Review: When Jesus Became God

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of RomeWhen Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome by Richard E. Rubenstein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I skimmed through this very quickly looking for some specific information about a later stage of Christology, but I’d give this three and a half stars based on its general approach and writing style.

The author describes it, in the acknowledgements, as “a work of storytelling and interpretation,” and this seems an apt description.
If you’d like to know more about how Christianity came to believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine (ie, the Arian controversy) with more attention to human history and historical context than to theological subtleties, in a lively rather than dry academic style, this is the book for you. (A fair warning: Christians who think that the theological developments of the early church were pure and unsullied by human venality are in for a sad disillusionment.)

The book is definitely aimed at the general reader and requires no prior knowledge of either the theology or the history of the time. Endnotes provide pointers to the historical and theological details for the more academically oriented reader, citing both primary and secondary sources. And there’s a fine map of the “the Roman world in the fourth century” inside the front and back covers that’s very helpful in visualizing where all these people were from and where these things were happening.

An interesting feminist note: Rubenstein argues in passing that

Women were, in fact, the Christians’ secret weapon in their struggle to win converts in all classes of Roman society, including the respectable upper classes. . . . Christianity was not a feminist movement in the modern sense, but the community’s yearning for sexual purity operated to the advantage of those long relegated to the status of sexual playthings or childbearing “vessels.” Although the Church shared the strong patriarchal bias of Roman society, it protected widows (a large group because of girls’ early marriage to older men), cherished virgins, considered adultery by either spouse a serious sin, opposed prostitution, and tried to prevent men from “putting off” their wives. It enabled women to play leading roles in the Christian community, and, perhaps most important, considered them no less capable than men of winning eternal life. (20)

This is consistent with my professor’s observation this week that one of the qualifications for leadership in the early Christian community was piety, and women were absolutely seen as capable of excelling in piety and subsequently both leading by example, and teaching. (The story of St. Macrina, as told by her brother Gregory of Nyssa, was our text for the week.)

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