Thursday, May 21, 2020

Eusebius, EH.7.26-29: The "unmasking" of Paul of Samosata

Image: Paul de Samosata predikt voor de vroeg-christelijke gemeenschap (Paul of Samosata preaches for the early Christian community), etching by Jan Luyken (1700), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This is an occasional series of readings from and brief notes and commentary upon Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical HistoryHere is Book 7, chapter 26-29. Listen here:

Notes and Commentary:

These chapters describe the transitions of various bishops in the city centers of early Christianity, as one bishop was succeeded by another. It describes,in particular, the conclusion of Dionysius of Alexandria’s long and effective ministry. It also describes disputers over and the “unmasking” of Paul of Samosata at Antioch on the charges he held Jesus to be merely human and not divine.

Chapter 26 describes the conclusion of Dionysius of Alexandria’s ministry, including several anti-Sabellian letters sent to various bishops, including four to his namesake Dionysius of Rome.

He also wrote a treatise in letter form to Timothy “his boy” (son? servant?) on Nature, another on Temptations to Euphranor, an exposition on Ecclesiastes, and other works.

Chapter 27 turns to describe various transitions:

Xystus at Rome was succeeded by Dionysius of Rome.

Demetrian at Antioch was succeeded by Paul of Samosata, who held “low and mean views as to Christ.” A council was held to discuss Paul of Samosata’s belief, which the aged Dionysius of Alexandria could not attend but to which he wrote his opinion. Paul was confronted as “a spoiler of Christ’s flock.”

Chapter 28 describes those at this council, the best known of whom included Firmilian of Cappadocian Caesarea, Gregory and Athenadore of Pontus, Helenus of Tarsus, Nicomas of Iconium, Hymenaeus of Jerusalem, Theotecnus of Caesarea, and Maximus of Bostra.  Paul and his party tried to conceal his heterodox views, while the orthodox pushed to reveal them!

At that time Dionysius passed away after 17 years as bishop and was succeeded by Maximus in Alexandria.

In the Roman Empire, Gallienus was succeeded by Claudius, who then handed over the government to Aurelian.

Chapter 29 describes a final synod held in the reign of Aurelian in which Paul of Samosata was “unmasked,” condemned as heterodox, and excommunicated from the “catholic [universal] churches under heaven” (note the Greek has “churches” plural, not singular). His chief accuser was a man named Malchion, the head of a school of rhetoric and elder at Antioch. He had a dispute with Paul and stenographers took notes, which, Eusebius, says, could be read in his day.


These chapters provide an account of the end of Dionysius’s ministry, as well as the “unmasking” or denunciation of Paul of Samosata (of Antioch) for his low Christology. It shows the early controversies over Christology that would later be addressed in the great ecumenical councils. As usual, Eusebius stresses the orderly transitions of the bishops, parallel to the transitions of the Roman emperors.


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