Eusebius and the Beginnings of Christian Historiography

If Eusebius lived today in an American university, he would occupy professorships in departments of political science, sociology, history, religious and theological studies, and, of course, classics. But I think his particular department would be political science. For Eusebius, though the founder of Christian historiography, confronted an essentially political problem and organized his thought in response to it. He turned to history for the same reason that people today study history: to understand how things have come to their present pass. As Chesnut explains, Eusebius wrote history in order to develop a poltical theory:

The reformulation of Christian political theory necessitated by the legitimization of Christianity under Constantine was given official form in the writings of Eusebius. . . . The Roman empire suddenly became a government within which Christians could take more active part, but for which they had to take more active responsibility. Some set of ideals for the Christian monarch had to be developed and given shape, by which men could live their lives in the new Christian world. (Chesnut 1977, 34)

Eusebius saw his work as fresh, the first of its kind. He says he has no antecedents, no models. That is so not only of his profession but also of his life. Eusebius saw himself as living in a new era, one without precedent. So von Campenhausen says: "The victory of the Emperor Constantine, friend of Christians and beloved of God, and the beginning of his reign of absolute power in East and West alike, brought the previous development to its goal and a new epoch opened. For Eusebius too a new era began in his own life" (1959, 62-63). It is this deep sense that a fresh phase in human history was beginning that makes Eusebius interesting. He created history as a Christian science and addressed questions of historical meaning, answering them in terms of the epochs into which time was to be divided.

Eusebius was born in Caesarea about 260, survived the final persecutions of the Church, from 303 to 308, and also witnessed the advent of the Christian emperor after 310. He saw the whole as a divine plan, which he would uncover and record, seeing himself as the first Christian historian: "I am not aware that any Christian writer has until now paid attention to this kind of writing." He provided a narration of how humanity had moved inexorably from the beginning to the remarkable moment at which he lived. He was the first historian of the Church, but that meant that he had to invent history all over again, since, until his time, the Church was not a factor in the history of nations. What Eusebius did was to retell the history of the Church in relationship to the age in which it lived, down to the present, and in this way he created a theology of history, explaining the movement through persecution to the ascent to the throne of a Christian emperor. His was the first full-length narrative history written from a Christian viewpoint. What he contributed, in Kelly's words, was "a chronologically framed compendium of world history from the birth of Abraham down to 325 . . . showing that the Jewish-Christian tradition stretched back farther than any other" (Kelly 1975, 72-73; see also Chesnut 1977, 31; Jackson 1933, 56; Luibheid 1966, 13).

Eusebius drew on history to derive proof for rules of theology. He organized facts in order to make points that transcended specific instances. Accordingly, he worked as a kind of social scientist, in that the concrete instance demonstrated a general rule. The rules, of course, derived from theology. But the historical method was rigorous and consistently applied. His account of Constantine, for example, proved the point that God honors pious princes but destroys tyrants (Life of Constantine 1:3). But his main interest was to demonstrate that, from the creation of the world, all events formed a single pattern, leading up to the moment at which the Church would inherit the universal empire: "It is my purpose to write an account of the successions of the holy apostles, as well as of the times which have elapsed from the days of our Savior to our own; and to relate the many important events which are said to have occurred in the history of the Church." (1961, 1:1,1).

To carry out his purpose, however, Eusebius starts with the time before the creation of the world, with the preexistence and divinity of "our savior and Lord Jesus Christ." His name was known from the beginning and honored by the prophets. His religion was not new. In these arguments, Eusebius provides the Church with a history from the very beginnings of the world. He stresses the fact that the Christians formed a new nation, most numerous: "But although it is clear that we are new and that this new name of Christians has really but recently been known among all nations, nevertheless our life and our conduct, with our doctrines of religion, have not been lately invented by us, but from the first creation of man . . . have been established by the natural understanding of divinely favored men of old" (1961, 1:4). Eusebius therefore links the Christian nation to the ancients, some before the flood, others descendants of Noah, Abraham, and onward. Christian religion begins with Abraham:

But that very religion of Abraham has reappeared at the present time, practiced in deeds, more efficacious than words, by Christians alone throughout the world. What then should prevent the confession that we who are of Christ practice one and the same mode of life and have one and the same religion as those divinely favored men of old? Whence it is evident that the perfect religion committed to us by the teaching of Christ is not new and strange . . . but it is the first and the true religion. (1961, 1:4)

Abraham provides more than precedent. In the view of the historian, he proves social rules. He lived that life of virtue that produced in God the response of blessing. What is striking in Eusebius' picture is his powerful faith that Christianity began with the beginning of history and made its original statement through Abraham. No wonder then that sages too turned back to the same story and found in it the foundations for their faith.

His principal stress was on the creation of a political philosophy based on the unity of the Church and the empire under the providence of God. In the year of Constantine's conversion, Eusebius published his Ecclesiastical History (312), and in 337 his Life of Constantine. Other lives of holy men followed in sequence. Hagiography and pagan historical works alternate, according to Momigliano: "The Christians attack. The pagans are on the defensive" (1963b, 81). But with power and responsibility, Christian historians had to account for the past. So Momigliano characterizes matters:

The new history could not suppress the old. Adam and Eve and what follows had in some way to be presented in a world populated by Deucalion, Cadmus, Romulus, and Alexander the Great. This created all sorts of new problems. First, the pagans had to be introduced to the Jewish version of history. Secondly, the Christian historians were expected to silence the objection that Christianity was new. . . . Thirdly, the pagan facts of life had to get into the Jewish-Christian scheme of redemption. ... It soon became imperative for the Christians to produce a chronology which would satisfy both the needs of elementary teaching and the purposes of higher historical interpretation. . . . Christian chronology was also a philosophy of history. . . . Christian elementary teaching of history could not avoid touching upon the essentials of the destiny of man. (1963b, 81)

Accordingly, as I have already stressed, no one can imagine that Christians began writing history only in the aftermath of the conversion of Constantine. A Christian scheme for describing the history of the world, beginning to end, did not await Eusebius. On the contrary, he reworked what he had in hand. But he laid stress on the pattern of history (Momigliano 1963b, 85), and that is why he is important. For it was in the discerning of patterns that history crossed the border into theology, and theology in the form of apocalypse at that.

The new historiography was old in two senses. First, it drew upon available

Christian materials, and, second, it drank richly from the apocalyptic heritage of Daniel in the Old Testament, Revelation in the New, and much else. What, in fact, did the Christian historians do? Momigliano points out, "The Christians invented ecclesiastical history and the biography of the saints, but they did not try to christianize ordinary political history" (1963b, 88). But, as we have seen, this is precisely what Eusebius did, for he was writing a national history and saw the Christians as the nation. But what sort of nation? It was sui generis, beginning in heaven, warring for God and Christ against the devil. In chapter 4 we shall see this viewpoint worked out in detail, with Aphrahat characterizing the Christians as a people born out of the peoples, a no-people, a people with no past—yet with the past that (Jews thought) was Israel's. This was a new kind of history indeed, appropriate to the enormous event that had come about. Now history told the story of persecution on the one side, and heresy on the other. And the principal form in the writings of Eusebius was the saint's biography (Momigliano 1963b, 93). The special interest of sages in the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs forms the corresponding statement. They found in those lives the models not merely for personal conduct but for the history of the nation, Israel. The task, for Eusebius, lay in the writing of the national history of the Church through the lives of the saints and martyrs. Von Campenhausen characterizes Eusebius' picture of history in this way:

Christianity was the decisive power behind the moral progress of the world, the crowning consummation of the history of thought and religion, and its prophecies and commandments had become the basis of a program of human renewal. Monotheism and the new idealistic morality, which constituted the heart of the gospel of Jesus for Eusebius, were unable to rule the world from the beginning . . . "life, which was still so to some extent animal and unworthy had to be tamed and molded by the beginnings of philosophy and civilization." When the Roman Empire brought peace to the world and overcame the multiplicity of governments, the hour for the Christian people had come, according to the will of God. . . . God has protected his Church in the world from all the demonic onslaughts of its enemies and has led it to victory and success as the shining light of all people. (1959, 59)

So history presents the unfolding of God's will. Like Aphrahat, whom we shall meet presently, Eusebius was a scholar working with facts.

The picture of history drawn by Eusebius laid stress on the divine promise to the seed of Abraham, meaning "all who lived according to the standards of piety that would be reestablished and renewed in the world by the coming of Christ." The Mosaic law had its place as "prologue to the event which would restore that friendship" between God and man, namely, "the coming of the Messiah." Christianity was not "the upstart religion . . . but the republication of a standard and a code which long predated the Homeric or Mosaic past." This was addressed to all humanity, and the expansion of the Roman Empire, "coincident with the coming of Christ. . . was no accident but had to be seen as part of the divine plan long ago revealed in the promise to Abraham. . . . The increase in Roman power meant an increase in the potential area of Chris tian activity." With the conversion of Constantine, therefore, the.Church "had at last caught up with the expanding Empire. The growing power of Rome had been preparing the way to be followed by the spreading movement of Christianity ... the fact that [Constantine] had become a Christian was so extraordinary, so overwhelming in its implications and in its results, that it could be explained only as the outcome of a specific ordinary ordinance of God" (Luibheid 1966, 13-15). Eusebius had a very specific interest in the Jews and Judaism, of course. He wished to answer Jews' objections to the Gospel and to retrieve the Hebrew Scriptures from Judaism and demonstrate that the Old Testament validates the New. That accounts for his notion of a worldwide religion before Moses, a religion now fully worked out in Christianity. Eusebius gave full expression to the idea "of a world-conquering Christian civilization" (Leitzmann 1950, 166, 169).

As we shall note, the sages produced no writing like that of Eusebius. They responded to historical events in a different idiom, often putting forth ideas of the same sort (though with opposite propositions, to be sure). What made Eusebius different from sages in this regard? If we wish to understand why, in the canon of Judaism, Eusebius has no counterpart of any kind, we find the explanation in the problem confronting the Christian historians. Chesnut explains:

In the histories of this period, the ruler of the Roman state, due to his enormous power, often played the single most important role in determining the course of human events. He had traditionally been regarded by many ancient men as a divine being. ... It will be necessary to explore the attempts of the first Christian historians to deal with both the sacred king and the philosophical king and the gradual emergence in their writings of a combination of the old pagan theory of rulership with a new, medieval understanding of the ideal monarch as a pious, ascetic soldier-monk. ... It was necessary to confront the pagan idea of Eternal Rome with some more Christian concept, while dealing as well with the quite different pagan histo-riographical motif of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. (1977, 33)

These motifs in no way affected Jews' understanding of themselves and their history. As we noted in the opening chapter, Israel and the Christian nation had changed places, the one beginning as a state but now no longer a political entity, the other beginning as a religious group and now entering upon a long political existence. Israel now had no kings, no state, no theory of eternal Jerusalem to translate into this-worldly narrative. The problems and motifs of Christian history derived from Christian theology, on the one side, and the Christians' remarkable situation in the new world, on the other. So Christian historians had to produce, as Chesnut says, a "new kind of history" to deal with a pressing situation and urgent questions. The task proved in no way narrowly historical. Eusebius did not merely have the work of preserving information or received traditions. For those out of touch with politics and affairs of state, history took a different form. It required deep reflection on the signs and trends of time, with special interest in the reading of Scripture as the guide not to what had been but to what would be. This search, within Scrip ture, for the meaning of the affairs of the day carried thinkers far from the political agenda of Eusebius and his co-workers. Scripture opened its doors to this other kind of historian and supplied the wherewithal for this different kind of history.

Israel's sages, in Genesis Rabbah, and Eusebius, the great Church historian, bear much in common. Both parties went back to the beginnings. From the history of former times both wanted to draw lessons for present and future history. From the story of the beginnings of the world and of Israel they sought meaning for their own times. For that purpose they proposed to identify the patterns in events that would convey the will of God for Israel. The issue was the same, the premise the same, the facts the same. Only the conclusions differed. In the initial encounter, in the age of Constantine, therefore, the Judaic philosophers of history and the Christians represented by Eusebius conducted a genuine argument: different people talking to different people about essentially the same thing.

It was the book of Genesis. In looking to the past to explain the present, the Judaic sages turned to the story of the beginnings of creation, humanity, and Israel, that is, to the book of Genesis. In doing so, they addressed precisely that range of historical questions that occupied Eusebius: where did it all start? Both parties shared the supposition that if we can discern beginnings, we can understand the end. The Israelite sages took up the beginnings that, for Eusebius too, marked the original pattern for ongoing history. Sages, of course, would not have added what to Eusebius was critical: "Where did it all start—now that we know where it was all heading all the time?" Sages could not imagine, after all, that what had happened in their own day marked the goal and climax of historical time. Rome formed an episode, not the end. But, then, sages had to state what they thought constituted the real history of the world and of Israel.

The book of Genesis became the principal mode of historical reflection and response for the sages of the time. They chose that book in order to deal in precisely the same manner and setting with exactly the same questions that occupied Eusebius: to understand the (to Eusebius) end or (to sages) critical turning, look back to the beginning. In fact, in the present context of debate, only the book of Genesis could have served both parties so well. For Eusebius, the end would impart its judgment of the meaning of the beginning: this is where things all along had been heading. For the sages of Genesis Rabbah the beginning would tell us where, in time to come, things will end up. That is the point on which the parties differed, making possible our reconstruction of their genuine argument, within agreed-upon limits.

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  • birgit schmitt
    What are the essential contribution of the jewish christian writers to historiography?
    1 month ago

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