Friday, 12 February 2016

On Eusebius and Post-Enlightenment Ethnocentrism

Before I continue blogging my way through Eusebius I should explain my interest in him more precisely, as that will explain why I select the specific chapters that I write upon. My interest is the missionary expansion of the church and the development of its core institutions. Actually, my interest is really the latter, but you really can't talk about the latter without talking about the former, as I think it clear that the core Christian institutions were developed to facilitate the early Christian mission, viz. to spread the gospel of Christ Jesus to all nations. My interest in Eusebius is to consider what data he might offer to us about this missionary expansion and institutional development.

Implicit in that final sentence is a philosophy of history, which I have worked out in length in my forthcoming monograph related to Lonergan, Ben Meyer, and historical Jesus studies. Here I want to add empirical insights that inform my thought and which do not in fact appear in that book. Perhaps they should, but there was so much to do in that book and really these insights would require an entirely separate book to really, adequately, develop. In any case, I have become convinced that ancient peoples in general knew more about their own histories than we often give them credit for. For instance, I think it remarkable that when the archaeologist Andrea Carandini recently found the earliest stratum of the Roman forum it just happened to date to pretty much exactly when Roman historians such as Livy said that Romulus laid it down. No doubt much of the material surrounding the founding of the forum is legendary and hagiographic, but the chronological synchronicity would constitute an astonishing coincidence if treated as such. More reasonably we should conclude that Livy had access to material that allowed him to state the date of the founding of Rome with a high degree of accuracy.

This is just one example, and I am regularly astounded by the degree that textual and archaeological data tend to converge in various contexts in the ancient world. It is crucial to note that we see something similar in emergent Christianity. The extent to which the archaeological data surrounding Christian holy sites converges with what we know about these sites from textual data is really quite astonishing. Now, of course, we're not talking about all details lining up perfectly; that would be a ridiculous burden to demand. But we're talking about sufficient convergence that it greatly reduces the possibility that the textual data regarding these sites are pure fictions. Again, I emphasize: I do not see this as a particularly Christian phenomenon, but rather as a general phenomenon throughout ancient history. I think that ancient peoples were in fact better historians than we often allow.

I suspect that the supposition that ancient peoples were not very good historians is a lingering side-effect of a colonialism that assumes that only post-Enlightenment western Europeans have sufficient rationality to speak accurately about the past; after all, we see similar doubts about other peoples' capacity to know the past in 20th century discussions about oral traditions in non-western contexts. It is not a coincidence, I think, that such peoples are often treated as being "living ancestors": that somehow, in looking at our contemporaries we are looking into the past and seeing our forerunners. The paternalism is astounding: yes, we say, you have your own histories, but we, your much-more-enlightened colonial leaders, are going to tell you what your history really is. It's simply the colonization of the past, and it's little surprise to see a similar colonization happen of our own past. We tend to have a very low opinion of the intellectual capacities of peoples whose historical experience does not include our Enlightenment. I reject this opinion, and with these less ethnocentric eyes turn to Eusebius, asking how an ancient historian might have yielded data useful for us, cognizant of course that he was working inescapably at the level of his time.

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