civil conversation when the controversy began; when it was unilaterally "ended" by Theodosius, their common language was shattered. Rubenstein's contribution will be appreciated by readers interested in the last days of Rome, the history of Christianity, and the religious roots of contemporary political conflicts. --Steven Schroeder

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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." (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Rubenstein (public affairs, George Mason Univ.) offers a lucid and engaging overview of early Christian controversy over Arianism. Arianism, named after the fourth-century priest Arius, implies that Jesus is not equal in divine status to God the Father. The Council of Nicaea (325 CE), convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, emerges as the watershed in the controversy. Rubenstein treats it plausibly as the key meeting that (1) anticipates the Catholic resolution of the Arian dispute in favor of identifying Jesus as God and (2) represents the last point, at least in the fourth century, where Arian and anti-Arian Christians treated each other decently. Rubenstein documents the many bitter conflicts and political shenanigans prompted by the issue of Jesus's status in relation to God. The book succeeds admirably on this front. On another, it is too brief: the bearing of New Testament writings and interpretation on the origin and eventual resolution of the Arian controversy, a topic at least as important as the social-political factors covered by Rubenstein. Recommended for all libraries supporting religion and ancient Roman history; all academic levels. P. K. Moser; Loyola University of Chicago

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
Acknowledgementsp. xvii
1. An Incident in Alexandriap. 1
2. The Silence of Apollop. 22
3. A Quarrel in God's Housep. 48
4. The Great and Holy Councilp. 68
5. Sins of the Body, Passions of the Mindp. 89
6. The Broken Chalicep. 108
7. Death in Constantinoplep. 126
8. East against Westp. 148
9. The Arian Empirep. 169
10. Old Gods and Newp. 192
11. When Jesus Became Godp. 211
Principal Charactersp. 233
Select Bibliography of Works in Englishp. 237
Notesp. 241
Indexp. 257

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