The best books about the divinity of Jesus and theological battles among early Christians

Richard E. Rubenstein Author Of When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome
By Richard E. Rubenstein

Who am I?

I have been interested for years in the causes and dynamics of religious violence, since to work towards resolving conflicts involving religious faith, one needs to understand them as more than hair-splitting arguments between opposed schools of fanatics. The door to this project opened wide in Malta, where I spent six months teaching under a brilliant Catholic priest who was also a sociologist and an expert on Christian history. Father Joe steered me toward the books I needed to consult. More important, he understood that faith and reason should not be considered opposites, and that debating fundamental concepts is essential to the moral and spiritual health of a religious organization.


I wrote...

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome

By Richard E. Rubenstein,

Book cover of When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome

What is my book about?

In this bestseller set in the fourth century CE, Richard Rubenstein tells the story of the Arian Controversy – the violent 60-year struggle that politicized Christianity and ended with the Catholic Church declaring that Jesus wasn't just a uniquely holy man but God in the form of a human being. The book brings to life the story’s main protagonists: the Alexandrian priest and poet, Arius; his nemesis, the archbishop Athanasius; and the emperor Constantine, who thought that a form of words – the Nicaean Creed – could settle the dispute. (It did not).

The fascinating tale relates how what seemed like a hair-splitting theological argument produced wild riots, assassinations, and the burning down of several cities. It shows what will and will not work to resolve serious religious conflicts.       

The books I picked & why

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The Making of Late Antiquity

By Peter Brown,

Book cover of The Making of Late Antiquity

Why this book?

The historian Peter Brown is the great expert on the late Roman/early Christian era, and he writes like a scholarly poet. I don’t think anyone has done a better job of putting the lives and thoughts of Christian intellectuals and laypeople in the context of a Roman society experiencing convulsive, transformative change. This book will change your views of both Roman and Christian cultures. If you’re like me, it will lead you to read Brown’s other works, such as his epic 2012 study, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD.

The Making of Late Antiquity

By Peter Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Making of Late Antiquity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Peter Brown presents a masterly history of Roman society in the second, third, and fourth centuries. Brown interprets the changes in social patterns and religious thought, breaking away from conventional modern images of the period.


Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years

By John Philip Jenkins,

Book cover of Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years

Why this book?

In this lively and knowledgeable history of Christian controversies of the fifth century CE, Philip Jenkins produces a valuable and colorful sequel to the story told in When Jesus Became God. This book reveals what happened after the Council of Constantinople adopted a Trinitarian view of Jesus and Roman power shifted to the Byzantine East. The council “settled” the Arian controversy for the time being but generated an even more ferocious series of battles over Jesus’ divine/human nature and the relationship of Christianity to Greek thought. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Jenkins has a fine time showing how an admixture of imperial politics, Church politics, and theological ideas created “orthodox” Christian thought and practice. 

Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years

By John Philip Jenkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jesus Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tells the fascinating, violent story of the Church's fifth century battles over 'right belief' that had a far greater impact on the future of Christianity and the world than the much-touted Council of Nicea convened by Constantine a century before.


Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History

By James Christopher Carroll,

Book cover of Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History

Why this book?

In Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, James Carroll, a former Catholic priest turned journalist and novelist, delivers a powerful indictment of the politicized religion that from the time of Constantine the Great persecuted heretics, non-Romans, and, most of all, Jews. Carroll’s historical account is colorful and accurate, but what this book mostly does is exorcise a demon that plagued the author personally for years: his shared responsibility as a Catholic believer and official for an anti-Semitic tradition that helped generate the Holocaust. This is a stirring job of writing that looks forward to Carroll’s later work as a novelist, including his lovely take on the story of  Abelard and Heloise, The Cloister (Anchor, 2019).     

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History

By James Christopher Carroll,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Constantine's Sword as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bold and moving book tracing the two-thousand-year course of the Church's battle against Judaism by National Book Award–winning author James Carroll.

More than a chronicle of religion, this dark history is the central tragedy of Western civilization. The Church’s failure to protest the Holocaust—the infamous “silence” of Pius XII—is only part of the story: the death camps, Carroll shows, are the culmination of a long, entrenched tradition of anti-Judaism. From Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus on the cross, to Constantine’s transformation of the cross into a sword, to the rise of blood libels, scapegoating, and modern anti-Semitism,…


A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State

By Charles Freeman,

Book cover of A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State

Why this book?

The year 381 marked the point at which the new Roman emperor, Theodosius, convened the Church council that outlawed Arianism and made Jesus’ role as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, an essential part of Christian orthodoxy. For the historian Charles Freeman, this noxious combination of secular and ecclesiastical power stands as the origin of the development he described earlier in The Closing of the Western Mind (Anchor, 2005). Freeman’s analysis of the “Greek-ification” of Christian thinking is very sharp, and he tells the story of Theodosius well, even if he sometimes seems to be reading elements of modern dictatorial leadership back into that emperor’s character. A stimulating, provocative read. 

A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State

By Charles Freeman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A.D. 381 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In A.D. 381, Theodosius, emperor of the eastern Roman empire, issued a decree in which all his subjects were required to subscribe to a belief in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This edict defined Christian orthodoxy and brought to an end a lively and wide-ranging debate about the nature of God; all other interpretations were now declared heretical. It was the first time in a thousand years of Greco-Roman civilization free thought was unambiguously suppressed. Why has Theodosius's revolution been airbrushed from the historical record? In this groundbreaking book, acclaimed historian Charles Freeman argues that Theodosius's…


The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound

By Anthony Buzzard, Charles F. Hunting,

Book cover of The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound

Why this book?

Sir Anthony Buzzard, the leader of a self-described “Biblical Unitarian” church, and co-author Charles F. Hunting have written a learned, strongly argued polemic against the Trinitarian doctrine that is still accepted by most believing Christians.  As a non-Christian, I do not take sides in the continuing debate over the relationship of the Son to the Father, but the debate does continue, and Sir Anthony’s book is a must for those interested in it.  It can be read usefully in conjunction with his later study, Jesus Was Not A Trinitarian (Restoration Fellowship, 2007).       

The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound

By Anthony Buzzard, Charles F. Hunting,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Doctrine of the Trinity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This important work is a detailed biblical investigation of the relationship of Jesus to the one God of Israel. The authors challenge the notion that biblical monotheism is legitimately represented by a Trinitarian view of God and demonstrate that within the bounds of the canon of Scripture Jesus is confessed as Messiah, Son of God, but not God Himself. Later Christological developments beginning in the second century misrepresented the biblical doctrine of God and Christ by altering the terms of the biblical presentation of the Father and Son. This fateful development laid the foundation of a revised, unscriptural creed that…


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