Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–c. 340) is generally considered the church’s first real historian. Although he provides invaluable insight into the history and workings of the early church, Eusebius is often criticized for his selective record and especially for his rather generous depiction of Emperor Constantine (c. 272–337). Shortly after the emperor’s death, Eusebius wrote a panegyric in which he described Constantine in very positive terms while omitting some of the more negative details about his character and domestic life. In addition to his book on Constantine, Eusebius also wrote several other works including an account of the church’s first three centuries titled Church History. This too was not strictly speaking a critical work, but it is the earliest chronological description of the church in this period which is still extant. Without it, we would be much the poorer.
In his Church History, Eusebius covers the time from Christ to Constantine. He describes the persecution which many early believers faced at the hands of Roman authorities. He tells of Ignatius of Antioch the early second century bishop who was martyred in Rome and “became food for wild animals because of his witness to Christ” (3.36). He records the conflict which surrounded the various heresies which the early church was forced to confront and the difficulties which notorious heretics caused within the church (e.g., 4.7; 5.14–20). And he recounts some of the terrible events which took place during the Diocletian persecution of his own day (8.1–13).
In describing the persecution which some second-century believers faced, Eusebius preserves the following account from the church in Gaul:
In addition to all this, on the last day of the games Blandina was again brought in, with Ponticus, a lad of about fifteen. Each day they had been led in to watch the torturing and were urged to swear by the idols. Furious at their steadfast refusal, they showed no sympathy for the boy’s youth or respect for the woman but subjected them to every torture. Ponticus was heartened by his sister in Christ and bravely endured each horror until he gave up his spirit. Last of all, the blessed Blandina, like a noble mother who had comforted her children and sent them on triumphantly to the king, rejoiced at her own departure as if invited to a wedding feast. After the whips, the beasts, and the gridiron, she was finally put into a net and thrown to a bull. Indifferent to circumstances through faith in Christ, she was tossed by the animal for some time before being sacrificed. The heathen admitted that never before had a woman suffered so much so long.
Not even this was enough to satisfy their maniacal cruelty. Goaded on [by Satan], they threw to the dogs those who had been strangled in jail, watching day and night that we did not tend to them. Then they threw out the remains left by the beasts and the fire, torn and charred, while a military guard watched the heads and trunks of the rest for many days, denying them burial. Some gnashed their teeth at them; others laughed and jeered, glorifying their idols for punishing their foes. The more moderate, with little sympathy, taunted, “Where is their god?” and “What did they get out of their religion, which they preferred to their own lives?” (5.1).
At times Eusebius’s account is quite interesting, and in many places, such as this, it is quite troubling. One of the great values of Eusebius’s record is that it reminds us that the Christian life bears more resemblance to a battlefield than it does to a park intended for family picnics. Eusebius and the experience of many early Christians illustrates the fact this world is not our home; everything we see here will ultimately burn. Thankfully, the believer’s hope lies not in this world, but in the next.