Now Eusebius, and Now you Don't

I was in the Speer library at Princeton Seminary in the summer of 1976 and I was looking for the Loeb edition of  Eusebius’  Church history.  The card catalog said it was on the shelf,  but in fact it was not.  I notified the dower old librarian of the fact, and she went to look for herself, not trusting a mere student like me.  She came back and confirmed it had gone missing.  I decided she hadn’t likely smiled in a while so I quipped ‘Well I guess it’s a case of now Eusebius and now you don’t’!’   This produced a quiet cackled and a smile almost cracked her serious face.   But alas, I had to go look elsewhere for Eusebius.   One of the real problems with Eusebius is just when you think you have gotten him clearly in view,  he slips from your sight line.  Now you see him, and now you don’t.

Eusebius is rightly one of the most beloved and belabored of church historians, and in this post I do not intend to summarize the debate but rather to make a few suggestions on how he should be read.   Eusebius, as his book Proof of the Gospel, shows is an apologist and in his church history  he is an apologist for Constantine and his policies, among other things.  His work must be read as an example of  rhetorical history writing, tending towards epideictic rhetoric when he waxes eloquent about Constantine, and as such his work must be read critically and carefully. It cannot be taken at face-value, though it must be taken quite seriously, as Eusebius, despite his hyperbole, is not simply making things up as he goes along, and frequently, when he can be checked, he appears to be basically historically reliable when it comes to the facts of the matter or when he is quoting sources.

It has of course become a commonplace in Christian circles to speak of Eusebius, the contemporary and confidant of Constantine,  as if he were the father of church history.  This label is in fact, not entirely apt.  Before him was the author of Luke-Acts  (probably Luke the sometime companion of Paul)  and in the late second century there is the important work of Hegesippus  (somewhere after 165 A.D.)  upon which Eusebius in fact relies.   Unfortunately, we only have a few fragments of his work, largely the excerpts Eusebius occasionally quotes.    This is unfortunate, because he is the first real post-apostolic pre-Constantinian historian of early Christianity.   There is much we could learn from him.

The second cautionary word about Eusebius is that he is not pretending to be an unbiased reporter.  As I said, he is an apologete and he pursues a particular line of argument.   This again should not lead to cynicism about what he says,  but it should lead to caution as one reads his writings.   Constantine was definitely not without his flaws and foibles which Eusebius tends to gloss over.   When he is not busy defending Constantine however,  Eusebius tells us a great deal we would not otherwise know about early Christian history, and where we can check what he says, it appears to be accurately cited, especially when it is not about a matter he has a bias about.     But this leads to the third point.

Eusebius definitely does have some theological biases as well. For example, he does not like pre-millenial eschatology, and offers some unfair critiques of folks like Papias of Hierapolis who affirmed, with many other early Christians, a non-Dispensational form of pre-millenialism.  Bear these things in mind.

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  • Rick C.

    Dr. Ben -

    What are your thoughts about Eusebius’ report of the grandnephews of Jesus (Jude’s grandsons) appearing before Domitian to testify about the “nature of Christ’s kingdom”? Eusebius quoted the Jewish-Christian Hegesippus (ref. cit., Ecclesiastical History 3.20).

    If the report is true, it looks like Jesus’ grandnephews were amillennialists. Being that this was at an early date (circa early-mid 90s), and since Hegesippus was Jewish, as was Jesus and His relatives; I’ve wondered if this could be used to support that Jesus Himself was amillennial. (In fact, in the past I’ve quoted it in order to try to do so). However, I now don’t think the historicity of this event can be absolutely proven.

  • Rick C.

    An excerpt of the above (Paul Meier’s translation, 1999): “They [Jude's grandsons] were asked about Christ and his kingdom—its nature, origin, and time of appearance. They replied that it was not of this world or earthly but angelic and heavenly, and that it would be established at the end of the world when he would come in glory to judge the living and the dead and reward everyone according to his deeds. At this Domitian did not condemn them but, despising them as simple sorts, let them go free….”.

  • Rick C.

    Correction: Paul L. Maier(translator).

  • ben witherington

    Rick, I am afraid this is another myth. Hegessipus also must be critically sifted, and even if this testimony were true, what they said could just as easily be read in a premillenial way.


  • Michael Flowers

    I would also include that although Eusebius signed on to the Nicene Creed (after being excommunicated for heresy), he differed from it on key points. He denied that the Son and the Father were of the same essence, positing instead that the Son proceeded from the Father’s free will (whatever that is). He also didn’t want to compromise the oneness of the Godhead, which he thought the notion of the Son’s divinity would do. And, unlike Trinitarians, he did not view the Holy Spirit as an eternal being, but rather as a creation by the Son.

  • Tony Springer

    As a church historian and patristics student, thank you so much on the play on words with Eusebius.
    E should remind us that all historians, no matter how objective, have an agenda/worldview/angle in their interpretation of documents, people, and events. In a sense, historians are always writing hagiography.

  • ben witherington

    Well Tony I would say that’s a yes and a no. I would say Eusebius doesn’t try to fudge the facts, he just misinterprets some of them. I would call him a rhetorical historian, and so of course we have to read him with a critical eye. It is his judgments, not so much his reporting that is sometimes suspect. It is in some ways a good thing that he operated with a certain amount of skepticism about some of the epiphenomena of early Christianity, which makes him a witness that is not as gullible as some might have been.


  • David Weinschrott

    I am not a sufficient historian to know the theological / eschatological context that Eusebius was party to. However it seems like we have to do some digging before we assume the current version of pre/a/post millennial continuum was under discussion or even relevant to their discussion. Modern versions of that discussion are just that – modern.

    On Jesus views of the matter. It seems to me that our discussion is about a model of the end times – where Jesus is concerned – he is the architect (master workman – Prov 8.30) of those times. We are in danger if we confuse the model with the reality — it is an occupational hazard in my work as an economist!

  • Eric Sawyer

    AI KURUMBA! Ben! I was searching your blog for the reviews of Rob Bell’s new book again, and came upon this. Either you read what I wrote, which clearly you didn’t because my article 3 days later, either way thanks for the good advice. I’ll be sure to put in a link to it on my blog.

  • Eric Sawyer

    Okay, now that I’ve managed to compose myself I have a question relating to Chapter XXII of Eusebius’ ~ Ecclesiastical History.
    I guess what I am interested in knowing is whether or not Eusebius’ reasoning with regard to Paul is worth it all and if not if there are any better sources with regard to how the book of Acts may have ended. ie. Paul’s appearances before Nero etcetera. If it’s too long a reply from this blog, I’d be happy if you could mail me any details at
    Eric J. Sawyer