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 were two 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.
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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 GrossFrom the Back Cover:
"This book is a great theological adventure finely told. When Jesus Became God takes the contemporary conversation about Jesus of Nazareth beyond the New Testament period. Richard Rubenstein has a vivid historical and theological imagination and understands that theology is often political and works through the muddle and mess of human history."
* Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and author of The Soul's Journey
"An exciting book! Richard Rubenstein has taken the ancient conflict in Christian history between Arius and Athanasius and has given it the brilliance of modern journalistic coverage. In the process he enlightens us about the nature and destructiveness, to say nothing of the roots, of those dark places in our contemporary history where far too often religious convictions are expressed in terms of hate, murder, ethnic cleansing and even warfare."
* The Most Reverend John Shelby Spong, Bishop of Newark and author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die
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