The Church History by Eusebius

By Paul L. Maier, translator and commentator
Grand Rapids : Kregel (1999). 412 Pages.

Reviewed by
12.1 (Spring 2001) : 111-112

“If Herodotus is the father of history, then Eusebius of Caesarea (c. A.D. 260–339) is certainly the father of church history” (9). Thus begins Paul L. Maier’s new translation with critical commentary of Eusebius’ classic work, Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, undertook to compile a record of the history of the early church from the life of Christ to the period of Constantine. Ecclesiastical History provides important historical data, particularly in regards to the post-biblical period. Eusebius integrates Josephus’ writings with a chronology of the postapostolic church fathers. Eusebius was a prolific writer who also penned additional historical treatments (Life of Constantine, Martyrs of Palestine), numerous apologetic works, one of the earliest Bible geographies (Onomasticon), and a corpus of sermonic materials. Eusebius’ contribution to the history of the primitive church is unrivaled in detail and importance as a primary historical source.

Paul L. Maier is Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University. Maier has been previously recognized as “Professor of the Year” as one of America’s twenty-five finest educators by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. He has been featured on A&E’s “Mysteries of the Bible” documentary series. Scholarly works include Josephus: The New Complete Works (Kregel, 1999); In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter and the Early Church (Kregel, 1997); and A Man Spoke, A W orld Listened: The Story of Walter A. Maier (McGraw-Hill, 1963). Maier has also written several historical fictions including Pontius Pilate (Kregel, 1990), The Flames of Rome (Kregel, 1991), and A Skeleton in God's Closet (Thomas Nelson, 1996). He is the son of Dr. Walter A. Maier, a pioneer in Christian radio and founder of the ground-breaking program, “The Lutheran Hour.”

One of the central challenges of Ecclesiastical History has been the lack of a readable modern translation integrated with scholarly commentary. Previous English translations, owing to the difficult nature of Eusebius’ Greek, are often inaccessible to all but the most tenacious readers. Such a situation often relegates Ecclesiastical History to the scholarly fringe and not the mainstream where it belongs. As a primary historical source, The Church History is too important to be ignored. Maier has performed a tremendous service to the Christian community by providing both an accessible translation and a valuable commentary integrated into a single readable volume. He did the same in his excellent treatment, Josephus: The New Complete Works (Kregel, 1999). Clearly, his scholarly knowledge of Josephus is an important asset to his discussion of Eusebius.

The Church History begins with prefatory material consisting of a biographical sketch and a bibliography of Eusebius and his works. Following the bibliographic essay, Maier offers a summary explanation of the critical aspects of The Church History in addition to procedural translation decision-making. He organizes the text into ten “Books” according to Eusebius’ organizational scheme, beginning with the life of Christ and concluding with a discussion of Constantine. The work follows a simple chronological approach built largely around the framework of the Roman emperors. Maier richly illustrates the translation with photographs, maps, and diagrams. The text finishes with two appendices that (1) explore the critical question of Josephus’ reference to Jesus (Antiquities 18:6) and (2) provide an overview chart of the Roman emperors and Bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. Bibliographies and indexes conclude this fine treatment.

Each “Book” concludes with an appropriate discussion of an issue identified by Eusebius and explored by Maier. The commentary is appropriate and engaging. Chronological emendations in the marginalia assist the reader in placing the historical context. The narrative is liberally noted and includes both valuable cross-referencing and scholarly digression. Maier identifies textual and historical problems with Eusebius, where appropriate, to inform the reader of potential challenges. The translation does not assume Eusebius’ historical accuracy (see footnote 17). Maier does a fine job of identifying conflict points and alerting readers to alternative renderings or interpretive options.

One point of interest to this reviewer was the passing comment regarding the chronology of Christ and the dating of the crucifixion in A.D. 33 (see footnote 26). Without further elaboration, Maier assumes Harold Hoehner’s argumentation regarding an A.D. 33 dating (cf. Harold W. Hoehner. “The Year of Christ’s Crucifixion,” Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977] 114). The reconciliation of Eusebius dating with an A.D. 30 date is, to Maier, “ . . . three or four years too early to reflect the most accurate date of the Crucifixion (A.D. 33).” Such an authoritative assertion negates dissenting views held by other prominent NT scholars (cf. Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, “Chronology of the Life of Christ,” in A Harmony of the Gospels [New York: HarperCollins, 1978] 324-28). The assumptive nature of Maier’s conclusion, given without additional clarification, led this reviewer to question other scholarly interjections.

Readers interested in early church history will find this work to be both fascinating and informative reading. Though some may relegate the book to academic purposes only, it has a clear devotional vein as the reader considers the commitments and challenges facing the early church. Maier has made a tremendous contribution to the modern reader by making Eusebius accessible.