Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Our" History

In finishing Eusebius, I ended a wonderful, eye-opening experience. Paul L. Maier's translation made the reading very easy and, in its modern, streamlined English, made Eusebius sound like a person and not like a textbook. I wish that Maier had not apologized, though (as he did several times), for certain passages that would sound, he thought, distasteful to the twenty-first century reader. Any living person reading a Church History written in the fourth century knows that tastes in writing style change over the ages and needs no warnings or apologies.

Eusebius surprised me by casting something of a critical eye on his sources. Although not engaging in the aggressive scrutiny of current scholarship, and certainly not acting on the skepticism of some criticism that rejects miraculous accounts out of hand, Eusebius still knows that his sources may be mistaken or exaggerate or lie for various reasons, that authorship is not always as clear as it seems, and that he must defend the authority of some documents against detractors. His basic recognition that not everything in black and white is true blue probably came naturally to him as a scholar interested in examining and comparing a great many manuscripts. His mentors Origen and Pamphilus apparently assembled an extensive library in Caesarea, and Eusebius seems to have become a master of the whole lot since he refers to apocryphal gospels, letters, state documents, translations, theological tracts, and more. He cites several sources, for instance, on the identity of the writer of the Revelation. His conclusion is that the author's name was truly John but that he was not the Son of Zebedee who wrote the gospel and at least one of the letters bearing that name. His reasoning involves both subject matter and Greek style, and Maier says that most current scholars agree with his conclusions and for the same reasons. He defends the book's place in the canon as well as that of most of the other New Testament books (although he's skeptical about 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John). It was news to me that already in the fourth-century critics challenged the authenticity of the first and third gospels because of their divergent genealogies for Jesus; apparently this kind of thing is not the product of the modern Age of Doubt. Eusebius' solution, by the way, is that Joseph had two fathers, being the biological son of a man who married his dead half-brother's widow, according to the Law, and had children in the dead man's name.

Eusebius wrote his book just after Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire, and he saw the history having a neat resolution: after centuries of periodic persecution, the Church now enjoyed protection thanks to the servant of God, Constantine. His detailed, gory renditions of the persecutions, especially in Lyons and Alexandria, were chilling. But throughout the descriptions, Eusebius' identified with the martyrs: he often spoke of "our" courage or "our" problem, even with regard to events from before the time he was born. He reminded me that I, too, belong to that "we" and that his story was also partly my tragedy and my triumph.

Soberingly, he called the last great persecution, under Diocletian and Galerius, the just chastisement by God of a worldly Church -- and he called the sin "our worldliness." Just as he brought me back to the fourth century with the word "our," he forecast his concerns into the twenty-first century. The Church History proves relevant to current times with its examination of critical issues; might it also have something to say about today's Church, its condition, and its relation to the world?

One of the motivations of my reading program is the idea that there are books out there that I've been missing. Sometimes I get to classic books that I haven't read before and they end up tasting dry; I finish those thinking, "Well, I wanted to say I've read that book, and now I can say it." But others confirm my suspicion that juicy feasts await me. This book joins Wordworth's poetry at the top of that second list so far this year.

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