Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, 1.12

So, I'm rereading Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, with a desire to work through crucial issues related to thinking about the hisory of the first Christian decades. As I want to think carefully about these issues what better way to do so than to blog my way through the first two or so of books of the History? Of course, I won't blog on everything therein: I'm not writing a commentary here. And in fact I'll barely touch Book 1, as it is largely concerned with doctrinal matters which are not my primary concern at this point. The last two chapters, however, twelve and thirteen, are of some interest, and it is the former that I will discuss here, saving the latter for another day.

EH 1.12 is concerned with identifying certain figures otherwise referenced in the New Testament--Matthias, Thaddeus, Barnabas and Sosthenes--as members of the Seventy (or Seventy-Two) missionaries who were sent out by Jesus, according to Luke 10. Before we consider the question of whether these figures were among the Seventy let us consider the more modest question of whether they were plausibly followers of Jesus during his lifetime. Strictly speaking, nothing excludes such a possibility with any figure, although the probability that such was the case varies greatly. Matthias is identified in a much earlier source (Acts 1) as a follower of the earthly Jesus, such that inferring that he was such is very reasonable. If Thaddeus is the Thaddeus that is ranked among the Twelve (cf. Matt. 10:13; Mk. 3:18) then we can quite confidently identify him as one of Jesus's followers. Barnabas is presented as an early member or the Jerusalem community (Acts 4:36), thus making the possibility that he was a follower of Jesus tenable. Sosthenes is only known elsewhere through his association with Paul and in the 50s (1 Cor. 1:1; cf. Acts 18:17), thus making such an inference seem more tenuous. Matthias was almost certainly a follower of the earthly Jesus, Thaddeus quite possibly, Barnabas conceivably, Sosthenes not likely at all.

We encounter greater difficulty when connecting these figures with the Seventy. First, we need to recognize that EH 1.12 is closely-related to a genre that develops throughout Christian historiography and hagiography, namely of identifying as many of the Seventy as possible with figures elsewhere known in the broader tradition. Certainly, if indeed the Seventy existed as a discrete group then we cannot rule out that some of them might appear elsewhere as named individuals within early church history. At the same time, we should reckon seriously with the possibility that many, perhaps most, had names now lost entirely to history. This brings us to a second difficulty: I am not entirely convinced that the Seventy existed as a discrete group. My own inclination is to read the Synoptic sendings of the Twelve and the Seventy as thematic presentations of a recurring practice in Jesus's ministry. I suspect that there weren't just one or two sendings, but rather that Jesus sent out his disciples as he thought them ready for the work of proclaiming his message (shades of Gerhardsson here, although I'm not entirely persuaded by his focus upon verbatim memory). There might have been one or two instances which were particularly significant, in which larger groups were sent, but I am inclined to think that the Synoptists have presented a recurrent practice as compressed narratives. Among these might have been one or more of the figures mentioned in EH 1.12, more probably Matthias and Thaddeus than Barnabas, and all three much more than Sosthenes, but in truth we would be reaching judgment on this matter independent of Eusebius. I don't think that he adds much if anything here, and indeed I think it likely that the material upon which he builds is more likely hagiographic fiction than anything else.

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