Eusebius of Caesarea

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Eusebius, who has been called "The Father of Church History."

Eusebius of Caesarea was the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine during the early fourth century. He was a prominent personality during the period when Christianity was recognized by Constantine the Great, ending the persecutions, and he participated in the First Council of Nicea. He is famous for his writings, particularly his Church History or Ecclesiastical History (Historia Ecclesiastica). He is often referred to as Eusebius Pamphili because of his close friendship with Pamphilius, the founder of the major library in Caesarea.


Little is known of Eusebius' youth. He was probably born around A.D. 260, though the exact date and place are not certain. He may have come from a family of some influence as he was released after a short imprisonment during the Diocletian's persecutions, persecutions in which his friend Pamphilius and other companions were martyred. Eusebius was acquainted with the Priest Dorotheus in Antioch, who may have given him exegetical instruction. By 296 he was in Palestine, where he first saw Constantine when Constantine visited Palestine with Diocletian. Eusebius was in Caesarea when Agapius was its bishop. His friendship with Pamphilius of Caesarea was a close one. With him he studied Holy Scripture using as an aid Origen's ‘'Hexapla and other commentaries that Pamphilius had collected in his library.

However, their friendship was cut short when Pamphilius was arrested in 307 and martyred in 309. It is assumed, as the persecutions relaxed, that Eusebius succeeded Pamphilius as head of his school and may have been ordained to the priesthood during this time. He was already consecrated a bishop by 315 when he took part in the dedication of a new basilica in Tyre. He had succeeded Agapius as bishop of Caesarea Palaestina. The next that is known of Eusebius is when he participated, as a prominent member, in the Council of Nicea. He was not naturally a spiritual leader or theologian. Nevertheless, as a very learned man and a famous author who enjoyed the special favor of the emperor, he came to the fore among the 300 members of the council. The confession which he proposed became the basis of the Nicene Creed.

Eusebius was involved in the Arian controversies. For instance, he disputed with Eustathius of Antioch, who opposed the growing influence of Origen and his practice of an allegorical exegesis of scripture and saw in Origen's theology the roots of Arianism. Eusebius, an admirer of Origen, was reproached by Eustathius for deviating from the Nicene faith. Eustathius in turn was charged with Sabellianism. Eustathius was accused, condemned, and deposed at a council in Antioch. While the people of Antioch rebelled against this action, the anti-Eustathians proposed Eusebius as the new bishop, but he declined.

After Eustathius had been deposed, the Eusebians proceeded against Athanasius of Alexandria, a much more dangerous opponent. In 334, Athanasius was summoned before a council in Caesarea which he did not attend. In the following year, he was again summoned before a council in Tyre at which Eusebius presided. Athanasius, foreseeing the result, went to Constantinople to bring his cause before the emperor. Constantine called the bishops to his court, among them Eusebius. However, Athanasius was condemned and exiled at the end of 335. At the same council, another opponent was successfully attacked: Marcellus of Ancyra had long opposed the Eusebians and had protested against the reinstitution of Arius. He was accused of Sabellianism and deposed in 336. Constantine died the next year, and Eusebius did not long survive him. Eusebius had died (probably at Caesarea) by 340 at the latest, but probably on May 30, 339.


Of the extensive literary activity of Eusebius, a relatively large portion has been preserved. Although posterity suspected him of Arianism, Eusebius had made himself indispensable by his method of authorship. His comprehensive and careful excerpts from original sources saved his successors the painstaking labor of original research. Hence, much has been preserved in quotes by Eusebius which otherwise would have been lost.

The literary productions of Eusebius reflect on the whole the course of his life. At first, he occupied himself with works on Biblical criticism under the influence of Pamphilus and probably of Dorotheus of the School of Antioch. Afterward, the persecutions under Diocletian and Galerius directed his attention to the martyrs of his own time as well as the past. This led him to the history of the whole Church and finally to the history of the world, which, to him, was only a preparation for ecclesiastical history.

Then, the Arian controversies and dogmatic questions came into the foreground. Christianity at last had found recognition by the State; and this brought new problems—apologies of a different sort had to be prepared. Lastly, Eusebius, the court theologian, wrote eulogies in praise of Constantine. To all this activity must be added numerous writings of a miscellaneous nature, addresses, letters, and the like, and exegetical works that include both commentaries and treatises on Biblical archaeology that extended over the whole of his life.

Biblical text criticism

Pamphilus and Eusebius occupied themselves with the text criticism of the Septuagint text of the Old Testament and especially of the New Testament. An edition of the Septuagint seems to have been already prepared by Origen, which, according to Jerome, was revised and circulated by Eusebius and Pamphilus. For an easier survey of the material of the four Evangelists, Eusebius divided his edition of the New Testament into paragraphs and provided it with a synoptical table so that it might be easier to find the pericopes that belong together.

The Chronicle

The two greatest historical works of Eusebius are his Chronicle and his Church History. The former (Greek, Pantodape historia, "Universal History") is divided into two parts. The first part (Greek, Chronographia, "Annals") purports to give an epitome of universal history from the sources, arranged according to nations. The second part (Greek, Chronikoi kanones, "Chronological Canons") attempts to furnish a synchronism of the historical material in parallel columns, the equivalent of a parallel timeline.

The work as a whole has been lost in the original, but it may be reconstructed from later chronographers of the Byzantine school who made excerpts from the work with untiring diligence. The tables of the second part have been preserved completely in a Latin translation by Jerome. Both parts are still extant in an Armenian translation. The loss of the Greek originals has given the Armenian translation a special importance. Thus, the first part of Eusebius' "Chronicle", of which only a few fragments exist in the Greek, has been preserved entirely in Armenian. The "Chronicle" as preserved extends to the year 325. It was written before the "Church History."

Church History

In his Church History or Ecclesiastical History (Historia Ecclesiastica), Eusebius attempted, according to his own declaration, to present the history of the Church from the apostles to his own time, with special regard to the following points:

  1. the successions of bishops in the principal sees;
  2. the history of Christian teachers;
  3. the history of heresies;
  4. the history of the Jews;
  5. the relations to the heathen;
  6. the martyrdoms.

He grouped his material according to the reigns of the emperors, presenting it as he found it in his sources. The contents are as follows:

  • Book i: detailed introduction on Jesus Christ
  • Book ii: The history of the apostolic time to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus
  • Book iii: The following time to Trajan
  • Books iv and v: the second century
  • Book vi: The time from Septimius to Decius
  • Book vii: extends to the outbreak of the persecution under Diocletian
  • Book viii: more of this persecution
  • Book ix: history to Constantine's victory over Maxentius in the West and over Maximinus in the East
  • Book x: The reestablishment of the churches and the rebellion and conquest of Licinius.

In its present form, the work was brought to a conclusion before the death of Crispius (in July, 326), and either at the end of 323 or in 324, since book x is dedicated to Paulinius of Tyre, who died before 325. This work required the most comprehensive preparatory studies, and it must have occupied Eusebius for years. His collection of martyrdoms of the older period may have been one of these preparatory studies.

Eusebius blames the calamities which befell the Jewish nation on the Jews' role in the death of Jesus. This quote has been used to attack both Jews and Christians: "that from that time seditions and wars and mischievous plots followed each other in quick succession, and never ceased in the city and in all Judea until finally the siege of Vespasian overwhelmed them. Thus the divine vengeance overtook the Jews for the crimes which they dared to commit against Christ." (Hist. Eccles. II.6: The Misfortunes which overwhelmed the Jews after their Presumption against Christ)

Life of Constantine

Eusebius' Life of Constantine (Vita Constantini) is a eulogy, and therefore its style and selection of facts are affected by its purpose, rendering it inadequate as a continuation of the Church History. As the historian Socrates Scholasticus said at the opening of his history, which was designed as a continuation of Eusebius: "Also in writing the life of Constantine, this same author has but slightly treated of matters regarding Arius, being more intent on the rhetorical finish of his composition and the praises of the emperor, than on an accurate statement of facts." The work was unfinished at Eusebius' death.

Minor historical works

Before he compiled his church history, Eusebius edited a collection of martyrdoms of the earlier period and a biography of Pamphilus. The martyrology has not survived as a whole, but it has been preserved almost completely in parts. It contained:

  1. an epistle of the congregation of Smyrna concerning the martyrdom of Polycarp;
  2. the martyrdom of Pionius;
  3. the martyrdoms of Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonike;
  4. the martyrdoms in the congregations of Vienne and Lyon;
  5. the martyrdom of Apollonius.

Of the life of Pamphilus, only a fragment survives. A work on the martyrs of Palestine in the time of Diocletian was composed after 311; numerous fragments are scattered in legendaries, which still need to be collected. The life of Constantine was compiled after the death of the emperor and the election of his sons as Augusti (337).

Apologetic and dogmatic works

The following apologetic and dogmatic works have survived:

  1. the Apology for Origen, the first five books of which, according to the definite statement of Photius, were written by Pamphilus in prison, with the assistance of Eusebius. Eusebius added the sixth book after the death of Pamphilus. We possess only a Latin translation of the first book, made by Rufinus;
  2. a treatise against Hierocles (a Roman governor and Neoplatonic philosopher), in which Eusebius combated the former's glorification of Appollomius of Tyana in a work entitled "A Truth-loving Discourse" (Greek, Philalethes logos);
  3. Praeparatio evangelica ('Preparation for the Gospel') which attempts to prove the excellence of Christianity over every pagan religion and philosophy. The Praeparatio consists of fifteen books that have been completely preserved. Eusebius considered it an introduction to Christianity for pagans. But its value for many later readers is more because Eusebius studded this work with so many fascinating and lively fragments from historians and philosophers that are nowhere else preserved. Here alone is preserved a summary of the writings of the Phoenician priest Sanchuniathon of which the accuracy has been shown by the mythological accounts found on the Ugaritic tables. Here alone is the account from Diodorus Siculus' sixth book of Euhemerus' wondrous voyage to the island of Panchaea, where Euhemerus purports to have found his true history of the gods, and here almost alone is preserved writings of the neo-Platonist philosopher Atticus along with so much else.
  4. Demonstratio evangelica ('Proof of the Gospel') is closely connected to the Praeparatio and comprised originally twenty books of which ten have been completely preserved as well as a fragment of the fifteenth. Here Eusebius treats of the person of Jesus Christ. The work was probably finished before 311;
  5. another work which originated in the time of the persecution, entitled "Prophetic Extracts" (Eklogai prophetikai). It discusses in four books the Messanic texts of Scripture. The work is the surviving portion (books 6-9) of the ‘‘General elementary introduction to the Christian faith, now lost.
  6. the treatise "On Divine Manifestation" (Peri theophaneias), dating from a much later time. It treats of the incarnation of the Divine Logos, and its contents are in many cases identical with the ‘‘Demonstratio evangelica'‘. Only fragments are preserved;
  7. the polemical treatise "Against Marcellus," dating from about 337;
  8. a supplement to the last-named work, entitled "On the Theology of the Church," in which he defended the Nicene doctrine of the Logos against the party of Athanasius.

A number of writings belonging in this category have been entirely lost.

Exegetical and miscellaneous works

Of the exegetical works of Eusebius, nothing has been preserved in its original form. The so-called commentaries are based upon later manuscripts copied from fragments of catenae. A more comprehensive work of an exegetical nature, preserved only in fragments, is entitled "On the Differences of the Gospels" and was written for the purpose of harmonizing the contradictions in the reports of the different Evangelists. It was also for exegetical purposes that Eusebius wrote his treatises on Biblical archeology, which included:

  1. a work on the Greek equivalents of Hebrew Gentilic nouns;
  2. a description of old Judea with an account of the loss of the ten tribes;
  3. a plan of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon.

These three treatises have been lost. A work entitled "On the Names of Places in the Holy Scriptures," an alphabetical list of place names, is still in existence. Further mention is to be made of addresses and sermons some of which have been preserved, e.g., a sermon on the consecration of the church in Tyre and an address on the thirtieth anniversary of the reign of Constantine (336). Of the letters of Eusebius only a few fragments are extant.

Estimate of Eusebius

His doctrine

Dogmatically, Eusebius stands entirely upon the shoulders of Origen, who was anathemized by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Like Origen, he started from the fundamental thought of the absolute sovereignty (monarchia) of God. God is the cause of all beings. But he is not merely a cause; in him everything good is included, from him all life originates, and he is the source of all virtue. He is the highest God to whom Christ is subject as the second God. God sent Christ into the world that it may partake of the blessings included in the essence of God. Christ is the only really good creature; he possesses the image of God and is a ray of the eternal light, but the figure of the ray is so limited by Eusebius that he expressly emphasizes the self-existence of Jesus.

Eusebius was intent upon emphasizing the difference of the persona of the Trinity and maintaining the subordination of Jesus to God (he never calls him ‘‘theos'‘) because in all contrary attempts he suspected polytheism or Sabellianism. Jesus is a creature of God whose generation, for Eusebius, took place before time. Jesus is in his activity the organ of God, the creator of life, the principle of every revelation of God, who in his absoluteness is enthroned above all the world. This divine Logos assumed a human body without being altered thereby in any way in his being. The relation of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity Eusebius explained similarly to that of the Son to the Father. No point of this doctrine is original with Eusebius; all is traceable to his teacher Origen. The lack of originality in his thinking shows itself in the fact that he never presented his thoughts in a system.

His limitations

The limitations of Eusebius could be said to flow from his position as the first court-appointed Christian theologian in the service of the Roman Empire. Notwithstanding the great influence of his works on others, Eusebius was not himself a great historian. His treatment of heresy, for example, is inadequate, and he knew very little about the Western church. His historical works are really apologetics. In his Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 8, chapter 2, he points out, "We shall introduce into this history in general only those events which may be useful first to ourselves and afterwards to posterity."

In his Praeparatio evangelica (xii, 31), Eusebius has a section on the use of fictions (pseudos) as a "medicine", which may be "lawful and fitting" to use. With that in mind, it is still difficult to assess Eusebius' conclusions and veracity by confronting him with his predecessors and contemporaries because the texts of previous chroniclers, notably Papias of Hierapolis, whom he denigrated, and Hegesippus, on whom he relied, have disappeared; they survive largely in the form of the quotes of their work that Eusebius selected, and thus they are to be seen only through the lens of Eusebius.

These and other issues have invited controversy. For example, Jocab Burckhardt dismissed Eusebius as "the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity". Burckhardt is not alone in holding such a view. However, Professor Michael J. Hollerich thinks such criticisms go too far. Writing in "Church History" (Vol. 59, 1990), he says that ever since Burckhardt, "Eusebius has been an inviting target for students of the Constantinian era. At one time or another they have characterized him as a political propagandist, a good courtier, the shrewd and worldly adviser of the Emperor Constantine, the great publicist of the first Christian emperor, the first in a long succession of ecclesiastical politicians, the herald of Byzantinism, a political theologian, a political metaphysician, and a caesaropapist. It is obvious that these are not, in the main, neutral descriptions. Much traditional scholarship, sometimes with barely suppressed disdain, has regarded Eusebius as one who risked his orthodoxy and perhaps his character because of his zeal for the Constantinian establishment." He concludes that "the standard assessment has exaggerated the importance of political themes and political motives in Eusebius's life and writings and has failed to do justice to him as a churchman and a scholar".

While many have shared Burckhartdt's assessment, others, while not pretending to extol his merits, have acknowledged the irreplaceable value of his works.

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