Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.07.03

Aaron P. Johnson, Ethnicity and Argumentation in Eusebius' Praeparatio evangelica. Oxford Early Christian Studies.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2006.  Pp. 288.  ISBN 10: 0-19-929613-8.  ISBN 13: 978-0-19-929613-2.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Sabrina Inowlocki, Université Libre de Bruxelles (

In the eye of many, the Historia Ecclesiastica made Eusebius the 'father of Church history'. In his book, Aaron Johnson (herein A.J.) argues against the view that the Praeparatio evangelica makes Eusebius the father of religious history. Instead, taking the Praeparatio as a unified apologetic project, A.J. seeks to show that this work has been misconstrued by modern scholarship. The central thesis of his work is that the Praeparatio should not be considered a polemical discussion of pagan religions but rather a construction of ethnic identities. In this context, Christianity is constructed as an ethnicity which is both old and new, since it is the restoration of the ancient Hebrew ethnicity.

The monograph is divided into seven chapters which focus mainly on four themes, namely the construction of Greek, Hebrew, and Roman ethnicity respectively, and the connection between Roman power and Christian ethnicity. To some extent, these chapters are also arranged following the order of the Praeparatio: Books I-VI on the Greeks, books VII-IX on Hebrews and Jews, books X-XV again on the Greeks, followed by a specific treatment of Roman ethnicity and power. The seven chapters of the book are followed by two appendices: "The structure of the Praeparatio" and "the concept of Progress in Eusebius". A select bibliography and a general index close the monograph.

The first chapter (pp.1-24), which includes an introduction, examines the historical, political and cultural background of Christian apologetics. It works as a prelude to the analysis of ethnic discourse as a strategy of identity formulation. Starting with the Hellenistic period, A.J. briefly examines the connection between apologetics and the building of ethnic identity and world-view. Jewish Hellenistic authors and 2nd- and 3rd- century apologists are touched upon before A.J. turns to Eusebius' Praeparatio. In this part of the chapter, the historical context, purpose, and audience for which Eusebius wrote his apologetic masterpiece is laid out for the reader. The structure of the work is also presented. In addition, A.J. offers the main thesis of his monograph: the Praeparatio is a consistent, carefully thought out apologetic work consisting of two master narratives (one on the Greeks, one on the Hebrews) which seeks to provide an answer to the question of where the Christians stand from an ethnic point of view.

The second chapter (pp.25-54) deals with the issue of ethnicity. It is divided into two parts. In the first one, theoretical approaches to ethnicity are discussed both in general and in regards to ancient conceptions of ethnicity (based on the works of J. Hall and S. Cohen). In the second one, A.J. seeks to define the vocabulary of ethnicity used by Eusebius. In his discussion of the theory of ethnicity, he accepts the definition of ethnicity as a discursively constructed identity, thus emphasising its rhetorical side. He also takes, as does Hall, a polythetic approach to the phenomenon, yet without rejecting the myths of shared descent and adding the legislative aspects which are crucial in the Praeparatio. He then proceeds to legitimize his enquiry from a philological point of view by analyzing the terminology of ethnicity, namely the words genos, ethnos, and, more briefly, others marking exclusion, such as exôthen, oikeios, othneios, and patrios. His conclusions about ethnos and genos show that the words are often synonymous. But more importantly, his survey demonstrates that, in the Praeparatio, they not only carry meanings related to genetic kinship, territory or common ancestors, but also include religious practice, politeia, and theological doctrines.

In the third chapter (pp.55-93), A.J. focuses on one of the two grand narratives he reads in the Praeparatio, namely the narrative of Greek descent. Through his analysis of the Greek ethnic past according to Eusebius, A.J. seeks to reach his ultimate purpose, namely to show that Eusebius' treatment should not be seen as concerned with pagan religion but rather with ethnic identity. The treatment of the Phoenicians and Egyptians is to be seen as part of the narrative of Greek descent: they provide a source for theology which is transmitted through key figures to the Greeks. A.J. here discusses how 'oriental' Hellenistic historiography (especially Philo of Byblos) is reappropriated by Eusebius within a "distinctively ethnicizing apologetic methodology". Euhemerism, polemics against allegory, the blurring of past and present, and the so-called "dependency theme" are used in his own fashion by Eusebius in his polemics against the Greeks. Thus, according to A.J., the purpose of books I-VI is to emphasize the late arrival of the Greeks and the irrationality of their ancestral national way of life.

The fourth chapter (pp.94-125) is devoted to the second and most important narrative, namely the descent of the ancient Hebrews. In this chapter, A.J. deals with the well known Eusebian distinction between "Jews" and "Hebrews" by examining it through the lense of the construction of ethnic identities. Jews are, in Eusebius' eyes, the corrupt descent of the pure Hebrews, while the Hebrews are the ancestors of the Christian ethnicity. The Christian ethnos thus become the Hebrew ethnos redivivum. This ethnic construction enables Eusebius to claim the superiority of Christians as an ethnos over both the Greek ethnos and the Jewish ethnos. Yet A.J. correctly notes that the demarcation of Hebrews from Jews allows for some permeability.

Chapter V (pp.126-152) argues that Eusebius' discussion of Greek philosophy in books X-XV should be understood as being firmly embedded within his history of the nations. In this part of the Praeparatio, Greek philosophy would be no preparation for the Gospel. The first part of the chapter deals with the comparison between the best of Greek philosophy and the "Hebrew teachings" (in books XI-XIII), while the second part tackles the discord of the Greek philosophers (books XIV-XV). In the first part, A.J. criticizes the widespread view that Eusebius seeks to legitimize the Christian doctrine by showing the similarities between Plato and the Hebrew scriptures. According to him, Eusebius' treatment of Plato is above all polemical and serves to undermine the highest representative of Greek philosophy. In the second part, he suggests that the disagreement between Greek philosophers (as exposed, for instance, through Numenius) is a distinctively Greek ethnic feature. The emphasis on this feature enables him to present the Hebrews, and thus their Christian heirs, as a counterpoint to Greek discord.

The sixth chapter (pp.153-197) focuses on Eusebius' theology of Rome and goes back to the issue of Greek political theology. The points at issue are Eusebius as a court theologian as well as the parallel Augustus-Christ in Eusebius. It appears that Rome does not get any emphasis in the Praeparatio: although the Greek political theology criticized by Eusebius (including, for example, oracular practice) is located in the Roman Empire, Eusebius connects it to older traditions. On the one hand, A.J. emphasizes that Eusebius marks off the Romans from the Greeks, notably through quotations of Dionysius of Halicarnassus; on the other, he downplays the laudatory views of Rome ascribed by some to the apologist. Turning now to Eusebius' other works (the Demonstratio, the Commentary on Isaiah, the Oration on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and some Commentaries), A.J. argues that Eusebius' assessment of Rome is hardly consistently positive. Along the same line, he defends the view that in Eusebius, it is clearly Christ only, and not Augustus, who caused the profound changes enumerated in Praeparatio I. 4. 5-8. Likewise, a brief examination of the Constantinian writings leads A.J. to reject the portrayal of Eusebius as a mere court theologian.

By way of conclusion, the last chapter (pp.198-233) concentrates on the goal achieved by the Praeparatio, namely to turn the Christians into a legitimate ethnos through the rhetoric of apologetics. According to A.J., Eusebius' self-declared new apologetic strategy (Praeparatio I. 3. 4) does not lie in the citation process but in an emphasis upon deeds as opposed to words. Moreover, as an ethnos, the Christians have revived the Hebrew politeia. They become Hebrew themselves. Yet the Christians are also regularly presented as the "Church from the nations". Thus A.J. attempts to articulate in which way the Christian ethnos may welcome the other according to Eusebius' Praeparatio. Philanthrôpia, and what he calls "Ethnographies of conversion" play a prominent role: new members of the Church must reject once and for all their previous allegiances and customs. They enjoyed Christian philanthrôpia as long as this rejection was absolute.

The overall thesis is convincingly argued by the author. In my opinion, he is successful in making two points. First, he demonstrates that the Praeparatio is a carefully executed and consistent apologetic project; it is neither a Stromateis of sorts, nor the incoherent work of an author deprived of argumentation. Secondly, reading the Praeparatio as two narratives of descent centered on ethnicity and identity indeed illuminates Eusebius' project. This is especially true of the constructions of the 'Jews' and 'Hebrews'. His argument that representations of these two groups as theological categories fail to do justice to the complexity of Eusebius' endeavour in the Praeparatio is, in my view, absolutely correct. Likewise, his discussion of the vocabulary of ethnicity, and, for example, his treatment of Eusebius' use of Philo of Byblos, are important.

There are nonetheless a few points on which I would disagree:

a) While A.J. is right to insist that viewing the Praeparatio as an attack against paganism does not allow an analysis of Eusebius' work in its full complexity, it is worth noting that Eusebius himself constructs non-Christian ethnicities as paganism/polytheism in order to shatter their theological foundations. Therefore, seeing the Praeparatio as targeting paganism is not so much a misconception as Eusebius' own apologetic strategy.

b) In several instances, A.J. admits the importance of philosophy in Eusebius' apology. The Hebrews, for example, are described by Eusebius as "philosophical Jews" (p. 122). When A.J. turns to books XI-XIII, in which Eusebius compares Plato and the "Hebrew oracles", he rejects the view that Eusebius seeks to harmonize Plato and the Bible. According to him, these books only aim "to dismantle the authoritative status of this philosopher" whose teaching could "only be considered great in so far as his translations were accurate" (p. 140). A.J. is right to the extent that Eusebius is always careful to note the anteriority of the Hebrews over Plato, who, according to the Praeparatio, transcribed the scriptures: how could he explain otherwise the similarities between the two, since Moses was far more ancient than Plato? However, A.J. undermines Eusebius' admiration for Plato and reads the passages in which he expresses it as ironical (p. 173). In my opinion, this is an incorrect view (cf. e.g., Demonstratio III. 6. 129 d). A.J. misses the ambivalence of Eusebius toward both Plato and Greek philosophy. In my opinion, these books are indeed primarily apologetic. Yet, what is at stake is not the shattering of Plato's authority but the legitimation of Hebrew doctrines through Plato. Thanks to Eusebius' reasoning, Mosaic philosophy proves to be a superior form of Platonism. If Plato was an atticizing Moses, thanks to the adjustments made by Eusebius, Moses was also in part a "Hebrew" Plato, that is a better, Christian Plato. This was a strong argument to convince intellectual pagans and new converts of the superiority of Christianity, and Eusebius was well aware of this.

c) The sixth chapter on Rome somehow detracts from the line of argumentation of the book. In this chapter, A.J. deals with Eusebius' other writings, losing focus on his subject, namely ethnicity in the Praeparatio. Moreover, his attempt to present a consistent synthesis of Eusebius' view of the Romans and the Roman power as represented in both the Preparatio and his other works seems to me methodologically flawed. Indeed, in many cases, Eusebius changes his presentation of people(s) according to his projects/works. His later views of the Romans cannot be projected on the Praeparatio and vice-versa. Finally, I do not think that "Eusebius had little concern for the Romans" in the Praeparatio (p. 160). I would rather suggest that this was too sensitive a subject at the time to be dealt with in a polemical way.

d) I wonder to what extent more references to the Demonstratio, the twin sister of the Praeparatio, should have been added. Although A.J. is right to take the Praeparatio as one consistent apologetic project, his discussion of the Hebrews, for example, could have benefited from more readings of the Demonstratio (e.g. I. 5-6).

e) At Praeparatio I. 5. 3, Eusebius declares that he will offer a new approach to defending the reasonableness of Christianity that has no precedent among his forebears. A.J. understands such a bold claim in reference to the emphasis placed by Eusebius upon deeds and historical facts (the spread of Christianity among the nations, the resistance of its martyrs etc.), rather than on words, in an ethnic context. I disagree with this view because Eusebius only insists on this a few times in the Praeparatio. I would tend to agree with Kofsky, for example, according to whom Eusebius is referring to the large citations 'from the outside' that he gives. Indeed, the whole strategy at work in the Praeparatio is based on Eusebius' citation technique. Even if self-declared originality is a topos in Greek literature, Eusebius would be quite right to argue that, more than any of his predecessors, he mastered the art of apologetic citation technique.

To sum up, despite the minor points of criticism noted above, A.J.'s book offers an illuminating treatment of the Praeparatio, a work which is often misconstrued and despised despite its importance. The book is of interest not only to students of early Christianity and Christian apologetics, but also to anyone interested in the question of ethnicity and intellectual history in the ancient world.

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