Eusebius of Caesarea and the Making of Early Christianity – By Michael Hollerich

Michael Hollerich July 22, 2014 0

Michael Hollerich on Aaron P. Johnson’s Eusebius

Aaron Johnson, Eusebius, I. B. Tauris, 2014, 192pp., $24.00

Aaron P. Johnson, Eusebius, I.B. Tauris, 2014, 192pp., $24.00

As one of the most prolific and influential personages of the early Christian world, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-339) has long attracted the attention of theologians, historians, classicists, and biblical scholars. Both the remarkable range of his writings and the critical period through which he lived and for which he is our single most important witness have guaranteed his fame. But for all the diversity of his literary oeuvre, scholarship on Eusebius has focused on a few limited themes. His core historical works — the Ecclesiastical History, the Life of Constantine, and the universal history usually called the Chronicle — have drawn most of the interest. Scholars have tended to assume that he and Constantine were intimate allies, and so they saw him mainly as an apologist for Christianity’s political subjection to the Roman Empire. Another dominant theme has been his connection to Arius, the Alexandrian presbyter whose subordinationist theology was condemned at the Council of Nicaea. Due to his guilt by association with Arius, Eusebius was never graced with the title of “saint”, unlike so many of his fourth century contemporaries, few of whom matched his learning.

The last ten or fifteen years have seen a surge in new work on Eusebius that has enriched and complicated the inherited picture, as scholars have renewed focus on writings, such as the apologetic and biblical works, that traditionally received less attention and reformulated and revised some of the conventional readings. Thanks to these shifts, we now recognize that Eusebius was principally a Christian scholar and, eventually, a bishop for whom the Christian Church and the Christian faith were the all-important realities in light of which he judged everything else — even the imposing reality of the Roman Empire. Eusebius was not a court theologian of the Constantinian settlement but someone who saw — and of course respected — the Empire from a point of view that owed more to the Bible than to Hellenistic political philosophy or to a craven pragmatism. We now understand his apologetic works, which depend heavily on quotation of both biblical and classical sources, as monumental productions in their own right and not merely as valuable sources for otherwise lost works. Where theological development is concerned, scholarship on the Arian controversy has increasingly recognized that Eusebius’s Christology was not Arian (insofar as anyone but Arius himself in that first generation after Nicaea could be called “Arian”), and in fact he may have had a positive influence on those who articulated Nicene orthodoxy later in the fourth century.


Eusebius of Caesarea – Image via Wikimedia Commons

A common methodological thread in these re-readings of Eusebius is a more informed attention to the properly literary character of each of his many books, and to his unique contribution to the creation of a new and distinctively Christian literary culture. Among the younger generation of scholars who have most thoroughly incorporated this line of approach is Aaron Johnson. His new book, Eusebius, is a most valuable summation of the work of the past couple of decades. Its virtues are many.

First, Johnson covers all of Eusebius’s authorial production and does so with an admirably even hand: the controversial dogmatic treatises against the Christian theologian Marcellus of Ancyra are given almost as much respectful and sympathetic attention as the Ecclesiastical History and the Constantinian literature (the Life of Constantine and the two speeches from late in Eusebius’s career known collectively as In Praise of Constantine). Someone familiar with just one of Eusebius’s works will find here a genuinely comprehensive interpretation of the entire oeuvre. In that sense, the volume serves as an excellent introduction to his life and writings, with an informed attention to Eusebius’s interaction with his literary contemporaries, pagan as well as Christian. Despite its packaging as an introduction to Eusebius, it is well grounded in current international scholarship, as the abundant but terse documentation demonstrates. So it is an introduction to the general reader and the student neophyte, while at the same time being an invaluable guidebook to the burgeoning secondary literature for established scholars. I have learned a great deal from both the discussion and the notes.

Another virtue of this book is the efficiency of its presentation. Eusebius is not just a long encyclopedia article but also a summation of a generation of research with creative suggestions for future work. A remarkable amount of detailed and careful exposition is compressed into less than 200 pages. Despite this brevity, Johnson doesn’t shrink from tackling technical topics that have exercised scholars for generations. An outstanding example is his handling of the vexed question of the various editions of the Ecclesiastical History, in which he ventures — or “gestures,” in his own words — the innovative thesis that the History did not undergo multiple editions, as has universally been assumed ever since Eduard Schwartz’s critical edition a century ago. Instead, Johnson points to evidence that all ten books may have been integral to the whole work as Eusebius produced it. Reacting to the proliferation of unverifiable theories of the several editions in which Eusebius is thought to have issued his great work, Johnson proposes “a more economical” approach that tries to do minimal justice to the conflicting evidence in the manuscripts. Rather than distinct editions, he proposes that we think of accumulating changes in an ongoing work, changes that could have been introduced at various points in time, quite possibly even by later copyists of the manuscripts. He notes some current discussion of a two-edition theory, books 1-9 appearing first, followed by another that added book 10. (As he also says in his notes, his manuscript had already been submitted for publication when he was able to see pre-publication work on the first volume of the new French commentary on the Ecclesiastical History edited by Sébastien Morlet and Lorenzo Perrone, which also has adopted a more “economical” and restrained approach to theories of editions.) Obviously Johnson isn’t able to make the case in detail, but I mention this to show that the book is a work of original research as well as a valuable road map to the state of the field.

Johnson’s interest in the pedagogical purpose of Eusebius’s writings, especially his apologetic and biblical works, is distinctive. He proposes that Eusebius wrote works like the General Elementary Introduction (an often overlooked early treatise to which Johnson gives generous attention) for use in a Christian educational program, on the model of what pagan contemporaries like Porphyry were doing.

Finally, I would emphasize that Johnson is commendably disciplined, not just in his efficient exposition but also in the care with which he makes his arguments. Despite being on the leading edge of current scholarship, there are remarkably few fashionable buzzwords on display here. In his careful appeal to evidence and keen awareness of historical contextualization, he has even, I would say, written a conservative book. Anachronism is a constant risk when writing about Eusebius, because of the long and unhappy legacy of Christian imperialism with which readers will forever associate his name. But Eusebius could know none of that. Johnson reminds us that, for all of Eusebius’s confidence that divine providence was superintending human history, he lived in turbulent and uncertain times. His modern readers must constantly remember to see Eusebius in the world as he saw it: in a cultural, religious, and political setting shaped not by the fourth century Christian empire to come, but by the third century of diversity and contestation that had just ended.

Also Recommended from MRB: