Becoming Orthodox – Enter the Search: Eureka? Eusebius!

2 December 2014

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in late antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.

Eureka? Eusebius!

As mentioned before, justification of every aspect of my journey is not the role of this essay. But I should explain some of the scholarship undergirding my journey, to track the path I have travelled, to leave a trail to be followed.

The first long leg of my research began with the early Church, primarily before Nicaea, with a special focus on the period 70-240 CE. This period of Church history is, at best, vaguely familiar to Evangelicals. Our heroes can be found in the New Testament, but the next spiritual giants to come along are Augustine (for the cerebral few), then Wycliffe, Tyndale, Zwingli and Luther. Many Evangelicals are thoroughly well-read in the Reformed tradition, but have never read a single work by a Christian from the first three centuries.

I began with Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, the first comprehensive history of the Christian Church after the book of Acts [2]. Written shortly before the Council of Nicea, the History is a gold mine of early Christian stories and thought. Leafing through the worn pages of the library copy, I thought, “This book should be censored! No, it should be reprinted!” Nearly every chapter brought some new insight to the Scriptures, and yet much cut against what I had expected. The early Church was not exactly what I imagined. They were greater than, but weren’t, Protestants.

Eusebius begins with a theology of Christ, calling him God and the Word of God. From there he demonstrates that Christ was not a recent phenomenon, but was known from the beginning of time. Throughout his argument he cites Old Testament prophecy, many passages with which I was already familiar, and others besides. Eusebius then describes the history of the Church, weaving into his account, broadly structured on the Gospels, a number of other documents and traditions of the Apostles.

For instance, Acts 12:2 mentions the martyrdom of the Apostle James at the hand of Herod. Eusebius relates how, in his trial before Herod, James delivered a passionate defense of his faith in Christ. James’s words were so moving that the Roman soldier guarding him instantly converted and publicly declared his faith in Christ. With one word, Herod order both of them to be taken outside and executed.

“So they were both taken away together, and on the way he asked James to forgive him. James thought for a moment; then he said, ‘I wish you peace,’ and kissed him. So both were beheaded at the same time.” [3]

Another story related in the History deals with the apostle John and his activities amongst his congregations in Asia Minor at the end of his life?material not found in the New Testament.[4]

In another place, Eusebius cites the letter of a bishop from the third century, Africanus, dealing with the discrepancies between the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. His solution tackles the problem in a way I had never heard before, treating both genealogies as lines of Joseph.[5]

Questions, Questions

These were some of the many stories Eusebius chronicled. Each new discovery agitated other questions. I argued with myself.

What is this rubbish, stories of the Apostles not found in the Bible? Eusebius offended me. Did he really believe what he was writing? Who was he kidding? The Bible, I felt, was not only all we needed, but all we have, in terms of authentic and reliable material. How could Eusebius write this kind of thing? Didn’t he believe in Sola Scriptura?

Are you saying there were people back then who knew aspects of history we don’t know today? This question revealed assumptions I had, hidden until now, but influenced by an evolutionary outlook. They came out:Modern man is more advanced than ever. We know more than any other generation, especially in theology. We have the glorious benefit today of the most advanced Biblical scholarship and criticism, the best archaeological and computer-based tools. We have sought to be objective in understanding our faith, unlike previous generations. Now, here I was confronted with a serious Christian historian from the early Church who had access to libraries, books, and witnesses that have long since disappeared. He was familiar with writings such as Papias’ The Sayings of the Lord Explained (1st century), which are no longer with us. Arguably, we have devolved![6]

Upon what basis can you reject what Eusebius says? came a question in return. There was no way I could avoid evaluating his work. Its stories burned in my mind. I previously had the luxury of being ignorant. Now I needed to deal with a different world and a different paradigm. I wanted to reject what he said. I felt I could do so on one of two broad grounds, either ignore his account as superstitious and heretical, or deny its historicity.

Is this superstition? Ah, but what is superstition? For a Christian this avenue is a dead end, for the “fables” found in Eusebius are of no different a quality than those found in Scripture. Acts is full of odd stories that, if isolated from the diginity we automatically afford Scripture, we would reject on the same grounds we reject those of Eusebius. Peter’s shadow healing people? His handkerchief? What about Philip’s experiences of teleportation? If we have a problem with Eusebius’s apocryphal stories of the Apostles on the basis of their supernatural character, then we had better question those in the Bible, too.[7]

Is this heretical? Again, none of the stories I read could be accused of promoting false teaching. In many ways I found the stories quite compatible with Scripture. If anything, they enhanced my appreciation for the godliness of the Apostles and their doctrinal purity.

Is this historical? After all, why should I accept a story written in the early fourth century? What about the Bible? The New Testament is, after all, much more reliable, dating from the first century. That was one way to look at it. I realized, however, that I was sitting in the twentieth century, arguing with an author from the fourth. We both have access to the New Testament and the scholarship of our day, but he has the added vantage point of time, culture, language, and an ecclesiastical education. All I have are twentieth century Western commentaries. Who is right, he or I?

After wrestling with these questions, going back and forth, I vented my hungry heart and reached out to the saints of which Eusebius spoke. Instead of trying to fit them into my own mold, I asked them to tell me their story.

Where have you been all my life? As an Evangelical missionary with a lifelong interest in apologetics, I felt robbed. I had spent hours poring through Christian bookshops and had never read this kind of material. I didn’t even know there were writings available from the period. Most versions of Church history I had read would briefly mention the second and third centuries, focus for a short time on the trinitarian debates of the fourth, highlight Augustine, then jump into the sixteenth century for the Reformation. Never at a Christian bookstore or booktable had I seen patristic writings being reprinted and sold. We sell the writings of any nutcase who presumes to speak as an Evangelical, but have not bothered to consider selling the works of the sons and grandsons of the Apostles.

And I soon realised why. If Evangelicals ever bothered to reprint and study Ignatius, Polycarp, Tertullian, or Irenaeus, their writings would step on our theological toes.


[2] The Ecclesiastical History and the Apostolic Fathers are the most accessible beginning point to the writings of the Fathers. A number of editions exist; those published by Penguin, under the titles History of the Church and Early Christian Writings, are very good.

[3] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.9.

[4] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.23, 28.

[5] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 1.7.

[6] Papias’s book was a compilation of sayings of Christ based on the oral tradition extant in the late first and early second century. It was extant until the late middle ages. There are many other references within early Christian writings to books that have long disappeared. Many times we must give the benefit of the doubt to these earlier lights.

[7] John Henry Newman (1801-89), one of the top theological and patristic minds of the nineteenth century, is notable on this subject. He began with an understanding of two types of the miraculous: scriptural and ecclesiastical, the former to be received, the latter, rejected. This position changed with time as he realized the distinction could not be maintained without succumbing to liberalism. In his studies he came to the point where he embraced superstition as an inherent part of a Christian ethos, the rejection of the miraculous and “superstitious” a mark of deism. Biographies of Newman’s life, such as Faber’s Oxford Apostles, provide invaluable insight into an intellectual and spiritual movement that sought to restore the Anglican Church to the pattern of the primitive Church.