‘When Jesus Became God: The Struggle To Define Christianity During The Last Days Of Rome,’ By Richard E. Rubinstein (New Year’s Resolution, Book Forty-Four)

9780156013154This is likely to be the end of my New Year’s Resolution posts. There is still time left in the year. A little less than a week, to be precise. But with family coming and what not, I don’t see myself completing anything. Forty-four is not fifty-two, but it’s not a bad number for reading, when juggling reading with full time work that rarely ends at forty hours. I might even have made my goal if there hadn’t been a bad stretch when stress from work and life kept me from focusing.

But here we are…

When Jesus Became God is a narrative history, beginning roughly with the reign of Emperor Constantine and progressing through to the western Roman emperor, Theodosius, and that latter emperor’s active and not infrequently brutal support of what would now be considered doctrinally correct Christology within the Catholic church.

The first half or so of the book is a gripping historical roller coaster about the battle for the theological soul of the still new church.  On one side (eventually labelled the ‘Pro-Nicenes’) were priests and bishops who advocated for what became the Trinitarian view of Christ’s nature. On the other side were the Arians, who saw Christ as the son of God, but also as markedly different from the Father. Not necessarily consubstantial. Some even considered Christ to have, in a sense, been adopted by God. Jesus was not of one being with the Father, but more human and a symbol of human perfectibility.

For myself, I had no idea how desperate the struggle between the two sides was nor how closely fought it was. Early on, the author has a great grasp of the historical figures and the historical milieu. Figures like Constantine and the sometimes bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, really ‘pop’ in the reading. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other the figures of milieu in the latter half of the book, which feels rushed and far less character driven.

I suspect that Rubinstein really buried himself in the primary and secondary sources relating to those early days of the struggle and felt a stronger connection than he did with the last half of the story, which is fine, but the reader suffers a bit for it. Honestly, the book is barely over two hundred pages and I don’t think it’s asking too much of a writer not to flag quite so much in the writing of it.

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