Around 324 Eusebius, Bishop of Caeserea, compiled his Church History, which documents church history from Jesus’ time until his own time. He liberally quotes the sources he uses, as he is clearly interested in correct history, as far as he can ascertain. He also gives some opinions on his sources, Papias being rather simple-minded, for example. Other times he makes a statement but qualifies it with something to the effect of “it is reported ...”
His sources for the first century are rather limited. He cites Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, and Papias for church history, and Josephus for external confirmations as well as the destruction of Jerusalem. There are also some traditions, legends and secondary sources that he reports. Everyone seemed to agree that Matthew wrote his gospel to the Jews in their language (Eusebius says Hebrew, but they actually spoke Aramaic) before becoming a missionary. Sometimes it sounds like Matthew was written first. Mark wrote his gospel to capture everything that Peter said accurately, but not in order. Apparently there were some less-than-thorough gospels, so Luke wrote a better researched one, as well as Acts during one of Paul’s imprisonments. John wrote a “spiritual” gospel later. The sources consistently place Peter and Paul in Rome together. Hebrews is claimed to be written by Paul in “Hebrew” to the Jews (which is why there is no author mentioned at the beginning, or order that readers would not write it off before reading it), although later Origen is quoted suggesting that it was written by someone who remembered Paul’s teaching since the content sounds like Paul and has similar phrasing, but it clearly not Paul.
By the end of the first century Eusebius shows God having destroyed the Jewish nation as Jesus prophesied (the “end-times” prophesies in the Gospels were seen as relating to the destruction of Jerusalem by the early Church) and a fledgling church developing under the wise care of bishops. At this time there was consensus about some books as having authoritative Apostolic authorship/content but much of what is now the New Testament was accepted at some churches but not others. Some congregations continued to perform miracles. Also, it seems that the Christians may have had communal property, since that things like money were of no eternal value. Bishops had fairly small flocks, and together (via letter) decided what was heretical and what was not. From the writings of Papias, Eusebius shows that what was taught to the fourth generation down was the genuine apostolic teaching (he travelled and talked to second generation people like Polycarp, and what they said the apostles taught corresponded to what he had been taught).
There was some local persecutions in the first century, one of which disturbed Pliny the Younger due to the number of people executed, and he wrote to the Emperor in 112 asking what to do, since the Christians are not disruptive and are law-abiding. The response was to not seek out Christians, but if any become known, to execute them. In 177 there was a large persecution in Lyons and Eusebius offers some stories of the martyrs. Some people were afraid and offered sacrifices, but a lot of people joyfully and persistently endured torture and death. Eusebius glowing talks of these as “finding fulfillment” in their martyrdom.
The second century also sees a lot of heretics, which the bishops diligently fight. Eusbebius leaves no doubt as to his opinions of these people and their, using phrases such as “blasphemous falsehood” (5.28) He excerpts descriptions and arguments against the heretics from arguments against them written contemporaneously. One gets the impression that the bishops were concerned not only about false teaching, but also concerned about unity among believers. Eusebius frequently describes the heretics as disturbers of unity, and describes some cases in his own day where some bishops met with heretics, explained how what they were teaching was incorrect, and the person was persuaded and agreed with them, giving the impression that this was the ideal outcome, unity having been restored.
The Church History is roughly organized by the current emperor, so when Eusebius synchronizes his account with the imperial reign, he also lists the succession of bishops of major cities, indicating how long they ministered. The bishops tended to die in office (or shortly after passing it on) and generally served for ten years or less, so presumably they were fairly old. The bishops were elected by the congregation in the city, and it seems that the election process involved the entire congregation meeting and debating who was well-suited. This is demonstrated by an exception—Fabian was immediately elected Bishop of Rome after a dove, assumed to be the Holy Spirit, settled on his head, whereas as prior to this he was not a candidate under discussion. It also seems that the church in the city could be fairly large (1500 was quoted for one church), but they seemed to have gathered in one place.
Bishops seemed to have respected other bishops’ and regions’ right to practice things differently. In a controversy over the date of Easter in the late third century, the Bishop of Rome wanted to excommunicate some churches in Asia, but a number of bishops write to him strongly urging him not to, since they were following an early tradition, and it had always been the practice of bishops to respect the traditions of other churches as long as they were consistent with apostolic teaching. Similarly, Eusebius quotes one bishop as arguing that Revelation was not written by John the Apostle (two major arguments were that it uses none of his common phrases and that John the Apostle scrupulously avoids mentioning himself in his writings, whereas as the John of Revelation frequently refers to “I, John”), but elsewhere says that he thinks that for those reasons Revelation was written by the other John in Asia, but if you believe it was written by the Apostle, then fine. (An early source attests to two Johns being buried in Ephesus, but nothing seems to be recorded about the other John.)
Eusebius spend almost an entire chapter on Origen, giving a short biography. It seems that as a young boy Origen was eager to follow his father in “fulfillment” and tries to be martyred several times without success, so his mother hid his clothes so that he could not go outside. I found it interesting that Eusebius portrays marytrdom as glorious, but also sees Origen being denied martyrdom as an intentional blessing for the church. So why not apply the reverse to the martyrs? Origen also castrated himself due to taking on of Jesus’ sayings literally, which Eusebius notes as being unwise youthful enthusiasm that one should not imitate. Origen quickly proved himself a great scholar, and was given charge of the catechitical school in Alexandria. Eventually he became Bishop. He failed to get martyred several more times, but did finally find his fulfillment.
Society saw Christians in two ways. On the one hand, their enemies would write malicious reports about them, alleging sexual and financial vices. Some of heretics were, in fact, doing these things, which the bishops point out in their arguments against the heresy, where relevant. But on the other hand, there were two major plagues around this time, and the Christians stayed in the city to minister to victims and to bury them respectfully. In the first plague Eusebius notes that this resulted in many of the Christians catching the plague themselves.
The persecutions intensified beginning with Diocletian, with Christians in Alexandria being ordered out of the city and told to go to another city. The persecution was relatively short-lived, and they were free to return. Late in the third century they got much worse, but this time the persecution lasted for a decade and was organized and comprehensive, by an emperor of poor character who was influenced by an advisor who hated Christians. The persecution was eagerly pursued by officials who wanted the emperor’s favor, and by mob’s who blamed the Christians for deterioration in society. By this time there were Christians in the imperial household and in the imperial government, but frequently they immediately confessed the faith and were horribly tortured. Again, people frequently wanted to be martyred; some would even jump into the flames. At the same time, many denied Christ out of fear. Churches were torn down, property confiscated, and Scriptures burned. Christians were cruelly tortured, with officials competing to devise slower and more painful tortures, with people having legs stretched apart painfully, being slowly burned, etc.
Perviously Eusebius described persecutions as demonic opposition: “The word of salvation began to incline every race toward the devout worship of the God of the universe, including whole household and relatives of many at Rome who were distinguished by wealth or family. The demon who hates the good and envies by nature found this unendurable, and once again he stripped for battle and invented various devices to destroy us.” (5.21) But this persecution came about because of God’s judgement on a church that had become too worldly, much as God punished Israel for a time, although he does not give examples of the sins of the church. So Eusebius is describing in his history that God was at work guiding his church: the bishops and the church were safe-guarding the apostolic teachings and living by the Holy Spirit, the influence of the Gospel was increasing (and thus, Christ’s Kingdom), the devil was attempting to disrupt this process and God also purified the church. Finally, God uses Constantine as his champion to defeat the anti-Christian emperors, ending the persecution and emerging victorious with Christ’s kingdom having conquered the Roman world.
Again, Eusebius glowingly portrays the glorious martyrs. Yet, while he relates people proactively jumping into the flames, he also relates stories of deliverance. When orders were given for the arrest of one bishop he stayed in his house in anticipation of arrest, but the soldiers assumed that he would flee and so they looked everywhere else and he avoided persecution. Other people were not always in agreement about the benefits of martyrdom. Another bishop stayed home and was captured when the soldiers came. One person who was going to a wedding heard about it, and when he told the guests, they all rushed to the bishop’s house. The soldiers fled in fear, but the bishop (perhaps assuming they were enemies?) asked them to hasten is end and kill him. In the end they had to forcibly put him on a donkey and take him to safety.
The result of the great persecution was that people held the Christians in high respect and saw the Christian’s God as the legitimate god. Eusebius does explicitly say why this was. Part of it seems to be that people saw that many Christians believed what they said enough to endure prolonged torture without recanting, even to the point of joyful willingness. Miraculous events probably influenced this, too, such as one where wild animals were goaded to attack a group of Christians in a stadium (who were even waving their arms—as instructed—to draw the animals’ attention), but animals were prevented by what seemed to be an invisible barrier, so the Christians had to be slaughtered with the sword by actual people. A similar influence was the famines during the persecution, which in paganism was an indication that the the traditions of sacrifices known to please the gods were not working.
(Eusebius notes that the foolish emperors who ordered the persecutions set themselves up for failure because they deprived themselves of the prayers of the Christians. Apparently Christians regularly prayed for the emperor and the good of the people. This would be in accordance with Paul’s teaching to pray for the authorities. Indeed, in High Anglican liturgies today the weekly prayers included the head of state and good governance. It seems this may not simply be for the benefit of the King/Queen (historically), but rather an ancient tradition of the Church.)
Constantine’s father, as senior emperor ended the persecution by edict, but the main eastern emperor was not really on board, and started up the persecutions again. He died of a painful disease. Constantine’s father died peacefully, which Eusebius attributed to gracious treatment of God’s people. The legions proclaimed Constantine emperor, and upon reaching Rome, was opposed. He saw his famous vision, the opposing force was routed (in part due to poor tactics, also in part due to fighting a deteriorating floating bridge and much of the army falling into the river and drowning, including the opposing emperor). Constantine gave his daughter in marriage to the remaining co-emperor, who ruled Asia, and who re-started a persecution. Constantine was lenient and exiled him, but executed him the next year for attempted rebellion. Constantine immediately proclaimed a (flowery) edict giving freedom of worship to all people but especially Christians, commanding immediate return of the Christians’ property, providing money to build churches and to the bishops for ecclesiastical purposes, and convened several councils to resolve heretical controversies. The History ends before the Council of Nicea, which is obviously the most well-known.
Eusebius can sometimes be a little excessively effuse to the modern reader expecting history. While Eusebius as a historian stands up fairly well to modern standards, he (and the Bishops he quotes) tends to condemn heretical ideas with excessively enthusiasm and praises God, bishops he likes, and martyrs so effusively that modern Christians would likely be embarrassed. It made me wonder if I would really like the guy; it seems overly spiritual and black/white. However, in his last chapter he presents a panegyric he delivered at the dedication of his mentor Paulinus to whom he dedicated the History, and he uses similar language, only even more intense. You would think the bishop was Christ’s second-in-command (as Eusebius essentially says)! It seems that this is a rhetorical style, where the goal is to make effusive praise of someone as simply natural. Not having ancient Roman sensibilities, it is hard for me to tell how well Eusebius succeeded, but he does use legitimate biblical themes and ideas as a metaphor for Paulinus. Essentially he describes Paulinus using biblical metaphor as a means of saying that he is fulfilling those metaphors. It seems that, to a much smaller extent, Church History is a panegyric to the Church, and so he uses the same excessive rhetoric for the threads of God’s victorious work.
At the same time, his panegyric elements are based in actual Christian thought. Maybe “fulfillment” is excessively positive about martyrdom, but clearly many Christians did rejoice at the prospect of being literal imitators of Christ, as well as a strong proclamation of Christ through their willingness to suffer as he did. Indeed, the apostle Paul took the same view, describing his impending death as “being poured out as a drink offering”. While there is evidence that Eusebius recognizes martyrdom as a traumatic tragedy, in a panegyric honoring those fallen in battle one would focus on their praise. What can be more praiseworthy than imitating Christ to the utmost, even as Paul instructed?
Church History is a rather narratively less clear than Acts until Eusebius arrives at his own time, where he is able to describe more of a narrative (e.g. the church needed purification through discipline, so it got persecution, but it resulted in God being acknowledged as God by society). Part of this is that Eusebius is trying to do more things than Luke. Aside from the facts, some of Luke’s main narrative themes are the Gospel proclaimed “in Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” and showing that the heads of the church, Peter and Paul, are Christ’s successors by virtue of doing similar miracles. Eusebius aimed to span 300 years of history, discuss which books were regarded as canonical at different times, the succession of bishops, enough secular history to place the church history, summaries of theological errors, personal stories, and a historical narrative. So with all that the narrative thread gets lost, but we do get contemporaneous sources to the events where available, much of which is now lost. As a result we get a comprehensive view of what the church faced.
The first-century history section is the weakest, relying almost entirely on secondary sources (apart from the actual gospels, etc.) and Josephus. Eusebius also seems more credulous here than later. For instance, he relates a story about a Syrian king asking Jesus to come and heal him, and Jesus says no, but he would send someone, who arrived some years later. But both the king and Jesus are entirely too “Christian”, the king taking pains to affirm correct doctrine and Jesus acknowledging that, whereas at the time the disciples did not even really understand what was going on, let alone a pagan king. This is reported as a true story. In other places he gets dates incorrect, as is pointed out in the translation’s footnotes.
The gave two impressions. One is that basically nobody really knew precise dates in the ancient world. You had to correctly remember which emperor the event had happened under, and figure out which year of his reign it was, and this is prone to error. Furthermore, Eusebius frequently says that only some books of a particular writer have come down to him, so even if the date was precisely reported, you would have to have access to the book (and if you are writing a historical work, be willing to go through a bunch of scrolls to find the actual date; much easier to just hope you remembered it correctly, even as I have done in some places in this summary). The second impression is that people thought to write down the teachings of Jesus early on, but did not think to record what happened to the important players until it was too late. So what we know about the apostles and early church fathers is mostly through tradition. No doubt the apostles would have been content with this: Peter apparently did not mention Mark’s gospel much, and John goes to great lengths to avoid naming himself as the author. But the rest of us would prefer to have the incomplete narrative of Acts completed.
Church History is a fascinating work. Depending on you interest, parts may be fairly dry, but there is something for everyone, and a lot of interesting cultural tidbits. (For example, apparently churches had a wooden screen around the altar to separate it from the congregation at least as early as Paulinus’ church; it is not a medieval thing like I thought) Furthermore it is of priceless historical value since many of the sources Eusebius quotes have been lost. The translation by Paul Maier is also helpful, as he acts as the editor the loquacious Eusebius did not use, and also footnotes details about the text. Obviously, since this book is still in print, it is not only a hundred year book, but a thousand year book, and offers an invaluable insight into the early church.