Saturday, January 31, 2009

Eusebius on Peter: historical methods

Eusebius is an important witness to the early church’s views. He is remembered, first and foremost, for the History he left of the early church. He may have seen himself primarily as a researcher and compiler; his greatest accomplishment in the History was not so much original writing as preserving the writings of earlier times, transmitting the notes of still earlier stages of Christianity. He has been criticized at times for not being skeptical enough of his sources; there are places where, to the best of our knowledge, that criticism seems justified.

I am interested in reviewing Eusebius’ comments on the canon of Scripture from a somewhat different angle than usual. Rather than re-examine whether Eusebius recorded the various books as accepted, disputed, or rejected in his day -- which has been well-recorded by many – here I will instead look at what he names as the basis for those decisions. As a representative of the early church and working inside the church’s tradition of scholarship, how did Eusebius reach his conclusions? How do his methods, materials, and results compare to those of modern scholarship?

The canon of Scripture was still in its formative stages in Eusebius’ day. That is to say, there were still ongoing disputes about a few books as to whether or not they should be considered as Scripture. Also to the interest of modern readers, there were a number of books attributed to Peter but rejected by Eusebius -- and the church in general -- as not having come from Peter. How was this determination made? Was the decision based on good judgment, or was it -- as some now contend -- simply a matter of the winners writing the history books? For the early church, what determined which books were 'in' and which books were 'out'?

Eusebius permits us a look behind the scenes, a view of an era in early Christian history when the question of which side would "win" -- and on what grounds -- was still under consideration. This current post will review Eusebius’ comments on the writings attributed to Peter. Eusebius’ treatment of other writers will be discussed separately as time permits.

In History III.3, Eusebius reviews the various books or writings attributed to Peter. By this I do not mean only books that we would recognize as being written by Peter, but the whole set of books that anyone had ever claimed were written by Peter, to the best of Eusebius’ knowledge. The writings which he evaluated included two letters attributed to Peter, an Acts of Peter, a Gospel of Peter, a Preaching of Peter, and a Revelation according to Peter. Of these six writings, Eusebius recognized only one as genuine. By genuine, he meant actually written by Peter. On what basis did he recognize the one writing but not the others?
Of Peter one epistle, known as his first, is accepted, and this the early fathers quoted freely, as undoubtedly genuine, in their own writings. But the second Petrine epistle we have been taught to regard as uncanonical; many, however, have thought it valuable and have honored it with a place among the other Scriptures. On the other hand, in the case of the ‘Acta’ attributed to him, the ‘Gospel’ that bears his name, the ‘Preaching’ called his, and the so-called ‘Revelation’, we have no reason at all to include these among the traditional Catholic Scriptures, for neither in early days nor in our own has any Church writer made use of their testimony. In the course of my narrative I shall take care to indicate in each period which of the Church writers of the time used the various disputed books; their comments on the canonical and recognized Scriptures; and their remarks about the other sort.

These, then, are the works attributed to Peter, of which I have recognized only one epistle as authentic and accepted by the early fathers. (History III.3, emphasis added)
Eusebius notes that his method is based on a review of the earlier writings of the church. Anyone who has read Eusebius will know his wide familiarity with the early writings of the church. In a number of cases, our only knowledge of an earlier source comes from Eusebius in his diligent cataloging and preservation of what had gone before. His familiarity with early church writings placed him in a good position to evaluate what had been known and accepted in earlier times. It was this familiarity with older historical sources which he used as evidence as to whether a book was known and attributed to a certain writer at an earlier date.

We should also notice that Eusebius’ general stance is that a writing was not accepted unless there was positive reason to accept it. That is to say, the default position was one of skepticism. Rather than accepting any book by default unless it could be disproved, the position was the opposite: he rejected any book which did not have historical evidence in its favor. Of the six contenders presented to him as supposed writings of Peter, he rejected five of them, saying “we have no reason at all to include these.” There is no hint that simply dropping the name Peter or attaching it to a writing was enough to succeed in giving authority to a writing or to succeed in convincing the early church that a writing actually came from the author named. The early church was not so naïve as to accept any writing that came to it, even one with the name of an apostle attached. On what basis, then, did they separate the early and authentic writings from the forgeries?

Eusebius explains this also: they made an evaluation of the historically earlier writers to determine which works they cited and which they did not. On this basis, Eusebius determines that the letter we have as 1 Peter was genuine, and bases this determination on the fact that “the early fathers quoted [the first letter] freely.” As far as the Acts of Peter, the Revelation of Peter, the Gospel of Peter and the Preaching of Peter, “neither in early days nor in our own has any Church writer made use of their testimony.” In searching through the history of quotations in earlier writings, Eusebius applied the objective methods of a scholar pursuing what is authentic. We may also note that he had better access to more ancient materials than are now available, materials which have now been lost to us.

Modern critical scholars still use this method to inform their own decisions. The history of the other writers who quoted a book or letter is part of the scholar's toolbox when evaluating a writing, especially useful when a question arises about the date or authorship of the work being quoted. Interestingly, although some disparage Eusebius for being too uncritical about his sources -- and most would recognize that he makes the occasional mistake in judgment -- many modern scholars have reached the same conclusion about the writings attributed to Peter that is recorded in Eusebius: namely, that of all the writings passed around under Peter's name, only the first letter can be attributed to him with any certainty. Eusebius notes that the second letter attributed to Peter may have been received more on its usefulness than on any sense of certainty about who wrote it. Other writings attributed to Peter are deemed to be spurious and therefore of lesser interest to those who want to hear from Jesus' own apostles. So while it is common for modern scholars to claim that the early church was uncritical, it is worth noticing that, in this case, we have an early church writer using similar methods to those recognized by modern scholars and reaching similar conclusions. That is to say, when we review Eusebius' scholarship focusing on Peter's supposed writings – and the level of confidence we may have about each writing – the methods and findings of this early church scholar are comparable to the results obtained by modern critical scholarship.


ahswan said...

Thanks, this is a very informative post. I especially like your comment about the default position being skepticism. As you mention, this is the opposite of what we often hear.

Steve said...


Very interesting post.

Thanks much!

- Steve M. San Clemente, CA

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I find it particularly interesting how Eusebius treated 1Peter. There were lists of canonical books before Eusebius' day and general consensus had been reached about the acceptance of 1Peter. He could have simply relied on that as 'tradition' (or 'consensus') and considered 1Peter to be 'in' by default. He could have justified not offering any evidence for 1Peter, given that it had already achieved acceptance, and only demanded that newcomers prove they could compete on the same grounds. Instead, he based the acceptance of 1Peter not on 'tradition' or 'consensus' but on the fact that the early writers quoted it a lot.

So I find it interesting that his methods allowed a level playing field between the books already accepted in his day and those not accepted, and determined on objective grounds that the acceptance of 1Peter (and rejection of others) was warranted based on historical research.

Speaking for myself, I'm grateful that he was primarily a researcher/compiler. :)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

That's interesting. Thanks.

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