Saturday, November 16, 2019

Eusebius, EH.5.4-6: Irenaeus, the "Thundering Legion," and the bishops of Rome

This is an occasional series of readings from and brief notes and commentary upon Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical History: Book 5, chapters 4-6. Listen here.

Notes and Commentary:

These chapters cover at least three matters. First, they introduce Irenaeus of Lyons. Second, they relay a legendary anecdote about the “Thundering Legion,” and third they include Irenaeus’s listing of the bishops of Rome.

Chapter 4 introduces Irenaeus as a presbyter of Lyons who was commended by the martyrs to Eleutherus, bishop of Rome. One might assume that Irenaeus had either traveled or fled to Rome during the time of persecution. This note also reflects the importance of Rome as a Christian center among the early churches.

Chapter 5 relays a legendary anecdote that took place when Marcus Aurelius Caesar (brother of the emperor Antoninus) was in battle. The account says that some soldiers of the Melitene legion (which apparently included some Christians) offered prayer to God and a storm came which both sent lightening to push away the enemy and rain to satisfy the thirst of the Romans.

Eusebius says this account is relayed through secular historians though they do not say that “it happened through the prayers of the Christians.” Note: K. Lake says the incident is relayed by Dio Cassius and by Marcus Aurelius. Eusebius also says it was recorded by Apolinarius (who said this was the reason of these soldier being called the “Thundering Legion”) and Tertullian.

At the close of chapter 5 and continuing in chapter 6, Eusebius notes that after the martyrdom of Pothinus at age 90, Irenaeus, “a listener of Polycarp,” succeeded him as bishop at Lyons. And Ireneanus listed the bishops of Rome in book 3 of Against Heresies.

The bishops of Rome, after the apostles:

Clement (mention is made of his epistle to Corinth)
Telesphorus (who was “martyred gloriously”)

The list thus has twelve in all to this point.


These chapters commend Irenaeus and also show the importance of the church at Rome, the capital of the empire in early Christianity, and the desire to trace a line within that church through the bishops to the apostles, as had also been done in other key cities in early Christianity.


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