Anyone who is interested in the history of christianity and has taken a cursory look into the subject will have heard various tidbits of information and will have seen then repeated in many a modern take on the first few centuries of the church. Some of these get trotted out in the occasional sermon, such as the idea that Peter was crucified upside down. Yet I’ve often wondered where they came from. It seems that the answer is Eusebius.
It is worth noting, since it has come in many versions over the years, that I read the Penguin Classics version, translated by G.A. Williamson with a very helpful introduction by Andrew Louth. According to this introduction, one cannot help but question Eusebius’ credibility as an historian. Famously, the Victorian historian of the ancient world, Edward Gibbon, had little regard for Eusebius. He is not the only one to cast doubt on the reliability of Eusebius’ work. Certainly, by the standards of modern historiography, Eusebius leaves a lot to be desired. While it is impossible to be neutral in writing history, Eusebius’ agenda and bias should be clear for all to see. But such a critical view should not be interpreted as meaning he is useless. Far from it; he is a source of great wealth, not least due to his habit of extensively quoting from earlier sources.
In some ways this is indicative of the maxim ‘history is written by the winners’ particularly here when it comes to questions of christian orthodoxy. He displays open contempt for those who were regarded as heretics and is also indicative of the rise of catholicism.
At the start of the work, Eusebius lays out his objectives. These are quite telling in themselves.
- line of succession of the apostles
- names and dates of various heretics
- the history of Judaism, post-Jesus
- the persecutions faced by the early church
- the martyrdoms that happened in those persecutions
The work is split into 10 books. An interesting point made in the introduction is that the work may initially have consisted of 8 books with the last two books being added some time later.
His opening book lays out his christology, which is demonstrative of a seemingly very high view. This is interesting in itself, seeing as Eusebius sided with Arius at the first council of Nicaea, an event which is never mentioned anywhere in this work. We get a sort of recapitulation of gospels, but viewed with the hindsight and interpretation of the very early church. For clarity, when some use the phrase “early church” they have in mind a period of the first few centuries of christian history. I use the phrase to mean the first few decades, with the most obvious event marking the transition between ages being the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, by which time the books that comprise our New Testament had been written and were in circulation.
From this opening, which is more of a background than anything else, we begin to get into the heart of the narrative. Here, the main sources seem to be Acts and Josephus, which makes for an interesting pairing. Our timeline seems to skip back and forth a little bit, so when we think we’ve moved into a distinctly post New Testament period, we come back to the odd reference from Luke’s latter work. Or was Luke the author? Well, even though the gospels were all anonymous, and it is reasonable to think that the author of Luke and Acts are the same person, it is from Eusebius that we get the names, particularly as he quotes Papias of Hierapolis, where we get the intriguing possibility that Matthew’s gospel was first composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic.
There are lots of little vignettes throughout the book that are useful and interesting to get an understanding of certain aspects of the history of the later church. But when it comes to the early church, there is scant all reliable detail. The aims are also indicative of quite a late mindset that is quite different from that as evidenced in the gospels and book of Acts. For example, point 1) above shows that there has become an obsession with the notion of apostolic succession, yet the only evidence Eusebius has for the first few links is “tradition” which is no evidence at all. Even the idea that Peter was ever a bishop of Rome is highly questionable.
The heresiological aspects of Eusebius are quite interesting, particularly to help see the kinds of ideas that were being bandied about. We never quite get to Nicaea here (recall that Eusebius sided with Arius at the council in 425) which is a shame, but we walk part of the path towards it.
Most of the books, though, are taken up with the rather gory tales of martyrdom. Be in no doubt, it does make for some highly graphic and deeply disturbing reading. One might almost consider, if you’ll indulge the anachronism, that Eusebius is aiming to gross-out his readers by being as visceral as possible. All this, though, does make for some quite turgid reading. It goes on and on and on. The only relief comes as the book ends with the rise of Constantine and his favourable treatment of the christians.
One of the sourest elements, though, comes with the exploration of point c). Eusebius comes across as what we would now describe as anti-Semitic. There is clear ethnic and religious prejudice against the Jewish people. So what the modern historian can infer is that in just a few centuries the church went from being a predominantly Jewish phenomenon, albeit with a reformed twist to its messianic eschatology, to being a gentile religion that had forgotten its roots and bore a grudge against the Jews.
Overall, I can’t say it was the greatest book to read. It is one of the great tragedies of christianity that there are no contemporary histories written of the early church other than the book of Acts. By the time we’ve come to Eusebius, we have a very different beast with a different set of priorities. There is plenty of value in here, though. It’s just that one might need to read through Eusebius a bit to get to it.