Thursday, 5 July 2012

Eusebius

Apologies for my short absence.  I've been busy with work, it being the end of the financial year and all, and not much spare time to write down the thoughts clattering around my head. 

Anyway, in between other things I've been gradually working my way through Eusebius' History of the Church.  Eusebius has been called the "father of church history" and this work, which first appeared early in the 4th century, is the earliest surviving attempt at a comprehensive account of the first three centuries of Christianity.

I say "attempt" because the work is hardly comprehensive.  In the first place, it is almost entirely a history of the Greek-speaking church of the Eastern mediterranean, with occasional insertions of events from the West, especially Rome.  Yet for me this was the least puzzling thing about it.  As a 21st century reader it is easy to see what it lacks as a work of history.

For a start there is no real sense of development.  We know that the church started in Judea and gradually spread out through the Roman world over the first two centuries.  Yet we hear virtually nothing of this.  There are no missionary tales, no accounts of the arrival of the faith in new places, no sense of sequence.  It is like the empire-wide church sprang up fully formed.

The same goes for its intellectual development.  The church somehow moved from the fragmentary foundational teachings of Jesus and the apostles to a fully fledged, complex theology stated in terms compatible with Greek philosophy.  How did it get there?  What arguments took place along the way and how were they resolved?  Once again, there is no sense of this progression in Eusebius.  He does indeed mention a large number of heretics, but he neither explains their ideas nor refutes them.  Instead he simply slanders them, accusing them of pride, rebellion and misplaced ambition before describing how the authorised bishops of their day overcame them.

All of which illustrates the folly of trying to read an ancient text from a modern point of view.  Eusebius had other things on his mind than satisfying my curiosity.

The first clue is in the stories of martyrdom that make up a large proportion of this work.  Drawn from many sources, they have a distinctive structure, in which innocent and courageous Christians confess their faith before hostile Roman officials, maintaining their confession in the face of horrifically inventive tortures before finally losing their lives and as he says, "gaining their reward". 

Although his retelling of those stories is fairly formulaic, this is no mere academic interest.  This history was written in the reign of Constantine, at the dawn of lasting peace between the church and the empire.  Eusebius' flattery of Constantine seems nauseating until you consider that his predecessors, Diocletian and his associates, mounted the most comprehensive persecution of the church's entire history in a final attempt to wipe out what they considered a pernicious and atheistic faith.  Eusebius tells us nothing of what happened to him in this time, but however he came through it must have been terrifying.  He had no way of knowing that such persecution would not recur after Constantine passed on.

The second clue is in the structure of the history itself.  Although it is easy for us to skip these bits, the framework round which the book is built is the succession of Roman emperors and alongside it, the succesive bishops of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Rome traced meticulously from their Apostolic founders to his own day.  Eusebius makes sure that there is a clear and unbroken succession in all three sees back to (respectively) James, Thomas and Peter.

The final clue is right at the beginning of the book.  His starting point is not Jesus' birth in Bethlehem or his crucifixion in Jerusalem, but his eternal pre-existence with the Father.  From here Eusebius briefly discusses his role in the creation of the world as presented in John's Gospel and attributes to him various appearances of the Lord in the Old Testament, including those to Abraham and Moses.  His most recent appearance in the first century was thus his final and definitive appearance, but not his only one. 

Eusebius lived in a highly conservative and rigidly heirarchical society.  New ideas were not merely seen as frivolous and ephemeral but as positively dangerous, leading to the disintegration of society and the overthrow of the established order.  Popular and rapidly spreading new ideas like Christianity, which demanded exclusive allegiance from their followers, were especially dangerous.  Hence the centuries of intermittent persecution, especially vicious when the empire saw itself under threat.

Eusebius' answer to this, his strategy for steering away from further persecution which must have seemed such a real possibility in his day, was to demonstrate that Christianity was not a new idea at all.  Its heirarchy stretched back (with a little creative chronology) to the time of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.  It was a successful, effective heirarchy with proven ability to control deviants within the church - hence it was not important what the heretics taught, only that their teaching was suppressed.  Its antecedents reached all the way back to Abraham, further than the history of Rome itself and sharing its origins with Judaism, an exclusive faith licensed by the Empire.

It was not simply that Eusebius was uninterested in the development of the Church or the evolution of its ideas.  It was that he saw the knowledge of these things as positively dangerous to himself and his fellow believers. If they were to survive, continuity and ancient origins must be emphasised, development and change must be kept out of sight.  The stakes for an apologetic strategy can hardly ever have been higher.  If a few facts got twisted along the way, that was a small price to pay.

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