Eusebius in Greek means one who is reverent, pious, or devout—a proper name (nearly equivalent to Pius in Latin) that was shared by a half dozen other famed figures in Christian his- tory. A geographical suffix distinguishes them from one another. Just as Jesus of Nazareth differentiated him from the twenty other Jesuses in biblical times, so Eusebius of Caesarea designates the church historian.
Although there were also a number of Caesareas in antiquity—all named in honor of Augustus, the first Roman emperor—Eusebius’s is Caesarea Maritima, the famous city of Palestine constructed by Herod the Great on the Mediterranean shore, at a site previously called Strato’s Tower. This Caesarea is mentioned frequently in the New Testament as the Roman capital of Judea, the headquarters of Pontius Pilate, Cornelius, Herod Agrippa, Felix, and Festus, as well as the place where Paul was imprisoned for two years. Here, too, the riot broke out in a.d. 66 that led to the great Jewish War against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem. The last only enhanced the importance of Caesarea, and by the third century it was virtually the capital of Syria, a very large, cosmopolitan city with a Jewish, Greek, Samaritan, and Christian populace.
Eusebius was probably born around 260. His biography, writ- ten by Acacius, his successor as Bishop of Caesarea, has not survived to provide more exact detail. His ancestry and the story of his youth are unknown. His education may be adduced from the fact that the great Eastern scholar-theologian Origen spent his later years in Caesarea, dying several years before Eusebius was born. Origen’s influence persisted strongly in the theological school founded there by the learned Pamphilus, presbyter in the church at Caesarea, who taught Eusebius and influenced him most. Eusebius joined Pamphilus in writing a defense of Origen, made use of his great library, and wrote a Life of Pamphilus (now lost), whom he valued so highly that he was often known as Eusebius Pamphili. In the final Great Persecution of the Christians under Diocletian, Pamphilus was imprisoned and martyred in 310.
Upon the death of his mentor, Eusebius went to Tyre in Phoenicia and Alexandria in Egypt, where he was imprisoned in the Diocletianic persecution but released shortly afterward. Many years later an opponent accused him of having gained his release by pagan sacrifice, but no evidence for this was adduced at the time or since. Had such evidence existed, it surely would have been used in the theological turmoil of the day. Just after Constantine’s edict of toleration was issued in 313, Eusebius was elected Bishop of Caesarea, where he remained until his death, despite being offered (and declining) the patriarchate of Antioch in 331.
About 316, he gave the dedicatory address at the new cathedral in Tyre, which he published in Book 10 of his Church History. Two years later the Arian controversy exploded in Eastern Christendom, and Eusebius soon found himself embroiled in it. He favored a mediating position between the theological extremes of Arius, presbyter in Alexandria (“Jesus is more than man but less than God, who existed before the Son”), and Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria (“Jesus is God, of the same essence and co-eternal with
the Father”). Although Eusebius did not endorse the full subordinationism of Arius, he was somewhat sympathetic to the Arian cause, for which the Council of Antioch provisionally excommunicated him and two others in 324. His case, however, was transferred to the great Council of Nicea the following year, where he sat at Constantine’s right hand and served as a prominent theological adviser, delivering a panegyric in honor of the emperor.
As leader of the moderate party at the council, Eusebius presented the creed used by his church at Caesarea and was exonerated of any heresy. Constantine stated that the creed reflected his own views, and it seems to have served as basis for that adopted at Nicea, but this creed was adopted only after important addenda had been made by the Alexandrian party, including Jesus being defined as homoousios (“of one substance” or “essence”) with the Father. Although Eusebius finally voted with the overwhelming majority for what would emerge as the Nicene Creed, he wrote a letter to his church explaining his hesitations and voicing concerns that the Alexandrian party was verging on Sabellianism, a heresy that claimed unity over trinity (i.e., that the Son of God was only God acting in a saving mode or capacity).
This concern followed Eusebius to the Council of Antioch in 331, which deposed Eustathius, a leading anti-Arian, and to the Synod at Constantinople in 336, which condemned Marcellus, Bishop of Ancyra (modern Ankara), for extreme anti-Arianism. This does not, however, mean that Eusebius remained a pro-Arian. Eusebius’s orthodoxy later in life is confirmed by his rejection of two cardinal principles of Arianism: that there was a time when the Son of God was not and that he was created out of nothing.
Just after the Synod of Constantinople, Eusebius was chosen to deliver an oration on the tricennalia of Constantine, the celebration marking his thirtieth year as emperor. Constantine died in the following year (337), and Eusebius two years after that, most probably on May 30, 339, a date known with consider- able certainty from the Syriac martyrology of the fourth century. Nothing is known of Eusebius’s two final years, other than that he published a Life of Constantine in four books, a panegyric rather than a strict history.
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Next to Josephus, Eusebius is the most widely consulted reference work on the early church. Much of our knowledge of the first three centuries of Christianity–the terrible persecutions, the courageous martyrs, and the theological controversies–come from the writings of this first century historian.
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