WHEN JESUS BECAME GOD: THE EPIC FIGHT OVER CHRIST'S DIVINITY IN THE LAST DAYS OF ROME By Richard Rubenstein Harcourt Brace 267 pp., $26
Richard Rubenstein is not a professor of religion, but of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University. Yet he has taken one of the major religious controversies of the early Christian church, a controversy that consumed its energies for most of the 4th century, and turned it into a flesh-and-blood encounter of real people that reads like an adventure story. And he has portrayed the elements of the doctrinal debate with understanding and sensitivity.
The controversy concerned the divinity of Jesus. The antagonists in the drama were Arius and Athanasius, and the conflict is generally referred to as the Arian heresy, since Arius's views were on the losing side of what became orthodoxy. Both men agreed on the divinity of Jesus, but it was how that divinity was explained that divided them.
Constantine had barely united his empire when he became aware of the Arian controversy. The emperor had hoped to use Christianity as a uniting cultural force within the empire he had just succeeded in bringing within his grasp, and he moved quickly to settle the argument.
The Nicene Creed, adopted by the council at Nicaea in 325, effectively equated Jesus with God, and most of us, if we studied ancient history at all, learned that the anti-Arians had "won" at Nicaea.
However, the Greek words that were used were capable of differing interpretations. During most of the next 60 years of theological battle, the Arians were in the ascendancy.
After Constantine's death in 337, his three sons were jointly responsible for running the empire. Jealousy among them resulted in more warfare, until Constantius emerged as sole ruler, as his father had been.
Just as eager to end the bickering, he engineered a series of councils, until at separate meetings at Seleucia and Rimini in 359, an Arian creed was adopted. St. Jerome wrote, some 20 years later, that the world "awoke with a groan to find itself Arian."
Each side sought the support of the various Roman …