Eusebius, 1st Church Historian

Dan Graves, MSL

Eusebius, 1st Church Historian

Suppose you are a survivor of an outlawed organization whose origins go back to around 1700, seventy-six years before America became an independent nation. "Tell the story of your people," you are urged.

The problem is, your people were an illegal group. In fact, the government tried to exterminate them! Their leaders were captured and killed and many letters and books burned. They left no public festivals, no monuments--very little by which historians ordinarily trace history. And to make your task more challenging, your people were scattered over most of the known world. How could you possibly put together their story? That is the kind of task Eusebius tackled.

His people were the Christians who had been persecuted for almost three hundred years. A measure of peace came to the believers when Constantine became emperor. At last the story of the church could be told.

Eusebius was the one for the job. He had already prepared a chronology of the Bible and early church, trying to establish the dates of Christ's death and the events that followed. This was a difficult undertaking because many different calendars were in use at the time and he had to match up events recorded under one system to events recorded under others.

Eusebius' ten-volume history is our best authority for early Christian history. We owe him a special debt because he quotes from many sources that no longer exist. We are blessed that he showed interest in a broad range of material. He traced the lines of apostolic succession in key cities. Thus we know how the church progressed in the big towns. The church has always been nourished with the blood of martyrs. Eusebius told the stories of many who suffered for Christ.

He was also interested in debates over which books should be in the Bible and he gave us various views of the matter. Because of this we know a good deal about how we got the New Testament. Eusebius also traced the threads of heresy. Through him we know of challenges to orthodoxy in the early centuries of the faith. Above all, Eusebius described how God preserved the church and poured his grace upon it. Eusebius even followed the woeful fate of the Jews and their struggles.

Late in life, Eusebius was invited to become bishop of Antioch. He turned down the offer. His backers appealed to the Emperor to compel him to accept. Instead, Constantine praised Eusebius for refusing.

Eusebius died on this day, May 30, 339. He was seventy-four years old. In addition to all his other writings, he left behind him commentaries on Isaiah and on the Psalms, a geography of the Bible, and a concordance of the Gospels. He wrote books to clear up differences in the Gospels. Finally he produced an account of the Martyrs of Palestine whom he had personally known. But his history remains his most important contribution to the church, and the one by which his name will always be remembered, for it gave us our past.

Bibliography:

  1. Aland, Kurt. Saints and Sinners; men and ideas in the early church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
  2. Bacchus, F. J. "Eusebius of Caesaria." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  3. Barnes, Timothy David. Constantine and Eusebius. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981.
  4. "Eusebius: He Saved our Family History." Glimpses #91. Worcester, Pennsylvania.
  5. "Eusebius." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
Last updated May, 2007.
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