Eusebius and the Apocalypse

I recommend to all the dissertation of Presvytera Jeannie Constantinou: Andrew of Caesarea and the Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation (Université Laval, Québec, 2008). There are several points of interest in her dissertation: 1.) the first complete English translation of Andrew of Caesarea’s Commentary to the Apocalypse; 2.) the very clear summary discussion of the text types of the Apocalypse; and 3.) the extended discussion on the canonical status of the Apocalypse, with particular focus on its reception in the East. It’s a subset of this third topic that I’d like to discuss here, particularly in light of my last post, titled Eusebius and “canonical”.

In short, Constantinou describes a determined effort on the part of several Greek writers, culminating in Eusebius, who undermined the previously more positive reception of the Apocalypse in the East. The popularity of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History led to his position being valued more highly than it really deserved, a point that Constnantinou clarifies through tracking the scheme of Eusebius’ quotations, particularly his practice of mining various authors, even heretics, for aspersions and doubts to cast upon the Apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse. Eusebius was so much an anti-chiliast that no dirty tricks were considered too low to accomplish his self-assigned task.

I will recommend to all readers that they read the discussion in full in Constantinou’s dissertation, but I’ll summarize here some of the points involved:
1.) Eusebius treats the Apocalypse in a very peculiar fashion in his list of canonical works in Ecclesiatical History III.25, where he divided the books of the New Testament into three categories, based in the recognition of Apostolic origin: “agreed-upon”, “disputed”, and “spurious.” In the first category, describing those works which are generally agreed to be of Apostolic origin, are included the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s Epistles, First John, First Peter, and (note this!) the Apocalypse. In the second category, that of works whose authenticity as Apostolic writings is in dispute, are the epistles of James, Jude, Second Peter, and Second and Third John. (Note the similarity to the classical Syrian NT canon, exemplified by the Peshitta version, which also excluded these epistles.) Then comes the third category, of those works generally recognized as not being of Apostolic origin, and thus inauthentic or spurious: the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd (of Hermas), the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Teachings of the Apostles (i.e., the Didache), and, shockingly, the Apocalypse of John.

In this case, Eusebius has trounced his own categorizations in order to cast aspersions onto the Apocalypse. As Constantinou shows in her historical survey, the Apocalypse was almost universally accepted as Apostolic at the time Eusebius wrote. This is reflected by his placing the Apocalypse in the first category, that listing of books which all or very nearly all Christians agreed were of Apostolic origin. Yet, this is not to Eusebius’ liking. And, rather than placing the Apocalypse in the group of books of disputed authenticity, he instead includes the Apocalypse in the list of inauthentic books. There are two possible reasons for this: a.) Eusebius simply made a mistake and was sloppy in his categorization; or b.) this was a deliberate choice on his part. In the face of the broader sweep of evidence that Constantinou relates, it is clear that the latter is the case. Eusebius was, in the Ecclesiastical History, among other things, embarking on a program designed to damage the Apostolic reputation of the Apocalypse.

Eusebius quotes with favor both Dionysius of Alexandria, who shows a clear animadversion to the Apocalypse already in his letters, and invents out of whole cloth the tale of two tombs of Johns in Ephesus. Eusebius also approvingly quotes with favor Gaius the presbyter, from Rome, in relation to the Apocalypse. Yet Gaius was one of the Alogoi heretics, who denied Apostolic origin to the entire Johannine corpus: the Gospel, three letters, and the Apocalypse! Eusebius brazenly trots out Gaius in support for his anti-Apocalypse machinations. Perhaps betting on his good standing with Emperor Constantine, Eusebius was able to spread his idea of a non-Apostolic and therefore non-canonical Apocalypse throughout the Empire and beyond, as his original Ecclesiastical History was often copied and was even translated into multiple different languages for various Christian communities over the centuries. Unfortunately, Eusebius’ ideas about the Apocalypse also spread far and wide, particularly in the East, where the Apocalypse finally settled into a solid and unquestioned recognition as Apostolic and canonical only in the modern period, in the seventeenth century.

Really, though, it’s a cracking good story, and one ought to read of it in full, in Presvytera Constantinou’s dissertation. It’s really that good.