Sunday, January 29, 2012


Marie Verdoner, Narrated Reality: the Historia ecclesiastica of Eusebius of Caesarea. Early Christianity in the context of antiquity, 9. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011. Pp. vi, 208. ISBN 9783631605882. €42.80; $66.95.

Reviewed by David J. DeVore, University of California (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The oeuvre of Eusebius of Caesarea – bishop, book collector and editor, theologian, polemicist, chronicler, propagandist, and, to some in his lifetime, "heretic" – has not always been appreciated. Yet since the late 1990s his early works from before Constantine became sole Roman emperor in 324 have drawn a groundswell of scholarly of attention from historians, classicists and theologians. Eusebius' subtlety and comprehensiveness as a polemicist against non-Christian ethnic groups (Ulrich, Kofsky, A. Johnson, Schott, Morlet), his manipulation of previous written texts and innovative use of the technology of books (Carriker, Inowlocki, Grafton and Williams, Morlet), his skill in adapting Christian theology in dialogue with Platonist metaphysics and various theological critiques (Strutwolf, Kofsky, Johnson, Morlet, Schott, Zamagni), and even his vision of Christian society (Hollerich, Johnson, Morlet) have become the subjects of a number of recent volumes.1 Yet this renaissance has covered Eusebius's various authorial themes and aims unevenly, devoting relatively little attention to Eusebian historiography, and particularly to his most-read (or, better, most-cited) work, the Ecclesiastical History.2 The lag in attention to the History is understandable for at least two reasons. For one, the History's multifaceted intertextuality – between 40 and 50 percent of the text consists of direct quotations of varying correspondence to their Vorlagen – demands wide knowledge of both Eusebius and his sources and frustrates attempts to identify where sources' voices end and Eusebius' begins. For another, the History's complex and disputed compositional history has hindered scholars from mapping out the discursive contexts that it addresses.3

As fresh probing of the History is overdue, Marie Verdoner's new book, a translated revision of her 2007 Danish dissertation at the University of Aarhus, is a welcome study. Verdoner aims "to map the historical space implied in historia ecclesiastica" (1), by "regard[ing] text as a construction of meaning, drawing upon the surrounding cultural system, and thus becoming more than a by-word for the unique creation of the narrator- author" (2). Thereby Verdoner will explain "the cultural negotiations attending the turn into a post-Constantinian Christianity" (2): situating her reading within the new historicism, she dispenses explicitly with the older (to adapt a term from Herodotean and Thucydidean studies) "Eusebian questions" of compositional sequence and historical accuracy to focus instead on the History as an ideological document.

The book proceeds in five chapters. To establish the text's significance, Verdoner's introduction sketches the History's wide reception from late Roman to modern times (4-17). She then draws from poststructuralist theorists her study's guiding principle that historical narrative's combination of internal causal chains and coherence with perceived external realities serve to model power relationships for their audiences and retroject them into a plausible past (17-30).

Verdoner's second chapter sketches Eusebius's life and works briefly before discussing the composition, structure, and narrative techniques of the History. Marginalizing Eusebius the author to tackle the text's narratorial voice, Verdoner contrasts the History's annalistic and therefore discontinuous structure in books 1-7 (concerning events before Diocletian's persecutions) with the involved and passionate narration of recent persecutions in books 8-9, narration that (I concur) transforms reader into spectator. She also notes that the Eusebian narrator's famous use of quotations confirms the "external coherence" discussed in her introduction and edifies readers (65f.).

Chapter 3 moves on to the History's genre, which Verdoner introduces as the key to its authority. A discussion of "Hellenistic" and "Judeo-Christian history writing" (on which, see below) leads her to pronounce that the History "must be placed within the frames of the traditional Hellenistic-Roman history writing…regarding time,…subject, form and style" (84), though the text articulates apologetic arguments too.4 The strongest part of the book comes next (89-107), as Verdoner untangles Eusebius's carefully inflected self-descriptions as "I" or "we" (the latter sometimes including Christians from centuries before Eusebius, sometimes including Eusebius's readers ) and as an exceptionally book-smart savant. The narrator presents a narrative that is "out there" in texts and waiting for its teller, and its coalescence elevates the book that carries it into a sacred monument.5

The fourth chapter outlines how Eusebius constructs an ideal Christian community, unifying and arranging bishops, martyrs, and scholars across time, space, and rank within a Christian ethnos while systematically excluding "heretics," Judeans, and pagans (109-147).6 While Eusebius's stereotyped presentation of both insiders and outsiders creates a unified, pious Christian nation, Verdoner shows that certain groups and individuals threatened the stability of Eusebius's sharp hierarchies and divisions, such as "heresy's" status as an inversion of Christianity, the problematic border between Hebrews, Judeans, and Christians, and the narrator's praise of "heretical" and Judean scholars like Tatian, Philo and Josephus.

The fifth and final chapter situates Eusebius's imagined church vis-à-vis three contexts: space and time, the Roman imperial state, and the divine. The first two collapse into one as Verdoner shows that, "Chronologically, geographically, and politically, the Roman Empire appears as the borders of the church and as the entire world" (160). She also rightly reaffirms that for Eusebius historical agency lies ultimately with God, whose victory in a cosmic struggle with the devil is a foregone conclusion, but whose Providence, manifested in Christ's teaching, binds the church into continuity with God's people in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Verdoner's reading of the History as a unified ideological presentation is a suggestive experiment and an important corrective to studies that divide the text according to one or another compositional hypothesis or that emphasize Eusebius's sources to the exclusion of his authorial agenda. The book's most brilliant moments come when Verdoner probes the Eusebian narrator's voice, sequencing, rhythm, and intertextual devices, particularly in the second and third chapters.7 Verdoner's questions yield numerous provocative observations about Eusebius's narrative techniques that, while not all will agree with every point, should be foundational for understanding the History's success.

Alongside these suggestive readings, however, a tension develops between the book's aims and the path adopted to reach those aims: whereas Verdoner purports to explain the History's success in forming Christian collective memory and identity in the milieu in which Christianity gained power, her transtemporal orientation vis-à-vis what history does (chapter 1) marginalizes the particular habitus of the History's elite Roman audiences, running the danger of dehistoricizing the text (cf. her tributes to the New Historicism, 2, 21, 29). Neglect of the particular culture for which Eusebius wrote (as well as contemporary debates in which he participated) obscures Eusebius' contributions to "the larger renegotiation of Christianity's position within the Roman Empire" (187).

Rather than being grounded from the start in Eusebius's late Roman milieu, the book sketches Eusebius's literary culture only in its third chapter. But here Verdoner presupposes a distinction between "Hellenistic" and "Judeo- Christian" historiographies, even though she is at pains to delineate differences between these two traditions.8 Indeed, it is unclear how, in early fourth century Greek literary culture, an narrator-author's ethnicity conditioned readers' expectations about the blending of form, content, and rhetoric – in short, the genre – of a historiographical text. Educated hellenophones in Eusebius's day did not distinguish genres of historia simply by their respective authors' ethnicity: rather, any Greek historian had numerous subgenres from an 800-year tradition of historical writing available to emulate, so that Greek and non-Greek narrator-authors alike produced lengthy national histories, shorter war monographs, geographies and ethnographies, local histories, chronographies, and biographies, and combinations of several genres, each presuming different respective interests and education in audiences. And each genre (or combination of genres) implicated a text's narrator-author into a different relationship between subject matter, the narrator's voice, and readers (both implied and actual) – a nexus that represented a major concern for Eusebius (see esp. History 5.pref.3f.). A careful consideration of the History's genre(s) would bring into sharper relief the particular audiences targeted by Eusebius and help explain the History's resonance.

Nevertheless, Verdoner's discussion of Eusebius's narrative tactics and construct of Christianity will be fundamental in coming studies of the Ecclesiastical History. Her perceptive readings and fresh approach make this book a necessary acquisition for any scholar working on Eusebius and profitable for students of late Roman historical writing.

It must be noted that the book is marred by numerous grammatical errors, typos, colloquialisms, and awkward phrasings.10


1.   See also the recent collections of A.-C. Jacobsen, and J. Ulrich (eds.) Three Greek Apologists. Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius (Frankfurt, 2007) and S. Inowlocki and C. Zamagni (eds.), Reconsidering Eusebius (Leiden, 2011), as well as the forthcoming A. Johnson and J. Schott (eds.), Eusebius and the Making of Late Antique Literary Culture (Washington DC, 2012). Credit for laying the historical foundation for recent Eusebian scholarship goes largely to T. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, MA, 1981).
2.   Indeed, Inowlocki and Zamagni excluded studies of the Ecclesiastical History from their recent volume (previous note; see their "Preface," pp. ixf.). Some of the best recent work on the History has treated circumscribed topics within the text, such as its quotational practice (E. Carotenuto, Tradizione e innovazione nella Historia Ecclesiastica di Eusebio di Cesarea (Bologna, 2001)), and portrayal of "heretics" (M. Willing, Eusebius von Cäsarea als Häresiograph (Berlin, 2008)). Recent assessments of the History include D. Mendels, The Media Revolution of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, 1999), T. Morgan, "Eusebius of Caesarea and Christian Historiography," Athenaeum 93 (2005), Morlet, "Écrire l'Histoire selon Eusèbe de Césarée," L'Information Litteraire 57 (2005), and Ulrich, "Eusebius als Kirchengeschichtsschreiber," in E.-M. Becker (ed.), Die antike Historiographie und die Anfänge der christlichen Geschichtsschreibung (Berlin, 2005). A commentary on the History is also in the works: for a prospectus, see L. Perrone, "Eusèbe de Césarée face à l'essor de la littérature chrétienne," Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum 11 (2007).
3.   The History was published in at least three editions between Constantine's and Licinius' securing joint rule in 313 and Constantine's deposing Licinius in 325, as R. Burgess has shown in "The Dates and Editions of Eusebius' Chronici Canones and Historia Ecclesiastica," Journal of Theological Studies 48 (1997) (but cf. Barnes, "Eusebius of Caesarea," Expository Times 120 (2009), 6f.).
4.   On non-Greeks writing "apologetic histories" in Greek in the Hellenistic and early Roman period, see G. Sterling, Historiography and Self-Definition: Josephos, Luke-Acts, and Apologetic Historiography (Leiden, 1991), an important study of which Verdoner appears unaware.
5.   Verdoner already maps the History's apologetic strategies and targets in "Transgeneric Crosses. Apologetics in the Church History of Eusebius," in Jacobsen and Ulrich (eds.), Three Greek Apologists (2007); she also discusses the Eusebian narrator's relationship with his audience trenchantly in "Überlegungen zum Adressaten von Eusebs Historia ecclesiastica," Zeitschrift für antikes Christentum 14 (2010).
6.   On Christianity as a nation in Eusebius's writings, see esp. A. Johnson, Ethnicity and Argument in Eusebius' Praeparatio Evangelica (2006).
7.   It may cause some confusion that Verdoner nowhere introduces readers to the technical narratological terms that she employs throughout the monograph, except where at 89 n. 121 she explains why she uses "narrator" instead of "Eusebius": so confusion may result around such technical terms as "focalize," "focalizer" and "focalization" (passim), or "internal analepses" and "prolepses" (150). It is recommended that readers unfamiliar with narratology consult an introductory guide to the field, such as M. Bal, Narratology (Toronto, 2009).
8.   Verdoner points to (1) the agency of God and the teleology of his plan and (2) the Judean and Christian historians' direct quotation of texts. However, attributions of agency alone constitute no sound basis for a generic distinction, and Verdoner herself concedes in a footnote that Greek and Roman historians quoted texts too, and in ways similar to Judean and Christian historians (71 n. 17).
9.   On genre in ancient historiography, see the important essay of J. Marincola, "Genre, Convention, and Innovation in Greco-Roman Historiography," in C. Kraus (ed.), The Limits of Historiography (Leiden, 1999). Verdoner's discussion of the History's authority, which she links to its genre, would have benefited from consultation of Marincola's classic Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge, 1997).
10.   A few examples: the repeated use of "quote" as a noun; "the taxing style…resulting in the text getting an alluding character" (52); "although the lack of descriptions [sic] may be typical for the work as a whole, it is not consequent" (53); "…catching the room of communication with the reader…" (89 n. 121); "…the non-episcopal learned receiving the most attention is Origen." (113); "there is no consistent discern between schismatics and heretics" (145).

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