EUSEBIUS' ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY
The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus is the acknowledged history of the Church from the end of the Book of Acts to the Council of Nicea. "A unique work, it remains the most important single source for the history of the Church in those centuries." 1 Unfortunately, it is a source that is recognized to contain some serious "untruths."
Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History was written during the reign of the Emperor Constantine. Constantine is known as the first Christian emperor. The Church had endured centuries of persecution. Constantine decreed an end to it, and began to exalt the Church. It was he who convened the Council of Nicea.
With this dramatic political shift came an equally dramatic theological shift. Eusebius himself played an important role in bringing about that theological shift. "Eusebius' outlook was conditioned by the new political settlement between the Empire and the Church as well as by his theological upbringing and allegiance to certain views which he inherited from Origen. "In his political philosophy, clearly articulated in Vita Constantini [Life of Constantine] and in Oratio de Laudibus Constantini [Oration in Praise of Constantine], the Emperor was the image of God and the representative of the Almighty. The Emperor acted as the interpreter of the Logos. He imitated the philanthropy of the Son of God. In the gathering of all the bishops with the Emperor Constantine on the day of his tricennalia [30th anniversary of his reign], Eusebius saw the image of the Messianic banquet. "For Eusebius, there was no longer a precise and definite distinction between the Church and the Empire. They appeared to merge into each other. The structure of the Emperor's earthly government, declares Eusebius, is according to the pattern of the divine original." 2 What is the divine original that the Emperor and his empire were to reflect? The pivotal issue theologically was the nature of the fulfilled kingdom of God. If the kingdom was to be fulfilled through a personal earthly reign of Jesus the Messiah from Jerusalem, then the Jews were inescapably part of that kingdom, which would follow the repentance of Israel. In that case, God's faithfulness to the Jews had not expired. The kingdom was still future.
On the other hand, if Constantine, the emerging Holy Roman Empire, and the State-exalted Church were the kingdom, then there was no need for the Jews. The fulness of the kingdom was in the present. Moreover, if the Jews had no special significance for the fulfilled kingdom of God, then God had no need or plan for them. In that case, the rejection and replacement of the Jews was the means of fulfilling the kingdom. Instead of being natural citizens of the kingdom, whether loyal or disloyal, the Jews became the enemies of the kingdom. If that were the case, then the Church needed to recognize and proclaim it. Eusebius firmly believed, in the fourth century, that the Church was the "new Israel," replacing the Jews. He firmly believed that there was no distinct future for the Jews in the plan of God. 3 Whenever he discusses the issue of a physical millennium, he treats it as an heretical view. ("Millennium" comes from the Latin mille annum, a thousand years.) Following Origen, Eusebius rejected the normal meaning of the Scriptures that promise restoration to the Jewish people. Or he ignored these Scriptures altogether. (See Eusebius History and the Millenium)
The belief in the restoration of the Jewish people and the establishment in Israel of a millennial kingdom was not an heretical view, it had been the prevailing view. In fact, it had been the established orthodoxy. In the first and second centuries, it was the view that Eusebius chose to champion that the early Church had considered to be heresy.
In writing any book, an author chooses what to include and what to leave out. In writing history, a faithful historian will make those choices so as to present an accurate picture of the past. Eusebius was intentionally inaccurate. He had his own agenda. "No source might [be] used that contradicted or conflicted with the apostolic tradition as Eusebius conceived it." 4 Eusebius ignored the sources that showed the apostolic tradition to be different from what he thought it should be. He was intent on creating an apostolic tradition that was different from what the apostles had actually believed and taught.
"...Eusebius was the product of the Alexandrine school of theology [See Origens System of Interpretation]. To him orthodox tradition was primarily just the tradition preserved at Alexandria, in its entirety and without any contradictions." 5 "The point of these examples, only two of many, is that they show Eusebius as advocate; it was not his intention, in writing about Constantine or about the Church in general, to provide an impartial account." 6 "As scholarship became more critical, however, historians began to look at the VC [De Vita Constantini, Eusebius' Life of Constantine] more and more warily, until ultimately the great nineteenth-century rationalist Jakob Burckhardt angrily dismissed its author as 'the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity,' 'the most disgusting of all eulogists.' " 7
But Eusebius had a reason for what he did. The image that Eusebius wanted to present, the Church that he wanted to help create, was more important to him than the historical reality. Before he wrote his Ecclesiastical History, he had already completed a six volume defense of Origen. He wanted to convince the Church that Origen was correct. Eusebius maintained that purpose in his Ecclesiastical History.
1. H.A. Drake, In Praise of Constantine, A Historical Study and New
Translation of Eusebius' Tricennial Orations, Univ. of California Press,
Berkeley, 1976, P.7
2. V. Kesich, "Empire-Church Relations and the Third Temptation," Studia
Patristica, Vol. IV, Berlin, 1961, Pp.468-469
3. The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, translated by Christian
Frederick Cruse, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989, E.g. Bk. of
Martyrs, Ch.11, P.369
4. B. Gustafson, "Eusebius' Principles in handling his Sources, as found in
his Church History, Books I-VII," Studia Patristica, op.cit., P.437
5. ibid., P.441
6. H.A. Drake, In Praise of Constantine, A Historical Study and New
Translation of Eusebius' Tricennial Orations, op. cit., P.10
7. ibid., P.8
Next: Origens System of Interpretation
Anti-Semitism up to the Holocaust Home Page