quotes & notes from
When Jesus Became God
Richard E. Rubenstein

Richard E. Rubenstein

These pages: When Jesus Became God

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When Jesus Became God

The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome

Copyright © 1999 by Richard E. Rubenstein



Death in Constantinople

Note (Hal’s):

335-339: Athanasius exiled; dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Marcellus of Ancyra (anti-Arian) deposed; deaths of Arius (336) and Constantine (337).

337-340: Constantine’s sons divide the empire; after Constantine II (in the middle) is eliminated, Constans takes the West and Constantius the East.

— end note

More than a decade earlier, when he convened the Great Council of Nicaea, Constantine could not have imagined that the bishops would be meeting almost every year to rule on charges of criminal activity and heresy. Partisan control of these gatherings virtually guaranteed that condemned churchmen would attempt to rehabilitate themselves and punish their enemies by denying the authority of “illegitimate” councils and convening new ones. [...]

Quite reasonably, Constantine declined to make theological decisions or decisions relating to a bishop’s fitness for office himself. Convening a Church council was one way to ensure that religious matters would be decided by religious authority. But the emperor would not relinquish the civil authority’s right to punish (for example, by exiling condemned bishops), or the correlative right to pardon. [...] The losing side could always appeal to the emperor or, as a final resort, wait for him to die, since an emperor’s death terminated the sentences he had personally meted out. Therefore, until one side or the other achieved hegemony, or a new consensus among the bishops developed, the war of the councils would continue.




The historical Jesus, the rabbi who had once walked the earth, then died and returned, and who would soon come again to inaugurate his Kingdom, was fading into the background like a figure in an antique mosaic. [...] For many Christians the great question now involved the internalized Jesus: that is, the image of Christ that people would keep in their minds and hearts. And the problem was that there seemed to be a multiplicity of images, not necessarily consistent, among which Christians could choose, depending upon their most pressing needs.

[...] Could Jesus be both God and mediator between God and men? King and Shepherd? Judge and advocate? An all-powerful father and a faithful brother and friend?

Most believers wanted him to be all these things, but the split between Nicene and Arian Christians seems to reflect a rough division between those more in need of a powerful, just ruler and those more in need of a loving advocate and friend.




East against West

Note (Hal’s):

339-346: Arians supported by Constantius, their opponents (including Julius of Rome) by Constans. Dedication Council (Antioch, 341); Councils of Serdica (343) and Milan (345). Anti-Arians Paul and Athanasius restored to Constantinople and Alexandria after Constans threatens war.

— end note

Hindsight tells us that several centuries later the breach would become irreconciliable, dividing the Christian world permanently into separate Latin and Greek faiths. In the fourth century, however, such a schism seemed, if not unthinkable, then wildly inadvisable. The Church had triumphed only two decades earlier. How could it now be allowed to fragment? [...]

A period of reconciliation was thus in the offing. But neither the clash of Greek and Latin cultures nor the central issues of the Arian controversy had been resolved. How could reconciliation begin while church and state remained embroiled in each other’s affairs, and the competition between the emperors continued to escalate?

Christianity had been forged in the cauldron of persecution; Christ himself was a victim of state terror. One of the religion’s most dramatic narrative themes, therefore, was the conflict between persecuted Truth and oppressive Power. In a controversy that was not only a war of ideas between bishops and a power struggle between emperors, but also a fight for the allegiance of ordinary Christians, persecutions (at least within limits) conferred certain advantages. To be oppressed by the state did not “prove” that one was in possession of the truth, but it evoked a set of powerful associations based on the imagery of the indifferent Pilate, the stiff-necked Jews, the brutal Roman soldiery, and the suffering Lord.

Athanasius and his allies knew how to make use of these images and did so at every opportunity.

Why not simply separate church and state as liberal democracies have learned to do? In fact, this sort of separation seems to work best when most people do not care desperately about religious ideas, and when neither a universalizing opportunity nor a danger of extinction exists for any major group. In the last days of Rome—and, according to some passionate believers, in our own time—both scenarios seemed to exist simultaneously and to reinforce each other.


Separation of church and state


The Arian Empire

Note (Hal’s):

346-359: Ulfila begins (Arian) conversion of the Goths; Paul and Athanasius deposed again. Constans deposed and exiled by Magnentius (350), who is defeated by Constantius and commits suicide (353). Constantius convenes a string of councils, and eventually forces a Western council at Rimini and an Eastern one at Seleucia to adopt an inclusive common creed. (A conservative/radical Arian split makes this contentious in both camps.)

— end note

Constantius thought that he could succeed where his father had failed—but how could he succeed, unless there was some substantial basis for doctrinal agreement? In fact, the son stepped unwittingly into the same trap that had ensnared his father. He assumed that a consensus roughly comporting with his own ideas existed among the bishops, and that it would become manifest once the correct formula could be found to express it.


Old Gods and New

Note (Hal’s):

360-372: Julian becomes emperor and proclaims himself pagan. George of Cappadocia (Arian bishop of Alexandria) lynched by a mob of Athanasius’s supporters. Julian succeeded by Jovian; Athanasius reinstated. After Jovian’s death, Valentinian (Nicene Christian) takes the West and his brother Valens (moderately radical Arian) the East.

Basil the Great of Caesarea [in Cappadocia], his brother Gregory of Nyssa and friend Gregory of Nazianzus synthesize the doctrine of the Trinity.

— end note

There was every sign that, simply left to their own devices, contending groups of Christians would split their Church into half a dozen or more competing sects. Therefore, while depriving the Christian clergy of the special privileges bestowed upon them by his predecessors, Julian took steps to re-inflame the Arian controversy. He issued orders permitting Athanasius, other pro-Nicenes, and dissident Arians to return from exile. Then, after a brief tour of the East in which he rededicated a number of pagan temples, he sat back to await the disintegration of the “Galilean” faith.
The line dividing Nicenes from Arians had shifted. The new divide separated those who denied Jesus’s ultimate kinship with God—the radical and ultraradical Arians—from the Nicene Christians and conservative Arians who affirmed it. The fate Julian had predicted for the Christians as a whole was true for the radicals. They were doomed to shatter as a movement, Athanasius thought, since they could agree only on a negative principle. While asserting that Jesus was not God, they had no agreed-on conception of what sort of creature he was. The conservatives, on the other hand, knew that Christ was part of the Godhead; that is why they insisted that the Father and Son were “similar in essence.” And that is what made an alliance with them justifiable as well as useful.
For the first time he recognized that the reluctance of some Arians to equate Jesus with God sprang not from any desire to place him on a lower level, but from their fear that the doctrine of the homoousion would destroy him as an individual and obliterate the human aspects of his character. Therefore, in a letter produced soon after his return to Alexandria, Athanasius explained that beings sharing a common essence can still retain their individuality, and that Christ possesses a human soul, not merely a God-mind in a human body.
It was one thing to say that the Son was somewhat less than the Father, and quite another to expel him altogether from the Divine Family. Basically, the conservative Arians, like the Nicenes, wanted a strong God to worship more than they sought a semidivine friend to love or a role model to imitate. After a while, Athanasius calculated, their subordinationism would simply wither away. Meanwhile, there were enormous advantages to forming an alliance with them. Between them, the two groups represented a probable majority of all Christians. Since the conservatives were very strong in the East, the alliance would create the consensus transcending the Greek-Latin split that both sides had been seeking ever since the Arian controversy began. Best of all, a movement to unite the Church would utterly confound the brash young emperor and his utopian plans for a pagan revival.
Contrary to Julian’s belief, Christianity did not require state power to survive. There seems, in fact, to have been an inverse relationship between the bishops’ power to wield the emperor’s sword against their enemies and their ability to resolve internal disputes themselves by peaceful means. [...] There was no possibility, of course, of divorcing church and state. But both sides were surprised to discover how useful it was to attach some limits to their intimacy.

But the real thrust of the Cappadocian doctrine was to differentiate the Christian “Godhead,” which now incorporated Jesus and the Holy Spirit, from the monolithic God worshipped by Jews, radical Arians, and, later on, by Muslims, Unitarians, Bahais, and others. Restating the relationship between Father and Son, in other words, redefined both parties, not just the Son. As a result, Christians who accepted this triune God, distributed over three Persons, no longer shared Jehovah with their Jewish forebears or the Supreme Being with their pagan neighbors, nor could Jews or pagans claim to believe in the same God as that worshiped by the Christians.

Doctrinally, this is the point at which Christianity breaks decisively with its parent faith and with other forms of monotheism that, insofar as they use family metaphors, consider God a Father and the persons created in His image Sons and Daughters. For Nicene Christians, incorporating Jesus into the Godhead was a way to preserve and extend the worship of Christ without sacrificing monotheism. For others, defining Jesus as God incarnate sacrificed monotheism by definition. It was not just a question of Jesus being recognized as God, but of God becoming Jesus.




When Jesus Became God

Note (Hal’s):
Athanasius’s death (373) and contention for Alexandria. Huns drive the Visigoths (now Arian Christians) to request settlement in Bulgaria, where Roman officials mistreat them. Valens killed at Hadrianopolis (378), attempting to put down a Gothic rebellion.

Theodosius is appointed (379) and defeats the Goths, then turns to the final defeat of Arianism. Council of Constantinople (381) adopts a modified Nicene Creed (the modern one, filioque dispute aside).

— end note

The heart of Arianism was the idea that radical improvements in human behavior need not await the apocalypse or be limited in this world to a cadre of religious specialists. With its popular base among city artisans and workers, sailors and merchants, monks, sodalities of virgins, and young people, it represented a radical impulse in Christianity: the drive to infuse worldly existence with the spirit of Christ, and so renew human society. Hadrianopolis shocked the optimists and undermined their mass appeal by revealing that the “City of Man,” as St. Augustine was soon to write, could not be secured. Only the “City of God”—the organized Church—could offer frail humanity compensation for the loss of its worldly hopes.

Valens’s successor, Theodosius I, understood that to maintain the army, keep an increasingly chaotic society under control, stop the decline in food production, and guarantee the flow of tax revenues, peasants must be tied for life to their land and city workers to their professions. In this world of shrinking horizons, deliberate earthly progress, whether material or moral, seemed an increasingly utopian idea. Survival, especially the survival of one’s own immortal soul, was now the great desideratum.

Perhaps more than any other factor, this change of attitude—call it the “new realism”—inclined Christians to accept the new Trinitarian theology. This is not to say that the Cappadocian doctrine was false, only that it corresponded to deeply felt needs for physical and spiritual security. [...] In any case, the vision that now seemed less relevant was that of Arius’s Jesus: a beacon of moral progress sent not so much to rescue helpless humans as to inspire them to develop their own potential for divinity.

Nicene Christianity, with its majestic Christ incorporated into the Godhead, its pessimistic view of human nature, and its bishops and saints playing dominant roles, was better suited to express the hopes and fears of Christians in an age of unpredictable change and lowered social expectations. [...]

One year after he banned Arianism, Theodosius officially declared Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, thus bringing the movement begun by Constantine the Great full circle. The formerly persecuted sect now became a state church with the power (and, according to some, the duty) to suppress or control its rivals. [...] With the elevation of Jesus to God, orthodox Christianity broke the intellectual links that had bound it to both Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism.

A Christian mob led by monks burned both a Jewish synagogue and a chapel used by the Valentinians, a tiny sect of heretical Christians. [...] Theodosius responded as one would expect a responsible ruler to respond: he ordered the local bishop to make restitution to the injured parties and to punish the mob’s ringleaders. But before the order could be carried out, Ambrose of Milan, the self-appointed guardian of Western orthodoxy, objected strongly.

Why should Christians be penalized for attacking Jews and heretics? Ambrose complained. [...]

The threat of possible excommunication struck home.

Theodosius revoked his command.

It is not clear whether this reversal acted as a signal, or whether Christian zealots would have gone on a rampage against unbelievers in any event, but a long wave of religious violence followed.

It is not surprising that the triumph of Nicene Christianity was followed by a violent campaign to impose the new order on outsiders. Other revolutionary movements, once consolidated internally, have turned aggressively against unbelievers still “outside the walls.” The mood that motivates such crusades is almost always a mix of triumphalism and insecurity, as if success itself somehow intensified hidden feelings of vulnerability on the part of the victors.

Led by Damasus, the Western bishops objected strongly to the new creed’s statement that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” They insisted on adding the words “and the Son,” and this additional clause, known as the Filioque, became a major item of controversy in the series of disputes that ended in the Great Schism separating the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The difference of three words may seem trivial, but it exposed a continuing disagreement between Latins and Greeks about Jesus’ relationship to God. What the Nicene faith meant to Westerners was that the Father and Son were equal in all things. The Eastern bishops, on the other hand, obeyed a powerful impulse to assert that, in some ways at least, the divine Father was greater than the divine Son.

Mary was exactly the sort of liminal figure, combining human characteristics with a divine mission and certain more-than-human features, that many Arians had imagined when they glorified Christ. [...]

In the East, however, Mary would become a subject of violent debate before she became an object of veneration. Was it correct to call her Theotokos, the God-bearer, or was she the mother of the man, Jesus, in whom God dwelt? In other words, were Christ’s divine and human natures totally fused, so that one could rightly say that God had once been an infant and had suffered on the Cross? Or were there two separate natures, divine and human, somehow integrated in one Person? In the Greek-speaking lands, the end of the Arian controversy triggered more than two centuries of intense conflict over the question, with the Alexandrians taking the view that there was one nature only in Christ, and the Antiochenes insisting that there were two. [...] Each side accused the other of Arianism.

The Islamic Jesus was not the incarnate God of Nicene Christianity or the superangelic Son of the Arians. In the view of the Muslim conquerors, he was a divinely inspired man: a spiritual genius ranking with the greatest prophets, Moses and Muhammad himself. Apparently, this teaching struck a chord among large numbers of easterners who still thought of God as unitary, and who had not fully accepted Jesus’ incorporation into the Godhead. [...]

With the ascension of Islam, Arianism as a discrete religious philosophy disappeared in the East as well as in the West. But the great questions that had generated the controversy over Jesus’ divinity remained—and remain yet—to haunt the imagination and provoke the conscience of humankind.



text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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Graphics copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen
The mosaic pattern is one of several suggested by a 4th- or 5th-century Syrian mosaic fragment.
To view the original, go to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts collection and search for: Syrian stylized cross
Clicking the thumbnail picture will give you a larger one.