Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339) belongs to the generation of early church fathers who took an active part in as well as vividly experienced the dramatic change from persecution to toleration and eventually to acceptance of Christianity on the part of Roman emperors. This is a man of somber temperament, non-extreme religious views, sophisticated diplomatic skills and remarkable prolificacy. In his eventful life he occupied an important ecclesiastical office as the Bishop of Caesarea (metropolis and cultural center of Palestine) throughout Emperor Constantine’s reign, and was the latter’s close confidant and counselor in religious matters. Eusebius’ major works can be roughly divided into three categories, most of which were originally written in Greek:
I. Historical Works, including Chronicle, The Church History, and Vita Constantini (The Life of Constantine);
II. Biblical and Exegetical Works, including Onomasticon (On the Names of Places in Holy Scripture), Commentary on the Psalms, and Commentary on Isaiah;
III. Apologetic Works, including Preparation for the Gospel, Proof of the Gospel, Against Hierocles and Against Porphyry.
Among the above and many other volumes and letters only existing in fragments today，which give full evidence to his erudition and versatility, it is his Ecclesiastical History, or The Church History according to Paul L. Maier’s fully annotated and commentated English edition—the very first opus of its genre—that earned him the justified appellation of “father of church history”.
The Church History consists of ten books covering about three hundred years from the life of Jesus to the defeat of Licinius by Constantine (324), the first fully Christian Roman emperor, under whose reign Christianity was finally acknowledged throughout the empire as a legal and mainstream religion. The major issues dealt with are: the apostolic succession; the formation of New Testament canons; the lists of bishops in four most important communions (namely Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria); prestigious Christian authors and their works; the divine punishment of the Jews; Roman persecutions of Christians; various heretics and their defeats; Christian martyrdoms.
The books are organized by the years of the Roman emperors, supplemented by the years of the pontificates, perhaps because there was no alternative for Eusebius at the time: the A.D. chronological system hadn’t been formally established yet, neither had the chronology of popedom. But this order is occasionally interrupted, for instance, the events in the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius are separately recorded in the latter part of Book IV and the former part of Book V. This might reflect the emperor’s changing attitude towards Christianity (from tolerance in Book IV to persecution in Book V), or simply the limited space of a single volume of papyrus manuscript in the fourth century. But I venture to suggest that Eusebius also took into consideration the requisites of good literary writing, of capturing narration, and of holding the attention of his readers—or perhaps listeners, considering his bishopric duty of weekly preaching—by avoiding lengthy and concentrated accounts of the same period.
Modern scholars have shown doubts upon Eusebius’s capacity as a historian, some accusing him of citing profusely, sometimes even indulgently, lengthy source materials with little critical views of his own. But we should remember that at the time, the collection of as many as possible authentic texts and arranging them, by concise comments, to suit his own framework of writing was considered a historian’s prime task, and we owe to Eusebius alone the preservation of the fragmentary writings of such important Christian writers such as Papias and Hegesippus, whose original works are nowhere else to be found. Moreover, Eusebius is for the most part a literary historian, so that it is natural for him to be chiefly concerned with books and their authors.
In fact, Eusebius’s reliance upon miscellaneous historical and apologetic works of his predecessors greatly lessens in the later books (Book VIII-X) of The Church History, which deal with contemporary issues, and instead of adopting an impartial and objective tone, in these three books he frequently and freely expresses his own opinions on events which he has experienced or witnessed first-handedly. Even in the former seven books, Eusebius is not an unselective and uncritical compiler of ancient texts—his attitude toward controversial matters is clarified through his choice of source materials as well as through his method of arranging them. For instance, in Book I, on the issue of the two different family trees of Jesus regarded by many as conflicting, he cites in details the explanation of the historian Julius Africanus and implicitly gives his acquiescence.
The same critical approach is adopted by Eusebius in his tracing of the formation of New Testament canons. The canonical Scriptures were not decided once and away by a universal church conference, but were rather gradually established during a long period when different Christian centers used different New Testament works. In his treatment of the division of canonical and non-canonical scriptures in Book III, V and VI, Eusebius sheds light upon such a process. Firstly, he listed in Book III works that were respectively believed to be written by the Apostles (Peter, Paul, Matthew, John) and by Paul’s disciple Luke, then he commented that “of all those who had been with the Lord, only Matthew and John have left us with their memoirs”, thus dismissing a large part of the so-called works by Peter and Paul as apocryphal. Several passages later, he conclusively divided the above-mentioned New Testament works into three categories:
1. Canonical Scriptures: the four Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, John), the Acts of Apostles, Paul’s epistles, 1 John, 1 Peter , The Revelation of John (with some hesitation, for reasons he later discussed);
2. Spurious Scriptures (“those that are disputed but known to most”): the epistles of James and of Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John and 3 John (could be written by Apostle John or by “someone else with the same name”), Acts of Paul, The Shepherd [of Hermas], The Revelation of Peter, epistle of Barnabas, Didache (Teachings of the Apostles) and the Gospel of the Hebrews.
3. Heretic works (“published by the heretics under the names of the apostles”): Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthias and others, Acts of Andrew, John and other apostles “that have never been cited by any in the succession of church writers.”
Eusebius chided the works in the third category as differentiating starkly from the apostolic works in diction, style, opinions and ironic rhetoric, so that they should not even be included in the list of disputed works, but be utterly condemned as impious and absurd. In Book V, Eusebius cited Irenaeus’s viewpoints upon the canonical Scriptures from his Against Heresies, then in Book VI cited Origen’s Commentary on Matthew on the same issue. It can be seen that Eusebius relied heavily upon the opinions of these two early church fathers when making his own classification of New Testament works as seen above.
It may be true that Eusebius did not work according to modern historical standards—how could he possibly does?—and didn’t treat his source materials with a “critical spirit” in the modern academic sense. Nevertheless, throughout The Church History, there is an obviously conscious effort to avoid partiality in terms of source materials as a result of Eusebius’s own religious grounds. Eusebius’s source materials belong to three major categories:
1) Christian materials, including writings by early church fathers such as Tertullian, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus and Hegesippus, and of course the New Testament canonical Scriptures;
2) General contemporary materials, including epistles between emperors and bishops, and records of Christian martyrdom and Roman persecution in the reign of Diocletian and Maximin Daia－these were the only real “first-hand” historical data accessible to him;
3) Non-Christian materials, predominantly the Jewish Antiquities and Jewish War by the excellent Jewish historian Josephus, which Eusebius abundantly cited throughout the first five books, as if these are external evidences to supplement Christian materials (functioning as internal evidences) in the sketching out of a map of early church history.
Considering the extraordinary—and, in some modern scholars’ opinion, disproportionate—amount of Jewish history materials included in The Church History, we might wonder for what reason Eusebius, as many early church authors, pay such great attention to the issue of the Jewish people: their being punished by the Romans and by God; their often unsuccessful rebellions; their expulsion from Jerusalem; their conversion to Christianity. Some possible reasons that I can propose are:
1) During the first four centuries A.D., Palestine was a land where various religions and cults prospered at once, even in fierce competition, with their respective prophets and their respective promises and teachings on leading a good, hopeful life. To distinguish itself, Christianity, which originated and developed from a sect of Judaism, had to prove that Judaism as a religion no long had any hope at that age to justify the necessity of the relatively new Christianity;
2) For the same reason, early church authors may have intentionally deemphasized the theological influence of Judaism upon Christianity, but instead focused on the fate of the Jewish people on a more concrete and visible level in tangible historical events;
3) Unlike most religions of the time, headed by Roman polytheism, Judaism is monotheistic just like Christianity, which might explain the fact that Jewish inhabitation centers were often the fastest in the conversion to Christianity. Therefore those Jews who wouldn’t convert were regarded as extremely obstinate and beyond redemption—in acknowledging a monotheistic God they were only one step away from truth, but they would still refuse Jesus as Messiah and Christ.
4) Furthermore, it was the Jews that have sentenced and crucified Christ, and for this they were cursed by God and had to suffer endlessly from Roman persecution, culminating in being forbidden from Jerusalem by Emperor Hadrien, who even changed the name of the city from Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina and colonized the city by Romans and other non-Jewish people. Such a notion of nemesis, or retribution, or karma—not in the afterlife, but right then, right here, in this life on the earth— was surely not a fundamental part of Christian doctrines, but most early church father didn’t seem to have hesitated in drawing evidences from recent history to justify the necessity of obeying God’s will and of following the right path—by right, of course, they meant the path of upright Christians, of Christianity as a universal, catholic religion rather than a religion of exclusive nature and barely had the ambition to convert “outsiders”, like the Judaism of their age.
All these may partly explains Eusebius’s fervent interest in the issue of the Jewish people in The Church History, and as the Jews were ultimately squashed and the massive Jewish diaspora started after three defeated wars (ca.70, 115, 135 A.D.), Eusebius’s focus shifted away accordingly. Jewish source materials gradually disappear since Book V, and his favorite Jewish author Josephus is no longer quoted from Book VI and on.
Another central focus of The Church History is the issue of a diversity of heretics stemming from within Christianity and corroding the church from various directions, and early church fathers’ respective responses. These parts display Eusebius’s ability as an apologetic writer. Of no less importance is the issue of Roman persecution or tolerance in the reigns of different emperors, which to a large extent shaped the early development of Christianity, the emperors’ attitude toward the Christian belief being a significant thread that links the ten books in The Church History. I won’t go into details upon these two issues, but it may safely be judged that, though as a theologian/philosopher Eusebius may not belong to the rank of Origen before him and Augustine after him, his excellence as a historian and a philologist is beyond doubt. This can be proved by the fact that no ancient historian of his time, or of many generations after, has ever attempted to write another church history to displace the one of Eusebius, and that The Church History has become a widely translated and carefully preserved cannon of its genre, in the fourth century, as well as 17 centuries later.