Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Historical Vision of Eusebius of Caesarea

From time to time, I feel like I need to apologize for my interest in Eusebius and the other ecclesiastical historians. I suspect that that is my classics training coming out in a rather unhelpful way because God knows that classicists tend to turn up their noses at these writers. At best, they are mines of information. At worst, they are the worst kind of tendentious historians-inaccurate and self-interested. That is a difficult mindset to shake and, while I dismiss it as entirely unfair, I think that a lot of our problems as Christian historians come from the contortions we try to make in order to appear objective and scholarly to a world view which believes that God has no place in history. Yet, if we believe that God was made man in Jesus Christ at a particular time (c. 4 BC-AD 33)and in a particular place (Judaea), we can't ignore the challenge history has us. If we do, we run the risk of forgetting the Incarnation and all the nasty particularities of being Christian.

So, when I come to Eusebius, I recognize, for all his faults, a historian who is trying to make sense of Christian history. He is, of course, very clear about his agenda. His project is to record church history from the apostles to his own time in such a way as to uphold 'orthodox' faith. As a result, he is concerned with the names of the successors to the apostles, how the Church was formed and governed, those who defended the faith, those who departed from the faith and the persecutions (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (EH), 1,1.). This very clear apologetic intent to Eusebius' history is, of course, precisely what bothers non-Christian scholars. Since he is so clear about his apologetic intent, how could he be objective? How can we trust that he isn't twisting his evidence?

The obvious answer to that is that we can't. Eusebius was, as he is acutely aware, the first Christian to write this kind of history and he preserves an immense amount of material which has not survived in any other way. Of course, we can do studies on the bits that coincide with surviving documents and those efforts, I believe, have shown that he tends to quote accurately. Yet, he is hardly objective.

Mind you, the obvious answer to that charge is to suggest our hypothetical critics please find an example in modern historiography, much less ancient historiography of objectivity. That is, of course, a post-modern dodge, but, like many post-modern dodges, it has some real validity. If anyone reads ancient historians with any degree of attention, we find that even the best of them, (Thucydides, Tacitus) are hardly objective. They may try hard to be fair, but objectivity is simply not even a concern.

Still, what struck me in my most recent re-reading of Eusebius' passage is his second preface (Eusebius, EH 5,3)in which he states:
Other writers of historical works have confined themselves to the written tradition of victories in wars, of triumphs over enemies, of the exploits of generals and the valour of soldiers, men stained with blood and countless murders for the sake of children and country and other possessions; but it is wars most peaceful waged for the very peace of the soul, and men who therein have been valiant for truth rather than for country, and for piety rather than their dear ones, that our record of those who order their lives according to God will inscribe on everlasting monuments: it is the struggles of the athletes of piety and their valour which braved so much, trophies won from demons, and victories against unseen adversaries, and the crowns at the end of all, that it will proclaim for everlasting remembrance.

On one level, this is Eusebius' answer to traditional historiography. He outlines the interests of the historians of his day and clearly places them as inferior to the struggles he sets out in his ecclesiastical history. In doing this, he is in line with the Gospels which proclaim that the most important thing in life is not what the powers and principalities assume: power and war. Rather it is service to God. Here Eusebius is defending implicitly his rather lengthy exposition of the martyrs of Lyons, but he is also setting out principles about what is and is not important in Christian history. The struggles to gain power in this world are not the primary interest for the Christian historian for the simple reason that these struggles involve the illusion that we can have power without God. The Christian historian may have to acknowledge this illusion as a historical force, but he/she cannot assume that his/her subject matter rests in so confining a direction. Rather we must seek out the hand of God in all the odd places as well as the usual places. If Jesus revealed himself in weakness, can we not expect God hand to be found in obscure and seemingly insignificant places sometimes?

I know, of course, my non-Christian readers will shake their heads at me for those comments. Fair enough, I guess. Yet, I ask for the same forbearance that you give your other apologetically minded (or is that politically-minded?) colleagues. I would suggest that Christian historiography deserves a place in the intellectual life of the post-modern West as any other historiography. Questions of truth remain, of course, but a Christian mind-set does not need to be a hindrance in answering those questions. It may even be a help.



Jim said...


Is there an English translation of Eusebius you favor (or if you insist: favour? :-) )I confess I have not read him, and Greek is not my strong suite. Ok, neither is English, but none-the-less.

How is the Daddy gig going?


TOR Hershman said...

My lill' film
"The Origin Of Jesus Christ" - @ YouTube -
View part one at this
and the conclusion at this

YouTube’s most SHOCKINGINGLY ASTONUNDING video of this or any year, or not.

Ya see, there ain't any money in truth.

Phil S. said...

Hi Jim;

I've been reading the Loeb Classical edition of Eusebius (by J.E.L. Oulton), but I know there are more recent editions out there, but I really haven't had a good look at them.

As for the Daddy gig, that is still going well. Ian is sleeping well for the most part (well, for a newborn) and is healthy. My wife is recovering well and is largely back to normal.


Phil S. said...


Entertaining little film. Completely historically loopy, but entertaining in its loopiness.

I'm afraid you've really mis-read Ovid if you come up with a great anti-Imperial hero. He was, I grant, not particularly a strong supporter of Augustus and, certainly, wrote poetry which subversively undermined Augustus' moral program, but there is no evidence for the play you posit. Now, I know you'll come back with the conspiracy theory that the slave leadership of Christians and the imperial leaders surpressed it, but that is nonesense. It doesn't explain, if these two groups were in cohoots, why Christians were increasingly persecuted from the reign of Nero on. Nor does it account for the actual historical evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

I'm pretty sure I won't convince you, but I thought it important to note that your history is messed up.


Danny Garland Jr. said...

I have the Penguin Classics edition which is good. They usually are very good with the books they publish. I also have Plato's- The Last Days of Socrates and Newman's- Apologia Pro Vita Sua as well as plays by Moliere and George Bernard Shaw.

Phil S. said...

Hi Danny;

I haven't really had a good look at the Pengiun version of Eusebius. Generally, Penguins are good, although they do tend to translate a bit more loosely than other versions. Not that that is always a problem. For my own classroom use, I prefer Penguin translations because they are actually readable which is more than can be said for some scholarly translations.


mike said...

The Penguin edition is revised by Andrew Louth. It's very good.