If you were traveling through the verdant Ethiopian highlands, you might make a stop at the Abba Gärima monastery about three miles east of Adwa in the northernmost part of the country. If you were a man—and you’d have to be to gain entry into the Orthodox monastery—then you might be permitted to look at the Abba Gärima Gospel books. These exquisitely illuminated manuscripts are the earliest evidence of the art of the Christian Aksumite kingdom. Legend holds that God stopped the sun in the sky so the copyist could finish them. Leafing through a Gospel book you would come upon portraits of the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—the authors of the book’s contents. You might be surprised to find, however, that there is a fifth evangelist included there.
“A fifth evangelist?!” you say, and rightly so. This fifth portrait is that of Eusebius of Caesarea, the man who taught us how to read the Gospels. A new book, Eusebius the Evangelist: Rewriting the Fourfold Gospel in Late Antiquityby Dr. Jeremiah Cooganan assistant professor of New Testament at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, sheds light on history’s lost “fifth evangelist” and explains the pervasive influence of the bishop who has, arguably, done more than anyone else to shape how we read the gospels.
Eusebius of Caesarea is not a very well-known name outside of scholarly circles. He was born in the last half of the third century in Caesarea Maritima, in what is today Israel. He became first a priest and then a bishop. He would later become a biographer of the emperor Constantine possibly even a wheeler-dealer in the ecclesiastical politics of the imperial court. Under the influence of the third-century theologian Origen, who spent a long period of his life in Caesarea, Eusebius became an accomplished textual scholar.
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If you’ve heard Eusebius’s name before it’s probably because of his Church History, an account of Christianity’s origins from the Apostles to his own day. As influential as the Church History is—and it became the template for how people have written the history of Christianity ever since—it doesn’t compare to the impact of his less visible and least-known literary production, the canon tables (also known as the Eusebian Apparatus).
In Eusebius’ time the contents of the New Testament were not universally established. Though many agreed that there should be four Gospels, and even grounded this assumption in the natural order of the universe, they did not read the Gospels in parallel. At least part of the reason for this was that, practically speaking, this was hard to do. Even if you had a Gospel book that contained copies of the four canonical Gospels, identifying how the various stories related to one another involved familiarity with the text, deductive skills, and a real facility navigating the physical object itself. Gospel books were big and heavy; the text was usually written in a series of unbroken Greek letters; and there were no chapter, verse, or page numbers to help you find your way.
Enter Eusebius, the man whose invention made reading the Gospels in parallel possible. It is basically a carefully organized reference tool that allows you to navigate books. In a period before chapter and verse divisions, Eusebius and his team of literary assistants divided the canonical Gospels into numbered sections and produced a set of coordinating reference tables that allow readers to cross-reference versions of the same story in other Gospels. This was an important innovation in book technology in general. As Coogan put it “the Eusebian apparatus is the first system of cross-references ever invented—not just for the Gospels, but for any text.” Reference tables might not seem sexy, but by producing them Eusebius inaugurated a trend that would dominate how Christians ever since have read the Bible.
The enormity of his innovation is hard to see precisely because it has become ubiquitous. We thread the different sayings of Jesus from the Cross together into one story. We merge the infancy stories of Matthew and Luke together to produce a single shepherd and wise men-filled Nativity story. These decisions are relatively uncomplicated, but we should consider the amount of decision-making that went into the production of this reading scheme. First, the team had to decide on unit divisions: what is a unit, where does it begin, and where does it end? While today church services have designated readings, early Christians often read for as “long as time permitted.” In segmenting the Gospel, the Eusebian team was cementing preexisting yet informal distinctions about what constituted a particular story, episode, or section of the life of Jesus.
Once this was accomplished, each unit had to be correlated to the corresponding units in the other Gospels. Some decisions seem easy: Jesus feeds 5,000 people in all four Gospels, for example. But there is an additional story—relayed by Mark and Luke—in which he feeds 4,000 people. What should we do with them? What about chronological discrepancies? The incident in the Jerusalem Temple where Jesus gets into a physical dispute with moneychangers appears in the final week of his life in the Synoptics but kicks off his ministry in the Gospel of John. Are they the same story? Did Jesus cleanse the Temple twice? These were and indeed are live questions for Christian readers, but by drawing up his tables, Eusebius and his team provided answers by means of a simple chart. A great deal of interpretation and theological work happens in the construction of the chart, but the tables seem to be factual accounting. Instead of argumentation that makes itself open to disagreement, we see only beguilingly agent-less lines and numbering.
This kind of schematization might seem to be the ancient equivalent of administrative or clerical work. Indeed, it drew upon technologies and practices from ancient administration, mathematics, astrology, medicine, magic, and culinary arts. The portraits from the Ethiopian Gärima Gospel, however, capture an often-hidden truth: Schematization is theological work. Segmenting the Bible and mapping its contents created theologically motivated juxtapositions and connections. For example, by connecting the story of divine creation from the prologue of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the word…”) to the genealogies of Matthew and Luke (the so-and-so begat so-and-so parts ), the Eusebian team could underscore the divine and human origins of Jesus. Equally important, they instructed the reader to read the Gospels in a new way: a way that reoriented the original organization. If this shift seems unimportant or intuitive to us, it is only because we have so thoroughly absorbed it.
Take, say, the interweaving of Jesus’s final words at the crucifixion. Mark’s version ends with Jesus in psychic and physical distress crying that God has abandoned him. It’s an uncomfortable scene and it is meant to be. Luke and John have more self-controlled conclusions: Jesus commends his spirit into the hands of his father (Luke) and authoritatively proclaims his life “finished” (John). Though Eusebius doesn’t reconcile these portraits himself, his apparatus allowed future generations to combine them in a way that neutralizes the discomfort we have when we read Mark.
While others had thought about reading the Gospels alongside one another, it was Eusebius and his team who came up with the tool to do it in a systematic way. From Eusebius onwards, Coogan told The Daily Beast, “most manuscripts of the Gospels included the Eusebian apparatus. When a reader encountered the Gospels on the page, they generally did so in a form shaped by Eusebius’ innovative project. While Eusebius prepared his Gospel edition in Greek, the apparatus had an impact in almost every language the Gospels were translated into. We find it in manuscripts in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopic, Gothic, Georgian, Arabic, Caucasian Albanian, Nubian, Slavonic, Old English, Middle German, and Dutch. Thousands of Gospel manuscripts, from the fourth century to the twentieth, reflect Eusebius’ approach to reading the Gospels.” Even today when academics think about the relationships between the Gospels and print Gospels in parallel with one another, we are asking the same questions as Eusebius did. It might be said that Eusebius is still controlling how we think.
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The truth is however that any kind of supplementary material (scholars call them paratexts) like an index or a table of contents creates new ways to read a text. Matthew or Mark may have wanted you to read their stories linearly from start to finish, but Eusebius and his team gave you a new way to read. You could hunt and peck between the bindings. Reading out of order can be powerful work, as Wil Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church is, because it creates new pathways through the text that disrupts the ways that the authors meant the texts to be read. Most authors don’t write narratives with the expectation that people will just use Google to search inside it.
While Eusebius was never formally denounced as a heretic, some of his opinions—including some of the judgments that inform his apparatus—were pretty unorthodox. Like Origen he was sympathetic to views about the nature of Christ that would later be condemned as heresy. It’s probably because of the ambiguities surrounding his theological views that Eusebius, one of the most influential figures in Christian history, never became a saint. But his story proves that it is sometimes invisible actors who are the most powerful of all.
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