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on 31 May 2010
I read this having previously read Bart D Ehrman Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, which is a good background to the preceding period in Christian history.

The Arian controversy, which is the subject of Rubinstein's book, occurred once Christians were already close to agreeing on the matters that had divided the very early Church such as which books to include in the New Testament, whether Christians had to follow Jewish customs or accept the Old Testament as part of scripture etc.

Once those earlier questions were largely resolved, the most important undetermined issue became whether Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father (as the Nicene Creed, still repeated in Church services declares); or something divine, but inferior to and created by, God the Father (as Arius taught), or (a third possible position) merely a very good man and a prophet, but not divine (as Muslims and Unitarians now believe).

The answers to these questions determine:

1. Whether Jesus is a proper object of worship
2. Whether his death could atone for the World's sins.

Unless he is of the same substance as God the Father, the answer to both those questions would logically probably be no.

It is sad to read that the great controversy over how to answer this question meant that in the mid-fourth century Christians whose bodies still bore the wounds of inflicted in earlier persecutions by pagans sometimes ended up violently persecuting each other.

That those who believed that Jesus was God eventually won owed something to the intellectual arguments, but a good deal to the accident of which side the Emperor of the day happened to support.

It helped to settle matters when the Arian inclined Emperor Valens was killed in a catastrophic defeat of the Roman army by the Goths at Hadrianopolis (later called Adrianople, modern Edirne) near Constantinople in 378 AD. Like the equally disastrous defeat and death of the last pagan Emperor Julian by the Persians in 363 AD, this was taken as a sign that God did not favour their religion.

Details noted in passing in this lively and interesting book remind us what a strange and distant world the fourth century was, and how Christianity was still in many ways not yet settled into the form we know now. E.g. when the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, founded his new capital Constantinople, originally no images of Jesus, Mary or the Saints were allowed there, as Christians had not yet decided whether religious iconography was a permissible expression of faith, or was to be prohibited as idol worship.

It is also strange to think that the power of the Roman emperors once extended so far that the name of the Emperor Hadrian is preserved alike in a Wall from Carlisle to Newcastle and a city in modern day Turkey (see above), and that these places were once all part of the same country.
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on 26 August 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 15 July 2000
I can't think of many other books about religious history that would justify 5 stars. What is different about this one is that it is written by a sociologist (specifically an expert in conflict resolution) who combines a very readable journalistic style with occasional penetrating insights into the psychology of the parties to the Arian-vs-Athananasian (ie. Unitarian-vs-Trinitarian) dispute of the 4th Century. The book starts off in pot-boiler style with a lynch mob of Athanasian Christians breaking into a jail to murder the bishop of Alexandria but quickly settles down into more scholarly mode.
It helps that the writer is Jewish, and therefore above the inevitable bias that (albeit unconciously) affects most other accounts of early church history. Nor is he squeamish about showing Christians poisoning and murdering each other - events which some historians seem to think insignificant relative to the doctrinal debate. It is particularly interesting to read Rubenstein's comments in the concluding chapters on how changes in the social (and military) situation of the Empire after the death of Constantine led to changing emotional needs among Christians - and this as much as the bully boy tactics of the Athanasians was an major reason why Jesus went from being "Son of God" ante-Nicaea to "God the Son" a generation later.
Rubenstein does not of course offer an overview of the development of Christian doctrine per se (for which see the standard work: The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God by R.P.C. Hanson) nor any analysis of the influence of pagan Egyptian theology on the development of the Trinity (see Triads and Trinity by J. Gwyn Griffiths).
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on 2 June 2008
How do you take an abstruse theological controversy that occurred in the early years of Christianity and turn it into a fast-paced story without sacrificing historical detail or "dumbing" it down to become "Hollywood history"? It's a daunting task at which Richard Rubinstein excelled in this delightful book, When Jesus Became God. I have read many books on early church history and found many of them to be profoundly scholarly yet terribly unengaging. It is in this respect that Richard Rubinstein distinguishes himself.

The book opens with the dramatic lynching of George of Cappadocia in Alexandria in 347 A.D. and the return of the former Bishop, Athanasius to reclaim his See. The author then describes the Arian controversy and the personae dramatis that played out this epic struggle that would define the future of Christianity: Athanasius of Alexandria, Constantine the Great, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Arius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantius, Constans and Diocletian.

The controversy began in the wake of Diocletian's Great Persecution. After the accession of Constantine the Great as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, he began favouring the Christians by granting them privileges usually reserved for traditional Roman religions. As its fortunes increased, the Church started airing its dirty doctrinal laundry. The most divisive of these doctrinal issues was the nature of Christ (Christology in the parlance). Put simplistically: Arius, an Egyptian priest insisted on the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father whereas Athanasius, Arius' metropolitan Bishop, taught the complete identification of Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos with God the Father. This controversy set the stage for years of theological bickering, political intrigue, and unbelievable ecclesiastical skulduggery. Each side in the controversy vied to get the imperial support for its cause in order to strike a decisive blow against the other side (naturally labelled "heretics"). Halfway into the struggle, both sides forgot what they were fighting for. The controversy became subsumed in a larger political struggle between Bishops, emperors and usurpers for the soul of the Roman Empire.

The book is a fascinating read. Even though I was initially skeptical about the book, (I thought it was another Discovery Channel history-lite tome) I was pleasantly surprised by the (referenced) detail that the author presented on the principal characters. I was also impressed by the explanation of the philosophical milieu in which the conflict occurred and its lasting legacy - the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. I was almost won over by the author's sympathetic depiction of Constantine the Great - almost. Given Constantine's moral universe in the Late Roman Empire, I find it difficult to believe that Constantine could have been anything but Machiavellian. However, that is not the main thrust of the book.

The author also gives some personal reasons why the conflict was important to him. As a Jewish kid growing up in the US, he was often a victim of physical abuse from his Catholic friends, who blamed Jews for being "Christ-killers". Mr Rubinstein seemed to get along well with his playmates - until the passion week. Good Friday, for him, became associated with beatings by the very playmates with whom he had played only a week before.

For those interested in further reading, the book has a reasonable bibliography. If you are looking for an introduction to the Arian controversy and its role in the eventual split between Eastern and Western Christianity then this book is a very good place to start. It manages to be entertaining, yet historically accurate at the same time. While reading, you may even get to understand some of the Greek terminology that was used (and still used) to divvy up or "reunify" the Christian Godhead -homoousia, hypostatis etc. The book deserves my four stars.
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on 26 August 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 12 January 2007
This is an excellent and scholarly introduction to the ideological debates of the fourth century. After Diocletian had revived Roman power, almost every Emperor decided that the Empire needed an an offical ideology the only problem being few could agree what it was to be. Diocletian himself preferred a revived paganism focused on the cult of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. He chose to persecute Christianity yet to no real effect. Constantine reversed his policy, adopting Christianity and shunning paganism, however he himself had little idea of the divisions within Christianity. To his annoyance, the ascent to power of Christian Bishops only caused schisms between the followers of Arius and those of the Nicene creed that was eventually to emerge triumphant, not before Constantine's successor Constius had backed Arius and his successor Julian willed a return to paganism.

At first the differences between the Arian and Nicene creed can appear trivial but Rubenstein does a terrific job of explaining the real issues that lay beneath them and how people use interpretations of mythology to engage in important philosophical debates. The extreme Arian position was that Christ was divine but he had become divine. It was dangerous philosphy to many of the Bishops that espoused the Nicine creed as it suggested that other ordinary people could become divine. They prefered the image of Christ as a perfect example that ordinary people could never live up to as it was an icon they could wield to justify their own power. It helps to explain Christianity as human construct and how it developed such self hating ideologies as the original sin.

It also helps explain the European penchant for constructing strict ideologies that they insist on inflicting onto other people. The 4th century deabtes in Christianity were reamrkable similar to the 19th and 20th century debates in Communism complete with splits and denouncements of the opposition. Eventually in the 4th century it was the threat of barbarian invasions that forced the Romans into unity. Its interesting that the decline and fall of the Empire in the West created Christianity, the creed that defined European civilization for another 1500 years.
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on 2 June 2014
This book is quite an eye-opener about the theological and political processes that combined to bring Christianity to prominence as the dominant religion in the dying days of the Roman Empire. Rubenstein outlines the debate and (more often) violent conflict between Christians about the nature of the relationship of Jesus to God, and also the many allegiances formed by both sides of the argument with the various Roman leaders of the time. If Rubenstein's account were only half right (and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of any of what he says) it would still throw a pretty unfavorable light on the behavior of those who professed to be followers of Jesus; physical violence, slander, intimidation and murder were only some of the methods used to gain supremacy in the protracted argument about the nature of the one they called the Son of God.

The large cast of characters -both Christian, Roman and pagan- that move through the pages of the book can make it a bit difficult to follow at times, especially as many of the names are similar, but this is a minor criticism. The book gives a perspective on the establishment of Christianity as a world religion that highlights the human qualities -both good and bad- of those involved in the process.
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on 25 April 2000
For a long time, there has been a need for book like this - giving the unholy facts about the early era of turmoil in Christian belief. Unfortunately, it seems to be past as well as current educational policy in the Christian Churches to sweep the Arian controversy under the carpet - to the extent that one side in the great debate rarely gets a fair hearing. Mr. Rubenstein goes a long way to restore the balance.
I do wonder, however, why the author, who quotes liberally from the Gospels, stays well clear of the Epistles of St. Paul where the doctrine of the Divinity of Jesus is more clearly proclaimed.
All in all, students of Christian History will find in Richard Rubenstein's book a well researched and easy to read resourse material.
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on 26 July 2011
My Muslim friend who runs the Indian take-away in our road recenly gave me an English Koran (Quran) and, in an appendix, there is discussion of the question of whether Jesus could be properly referred to as God, not least because of what the Bible actually says on the subject. I found reading other people's reviews on this Amazon website a very good introduction and I doubt I can add much to the general conclusion that this is an impressive and enjoyable book, quite surprising in its relevance to our own times. I have since bought another copy for a relative.
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on 30 August 1999
Rubenstein writes elegantly about the politics and turmoil in the declining days of the Roman empire, of which the Arian controversy was just one small part. From a conflict resolution point of view, the editors cut too much theory and analysis to emphasize the storytelling. From a storytelling poing of view, the editors kept the story lively.
This is an important story for Christians who want to understand the politics of their faith, and for those dealing with religious conflict today.
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