Known as the Father of Church History, Eusebius created extensive accounts of the first three centuries of Christianity. He preserved a wealth of early documentation that would have otherwise been lost. Eusebius’ exhaustive research and painstaking concern for identifying original sources were virtually unprecedented among ancient historians. Without the work of Eusebius, our knowledge of the earliest days of Christianity would be extremely limited, including that of the persecution of the church and the reign of Constantine.
Unlike the ancient histories he preserved so well, the record of Eusebius’ own life has mostly been lost. His parents are entirely unknown, and little is documented of his youth. Eusebius was almost certainly born in Palestine around 260 A.D. and spent the greater part of his life there.
As a young man, Eusebius assisted and studied under the well-known Christian teacher Pamphilius, Bishop of Caesarea, who later became Eusebius’ closest friend. Eusebius was baptized at Caesarea and served as a presbyter or elder, under Pamphilius.
Eusebius was also acquainted with the presbyter Dorotheus in Antioch and probably received early instruction from him as well. But Eusebius followed Pamphilius much more closely. (So great was his affection for his mentor that, after Pamphilius was martyred, Eusebius assumed the name Eusebius Pamphili, which means “son of Pamphilius.”)
As Bishop of Caesarea, Pamphilius was the foremost Bible scholar and teacher of his generation and a devoted disciple of the brilliant theologian orgen. Before Origen died, he bestowed his personal library to the Christian community in Caesarea. Pamphilius built that library at Caesarea into one of the greatest Christian collections in the ancient world. With the influence of Christianity’s chief scholarship, Caesarea became the epicenter of Christian learning and a primary target of Roman persecution.
The Great Persecution
In A.D. 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian began a vicious persecution of Christians in the Roman empire. Eusebius wrote as an eyewitness to the terrible oppression:
Toward the end of what was called the Great Persecution, Pamphilius was thrown in prison and finally martyred in A.D. 310. During this period, Eusebius traveled to Egypt, where he, too, was imprisoned for a short time but managed to escape his mentor’s fate.
Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea
Shortly after the Great Persecution ended, around the time of Constantine’s conversion and the Edict of Milan, Eusebius was elected Bishop of Caesarea (around A.D. 315), where he served for many years until his death. Eusebius continued his work of recording church history, which he had begun during the period of persecution.
Although not counted among the most gifted theologians in history, Eusebius was probably the most educated and capable church historian of his generation. With certainty, he drew from the abundant resources of the church library in Caesarea.
Writing Church History
Eusebius’ greatest contribution is Historia Ecclesiastica (Church History), an extensive history of the Christian Church from the time of the apostles until about A.D. 323, just before the Council of Nicaea. The work was originally written in Greek, although Latin, Armenian, and Syriac versions were also preserved. Another of his historical works, Chronicle, contains a vast history relating to the ancient dominions of the world from the time of Abraham to Constantine.
In addition to church history, Eusebius’ more than 40 written works span the topics of theology, exegesis, apologetics, Gospel criticism, biblical geography, chronology, and martyrology. Eusebius’ favorite theme focused on the stories of early Christian martyrs as seen in Palestinian Martyrs, which covered the persecution of fourth-century Christians in the East.
During the time Pamphilius was imprisoned, Eusebius visited him often, and together they wrote five volumes of A Defense of Origen.
Probably the second most famous, or perhaps infamous, of Eusebius’ works was his Life of Constantine, an adoring biography of the political leader. Although Eusebius has been strongly criticized over the centuries for his support of Constantine, the historian’s stand makes reasonable sense. After witnessing and surviving horrific persecution, Eusebius naively thought Constantine’s conversion to Christianity would strengthen the church and put an end to the terror. Eusebius earned Constantine’s confidence and thus, became chronicler of his family history.
While his finest works were historical in genre, Eusebius also excelled as an apologist. His writings often dealt with problems in the biblical text and contended for the truth of Christianity. In Preparation of the Gospel, one of Eusebius’s major apologetic works, he cited the words of Greek authors to refute paganism. In Proof of the Gospel, he examined how Christ the Messiah fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and how Christianity continued the faith of the early Jewish patriarchs.
Controversies of His Day
Eusebius’ legacy to the church stretched beyond historical record keeping. He played a major role in the theological controversies and ecclesiastical politics of his day. As the leading spiritual advisor to Constantine, Eusebius helped form the Orthodox understanding of the relationship between church and state, a closely intertwined bond which became the Constantinian concept of a Christian empire.
Eusebius was influential in reaching a compromise at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, mediating the debate between the Arians and the orthodox position regarding the nature of Christ. In this early Christological debate, Arians perceived Jesus Christ to be like God the Father, but not of the same substance as God the Father. Church leaders opposed Arianism because it denied the full divinity of Jesus Christ. Prior to the Council of Nicaea, the church had temporarily excommunicated Eusebius because of his support of Arian Christology. But at the Council of Nicaea Eusebius took a middle stand in the Arian controversy and affirmed the councils creed.
Eusebius stayed active in church councils until his death. In A.D. 335, Eusebius took part in the synod of Tyre, at which Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandra , was excommunicated for a variety of false charges related to the Arian controversy and his defens of Trinitarianism. Constantine later dropped many of the charges, but Athanasius was never fully absolved. Eusebius also participated in the councils which deposed Marcellus of Ancyra in A.D. 336 and Eustathius of Antioch in A.D. 337.
Eusebius declined a promotion to become Bishop of Antioch and stayed in Caesarea until his death in late A.D. 339 or early 340.