Review: Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome

Richard E. Rubenstein

From the perspective of a modern westerner, it is hard to understand how amorphous the early Christian movements were. In the first few hundred years after the death of Christ, much of what we now take for granted as pillars of the Christian faith were still in dispute. Were Christians Jews? Did they have to follow Jewish law? Was Christ divine? Was Mary?Leaders of the early Christian movement argued and died over these questions. Rubenstein, the author of Aristotle’s Children, another engaging book religious history attempts to tell the complicated story of this time in an accessible way. Overall he does a bangup job.

Like Rubenstein’s other works, When Jesus Became God is a good book with a misleading title. This isn’t really about defining the nature of Christianity – such a book would have to be much longer and more detailed. It is instead a popular history of one of the great theological debates of the early church – the Arian controversy. As that, it is a great read. I am no theologian, my knowledge of the time period and of the theological questions at issue in the Arian controversy are superficial at best, but from a layman’s perspective, Rubenstein brings the goods.

Briefly, the Arian controversy was about the nature of Christ and his relationship to god, the Father. Was Christ the son of god, a part of god, or simply a prophet? Was he to be worshiped? And if so, how? These were the issues that brought monks and priests of the fourth century into conflict and man did they get mad. Bitter fights, violence, excommunications — this controversy had it all. When it was all over, we had the dogma which has remained the center piece of the Catholic faith – the trinity and the divine nature of Jesus.

Many biblical controversies seem silly in hindsight, but not the Arian controversy. That those who backed Jesus’s divine nature and the conception of the trinity won had a massive and long lasting effect on the Church and western society.  All of which makes the Arian controversy an important and interesting story which Rubenstein tells well. Interested in the early church or the history of ideas told well? Check this out.

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About seanv2

Scholar, gentleman, jock. I run the website Milo and the Calf. There you will find the Boston Qualifier Questionnaire where runners share their stories of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. You'll also find my thoughts on endurance sports, ancient history, Judaism, and hundreds of book reviews.
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