Eusebius Pamphili's The History of the Church traces the history of the Church from the time of Christ all the way to the end of the Great Persecution and the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine.
Eusebius Pamphili’s The History of the Church traces the history of the Church from the time of Christ all the way to the end of the Great Persecution and the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Eusebius’s commendable goal is to depict the permanence of Christian beliefs and traditions amidst the struggles, tribulations, and triumphs that Christianity as a whole experienced. On the part of Eusebius, the book is a historical narrative, being a compelling assessment supported by factual data from the primary sources of his time. The way it is thus written allows one to read it as one would any other historical exposition; the distinguishing factor is the fact that it is, truly, the first of its kind as an extensive book on Church history. This is made ever more distinctive by the way the book labours over every point in its arguments, supported by relevant excerpts which seek, with some persistence, to encompass and clarify the subject matter. In this respect, Eusebius has succeeded where others have failed – the book covers three hundred years of Christian history in a manner that explains itself through sequential allusions to facts. However, this is not to say that the book is all encompassing, as Eusebius himself states that, “I confess that my powers are inadequate to do full justice to so ambitious an undertaking” (Eusebius 2). Indeed, background information through pre-textbook reading, especially related to peoples and dates, would be highly beneficial. On the other hand, if Eusebius’s work were to be viewed from the standpoint of a purely independent study, the reader would still find the work palpably understandable and thorough.
By writing such a significant work, and indeed, being “the first to venture on such a project” in the first place, having “failed to find any clear footprints of those who [had]gone this way before [him]”, Eusebius can rightly be considered a Church historian – perhaps the greatest of all in the first ten centuries of Christian history (Eusebius 2). Naturally, Eusebius starts his book with Christ himself, recounting Daniel the prophet’s words when he said that, “I watched, and lo, with the clouds of heaven came One like a Son of Man…His authority is an everlasting authority, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom shall not be destroyed” (Eusebius 9). Eusebius manages to produce a “truthful record,” stating that, “it was [in] the forty-second year of Augustus’s reign, and the twenty-eighth after the subjugation of Egypt and the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra…when our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ…was born in Bethlehem, in Judaea” (Eusebius 17).
Angels Announcing the Birth of Jesus Christ, painted by Govert Flink (Image Source)
He goes on to discuss the circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth with respect to the attempted intervention by Herod the Great. Drawing upon the New Testament reference, Eusebius states that Herod, believing “his throne [to be] in danger…issued a single decree ordering the destruction in Bethlehem and all its neighbourhoods, of the male infants, of two years and under, in accordance with the time he had found out from the magi” (Eusebius 23). For his crime against Christ and the children of Bethlehem, Herod was overtaken by “divine justice” – this being plain to all those who have heard the story. However, Eusebius treats it with a deliberation rarely seen among his contemporaries - he goes through this point in his book with the care of a true historian, referencing both Jewish Antiquities and the Histories to ensure that Herod’s last days were properly accounted for. Eusebius then begins to fully relate the ways and deeds of Christ, his apostles, and disciples – stating that, when “Tiberius Caesar was in the fifteenth year of his reign…Jesus the Christ of God… [began] His mission… [and] set to work preaching the gospel” (Eusebius 26). It is interesting to read the Imperial reaction to the deeds of Christ, especially after the Saviour’s resurrection and ascension into heaven – the story of the resurrection had been communicated from Palestine to the Emperor Tiberius. Eusebius relates Tertullian’s Defence of the Christians when he states that, “Tiberius then…when a report of this doctrine reached him from Palestine where it originated, communicated it to the senate, making it clear to them that he favoured the doctrine…the senate, however…rejected it; but Tiberius stuck to his own view, and threatened to execute any who accused the Christians” (Eusebius 39). It was during the reign of Tiberius that the name Christian became widespread throughout the known world, and churches sprang up in “every town and village.”
It was in the time of Claudius Caesar, when the faith of the Saviour was spreading in all directions, that Christianity was faced with the first of its struggles – this being in the form of heresy. This was wrought about by Simon the Magus, “the prime author of every heresy,” involved in rites that “involve such appalling degradation, such unspeakable conduct, that no decent man would let a mention of them pass his lips” (Eusebius 48). It was only through the apostle Peter and the divine Word Himself that Simon’s “power” was extinguished and destroyed, along with the man himself.
The Fall of Simon the Magus at the Hands of Peter, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli (Image Source)
During the reign of the Emperor Nero, Christianity was faced with another terrible struggle, this time in the form of the first of the series of persecutions. Misunderstood by a polytheistic culture, and quite plainly feared because of their ability to “laugh at death and snap their fingers at vile tyranny,” the Christians faced a host of abuses and tortures at the hands of the Romans – “the men endured fire and sword and crucifixion; wild beasts and submersion in the sea…they were prepared to endure anything for religion’s sake” (Eusebius 276). As Eusebius sets forth in his work, “When Nero’s power was now firmly established he gave himself up to unholy practices and took up arms against the God of the universe…in his reign [the apostle] Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and…Peter likewise was crucified” (Eusebius 62). It was thus that he was the first of the emperors to be declared enemy of the worship of Almighty God. Similarly, the Jews themselves committed crime after crime against the apostles and disciples of Christ, targeting and murdering them abominably. The judgement of God thus visited them in the form of the Abomination of Desolation, in the very city of Jerusalem itself - as famine overtook the populace in the wake of a Roman siege of the city. Eusebius states of the judgement that, “the famine became more intense, and devoured whole houses and families…in their misery no weeping or lamentation was heard; hunger stifled emotion; with dry eyes those who were slow to die watched those whose end came sooner” (Eusebius 71). And thus the Jews were punished during the reign of Vespasian. Persecutions against the Christians were intensified during the reign of the Emperor Domitian until it came to the attention of Pliny the Younger, a distinguished governor, that far too many martyrs were made every year. In response, the newly crowned Emperor Trajan issued a “decree that members of the Christian community were not to be hunted, but if met with were to be punished” (Eusebius 96). This shifted persecutions to less open forms, such as to the involvement of the common people in the Empire. Persecutions against the Christians continued to lessen under succeeding Roman emperors. The Emperor Hadrian explicitly forbade Christian persecution without trial, stating that one could only “pronounce sentence according to the seriousness of the offence…if anyone starts such proceedings in the hope of financial reward, then for goodness sake arrest him for his shabby trick” (Eusebius 112). Under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the provincial governors of the Empire were “[forbidden] to take any action against [the Christians], unless it was clear that they were scheming against the Roman government” (Eusebius 116). The sufferings of the Christian people continued in “earnest” under the Emperor Verus, who put countless to death in the worst ways imaginable.
The Christian Martyr's Last Prayer, painted by Leon Gerome (Image Source)
Eusebius states that, “they ran the gauntlet of whips…they were mauled by beasts, and endured every torment that the frenzied mob on one side or the other demanded and howled for, culminating in the iron chair which roasted their flesh and suffocated them with the reek” (Eusebius 144). Such a terrible approach was carried through to the reign of the Emperor Severus, who through “every kind of torture and every form of death” sought to level Christianity’s footholds, notably at Alexandria – where a high number of “the champions of true religion achieved glorious martyrdoms” (Eusebius 179). It was under the Emperor Valerian that Christianity met both its kindest benefactor and most horrific enemy. As Eusebius states, “both phases of Valerian’s rule are astonishing, the first being especially remarkable in character…not one of the emperors before him was so kindly and sympathetic in his attitude to them…but what a change when he was induced to get rid of them – [he was] induced to perform devilish rites, loathsome tricks, and unholy sacrifices” (Eusebius 226). During these dark times, many leading and well-known churchmen were martyred – in ways “that would surely make the hearer shudder…a sight more horrible than the torture itself, [bearing] marks of the elaborate and unlimited ingenuity of the torturers” (Eusebius 267). To think about or fully relate all the atrocities committed against the Christian people, Eusebius states, would be impossible – even those that happened during his lifetime. It is better yet to relate the deeds of the great Emperor Constantine, who “was the first to feel pity for the victims of tyranny in Rome” and “who possessed an innate reverence for God” (Eusebius 294).
Part of the statue of the Colossus of Constantine (Image Source)
It was thus that he defeated his enemies, and it was thus that both the wicked and the enemies of true religion were purged away. By placing his faith in God alone, Constantine was able to win back his “own eastern lands and [reunite] the Roman Empire into a single whole, bringing it all under peaceful sway, in a wide circle embracing north and south alike from the east to the farthest west” (Eusebius 332). Constantine’s Edict of Milan granted Christians the peace and prosperity that they deserved. There it is written that he gave “the Christians and all others liberty to follow whatever form of worship they chose, so that whatsoever divine and heavenly powers exist might be enabled to show favour to us and all who live under our authority” (Eusebius 322). Eusebius ends his History of the Church with the highly optimistic idea that Christianity had finally won a place for itself in the world and that with the rule of Constantine, tyranny was effectively no more.
In conclusion, Eusebius accomplished his goal of presenting an account of the history of three hundred years of Christianity, backing it up with contemporary evidence in a well-argued and interesting book. Though the text, like practically all works, has a few minor problems, it still remains clear, albeit sometimes a bit dense, in its explanations. One thing that is detrimental to the reading of the book is its lack of formalized structure. Though the book is split into twelve chapters, Eusebius goes on so many tangents that they can be considered very loose divisions within a larger unstructured work. What makes Eusebius’s book a masterpiece is the thoroughness with which he analyzes and interprets various aspects and characteristics of the nightmarish problems that Christianity faced. Overall, the work was thought-provoking and interesting, and it should be rightly considered the definitive work on Christian history.
Eusebius. The History of the Church. Rev. ed. London: Penguin Group, 1989. Print.
© 2011 Gregory Markov