210. History of the Church, by Eusebius (c. 313-324 AD)

Plot:

A history of the Early Christian church, and the persecutions of Christians, recorded and gathered from numerous writings, by Eusebius (260-339), Bishop of Caesarea.

My copy was the Penguin Classic edition translated by G. A. Williamson, revised by Andrew Louth (ISBN 0140445358)

My thoughts:   

Perhaps an unusual read for Christmas Day while everyone else seems to be savouring Dickens.

I added this title to my list a few weeks ago as I was interested to get some understanding of how a religious movement which developed from the death and resurrection of its chief proponent in one small part of the world rose to such prominence in Western Civilization. It also covered much of the content of the works described by Josephus on the Jewish War and the Fall of Jerusalem which I didn’t read.

Eusebius starts with the life of Jesus and covers the following three hundred years of Christian persecution, martyrdom and heresies. Initially the Apostles spread out in different directions to spread the Gospels across the Roman Empire and beyond, with the four Gospels written for different groups – Matthew for believers of Jewish origin, Luke for Gentiles, for example. They could work some miracles just as Jesus (healing the sick, blind and lame) which helped spread belief in their teachings. The first book includes the actual text of a letter purportedly written by Jesus himself to Abgar, King of Mesopotamia who had requested Jesus visit him and cure him of sickness. (Jesus regrets he cannot come but promises to send a disciple to perform the cure and tell Agbar of the Lord)

Eusebius owned a large, personal library, and cites a large number of letters and works by other bishops and religious writers in detail. He also mentions how multiple copies of highly sought religious treatises would be dictated to shorthand writers and reproduced by banks of copyists. There was also mention of disputed books such as the Gospel of St. Peter, Epistle of Barnabas and for some time the Revelation according to John.

 A lot of the history deals with the persecution and execution of Christians (described disturbingly and constantly in terms of religious fervour such as ‘finding fulfilment in martyrdom’ and earning their crown to sit with Jesus in Heaven). There are also heresies : false prophets and rewritings of the Gospels, mystic rites, and arguments that Jesus was not the Son of God but just a man. Eusebius repeatedly blames all of the Jews’ tribulations on their betrayal of Jesus, and some of the Christian persecutions on these heresies.

What seems less controversial but stirred a great debate both in Eusebius’ times and later was the dispute over the date of Easter, with the Asian churches traditionally selecting the fourteenth day of the lunar month, irrespective of which day of the week it fell, while others wanted to celebrate it on the Lord’s day. This controversy nearly split the nascent Christian church at a time when they already faced such enmity from outside.

Repeated waves of persecutions were finally put to an end by Roman Emperor Constantine, which ends the book and is written almost like a heavenly happy ever after.

Personal rating:  The work didn’t directly provide the sort of detail I expected, but included enough background information to allow me to piece together the general ideas. 3/10

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