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Religion and Politics in the Writings of Eusebius: Reassessing the First ‘Court Theologian’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Michael J. Hollerich
Assistant professor of religious studies in Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California.


Ever since Jacob Burckhardt dismissed him as “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity,” Eusebius has been an inviting target for students of the Constantinian era. At one time or another they have characterized him as a political propagandist, a good courtier, the shrewd and worldly adviser of the Emperor Constantine, the great publicist of the first Christian emperor, the first in a long succession of ecclesiastical politicians, the herald of Byzantinism, a political theologian, a political metaphysician, and a caesaropapist. It is obvious that these are not, in the main, neutral descriptions. Much traditional scholarship, sometimes with barely suppressed disdain, has regarded Eusebius as one who risked his orthodoxy and perhaps his character because of his zeal for the Constantinian establishment.

Research Article
Church History , Volume 59 , Issue 3 , September 1990 , pp. 309 - 325
Copyright © American Society of Church History 1990

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1. “Er [Eusebius] ist aber der erste durch and durch unredliche Geschichtsschreiber des Altertums. Seine Taktik…bestand darin, den ersten Beschützer der Kirche um jeden Preis zu einem Ideal für künftige Fiürsten zu machen”; Burckhardt, Jacob, Die Zeit Constantins des Grosen, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1880), PP. 334335,Google Scholar cited in Ruhbach, G., “Die politische Theologie Eusebs von Caesarea,” in Die Kirche angesichts der Konstantinischen Wende, ed. Ruhbach, G. (Darmstadt, 1976), p. 238.Google Scholar The spirit of Burckhardt's picture of Constantine and Eusebius still lives in the recent book by liberation theologian Kee, Alistair, Constantine Versus Christ: The Triumph of Ideology (London, 1982).Google Scholar

2. Respectively, these are citations from Peterson, Erik, Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem (Munich, 1951), p. 91;Google ScholarGrégoire, Henri, “L'authenticité et l'historicité de la Vita Constantini attribuée à Eusébe de Césarée,” Bulletin de l'Académie Royale de Belgique, Classe des Lettres, 39 (1953): 462479,Google Scholar quoted in Barnes, T. D., Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), p. 401;Google ScholarMomigliano, Arnaldo, “Pagan and Christian Historiography in the Fourth Century,” in The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, ed. Momigliano, A. (Oxford, 1963), p. 85;Google ScholarMarkus, Robert, “The Roman Empire in Early Christian Historiography,” The Downside Review 81(1963): 343;CrossRefGoogle ScholarCochrane, Charles N., Christianity and Classical Culture (1940; reprint, Oxford, 1966), p. 183;Google ScholarBerkhof, Hendrik, Die Theologie des Eusebius von Caesarea (Amsterdam, 1939), pp. 2122;Google ScholarEger, Hans, “Kaiser und Kirche in der Geschichtstheologie Eusebs von Cäsarea,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 38 (1939): 115;CrossRefGoogle ScholarBeskow, Per, Rex Gloriae. The Kingship of Christ in the Early Church (Uppsala, 1962), p. 318;Google ScholarSansterre, J. M., “Eusèbe de Césarée et la naissance de la théorie ‘césaropapiste,’” Byzantion 42 (1972): 593.Google Scholar

3. This is a summary judgment, but I think it fairly describes a theme that runs throughout much of the literature, for example, Farina, R., L'impero e l'imperatore cristiano in Eusebio di Cesarea: La prima teologia potitica del cristzanesimo (Zürich, 1966), pp. 161163Google Scholar (the pax Romano-christiana a messianic epoch); Sirinelli, Jean, Les uves historiques d'Eusèbe de Césarée durant la période prénicéenne (Dakar, 1961), p. 482Google Scholar (the Parousia a dysfunctional relic of his view of history); Opitz, H. G., “Euseb von Caesarea als Theologe,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 34 (1935): 119, esp. p. 14CrossRefGoogle Scholar (eschatological fulfillment of history in the reign of Constantine); Eger, , “Kaiser und Kirche,” p. 114Google Scholar (Constantine's assumption of the royal dominion of Christ.) Glenn Chesnut has tried to balance such overly immanentist interpretations of Eusebius's eschatology by drawing attention to elements of apocalyptic eschatology embedded in his picture of Constantine: see his The First Christian Histories (Paris, 1977), pp. 156166.Google Scholar The result is only partly convincing. I see no evidence that Eusebius expected the Roman Empire to convert to Satan's side, in conformity with the apocalyptic scenario of Revelation 20:8, contrary to Chesnut (ibid., pp. 160–161), who misreads Eusebius in Demonstratio Evangelica [hereafter cited as DE] (Heikel, I., ed., Die Demonst ratio Evangelica, vol. 6 of Eusebius' Werke, Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte [hereafter cited as GCS] 23 [Leipzig, 1913])Google Scholar 9.3.5–6 (miscited as Book 8 on p. 162 n. 118): Eusebius did identify “Gog” as the Roman Empire, on the basis of Jewish exegesis, but only to establish a synchronism between the growth of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christ, not with any apocalyptic scenario in mind. Chesnut's analysis is skewed by his frequent reference to the Book of Revelation, which Eusebius preferred to ignore. The Demonstratio only cites Revelation once, in discussing the sealed prophecy of Daniel 9:24; despite Chesnut (p. 165), Eusebius sees the Seven Seals of Revelation 5:5 as a reference to the sealed prophecies of the Old Testament, which Christ has opened, and not to the wrath of God at the end of time (DE 8.2.30–34).

4. A central theme of the Life, as recently emphasized by Cameron, Averil, “Eusebius of Caesarea and the Re-Thinking of History,” in Tria Corda. Scritti in onore di Arnaldo Momigliano, ed. Gabba, E. (Como, 1983), pp. 8288;Google Scholar among many passages, see the preface of De Vita Constantini 1.1–12 (hereafter cited as VC), ed. Winkelmann, F., Über das Leben des Kaiser Konstantins, vol. 1 of Eusebius' Werke, GCS, 2d ed. (Berlin, 1975).Google Scholar See also Eusebius, , De Laudibus Constantini 2.1–3.6, 16.17Google Scholar (hereafter cited as LC), ed. Heikel, I., Die Tricennatsrede an Constantin, vol. 1 of Eusebius' Werke, GCS 7 (Leipzig, 1902);Google ScholarHistoria Ecclesiastica 10.8.6–9 (hereafter cited as HE), ed. Schwartz, E., Die Kirchengeschichte, vol. 2, pts. 1–3 of Eusebius' Werke, GCS 9, pts. 1–3 (Leipzig, 19031909).Google Scholar

5. Selective bibliography in Quasten, J., Patrology, vol. 3 (Westminster, Md., 1983), pp. 309345,Google Scholar and Young, F., From Nicaea to Chalcedon (Philadelphia, 1983), pp. 335337, 355358.Google Scholar

6. See Barnes, , Constantine and Eusebius, pp. 128129, 148150,Google Scholar for the dating of the Church History, and pp. 265268.Google Scholar For the Life of Constantine, see Chesnut, G., The First Christian Histories, rev. ed. (Macon, Ga., 1986), pp. 113125Google Scholar (hereafter cited as FCH).

7. For example, Eger, , “Kaiser und Kirche,” pp. 97115;Google ScholarSansterre, , “Eusébe de Césarée,” pp. 131195, 532594;Google ScholarChesnut, , FCH, pp. 111140,Google Scholar and seen. 33 below.

8. Berkhof, Compare, Die Theologie des Eusebius von Caesarea, pp. /5359,Google Scholar and idem, Kirche und Kaiser. Eine Untersuchung der byzantinischen und theokratischen Staatsauffassung im vierten Jahrhundert (Zürich, 1947), pp. 100–104.

9. See Peterson, , Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem, pp. 45157 (PP. 8694 on Eusebius).Google Scholar Peterson's monograph has been reviewed in the exhaustive but rather unsympathetic study of Schindler, Alfred, ed., Monotheismus als polztisches Problem? Erik Peterson und die Kritik der politschen Theologie (Gütersloh, 1978).Google Scholar

10. Williams, G. H., “Christology and Church-State Relations in the Fourth Century,” Church History 20, 3 (1951): 133, 20, 4 (1951):126.Google Scholar

11. Opitz, , “Eusebius von Caesarea als Theologe,” pp. 119.Google Scholar

12. Ibid., p. 1.

13. Grant, R. M., Eusebius as Church Historian (Oxford, 1980), p. 164.Google Scholar

14. Barnes, , Constantine and Eusebius, pp. v–vi.Google Scholar

15. Ibid., p. 186.

16. Ibid., p. 266. Drake, H. A., “What Eusebius Knew: The Genesis of the Vita Constantirti,” Classical Philology 83 (1988): 2038,CrossRefGoogle Scholar argues that Eusebius made a fifth visit to Constantinople around Easter of 337, in order to begin work on the VC (contrary to the usual judgment that it was only begun after the emperor's death), and that he had broached the idea for the book as early as November 335. Even if Drake's hypothesis on the composition of the VC is correct, it does not alter the general fact that most of Eusebius's work as a churchman and scholar was conducted at considerable remove from the emperor and his court.

17. Warmington, B. H., “Did Constantine Have 'Religious Advisers?'”in Studia Patristica, ed. Livingstone, Elizabeth A., vol. 19 (Louvain, 1990).Google Scholar

18. See Ruhbach, , “Die politische Theologie des Eusebs von Caesarea,” pp. 236258,Google Scholar based on his “Apologetik und Geschichte. Untersuchungen zur Theologie Eusebs von Caesarea” (Dissertation, Heidelberg University, 1962).Google Scholar

19. Ruhbach, , “Die politische Theologie des Eusebs,” p. 254.Google Scholar

20. Hollerich, Michael J., “The Godly Polity in the Light of Prophecy: A Study of Eusebius of Caesarea's Commentary on Isaiah” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1986).Google Scholar The commentary was long known only on the basis of incomplete medieval catenae edited in the eighteenth century by Montfaucon. In the twentieth century a nearly complete version was discovered and has now been edited by Ziegler, J., Der Jesajakommentar [hereafter cited as CI], vol.9 of Eusebius' Werke, GCS (Berlin, 1975).Google Scholar

21. See, for example, CI 12.22–28, 121.13–28, 304.26–29, 342.15–16, 375.14–17, and so on.

22. For example, Isaiah 16:5 (LXX)-“Then a throne will be established in mercy and there will take his seat on it with truth in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness”–which in the Prophetic Eclogues (4.9) he had applied to Christ's return to glory, is ascribed in the Commentary on Isaiah to the Christian bishop (CI 109.4–110.11). See also 83.33–84.17 (on Isa. 11:6–9), 148.6–20 (on Isa. 22:21–24), 377.5–19 (on Isa. 60:17–18), 381.22–29 (on Isa. 61:6–7; given a christological interpretation in DE4.16), 408.14–410.17 (on Isa. 66:18–23).

23. Most conspicuously in LC 2–3. Still an excellent guide to the ideological background of this text in Graeco-Roman monarchical theory is Baynes, N. H., “Eusebius and the Christian Empire,” in his Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (London, 1955), pp. 168172.Google Scholar

24. On the influence of rhetoric on Eusebius's political writings, see Vigna, Gerald S., “The Influence of Epideictic Rhetoric on Eusebius of Caesarea's Political Theology” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1980).Google Scholar

25. A doctrine not limited to the commentary. See the speech delivered at the dedication of the basilica of Tyre, which describes the bishop as the one “in whom the entire Christ has taken his seat” (HE 10.4.67).

26. On these motifs, compare CI91.21–92.5, 114.7–115.16, 126.28–127.16, 14.32–15.14.

27. Ibid., 14.32–15.14

28. Ibid., 316.17–25, 316.10–16, 20.29–21.5.

29. Ibid., 84.8–17.

30. Ibid., 10.12–20, 14.13–25, 18.23–28, 25.29–36, 31.4–5, and passim.

31. Compare Eusebius's commentary on Isaiah 44:8–45:13, which is given a literal interpretation except at the very end of the section, where 45:13 is applied to Christ (CI 293.12–294.2).

32. Constantinian policies are mentioned which could not have been implemented in the east until after the defeat of Licinius, such as the granting of a grain ration for the poor of the church (CI 316.9–22 and 376.36–377.3, also mentioned in VC 4.28 and alluded to in Theodoret, Church History 1. 11, but unfortunately not datable), and Constantine's confiscation of temple treasures and cult objects (CI 20.29–21.5, also LC 8.1–4 and VC 3.54), which Barnes dates sometimes soon after 324 (Constantine and Eusebius, p. 247). A more precise dating to shortly after Nicaea is suggested by the commentary's avoidance of such subordinationist terms as deuteros theos, which are common in Eusebius's pre-Nicene works (for example, DE 4.5.3, 4.7.2, 5.Pref.20, 23, 5.6.7; HE 1.2.3, 5, 9; PE 11.14–19), and by the absence of any mention of Constantine's building program in the Holy Land.

33. Glenn Chesnut argues for a fundamental change in Eusebius's attitude to the empire on the question of religious toleration. Chesnut argues that the trauma of the Great Persecution moved Eusebius away from an original commitment to religious liberty toward a later endorsement of Stern measures against paganism, and that this change helps explain his eventual support for an alliance of church and empire (FCH, pp. 114–140). This interpretation reads too much development into a point of view which remained substantially the same. It requires Chesnut to ignore or deemphasize important evidence that Eusebius was not as “strongly antimilitarist” as he claims, and that he was ready and willing, at all points in his career, to embrace an alliance of church and empire. In the first edition of the Church History Eusebius proudly reported the widespread tradition of the Christian legion whose prayers had saved Marcus Aurelius while on campaign against the Sarmatians and Germans (HE 4.5.1–7). Similarly, the first edition reported approvingly the emperor Aurelian's “extremely just decision” to evict Paul of Samosata from the church of Antioch after his condemnation by the eastern bishops (ibid., 7.30.19). In the third edition of the Church History (HE 9.9.1–8) Eusebius's enthusiastic description of the Battle of the Mulvian Bridge as a reprise of the escape through the Red Sea, with Christians singing the Song of Miriam, leaves no doubt that as early as 315 he was wholly convinced that Constantine was an instrument of God's purposes. Finally, Chesnut's attempt to see a development in Eusebius's use of the “good emperor, bad emperor” scheme is unconvincing. Eusebius didn't need the letters of Dionysius to give him the idea that God supported just kings and subverted wicked ones (FCH, p. 126). The scheme is already expressed in Melito of Sardis, quoted by Eusebius in HE 4.26.7, as Chesnut acknowledges, and derives from Christian attitudes deeply rooted in Scripture.

34. Peterson, , Monotheismus als politisches Problem, pp. 8990, 134135.Google Scholar Compare DE 7.2.20–24 for Micah 5:3–4, and Psalms 71:7; DE 8.3.13–15 for Micah 4:1–4; and Praeparatio Evangelica [hereafter cited as PE] 1.4.4–5, ed. Mras, K., Die Praeparatio Evangelica, vol. 8, pts. 1–2 of Eusebius' Werke, GCS 43, pts. 1–2 (Berlin, 19541956), for Isaiah 2:4 and Psalms 71:7.Google Scholar

35. Odahl, C., “The Use of Apocalyptic Imagery in Constantine's Christian Propaganda,” Centerpoint 4 (1981): 920,Google Scholar argues that Constantine consciously used apocalyptic biblical symbols such as the defeat of the dragon-serpent in his imperial iconography as a signal to Christian subjects alienated by the persecution that his victories over Maxentius, and then over Licinius, were the beginning of a new era of earthly bliss; this, rather than the return of Christ in judgment, was the meaning of apocalyptic texts such as Isaiah 27:1 (compare Ps. 74:12–13, Ezek. 29:3) and Revelation 12–13 (compare Luke 10:17–19). On the basis of Eusebius's interpretation of the portrait of a pierced dragon which Constantine hung over the palace portico (VC 3.3), Odahl argues that Eusebius was privy to this hermeneutical defusing of apocalyptic hopes and supported it. But VC 3.3 merely shows Eusebius's exploitation of biblical sanctions to dignify Constantine's achievements, as with his handling of the biblical symbol of the new Jerusalem in VC 3.33. It says nothing whatever about his actual end-expectations. Eusebius rejected apocalypticism in the millennialist scenario of Revelation. But he had no disagreement with eschatological themes such as the return of Christ in glory and the last judgment, with a final separation of the good and the wicked. Compare Commentary on Isaiah 172.5–174.19, which interprets Isaiah 27:1 in ways typical of conventional eschatology. The more conventional side of Eusebius's eschatological views is correctly stressed by Thielman, F., “Another Look at the Eschatology of Eusebius of Caesarea,” Vigiliae Christianae 41 (1987): 226237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36. Compare DE 1.2.1, and Book 1 passim. The distinction between “Hebrews” and “Jews” was already proposed in HE 1.4.5 and PE 7.6–8.

37. PE 7.8.37–39; 7.9.1.

38. Ibid., 8.Pref.2.

39. Argued in detail in DE 1.3.

40. Ibid., 1.2.10.

41. Ibid., 1.8; also, briefly, 6.18.30. The Commentary on Isaiah (382.12–35) also reflects the existence of two classes of members of the church.

42. DE, 1.6.1, 42.

43. DE 3.2.1–30. See Bruns, J. E., “The 'Agreement of Moses and Jesus' in the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius,” Vigiliae Christianae 31 (1977): 117125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

44. DE 3.2.6, trans. W. J. Ferrar (adapted).

45. Ibid., 3.2.7.

46. Chrysostom, John, In I Cor 1O:lff (PG 51.248),Google Scholar cited in Daniélou, Jean, From Shadow to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers (Westminster, Md., 1960), p. 192.Google Scholar For patristic typology of the Exodus, see ibid., pp. 167—226, and Daniélou, “Exodus,” Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum [hereafter cited as RAC] 7:32—39.

47. Hanson, R. P. C., Allegory and Event (London, 1959), p. 14,Google Scholar cited in Bruns,“‘greement of Moses and Jesus,’” p. 117.

48. On Matthew, see Daniélou, , Shadow to Reality, pp. 157—160;Google Scholar on Aphrahat, see Bruns, “‘Agreement of Moses and Jesus,’” p. 119.

49. Daniélou, , Shadow to Reality, p. 197.Google Scholar

50. HE 9.9.3–5, 7–8, trans. J. E. L. Oulton.

51. VC 1.12. The Life of Constantine's account of the Battle of the Mulvanian Bridge is borrowed verbatim from the Church History: VC 1.37.2–40.2 = HE 9.9.3–11.

52. VC 1.12, rev. trans. by Richardson, E. C., in A Select Library of Nicene and Fost-Nicene Fathers, 2d ser., vol. 1, p. 485Google Scholar (translation considerably altered).

53. For the role of the comparison (synkrzsis) in the genre of epideictic rhetoric known as the basilikos logos, to which the Life of Constantine partially conforms, see the instructional treatise Peri epideiktikôn attributed to Menander of Laodicea, roughly contemporary with Eusebius: Menander Rhetor, ed. Russell, D. A. and Wilson, N. G. (Oxford, 1981), 372.1425,Google Scholar 376.31–377.10.

54. See Gager, J., Moses in Greco-Roman Paganism (Nashville, 1972), pp. 2579.Google Scholar

55. Military: Josephus, , Jewish Antiquities 2.243253;Google ScholarArtapanus, , Concerning the Jews, in Eusebius PE 9.27.Google Scholar Legislative: Josephus, , Against Apion 2.145289,Google Scholar esp. 154, 161. Cultural: Eupolemus, , On the Kings of Judaea (Moses the inventor of writing), in Eusebius FE 9.26;Google Scholar Artapanus, Concerning the Jews (Moses as teacher of Orpheus, the inventor of ships and of engineering devices), in Eusebius FE 9.27. Philosophical: Philo, Life of Moses 2.1–2 (Moses as a philosopher-king).

56. VC 2.12.

57. Dionysius of Alexandria's reference of Isaiah 42:9 to the Emperor Gallienus (in Eusebius HE 7.23) does not seem to be “Messianic language,” as in Fox, R. L., Pagans and Christians (New York, 1987), p. 554,Google Scholar but the sort of biblical flourish common in Dionysius's correspondence, as in his appeal to the Exodus, Eden, and the flood of Noah–all in the same letter–to illuminate conditions in wartorn Alexandria (compare HE 7.21).

58. Compare his denunciations of the Ebionites and Paul of Samosata for their low appreciations of Christ's divinity (HE 3.27, 7.30). On Eusebius's Christology, see Grillmeier, A., Christ in Christian Tradition (New York, 1965), pp. 180182.Google Scholar

59. Opitz, , “Eusebius von Caesarea als Theologe,” pp. 59;Google Scholar Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, chap. 10; Sirinelli, Les vues historiques d'Eusèbe de Césarée, passim.

60. For example, CI 46.14–15 (on Isa. 7:5–9), 68.21 (Isa. 9:7), 126.31 (Isa. 19:4), and 304.3–5 (Isa. 48:3–4).

61. References to Augustus, Vespasian, and Hadrian: CI 10.12–20; 14.13–25; 18.23–28; 25.29–36; 31.4–5 and passim. Cyrus is discussed in the commentary wherever the text of Isaiah mentions him by name, for example, Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1.

62. See, for example, Erik Peterson's discussion of Eusebius's interpretation of the prophecy of the messianic peace in Micah 4:4 in DE 8.3.13–15. According to Peterson, , Der Monothetsmus als politisches Problem, p. 90,Google Scholar Eusebius's invocation of the Pax Romana is a political reading of biblical prophecy. But Eusebius's main interest is christological polemic against the Jews, not political propaganda: he wants to prove that the prophecy was fulfilled with the birth of Jesus. He is using secular history for religious purposes, not subordinating religious texts to secular ends.

63. Cochrane, , Christianity and Classical Culture, pp. 183187.Google Scholar

64. This is the convincing argument in Markus's, R. A.Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge, 1970), esp. pp. 5171.Google Scholar Augustine's agnosticism about reading the divine will in history is a major theme of The City of God; see for example, 18.52–53.

65. Waizer, Michael, Exodus and Revolution (New York, 1985), pp. 36.Google Scholar

66. Theon de tois kataponoumenois eumené (VC 1.12.1).

67. On the same basis, Neuhaus, Richard, The Catholic Moment (New York, 1987), pp. 214231,Google Scholar has found a similar affinity between Emmanuel Hirsch's call to German Christians in the 1930s to stand alongside Hitler's program of national renewal and the insistence of certain expressions of liberation theology that we are bound in conscience to support social movements upon which God's favor rests unambiguously.

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