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

by Richard E. Rubenstein


According to Publishers Weekly:

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."

NOTE FROM SMADEWELL: Vivian's comment below regarding "serious historical and theological misjudgments" speaks more to the Christian bias and belief that Jesus is God and a pre-existent being than it speaks to any real problem with Rubenstein's use of the historical and theological sources, which attests to the development of the Church's assertions about the nature of Jesus. This book will be a hard pill for Trinitarians to swallow, because it demonstrates how and when this doctrine supplanted the strict monotheism of Yeshua and his early followers and came to represent Christian "orthodoxy." (Cf. Arianism vs. Trinitarianism).

Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2001 by Tim Vivian

About twenty years ago a scholar rather subversively wondered aloud at an academic conference, "Why is Contemporary Scholarship so Enamored of Ancient Heretics?" (Studia Patristica XVII.l). The answer often lies as much in titillation as in antinomianism. In When Jesus Became God, Richard E. Rubenstein is after neither of these but rather something deeper and more complex: "in exploring the sources of religious conflict and the methods people have used to resolve it, I wanted to examine a dispute familiar enough to westerners to involve them deeply, but distant enough to permit some detached reflection" (p. xiii).

Of all the Christological disputes of the early Church, the Arian crisis (or, as this volume demonstrates, crises) that consumed much of the fourth century-and many of its inhabitants-is undoubtedly the most famous and, for Rubenstein, "an American Jew" (p. xii), the most problematic: he believes that there was a "closeness" between Judaism and Christianity that was broken at the conclusion of the Arian crisis when "Jesus became God" (p. xiv). Unfortunately, this thesis visibly and invisibly undergirds the entire volume and leads to serious historical and theological misjudgments.

Rubenstein intends his work for a "popular" audience (whatever that term means now) and he has succeeded in writing a lively, engaging narrative that is reasonably accurate in its details. Since he is not a patristics scholar, Rubenstein is dependent almost entirely on secondary sources, but he has chosen his sources wisely: T. D. Barnes, Peter Brown, W. H. C. Frend, R. P. C. Hanson, J. N. D. Kelly, and Rowan Williams, among others. Surprisingly and significantly lacking, however, are Frances Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983) and, more importantly, Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (English edition, London: Mowbray, 1996).


Arius Sleeps with the Fishes. - Review - book review
Cross Currents, Spring, 2001 by Mike Wilson

Richard Rubenstein's self-revealing preface discloses the mixed feelings that for a time prevented him from finishing this book about the fourth-century Arian controversy: "What business (does) an American Jew have writing about the divinity of Jesus Christ?... What (draws) me so strongly to explore the subject of Jesus' identity and mission?"

He finds his answer in the conflict he experienced personally between Jesus the "enormously attractive figure, challenging and inspiring" and the hostility to which he, a Jew in a Christian culture, was exposed as a child. Rubenstein believes that the Arian controversy caused Christianity to separate itself from a moral culture shared with Judaism, create a new kind of monotheism, and elevate heresy from difference of opinion to crime.

The Arian controversy on a superficial level involved the views of Arius, an eloquent priest who maintained that Jesus was less than God and that his true role was to serve as an example for humanity. Rubenstein provides details that convey something of the personalities involved. For example, Arius was a terrific speaker who put much of his theology into poetry and chanted it "to enraptured congregants." In fact, some of his poetry was in the style of popular ballads and was being chanted in port cities through the eastern Mediterranean. Arius was popular with "the sailors, dockworkers and young women who flocked to his church." He was a charismatic, free-thinking rebel.