Rediscovering Eusebius of Caesarea’s Sainthood, and Why It Matters

Fig. 1 Abba Garima III Saint (Eusebius) in a laurel frame (AG II, fol. 259v)

Fig. 1 Abba Garima III Saint (Eusebius) in a laurel frame (AG II, fol. 259v)

By Dcn. Clement (Logan Polk), M.A. – Chief Overseer of the Center for Orthodox Studies (COS) – 29/04/21
St. Mary & St. Raphael E.O.T.C., Memphis, TN

Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea (d. 339-340 AD) earns the distinction of being, besides his much-beloved Origen, the most controversial Christian to be given the title of Church Father. Lauded as the “Father of Church History” and “a most diligent investigator of the Holy Bible”[1] by some, and yet deemed an Arian heretic and worshipper of St. Constantine the Great (d. 337) by others, Eusebius of Caesarea remains a figure of much debate among scholars of both secular and Christian persuasion to this very day. Yet as one of the most important figures in the Church both ancient and modern to both Biblical scholarship and history, Eusebius deserves re-evaluation by Christians deeming him of ill repute and not worth reading. In spite of the scepticism of both his theology and his loyalties to the Church, a laudable portrait of Eusebius as a properly Orthodox Christian can be found when one sets their historical lens upon the oft-overlooked and ancient annals of Christendom swathed across the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Within these African Churches, still-beating hearts of Christ in a continent considered ignorant of Him for centuries and often maligned as heretical themselves due to the false label of Monophysitism (belief Christ has only one nature, fully Divine with no humanity), Eusebius is given the proper designation as holy and venerable intercessor in Heaven.

Eusebius the Oriental Saint
As a Deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and a great admirer of Eusebius of Caesarea’s works (most especially his Church History, which has given me a base for many sermons for my children’s ministry on ancient Church practices), I had often wondered why he was not given the distinction of “Saint” by any of the Apostolic Christian Churches. The Oriental Orthodox Church had, within its lectionaries, preserved the names of many figures who were deemed “heretics” by other sects, such as St. Didymus the Blind, St. Evagrius of Pontus, St. Palladius of Galatia, and many others who were followers of the great Scholar Origen. Thus why not the venerable Eusebius, whose main controversy and lack of canonization seemed to reside not so much in his supposed Arianism but rather his love and preservation of that great ascetic Origen’s writings and teachings?[2]I was to find that, despite being a Greek-speaking Bishop, Eusebius did indeed manage to receive his Sainthood within the oldest Churches in Africa.[3]

When one searches for the oldest complete set of the four Gospels in the world, they will find it deep in the heart of Ethiopia, kept tucked away within the Abba Garima Monastery for centuries. These “Garima Gospels” were said to be written by Abba Garima, one of the Nine Saints who helped establish the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia in the Fifth Century, and have a dating of 390 AD to 570 AD.[4] One will find within this illuminated manuscript some of the earliest depictions of the Four Evangelists, but alongside them, a fifth figure emerges, swathed in a halo and the robes of a clergyman and yet clearly not Christ nor the Evangelists. This Saint can only be Eusebius of Caesarea.

Fig. 1 Abba Garima III Saint (Eusebius) in a laurel frame (AG II, fol. 259v)

The Garima Gospels are not merely the four Gospels, but also contain two items constructed by Eusebius of Caesarea himself. The first is a scholastic tool known as the Eusebian Canons, which were invented by Eusebius himself and consist of ten tables showing were passages in the Gospels agree and differ and setting these passages alongside each other as a show Gospel harmonization. Coinciding with these tables is an entire letter composed by Eusebius to a Christian named Carpanius on the tables, how to use them and the importance of understanding the Gospels. The icon above, properly placed, fits in between these tables and the letter, both created by Eusebius, identifying the man depicted clearly as Eusebius, despite the halo indicating Sainthood. Such a depiction indicates not only Eusebius’ contribution to understanding the Gospel narrative and harmonization but also his sanctity in doing so.[5] Equally important, this icon is not the only one depicting Eusebius as a Saint. In another remote monastery in Ethiopia, located in the mountains of Amba Geshan, one can find an icon within another Gospel book depicting Eusebius and Carpianus both as Saints.[6]

Eusebius and Carpanius with Saints’ halos

Eusebius and Carpanius with Saints’ halos

Though he has no official mention or listed feast day in the Ethiopian Synaxarium,[7] Eusebius is clearly regarded as a Saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church based on these iconographic depictions. Not only the Ethiopians regard Eusebius as Saintly, however, for fragments can be found in the ancient Coptic Catena (commentaries on Gospel verses by many different Church Fathers all combined into one work, which can still be found in usage during Holy Week in both the Coptic and the Ethiopian Churches) that list him as Holy and Blessed.

The Coptic Catena has multiple fragments listing a man named “Eusebius” as the commentator, namely dealing with the issues of Christ’s birth and St. Mary’s visitation to St. Elizabeth, though it does not denote him as Caesarea. Roger Pearse, the editor of these fragments from the Coptic edited by Paul de Lagarde, notes that it is “unlikely that all of these are from Gospel Problems and Solutions [a work of St. Eusebius’ we still have in fragmented pieces] or even by Eusebius of Caesarea, rather than Eusebius of Edessa or other authors of the same name,” but notes that an Arabic translation was made before the losses.[8] Said Arabic translation in particular lists Eusebius of Caesarea by name and city,[9] meaning these Coptic fragments are most likely being attributed to Eusebius of Caesarea. That makes it all the more fascinating when these Coptic fragments denote said Eusebius as “Holy” or “Saint” Eusebius in fragment twelve.[10] It would be strange to believe these fragments are talking of Eusebius of Caesarea. But the recognition and iconography showing his sanctity within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which should be noted was considered under the Coptic Patriarchy for over 1600 years, makes such an idea more believable.

Indeed, Professor Mariam Ayad, a researcher of Coptic culture, history, and religion notes similarly in her commentary on the Coptic Catena fragments. She goes into detail as well over how the material within fragment twelve match much better with St. Eusebius than any of the other Eusebius’ whose writings we have from these times. As she notes:

“For these reasons, I am satisfied that our present passages in Luke Chapter 2 from the Coptic Cantenado belong to Eusebius of Caesarea, despite his designation in Fr. Copt. 12 as ‘the holy’ or ‘Saint’ Eusebius, because the discussion of Mary bringing forth her ‘first-born son’ and the language used in this context seems so clearly to reflect the creedal formula of Caesarea, as mentioned above, and do not seem appropriate material for St. Eusebius of Vercelli or for Eusebius’ student, Eusebius of Emesa; in addition, the name Eusebius appeared for a long time in the calendar of Saints, even though it was sometimes doubtful whether it was always Eusebius of Caesarea being referred to.”[11]

Unfortunately, Ayad does not denote which feast day Eusebius’ feast fell upon, but more than likely a date exists among the hundreds of untranslated documents nestled in both Ethiopian and Coptic monasteries, much like the above material, much of which has only been recently discovered. As an Ethiopian Orthodox Deacon, I am satisfied with the above information to prove Eusebius may be called a Saint in our Holy Oriental Orthodox Church. However, the question must be asked as to what such recognition means for both the Church and for Christians in general.

Such a designation, would, first and foremost, immediately prove that the notion of St. Eusebius as an Arian or even Semi-Arian to be a false claim. The Coptic and Ethiopian Church were the main Church of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who was the Pope of the Alexandrian Church, the main defender of the Trinity, and the persecuted Saint who was exiled five separate times for his defence of God’s Triune nature. These Churches would, therefore, be the least likely to canonize anyone who had even the slightest Arian leanings. Yet among the Ethiopian Church there exists Eusebius depicted in two separate icons with a halo and his canons and letters were even being included with the Gospels. In the Coptic Church among the holy commentaries of the Fathers, his writings are extant, denoting him as a Saint too. I hope to write a follow-up article proving how the assertion Eusebius of Caesarea remained an Arian all his life, or even a Semi-Arian, are demonstrably false, and that he renounced such beliefs with his subscription to the Creed at the First Council of Nicaea and even had a large hand in creating what the Church collectively calls the Nicene Creed today.

Equally important, that means St. Eusebius’ massive collection of extant writing will be read at last in a positive light and hopefully used by missionaries, theologians, and converts wishing to learn more about both Christ and His Church. These include the earliest full history of the Church (Church History), proofs of the miracles and historicity of the Gospels (Demonstration of the Gospel), proving the Gospel’s message and the life of Jesus Christ against the rising tide of neo-Paganism and secularism (Preparation for the Gospel), a work of world history in general that showcases Christ’s presence even in secular chronicles (The Chronicon), an explanation and defence of many so-called “contradictions” in the Gospels that atheists bring up even 1700 years later (Gospel Problems and Solutions), and so much more than this Saintly and venerable man wrote in order to truly prove not just spiritually, but historically and secularly, that Jesus Christ and His Church are provable, historical, tangible entities carrying the Truth of the world. These beautiful and incredibly useful works would be read and held to the same standard as other writings of Saints. It would mean all these texts would have a much larger audience, as they rightly deserve, and indeed are all necessary reading to anyone who would call himself a Christian and wish to defend the Truth. Currently, most people do not know St. Eusebius aside from his Church History, which is usually attacked by secularists and even some Christian sects for its amazingly detailed history and proofs of Apostolic Christianity with the hand-waving of “Well Eusebius wasn’t really a Christian, he died a heretic.” This very claim attacks all Christian history if so, given the fact every Christian historian following St. Eusebius had to use his Church History for their own works (Socrates of Constantinople, Sozomen, Evagrius Scholasticus, Rufinus, etc) and many Church Fathers as well (such as St. Epiphanius all throughout his Panarion). If the rest of his writings received proper treatment and respect, so many more people would be able to defend the Gospels with proper historical references, Greek philosophers, and much more, which are the exact types of materials Christians need today to combat the rising tide of atheism, occultism, and agnosticism in the West and East alike.

When secularists demand tangible, historical evidence of the Gospels, Christ’s divinity, the Holy Trinity, and more, any Christian should be able to pull Saint Eusebius of Caesarea off the shelf and show them the historicity of Christ, His miracles, His promises, and His Church. I hope that this article will help more people develop a curiosity for this great Saint rather than merely regarding him as nothing more than an Arian heretic and help lead to more research into the sanctity of St. Eusebius, because he certainly deserves more respect, documentation, research, and reading by Christianity as a whole. His works answer the issues that so many modern people have with both the Church and the Gospels to this very day and deserve proper treatment as the writings of a Holy, Venerable Saint, the Father of Church History. May the Holy Saint Eusebius of Caesarea’s prayers be with us all before the throne of Almighty God, that He may grant us forgiveness of our sins. Amen.

[1]St. Jerome, De VirisIllustribus, ch. 81.

[2] Book 6 of his Church History is entirely dedicated to Origen’s life, his disciples, and his near-Martyrdom.

[3] Nor is such a distinction uncommon; The Armenian Church recognizes the controversial Evagrius of Pontus as a Saint and Father of Monasticism (feast: Feb. 11) despite his main activity being in Egypt, and the Assyrian Church of the East regard both Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia as Saints and Fathers of the Church despite them being Greek bishops.

[4]Bausi, Alessandro. “Ethiopia and the Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity: The Garima Gospels in Context.” Ethiopian Heritage Fund, Nov. 3, 2013.

[5] All information in this paragraph can be found in the excellently detailed book The Garima Gospels: Early Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia by Judith S. McKenzie and Francis Watson, published by Manar al-Athar (2016). The book includes an entire section on Eusebius’ icon above, his contributions to the work (pp. 145-163), enlarged and restored images of his icon (pp. 146 & 154) and translations from the Ge’ez of both the Eusebian Canons and his letter (pp. 159-178).

[6] Found in the same book by McKenzie and Watson, p. 33

[7] Nor should a lack of mention in this holy work be a cause of doubt towards his Sainthood in our Church, for the Synaxarium is missing many important early Coptic Saints such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Didymus the Blind, and St. Clement of Alexandria, and has not been updated or revised in centuries, meaning it is missing even important Ethiopian Saints such as St. Kristos Samra.

[8]Eusebius of Caesarea. Gospel Problems and Solutions.” Ed. Roger Pearse. Tr. David J.D. Miller, Adam C. McCollum, & Carol Downer. Ipswich: Chieftain Publishing Ltd. 2010. p. 352

[9] Pearse p. 389

[10] Pearse p. 371

[11]Ayad, Mariam. Studies in Coptic Culture: Transmission and Interaction. New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2016, p. 26.

Dcn. Clement (Logan Polk) – COS

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