Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Eusebius: The Church History

Quite simply, Eusebius of Caesarea is the Father of Church History. With the obvious exception of Luke, who gave us the book of Acts, Eusebius was the first person to construct a history of the early Christian church. Though there are rough patches and legitimate criticisms to be made, Eusbeius' work is an almost unprecedented boon to modern historians.

Eusebius' method was far removed from modern historiography. Eusebius did not attempt to reconstruct history from statistical data or from interpolating between multiple competing authorities. He did not have the luxury of either option. Rather, his method was to collate any and all texts from earlier authors, and present them in a largely uncritical and unedited fashion. His ten volumes of ecclesiastical history are thus a treasure-trove of primary-source documentation, many of which would have been lost forever to the dark reaches of antiquity if not for their inclusion by Eusebius.

Modern critics often cite Eusebius for a lack of objective historiography, but they forget that such a standard is quintessentially modern, unrelated to the classical discipline of writing history. Eusebius' goal, informed by the classical tradition of rhetoric, is to educate and persuade. Thus, much of his History is informed by explicitly theological content.

The first book in The Church History concerns the person and work of Jesus Christ. Most of the material expands or clarifies certain ambiguities in the Gospels, such as the genealogies and infant narratives. However, there is some startlingly original content, such as the inclusion of a written correspondence between Abgar the Toparch of Edessa and Jesus Himself.

The second book concerns the life and times of the Apostles. Eusebius writes from a distinctly Rome-centric perspective, and presents a good deal of surprising information: for instance, that Tiberius Caesar was informed of Jesus Christ by the reports of Pontius Pilate, and that the Roman Senate actually held a vote on whether or not to recognize Jesus as a (small-g) god. Eusebius quotes extensively wrote Flavius Josephus, the famous Jewish historian. He also presents a good deal of information about the persecutions under Nero, and the martyrdom of the early apostles, culminating with James the brother of Christ.

The third book begins by recounting the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome and the establishment of the Papacy (Linus being the first bishop of Rome and successor of St. Peter). Eusebius also discusses the development of the New Testament Scriptures, beginning the two general epistles ascribed to Peter and the fourteen letters of Paul. Eusebius also speaks of the books of Luke, both the Gospel and the Acts, and mentions in passing that "Paul was actually in the habit of referring to Luke's Gospel whenever he used the phrase 'according to my gospel,'" because the two were traveling companions. This book also contains content on the tribulation in Jerusalem and Judea, the life of St. John in Ephesus, the origin of Christian heresies and heretical writings, and the beginnings of the Apostolic Tradition.

The fourth book covers the period between the coronation of Alexander, fifth bishop of Rome, and the death of Soter, eleventh bishop of Rome (coinciding with the period between the imperial reigns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius). This book is mostly occupied with relating the life and writings of certain bishops and defenders of the faith, notably Polycarp, Justin (the Martyr), and Melito of Sardis.

The fifth book begins with an extensive quote from a letter sent from Gaul (specifically Lyons and Vienne) to the churches of Asia Minor, regarding the martyrdom of the Gallic Christians. This section also mentions the legendary Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Apolinarius, the "Phrygian heresy" of Montantism, and some disputes on the Church calendar, particularly the celebration of Easter.

The sixth book is almost entirely occupied with the character of Origen, the larger-than-life exegete and apologist of Alexandria. Origen's reputation had fallen far by the time of Eusebius. Certain of Origen's theological propositions had been condemned as anathema in later Church councils, which had given rise to a popular belief that Origen was an untrustworthy and even heretical writer. Eusebius sought to rehabilitate Origen and establish the centrality and vitality of his work in the Alexandrian school. In my mind, this section is probably the highlight of The Church History.

The seventh book quotes extensively from the letters of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, and covers the period between the imperial reign of Gallus and Diocletian (251 - c. 305 AD). This section particularly concerns the development of heresies in the Christian community,  There are also brief mentions of a statue in Caesarea Philippi that accurately resembled the features of Jesus Christ, and the throne of St. James in Jerusalem that was the first seat of the Apostolic Church. This section also introduces the apologist Malchion and the heretic Mani, the latter of whom inspired the still-powerful Manichean gnostic tradition.

The eighth book is the first to deal with events contemporary to Eusebius himself. This section is largely concerned with the ongoing persecution and spate of martyrdoms, and with the quasi-miraculous triumph of the Church's continuous growth. This eighth book is also the most directly political portion of The Church History, treating the schism between the administration of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, and the establishment of the dual roles of Augustus (high Emperor) and Caesar (subordinate and presumed successor). Thus, there were four distinct rulers during this period, the most famous of which was Constantine, son of the Western Caesar who would become the Western Augustus and eventually unite both halves of the Empire.

The ninth book covers the last hurrah of the pagan emperors and the death-knell of the ongoing Roman persecution. Constantine allied himself with Licinius, Eastern Augustus, against the revolting Caesars Maxentius and Maximin. On the eve of the battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine placed himself under the aegis of Chrisitanity. According to Lactantius, he had received a vision of a superimposed chi and rho (the first two letters of Jesus' name) and heard a voice tell him In hoc signo vinces: "By this sign, you conquer." Constantine's triumph at Milvian Bridge ended the civil war and gave Constantine's reign a secure footing, and his pro-Christians sympathies ensured the end of pagan oppression and a much more favorable climate of toleration for Christians.

The tenth book is a rather cloying ballad of praise for Constantine, hagiographic rather than historical in tone. In this section Eusebius employs the panegyric form, the equivalent of an uncritical funeral oration for a person still alive. While the literary style is almost entirely foreign and quite off-putting to modern readers, we must admit that Eusebius had just cause for celebration. The Church had faced a horrific and perpetual persecution under Roman Emperors since the reign of Nero. While the tension between the pagans and Christians would not dissipate in a day, Constantine's reforms ensured a general acceptance of the Christian faith and permitted its more rapid dissemination.

The particular edition I read was something of a mixed bag. The translation by Paul L. Maier was serviceable but unspectacular, more notable for redacting redundancies than for elegance of style. On the other hand, the marginal and end-of-chapter notes are quite helpful in presenting a modern side-bar on Eusebius' classical sensibilities. In the end, though, it hardly matters. Eusebius' Church History is a landmark of classical history, comparable to the works of Herodotus, Josephus, and Livy in importance. I strongly encourage anyone interested in history, particularly of Christianity, to check out a copy.

To purchase this book, check out Amazon.com:
Eusebius: The Church History

This was cross-posted on my theology blog, A Sacramental World.

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