On Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History and the Origins of the Gospels

Eusebius is the noted historiographer of the early Christian Church. He lived during the 4th century AD and was the Bishop of Caesarea (a maritime region in northern Israel-Palestine). Like other early Christian theologians, Eusebius wrote voluminously, including apologetic texts, books about the Biblical canon, as well as a somewhat controversial book on the Life of Constantine, however he is best remembered for his Ecclesiastical History (or “Church History”). Eusebius’s life was contemporaneous with the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great -the first Roman Emperor who converted to Christianity (supposedly) and who released the Edict of Milan in 313 AD (which ordered tolerance for Christians throughout the Empire), along with convening the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

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Unlike many modern ‘histories’ which are sanitized and profess to be ‘value-neutral,’ Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History is explicitly biased. He propounds to give an account of the Church from its early days, and, at the same time, he hopes to dispel certain fabrications of false teachers, thereby confirming the truth of Christianity. His hope is to piece together distant fragments, which are like ‘torches guiding his pathway,’ and to pluck certain passages from the “meadow” of historical writings to form a complete history.

Unlike Herodotus, who presents an account of the great men and events of the Persian Wars, we see an emerging view of ‘history’ as a documented timeline of events worth documenting for posterity. Christianity brings with it the need to confirm the truth of certain events, which must have actually happened in order for people to be persuaded of Jesus’s divinity. The idea of linear history is a new development. With it, comes a deep fear of forgetfulness.

Eusebius begins by giving a theological account of the ancient origins of Jesus’s teaching (since it was unpopular to consider a true religion to be recently created by most Roman intelligentsia). Thus, Eusebius takes great labors in Book I to tie Jesus’s lineage to antiquity. Eusebius notes that there were seventy followers, after the twelve apostles.

Eusebius continues by giving an account of the early apostles after Jesus’s ascension – Matthias’s and Stephen’s martyrdom, as well as James the Just’s life (bishop of Jerusalem), and Paul’s persecution of Christians during this time. Eusebius cites various writers, including Tertullian and Clement. Eusebius frequently cites the misfortunes of the Jews as a result of what they have done to Jesus. Eusebius reports that Pilate was forced to kill himself. He also relates a story from Clement of James’s beheading, and he cites a story from Josephus of Herod’s painful death.

The Origins of the Gospel of Mark
According to Eusebius, Peter was the greatest of the apostles. He went to Rome to preach of the new teaching of Jesus, but he was then killed (according to tradition he was crucified upside-down). But the listeners of Peter were not content to merely hear the stories, so they demanded that Peter’s followers document the story. One of Peter’s followers was Mark, hence the origins of the Gospel of Mark, which some say is the earliest of the gospels. Mark then went to preach the gospel in Egypt, where a certain Christian asceticism emerged.

The Origins of Luke and Acts
After Paul’s miraculous conversion, he is eventually captured and imprisoned for two years in Rome, wherein Luke begins work on his history now known as the two New Testament books of Luke and Acts.

Eusebius describes James the Just, the brother of Jesus, as a holy man who rarely shaved and never bathed, but was just and constantly asked everyone for forgiveness. Eusebius wonders if James is the first originator of the first ‘catholic epistle’ or if that award belongs to the epistle bearing the name Jude. Eusebius describes the confusing authorship of various epistles, such as those of Paul and Peter (which were widely read in the early churches) as well as various other Christian texts, such as Hermas who wrote a book called ‘The Shepherd.’ He goes on to relate the stories of the Jews in their war with Rome, and the afflictions which befell them, followed by an account of the life and writings of Josephus.

The Origins of the Gospel of Matthew
Eusebius (citing Papias) says that Matthew began collecting certain sayings and maxims of Jesus in Aramaic. Each one was translated as best as possible into Greek (likely oral translations). Gradually, Eusebius claims that this gospel was written down as an attempt to convert the Hebrews. He suggests Matthew was originally written in ‘the Hebrew language’ or Aramaic, and that Matthew also wrote the ‘Gospel According to the Hebrews.’

An Account of John and His Gospel
Eusebius gives an account of Clement and his epistle, as well as John and his apocalypse while imprisoned on Patmos. He then relates the stories of the relatives of Jesus, as well as an account of the tortured life of John after his freedom from prison. Eusebius defends John’s gospel as genuine which records the deeds of Jesus before John the Baptist was put in prison. His gospel and epistles are little disputed (save for two of them) and his Apocalypse is widely disputed (per Eusebius). Authorship and authority continues to be a problem in early Christianity.

The second half of Eusebius’s work concerns continuing persecutions of the Christians from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. However, I find his accounts of the origins of the gospels and the epistles to be more interesting.

For this reading I used a web-based translation of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History.

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