Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol I:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The Church History of Eusebius.: Section 3
§3. Eusebius as a Historian. The Merits and Defects of his History.
The whole Christian world has reason to be thankful that there lived at the opening of the fourth century a man who, with his life spanning one of the greatest epochs that has occurred in the history of the Church, with an intimate experimental knowledge of the old and of the new condition of things, was able to conceive so grand a plan and possessed the means and the ability to carry it out. Had he written nothing else, Eusebius Church History would have made him immortal; for if immortality be a fitting reward for large and lasting services, few possess a clearer title to it than the author of that work. The value of the History to us lies not in its literary merit, but in the wealth of the materials which it furnishes for a knowledge of the early Church. How many prominent figures of the first three centuries are known to us only from the pages of Eusebius; how many fragments, priceless on account of the light which they shed upon movements of momentous and far-reaching consequence, have been preserved by him alone; how often a hint dropped, a casual statement made in passing, or the mention of some apparently trifling event, gives the clue which enables us to unravel some perplexing labyrinth, or to fit into one whole various disconnected and apparently unrelated elements, and thus to trace the steps in the development of some important historical movement whose rise and whose bearing must p. 47 otherwise remain an unsolved riddle. The work reveals no sympathy with Ebionism, Gnosticism, and Montanism, and little appreciation of their real nature, and yet our knowledge of their true significance and of their place in history is due in considerable part to facts respecting the movements or their leaders which Eusebius alone has recorded or preserved. To understand the development of the Logos Christology we must comprehend the significance of the teaching of Paul of Samosata, and how inadequate would our knowledge of the nature of that teaching be without the epistle quoted in Book VII. chap. 30. How momentous were the consequences of the paschal controversies, and how dark would they be were it not for the light shed upon them by our author. How important, in spite of their tantalizing brevity and obscurity, the fragments of Papias writings; how interesting the extracts from the memoirs of Hegesippus; how suggestive the meager notices from Dionysius of Corinth, from Victor of Rome, from Melito, from Caius; how instructive the long and numerous quotations from the epistles of Dionysius of Alexandria! He may often fail to appreciate the significance of the events which he records, he may in many cases draw unwarranted conclusions from the premises which he states, he may sometimes misinterpret his documents and misunderstand men and movements, but in the majority of cases he presents us with the material upon which to form our own judgments, and if we differ with him we must at the same time thank him for the data which have enabled us independently to reach other results.
But the value of Eusebius Church History does not lie solely in the fact that it contains so many original sources which would be otherwise unknown to us. It is not merely a thesaurus, it is a history in the truest sense, and it possesses an intrinsic value of its own, independent of its quotations from other works. Eusebius possessed extensive sources of knowledge no longer accessible to us. His History contains the results of his extended perusal of many works which are now irrecoverably lost, of his wide acquaintance with the current traditions of his day, of his familiar intercourse with many of the chief men of the age. If we cut out all the documents which he quotes, there still remains an extensive history whose loss would leave an irreparable blank in our knowledge of the early Church. How invaluable, for instance, to mention but one matter, are the researches of our author in regard to the circulation of the books of the New Testament: his testimony to the condition of the canon in his own time, and to the more or less widespread use of particular writings by the Fathers of preceding centuries. Great as is the value of the sources which Eusebius quotes, those that he does not give are still more extensive, and it is the knowledge gained from them which he has transmitted to us.
The worth of these portions of his History must depend in the first place upon the extent and reliability of his sources, and in the second place upon the use which he made of them.
A glance at the list of his authorities given in the index, reveals at once the immense range of his materials. The number of books which he either quotes or refers to as read is enormous. When to these are added the works employed by him in the composition of his Præp. Evang., as well as the great number which he must have perused, but does not mention, we are amazed at the extent of his reading. He must have been a voracious reader from his earliest years, and he must have possessed extraordinary acquisitive powers. It is safe to say that there was among the Fathers, with the possible exception of Origen, no more learned man than he. He thus possessed one of the primary qualifications of the historian. And yet even in this respect he had his limitations. He seems to have taken no pains to acquaint himself with the works of heretics, but to have been content to take his knowledge of them at second hand. And still further, he was sadly ignorant of Latin literature and of the Latin Church in general (see below, p. 106); in fact, we must not expect to glean from his History a very thorough or extended knowledge of western Christendom.
But his sources were not confined to literary productions. He had a wide acquaintance with the world, and he was enabled to pick up much from his intercourse with other men and with different peoples that he could not have found upon the shelves of the Cæsarean or of any other p. 48 library. Moreover, he had access to the archives of state and gathered from them much information quite inaccessible to most men. He was thus peculiarly fitted, both by nature and by circumstances, for the task of acquiring material, the first task of the genuine historian.
But the value of his work must depend in the second place upon the wisdom and honesty with which he used his sources, and upon the faithfulness and accuracy with which he reproduced the results thus reached. We are therefore led to enquire as to his qualifications for this part of his work.
We notice, in the first place, that he was very diligent in the use of his sources. Nothing seems to have escaped him that might in any way bear upon the particular subject in hand. When he informs us that a certain author nowhere mentions a book or an event, he is, so far as I am aware, never mistaken. When we realize how many works he read entirely through for the sake of securing a single historical notice, and how many more he must have read without finding anything to his purpose, we are impressed with his untiring diligence. To-day, with our convenient indexes, and with the references at hand which have been made by many other men who have studied the writings of the ancients, we hardly comprehend what an amount of labor the production of a History like Eusebius must have cost him, a pioneer in that kind of work.
In the second place, we are compelled to admire the sagacity which our author displays in the selection of his materials. He possessed the true instinct of the historian, which enabled him to pick out the salient points and to present to the reader just that information which he most desires. We shall be surprised upon examining his work to see how little it contains which it is not of the utmost importance for the student of early Church history to know, and how shrewdly the author has anticipated most of the questions which such a student must ask. He saw what it was in the history of the first three centuries of the Church which posterity would most desire to know, and he told them. His wisdom in this respect is all the more remarkable when compared with the unwisdom of most of his successors, who filled their works with legends of saints and martyrs, which, however fascinating they may have been to the readers of that age, possess little either of interest or of value for us. When he wishes to give us a glimpse of the persecutions of those early days, his historical and literary instinct leads him to dwell especially upon two thoroughly representative cases,—the martyrdom of Polycarp and the sufferings of the churches of Lyons and Vienne,—and to preserve for posterity two of the noblest specimens of martyrological literature which the ancient Church produced. It is true that he sometimes erred in his judgment as to the wants of future readers; we could wish that he had been somewhat fuller and clearer on many points, and that he had not so entirely neglected some others; but on the whole I am of the opinion that few historical works, ancient or modern, have in the same compass better fulfilled their mission in this respect.
In the third place, we can hardly fail to be impressed by the wisdom with which Eusebius discriminated between reliable and unreliable sources. Judged by the modern standard he may fall short as a literary critic, but judged by the standard of antiquity he must be given a very high rank. Few indeed are the historians of ancient times, secular or ecclesiastical, who can compare with Eusebius for sound judgment in this matter. The general freedom of his work from the fables and prodigies, and other improbable or impossible tales which disfigure the pages of the great majority even of the soberest of ancient historians, is one of its most marked features. He shows himself uncommonly particular in demanding good evidence for the circumstances which he records, and uncommonly shrewd in detecting spurious and unreliable sources. When we remember the great number of pseudonymous works which were current in his day we are compelled to admire his care and his discrimination. Not that he always succeeded in detecting the false. More than once he was sadly at fault (as for instance in regard to the Abgarus correspondence and Josephus testimony to Christ), and has in consequence been severely denounced or held up to unsparing ridicule by many modern writers. But the wonder certainly is not that he erred as often as he did, but that he did not err oftener; not that he was sometimes careless in p. 49 regard to the reliability of his sources, but that he was ever as careful as, in the majority of cases, he has proved himself to be. In fact, comparing him with other writers of antiquity, we cannot commend too highly the care and the skill with which he usually discriminated between the true and the false.
In the fourth place, he deserves all praise for his constant sincerity and unfailing honesty. I believe that emphasis should be laid upon this point for the reason that Eusebius reputation has often suffered sadly in consequence of the unjust imputations, and the violent accusations, which it was for a long time the fashion to make against him, and which lead many still to treat his statements with distrust, and his character with contempt. Gibbons estimate of his honesty is well known and has been unquestioningly accepted in many quarters, but it is none the less unjust, and in its implications quite untrue to the facts. Eusebius does dwell with greater fullness upon the virtues than upon the vices of the early Church, upon its glory than upon its shame, and he tells us directly that it is his intention so to do (H. E. VIII. 2), but he never undertakes to conceal the sins of the Christians, and the chapter immediately preceding contains a denunciation of their corruptness and wickedness uttered in no faint terms. In fact, in the face of these and other candid passages in his work, it is the sheerest injustice to charge him with dishonesty and unfairness because he prefers, as almost any Christian historian must, to dwell with greater fullness of detail upon the bright than upon the dark side of the picture. Scientific, Eusebius method, in this respect, doubtless is not; but dishonest, no one has a right to call it. The most severe attack which has been made upon Eusebius in recent years is found in an article by Jachmann (see below, p. 55). The evident animus which runs through his entire paper is very unpleasant; the conclusions which he draws are, to say the least, strained. I cannot enter here into a consideration of his positions; most of them are examined below in the notes upon the various passages which he discusses. The whole article, like most similar attacks, proceeds upon the supposition that our author is guilty, and then undertakes simply to find evidence of that which is already presupposed. I submit that few writers could endure such an ordeal. If Eusebius is tried according to the principles of common justice, and of sound literary criticism, I am convinced, after long and careful study, that his sincerity and honesty of purpose cannot be impeached. The particular instances which have been urged as proving his dishonesty will be discussed below in the notes upon the respective passages, and to those the reader is referred (compare especially pp. 88, 98, 100, 111, 112, 114, 127, 194).
Eusebius critics are wont to condemn him severely for what they are pleased to call the dishonesty displayed by him in his Vita Constantini. Such critics forget, apparently, that that work pretends to be, not a history, but a panegyric. Judging it as such, I am unable to find anything in it which leads me to entertain for a moment a suspicion of the authors honesty. It is true that Eusebius emphasizes the Emperors good qualities, and fails to mention the darker spots in his character; but so far as I am aware he misstates no facts, and does only what those who eulogize deceased friends are accustomed to do the world over. For a discussion of this matter the reader is referred to the prolegomena of Dr. Richardson, pp. 467 sq. of this volume. I am pleased to learn from him that his study of the Vita has shown him nothing which justifies the charge of dishonesty brought against Eusebius.
One of the most decisive marks of veracity upon the part of our author is the frankness with which he confesses his lack of knowledge upon any subject (cf. IV. 5), and the care with which he distinguishes between the different kinds of evidence upon which he bases his statements. How frequently the phrases λόγος žχει, φασί, λέγεται, &c., occur in connection with accounts which a less scrupulous historian would not hesitate to record as undoubted fact. How particular he is to mention his sources for any unusual or startling event. If the authorities seem to him quite inadequate, he simply omits all reference to an occurrence which most of his contemporaries and successors would have related with the greatest gusto; if the testimony seems to him strong, he records the circumstance and expressly mentions his authority, whether oral p. 50 tradition, the testimony of eye-witnesses, or written accounts, and we are thus furnished the material from which to form our own judgments.
He is often blamed by modern writers for what they are pleased to call his excessive credulity. Those who accuse him thus seem to forget that he lived in the fourth, not in the nineteenth century. That he believed many things which we now declare to be incredible is perfectly true, but that he believed things that other Christians of his day pronounced incredible is not true. Judged, in fact, according to the standard of his age—and indeed of eleven succeeding centuries—he must be pronounced remarkably free from the fault of over-credulity, in truth uncommonly skeptical in his attitude toward the marvelous. Not that he denies the occurrence of prodigies and wonders in his own and other ages, but that he always demands the strongest testimony before he allows himself to be convinced of their truth. Compare, e.g., the care with which he gives his authorities for the anecdote in regard to the Thundering Legion (V. 5), and his final suspension of judgment in the matter; compare also the emphasis which he lays upon the personal testimony of the Emperor in the matter of the appearance of the sign of the cross in the sky (Vita Const. I. 28 sq.), a phenomenon which he himself tells us that he would have believed upon no ordinary evidence. His conduct in this matter is a sign rather of a skepticism uncommon in his age than of an excessive and unusual credulity. Gibbon himself gives our author due credit in this respect, when he speaks of his character as “less tinctured with credulity, and more practiced in the arts of courts, than that of almost any of his contemporaries” (Decline and Fall, chap. XVI.).
On the other hand, Eusebius as an historian had many very grave faults which it is not my wish in the least to palliate or conceal. One of the most noticeable of these is his complete lack of any conception of historiography as a fine art. His work is interesting and instructive because of the facts which it records, but that interest is seldom if ever enhanced by his mode of presentation. There is little effective grouping, almost no sense of perspective, utter ignorance of the art of suggesting by a single line or phrase a finished picture of a man or of a movement. He was not, in other words, a Thucydides or a Tacitus; but the world has seen not many such as they.
A second and still more serious fault is our authors want of depth, if I may so express myself, his failure to look beneath the surface and to grasp the real significance of things, to trace the influence of opinions and events. We feel this defect upon every page. We read the annals, but we are conscious of no masterful mind behind them, digesting and comprehending them into one organic and imposing whole. This radical weakness in our authors method is revealed perhaps most clearly in his superficial and transcendental treatment of heretics and heresies, his failure to appreciate their origin and their bearing upon the progress of Christian thought. Of a development in theology, in fact, he knows nothing, and hence his work lacks utterly that which we now look upon as the most instructive part of Church history,—the history of doctrine.
In the third place, severe censure must be passed upon our author for his carelessness and inaccuracy in matters of chronology. We should expect that one who had produced the most extensive chronological work that had ever been given to the world, would be thoroughly at home in that province, but in truth his chronology is the most defective feature of his work. The difficulty is chiefly due to his inexcusable carelessness, we might almost say slovenliness, in the use of different and often contradictory sources of information. Instead of applying himself to the discrepancies, and endeavoring to reach the truth by carefully weighing the respective merits of the sources, or by testing their conclusions in so far as tests are possible, he adopts in many cases the results of both, apparently quite unsuspicious of the confusion consequent upon such a course. In fact, the critical spirit which actuates him in dealing with many other matters seems to leave him entirely when he is concerned with chronology; and instead of proceeding with the care and circumspection of an historian, he accepts what he finds with the unquestioning faith p. 51 of a child. There is no case in which he can be convicted of disingenuousness, but at times his obtuseness is almost beyond belief. An identity of names, or a resemblance between events recorded by different authors, will often be enough to lead him all unconsciously to himself into the most absurd and contradictory conclusions. Instances of this may be seen in Book I. chap. 5, and in II. 11. His confusion in regard to the various Antonines (see especially the note on the preface to Book V.) is not at all unusual among the writers of his day, and in view of the frequent and perplexing use of the same names by the different emperors, might be quite excusable in a less scholarly man than Eusebius, but in his case it is evidence of unpardonable want of care. This serious defect in our authors method is not peculiar to him. Many historians, critical almost to a fault in most matters, accept the received chronology without question, and build upon it as if it were the surest of foundations. Such a consideration does not excuse Eusebius; it relieves him, however, of the stigma of peculiarity.
Finally, the character of the History is greatly impaired by our authors desultory method. This is a characteristic of his literary work in general, and was referred to in the previous chapter. All his works are marred by it, but few suffer more noticeably than the History. The author does not confine himself as strictly as he should to the logical limits of the subject which he is treating, but allows himself to be led away from the main point by the suggestions that pour in upon him from all sides. As Lightfoot remarks, “We have not unfrequently to pick out from various parts of his work the notices bearing on one definite and limited subject. He relates a fact, or quotes an authority bearing upon it, in season or out of season, according as it is recalled to his memory by some accidental connexion.” This unfortunate habit of Eusebius is one into which men of wide learning are very apt to fall. The richness of their acquisitions embarrasses them, and the immense number of facts in their possession renders a comprehension of them all into one logical whole very difficult; and yet unless the facts be thus comprehended, unless they be thoroughly digested and arranged, the result is confusion and obscurity. To exclude is as necessary as to include, if one would write history with the highest measure of success; to exclude rigidly at one time what it is just as necessary to include at another. To men like Eusebius there is perhaps nothing more difficult than this. Only a mind as intensive as it is extensive, with a grasp as strong as its reach is wide, can accomplish it, and few are the minds that are blessed with both qualities. Few are the writers whose histories stand upon our shelves that fail not sadly in the one or in the other; and in few perhaps does the failure seem more marked than in our author.
And yet, though it is apparent that the value of Eusebius work is greatly impaired by its desultory method of treatment, I am confident that the defect is commonly exaggerated. The paragraph which Lightfoot quotes from Westcott on this subject leaves a false impression. Altogether too often our author introduces irrelevant matters, and repeats himself when repetition “mars the symmetry of his work”; and yet on the whole he follows a fairly well ordered plan with fairly good success. He endeavors to preserve a strictly chronological sequence in his arrangement of the books, and he adheres for the most part to his purpose. Though there may be disorder and confusion within the various periods, for instance within the apostolic age, the age of Trajan, of Hadrian, of the Antonines, &c., yet the periods themselves are kept reasonably distinct from one another, and having finished his account of one of them the author seldom returns to it. Even in his treatment of the New Testament canon, which is especially desultory, he says most of what he has to say about it in connection with the apostles themselves, and before passing on to the second century. I would not overlook the exceeding flagrancy of his desultoriness and repetitiousness in his accounts of the writings of many of the Fathers, especially of the two Clements, and yet I would emphasize the fact that he certainly had an outline plan which he designed to follow, and for which due credit should be given him. He compares favorably in this respect with at least most of the writers of antiquity. Only with our modern method of dividing history into periods, separated by natural boundary lines, and of handling it p. 52 under clearly defined rubrics, have we become able wholly to avoid the confused and illogical treatment of Eusebius and of others like him.
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