Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260 – c. 341) was the most significant of the early historians of the church. His Ecclesiastical History was a chronicle of Christianity from Jesus to Constantine’s success in taking over the Roman Empire. Eusebius himself played a role in the most significant event of Christianity in the fourth century. As the bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius was one of the leaders of the semi-Arian party. He wrote about the events of his own day in his Life of Constantine. As historian and participant, Eusebius was vital to the transition of the Christian church from proscribed sect to dominant religion.
Biography & Theology
Eusebius first appears in the historical record as a disciple of Pamphilius in Caesarea in Palestine, sometime around the beginning of the fourth century. Pamphilius taught in a school founded by Origen, with a library attached. Both Pamphilius and Eusebius were engaged in copying the Scriptures and in editing the Septuagint. Beginning in 303 the Roman emperor Diocletian and his colleagues initiated the most widespread and most severe persecution of the ancient church. In 307 Pamphilius was tortured and martyred two years later. Eusebius witnessed the execution of other Christians and was himself imprisoned near the end of the persecution. Unlike many Christians during that persecution Eusebius was not tortured, though there is no evidence to support the accusation later brought against him by his opponents that he had betrayed the faith. Eusebius took the name Pamphili out of dedication to his martyred teacher. Eusebius’s historical writings, in particular his adulation of Constantine, must be seen in the context of the persecutions to which Constantine brought an end.
By 315 at the latest Eusebius was bishop of Caesarea. Eusebius had not been a bishop long before the most significant controversy in the early church erupted. When Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, preached a sermon on the relationship between the Father and the Son, a priest named Arius resisted him, arguing that “there was a time when the Son was not” and that the Son “had his substance from nothing.” Alexander excommunicated Arius in 320. Christians had long debated how to define the relationship between Father and Son, but Arius and Alexander ignited the start of a schism in the church. Eusebius defended Arius in a letter to Alexander (the letter has been preserved in the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea) and participated in a synod of Syrian bishops that vindicated Arius.
To resolve the controversy over Arius’s doctrine, 318 bishops met in council at Nicaea (in Asia Minor) in A.D. 325. The Council of Nicaea introduced a definition of the Trinity in a creed and in a set of condemnations of Arius’s positions. (This creed was later expanded by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 into the form received by both the Eastern and Western churches as the Nicene creed.) Church councils were as old as the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15 and held around A.D. 50, and local and regional councils or synods had long resolved problems during the church’s first four centuries. But Nicaea gave the worldwide church a new and vital way to establish doctrine and govern the church. The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion, and the Protestant churches differ as to which councils they consider ecumenical and thus binding. But the councils of the fourth and fifth centuries became the spine of how the church defined itself and its teachings for all succeeding generations.
The council of Nicaea was possible only because the nominally Christian emperor Constantine summoned the bishops to resolve the Arian controversy. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity has been surrounded by legend, but his defeat of rivals for the imperial throne was accompanied by an affiliation with Christianity. In 313 Constantine and his imperial colleague Licinius agreed to tolerate Christians in an act often called the Edict of Milan. As the protector of the church, Constantine felt a right to help govern it as well. At the council Constantine held position as honorary president. Eusebius sat at his right hand and offered the opening invocation.
Three parties were present at the Council of Nicaea. On the one hand were the full-fledged Arians, represented by Arius who was frequently questioned by the council, who believed that the Son had been created and was not-preexistent. On the other hand were the proponents of the Trinitarian orthodoxy which would ultimately prevail at the council. These favored using the word consubstantial to describe the relationship of the Father and the Son. Both parties were likely minorities. The majority of the council had no decided opinion or were willing to reject Arianism but were unwilling to adopt the term consubstantial. Included in that majority was Eusebius, who was one of the leaders of the semi-Arian party. He proposed as a solution to the controversy the creed that was used in his dioceses. The creed was broadly similar to that eventually adopted. Eusebius’s proposal did not included the term consubstantial, which the council added.
Eusebius was obligated to accept the creed of Nicaea. He wrote a letter to his diocese explaining his reasons, which were an attempt to adapt Arian theology to Nicene language and Constantine’s authority (for the letter see Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, bk. 1, ch. 11). Eusebius unsuccessfully prosecuted Athanasius, a defender of Nicene orthodoxy, in synods of 334–35. In 335 Eusebius helped dedicate the basilica erected by Constantine in Jerusalem, where he nearly managed to restore Arius to communion, except that Arius suddenly died.
Eusebius died no later than 341.
Eusebius wrote dozens of works in several different genres. Many of these have been lost or survive only in fragments.
Among the works that we will not be reading are a Life of Pamphilius and a collection of accounts of martyrdoms, both lost. Several of his other minor historical works can be found embedded in his Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius also wrote apologetic works, Against Hierocles (a Roman governor who persecuted Christians) and Against Porphyry (a Neoplatonist philosopher). His Preparation of the Gospel and his Demonstration of the Gospel is an apologetic defense of Christianity against both Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism. He wrote commentaries on at least the Psalms, Isaiah, Luke, First Corinthians, and Hebrews. Eusebius drew up a lists of ten canons (or tables) of passages showing which passages were shared between the gospels. In that sense Eusebius was an early scholar of the synoptic problem, and his canon tables continue to be printed in the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece.
The Ecclesiastical History is as much a storehouse as a narrative. Eusebius, writing from Palestine, had access to materials which would long since have vanished except that he preserved them. The narrative takes fuller account of people and events closer to Palestine than the reader might desire, but what is remarkable is the breadth of the history rather than its constraints. Many topics of special interest appear within the pages of the Ecclesiastical History, including a description of the New Testament canon. It would be a mistake to view the History as having a single, driving narrative in the style that we have come to expect out of Western history-writing. Rather, Eusebius aimed for universal history. In the Ecclesiastical History, and especially in another work titled the Chronicle, Eusebius tried to recount every event in every place. Where the Chronicle narrated every event from creation to the present, the History narrated every event from Jesus’ birth to the rise of Constantine. Eusebius’s style of universal history (borrowed from his pagan counterparts, but set within a Christian framing of the cosmos) proved enormously influential. His immediate successors as historians of the church—Socrates Scholasticus, Salaminius Sozomenus, and Theodoret—simply carried on the tradition of chronicling events up to their own contemporaries, and the chronicle became the standard form of history writing in the Christian Middle Ages.
To the extent that Eusebius’s history-writing had an argument, it drove towards the rise of Constantine as a Christian emperor. The last book of the Ecclesiastical History ended with Constantine, and Eusebius carried the story forward in his Life of Constantine. To be sure, the book suffers from undue praise: Eusebius was not innocent of flattery or fawning. One must remember, though, that Constantine had curtailed the persecution of the church, and speaking ill of an emperor, even a dead Christian emperor, would have been imprudent under any circumstance. The Life is valuable both for its account of the emperor and its history of the council of Nicaea and the Arian controversy.
Regrettably there is no obvious standard edition of the Ecclesiastical History. The edition in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, volume 1, was translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. If you wish to read the work in Greek, you can get the Loeb edition, which includes facing translations by Kirsopp Lake and J. E. L. Oulton (volume 1, volume 2). Cheap paperback editions abound, including the Penguin edition, translated by G. A. Williamson, and the Hendrickson edition, translated by C. F. Cruse. Catholic University of America Press has two volumes of Eusebius (volume 1, volume 2) translated by Roy J. Deferrari.