A thoroughly researched and vivid re-creation of one of the most critical periods in the history of Western religion
The life of Jesus, and the subsequent persecution of Christians during the Roman Empire, have come to define what many of us know about early Christianity. The fervent debate, civil strife, and bloody riots within the Christian community as it was forming, however, is a story that is rarely told. Richard E. Rubenstein takes readers to the streets of the Roman Empire during the fourth century, where a divisive argument over the divinity of Jesus Christ was underway. Ruled by a Christian emperor, followers of Jesus no longer feared for the survival of their monotheistic faith, but they found themselves in different camps—led by two charismatic men—on the topic of Christian theology. Arius, an Alexandrian priest and poet, preached that Jesus, though holy, is less than God, while Athanasius, a brilliant and violent bishop, saw any diminution of Jesus' godhead as the work of the devil. Between them stood Alexander, the powerful Bishop of Alexandria, in search of a solution that would keep the empire united and the Christian faith alive.
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An Incident in Alexandria
December 24, 361. Midmorning.
By the time the men at the front of the mob smashed through the prison gates, the crowd had grown until it overflowed the square like water pouring over the sides of a full jar. Even for Alexandria, where riots were as common as Mediterranean gales, this demonstration was unusually large. More unusual still, the mixed crowd formed a unified mass. Instead of fighting among themselves as they so often did, pagan and Christian rioters stood side by side, bellowing for blood.
A roar of approval greeted the splintering of the gates. Minutes later the invaders reemerged from the prison bearing their trussed-up quarry on their shoulders like hunters returning from the desert with a prize antelope or lion. Three prisoners, their hands and feet still chained against the possibility of escape, were their catch. As the demonstrators began to toss them about the square like toys, the helpless captives squealed in pain and terror.
Two of these unfortunates were high government officials. They had earned the crowds hatred by carrying out the Roman emperor's orders to close pagan temples, expel "heretical" Christians from the churches, and punish protesters. The mob's prime target, however — the third man in manacles — was a figure of greater importance than any civil servant. This was George of Cappadocia, the metropolitan bishop of Alexandria and titular head of Egypt's huge Christian community.
Bishop George owed his recent preeminence and present agony to Constantius II, the son and successor of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great. Like Constantius, he was an Arian: a Christian who believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but not God Himself. A tradesman's son, George had accumulated a fortune as a military contractor in Constantinople before taking Holy Orders. He was widely known for his religious zeal and owned one of the finest private libraries in the empire. After he became a bishop in Cappadocia, the emperor asked him to instruct the young members of the imperial family in the Christian faith. A few years later, after sending the current bishop of Alexandria, a local man named Athanasius, into exile, he brought George in from Asia Minor to replace him.
The appointment was a disaster from the start. Replacing a native Alexandrian with a Cappadocian "foreigner" who could not even speak Coptic, the language of the common people, was Constantius's first mistake. His second was to name as bishop a militant Arian who considered it his duty to persecute both pagans and Christians opposed to his theology. And his third error was to allow the formidable Athanasius to escape to the sanctuary of a friendly monastery in the Egyptian wilderness. From his desert hideout, the popular ex-bishop made a series of lightning undercover visits to the city to encourage his supporters there, adding a bandit's glamour to his reputation for dedication and brilliance.
Poor George! Even with the aid of imperial troops he could not establish control over Alexandria's turbulent Christian community. About one year after he took office he was attacked by an anti-Arian mob at the Church of Dionysius and barely escaped with his life. After that, he spent most of his time in the Balkans and Asia Minor attending a series of Church councils called by the emperor to resolve the controversy over Christ's divinity that was tearing the Church apart. When these councils declared his Arian beliefs orthodox and Constantius promised him unqualified support, George decided to return to his post in Alexandria. What he did not know, however, was that his imperial patron had become seriously ill. Four days after he returned to Alexandria, Constantius died of a fever ... and the city exploded.
As soon as messengers arrived with the news of the emperor's demise, Athanasius's supporters seized control of all Alexandria's churches. They captured George and several imperial officers, put them in chains, and turned them over to the director of the city prison. Now, almost one month later, a larger, more diverse crowd had returned to exact further punishment. It is not entirely clear what provoked their attack on the prison, but the stimulus may have been a piece of further news: the new emperor, Constantius's nephew Julian, had announced that he was not an Arian, not even (as everyone had assumed) a Christian, but a worshipper of the old gods. A pagan! Clearly, the prisoners were fair game.
Punishment was duly administered. George and his fellow prisoners died in the prison square, presumably as a result of lethal beatings. A fifth-century historian reports that after the rioters killed their victims, they paraded their corpses through the middle of the city. George's body was on a camel, but the other men were dragged with ropes, "and, when they had maltreated their corpses in this way, about the seventh hour [one o'clock] they burned them." Burning the bodies was not only an insult to the deceased, but a way of ensuring that their remains would not become relics to be preserved and venerated by their followers.
In one respect, at least, the new emperor might have been expected to be upset by this lynching. Julian had been one of the royal children tutored by George of Cappadocia when he was a boy and nominally a Christian! Nevertheless, his reaction was limited to a mild reprimand: the "enemy of the gods" should have been properly tried and legally executed. No one was ever prosecuted for the murders. Less than two months later, Bishop Athanasius returned in triumph to his city and his episcopal throne.
A Lynch Mob's behavior is always primitive. Yet the Alexandrians who paraded their murdered bishop's corpse around the city inhabited one of the most prosperous and civilized regions on earth. In Late Antiquity, the urban settlements ranging in great arc from Greece and Asia Minor (Turkey) through Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine to Egypt and Libya were the heart of the Roman world. Trade and commerce, art and learning flourished in this "archipelago of cities," drawing political power inexorably in their wake. The Greek-speaking Eastern Empire boasted three great metropolises — Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople — as well as hundreds of smaller but highly developed towns. By comparison, the Latin West was an economic and cultural backwater, and Rome herself (although still considered the "first city" for historical reasons) a city in sad decline.
Alexandria! Imagine a city of one million souls spread out for about ten miles along the Mediterranean coast, its great harbor crowned by a four-hundred-foot lighthouse: the Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. From the top of the Pharos, it was said, one could look through a transparent stone and see ships far out at sea, invisible to the naked eye. What sort of lens this might have been is unknown, since the lighthouse was later destroyed in a series of earthquakes. But there is no doubt that Alexandria commanded the talent to fashion it. For centuries the city had served not only as the Mediterranean world's busiest port, but as its premier center of science and learning. The metropolis founded by Alexander the Great was home to Greek geniuses like Archimedes and Euclid, Jewish sages like Philo, and the greatest early Christian thinkers, St. Clement and Origen. It was also the site of the world-renowned Great Library (burned during Caesar's wars) and the somewhat smaller Serapeum, donated by Cleopatra and destroyed by militant Christians at the close of the fourth century.
In the waterfront city, diverse cultures mixed, clashed, and recombined; feverish commercial activity coexisted with deep spiritual hunger; and a worldly, ambitious people became fascinated — even obsessed — by issues of religious faith. Of Alexandria's million inhabitants, perhaps one-fourth were Jews whose forbears had begun settling there long before the disastrous rebellions of their Palestinian brethren against Rome. In the second century B.C.E., the Old Testament was translated into Greek for these Alexandrian Jews, for they had become Greek speakers like other educated citizens of the Eastern Empire. The translation then became available to the Christians, proponents of a new faith that used the synagogue as a springboard to reach out to believers in the old gods. By the end of the third century C.E., this offshoot of Judaism was sweeping up converts throughout the Mediterranean world.
Alexandrian Christianity had a special flavor. In this "turbulent and intellectually saturated melting pot," outstanding thinkers drew on the latest trends in Greek philosophy to explain biblical texts and expound Church doctrines. The results were frequently brilliant and almost always controversial, producing an intellectual history "marked by repeated innovations, by constant tensions, by innumerable disputes." These disputes were no mere squabbles between intellectuals; they were Alexandria's favorite sport, an activity that ordinary laypeople found as passionately involving (and sometimes as bloody) as the gladiatorial contests that had fascinated their grandparents.
In the second century, Alexandrian Christians, inspired by anti-Semitic preaching, had launched one of the earliest riots against the city's Jewish community. Two hundred years later those who called Jesus "Lord" were battling each other in the streets ... and lynching bishops. By the time George met hisgrisly death, religious riots had become commonplace throughout the region. Assassinations were less frequent, but militant believers employed a wide variety of violent tactics and imaginatively conceived dirty tricks to do each other harm. Bishop Athanasius, a future saint and uninhibited faction fighter, had his opponents excommunicated and anathematized, beaten and intimidated, kidnapped, imprisoned, and exiled to distant provinces. His adversaries, no less implacable, charged him with an assortment of crimes, including bribery, theft, extortion, sacrilege, treason, and murder. At their instigation, Athanasius was condemned by Church councils and exiled from Alexandria no less than five times, pursued on several occasions by troops dispatched by a Christian emperor to secure his arrest.
At times these hostile tactics were more laughable than lethal. In Antioch, the Syrian capital, a group of Arian priests disguised as laymen employed a prostitute to creep into an anti-Arian bishop's bedchamber while he slept so that he could be accused of fornication and discredited. But they did not consider that the lady in question might have a mind of her own.
The scheme backfired when, at the last minute, she declined to play her assigned role and exposed the plotters instead.
A farce? Surely — but such incidents reveal the peculiar intensity of religious struggles in the late Roman world. The almost obsessive quality of these disputes is nicely captured by a famous churchman, Gregory of Nyssa, writing twenty years after the lynching of Bishop George. In a sermon delivered at his church in Constantinople, Gregory deplored the contentiousness of his fellow Christians. "If in this city you ask a shopkeeper for change," he complained, "he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you inquire about the quality of bread, the baker will answer, 'The Father is greater, the Son is less.' And if you ask the bath attendant to draw your bath, he will tell you that the Son was created ex nihilo [out of nothing]."
Gregory's wry comment is fascinating both for what it says and what it implies. It suggests that ordinary tradespeople and workers felt perfectly competent — perhaps even driven — to debate abstract theological issues and to arrive at their own conclusions. It reveals that disputes among Christians, specifically arguments about the relationship of Jesus Christ the Son to God the Father, had become as intense as the centuries-old conflict between Christians and pagans. And it implies that Arianism, which orthodox Christians now consider the archetypal heresy, was once at least as popular as the doctrine that Jesus is God.
Gregory's shopkeeper questions whether Jesus Christ is "begotten or unbegotten" — that is, whether he is a creation of God or the Creator Himself. The bath attendant says that he was created "from nothing," meaning that he was brought into existence like the rest of God's creatures. And the baker asserts that Christ is separate from and lesser than God. All these are Arian positions, so called because they were developed in sharpest form by an Alexandrian priest named Arius. The ill-fated George was also an Arian: one who believed that Jesus Christ was, indeed, the holiest person who ever lived, but not the Eternal God of Israel walking the earth in the form of a man.
How could one be a Christian and not believe that Christ was God incarnate? The Arians had an answer. To them, Jesus was a person of such sublime moral accomplishments that God adopted him as His Son, sacrificed him to redeem humanity from sin, raised him from the dead, and granted him divine status. Because of his excellence, he became a model of righteous behavior for us. And because his merit earned the prize of immortality, the same reward was made available to other human beings, provided that they model themselves after him. From the Arian perspective, it was essential that Jesus not be God, since God, being perfect by nature, is inimitable. By contrast, Christ's transcendent virtue, achieved by repeated acts of will, is available (at least potentially) to the rest of us. Even though we may fall short of his impeccable standards, his triumph over egoism shows us how we also may become the Sons and Daughters of God.
Was Christ, then, to be considered human? In one sense, the answer was yes. Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, not some divine apparition or mask of God. But his moral genius and the importance of his mission raised him high above even the greatest prophets. The Savior was sui generis. Many Arians believed that the Eternal had somehow conceived him (or conceived of him) before time began, and used him as an instrument to create the rest of the universe. Even so, they insisted, he could not possibly be God Himself. How could an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good Creator experience temptation, learn wisdom, and grow in virtue? How could he suffer on the Cross and die the death of a human being? Surely, when Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" he was not talking to himself! When he admitted that nobody knows the day and hour of Judgment, "not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only," he was not just being modest. And when he told his disciples that "the Father is greater than I," he meant exactly what he said.
To Athanasius of Alexandria, Arius's most formidable opponent, these arguments were worse than mistaken. In his view, they were enormously destructive, since they misused Scripture to obscure the central mystery of the Christian faith. Like the Arians, Athanasius took his monotheism seriously. He conceived of God as eternal and omnipotent, omniscient and perfect — an unchangeable Being infinitely superior to any mortal creature. For the Creator of the Universe to become human and submit to the power of other men must seem unimaginably humiliating. Yet, according to Athanasius, this was the only way to save mankind from moral and physical extinction. In order to free us from sin and death, God did the unthinkable: He descended into human flesh. Out of His infinite love for us, He became the man Jesus, who took the burden of our sins on his own frail shoulders, suffered, and died that we might gain eternal life.
Without God, Athanasius contended, humans would inevitably abuse their God-given freedom of choice and suffer the terrible consequences: corruption of the soul and death of the body. Therefore, if Christ was any less than God, he could not save us. And if we did not believe that he was God, we would not be saved. Seen in this light, the Arians' apparent glorification of Jesus was sheer deception. Indeed, those who declared him inferior to God were worse than the Jews who denied him and the Romans who crucified him, since the Jews and Romans rejected him openly, while the Arians degraded him more subtly by turning him into some sort of demigod or human prophet.
If the heretics won, said Athanasius, Christianity would be shipwrecked. This was no mere academic matter; millions of souls would be lost eternally and Christ himself dealt a terrible defeat. So persuasive were the Arian misleaders, and so evil the consequences of their error, that Athanasius was convinced he saw in their reasoning the malicious cleverness of the Antichrist. The struggle against Arianism was therefore a fight against the devil ... and, God knows, one did not compromise with the devil.
Excerpted from "When Jesus Became God"
Copyright © 1999 Richard E. Rubenstein.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
An Incident in Alexandria,
The Silence of Apollo,
A Quarrel in God's House,
The Great and Holy Council,
Sins of the Body, Passions of the Mind,
The Broken Chalice,
Death in Constantinople,
East against West,
The Arian Empire,
Old Gods and New,
When Jesus Became God,
Selective Bibliography of Works in English,
About the Author,