Did the father of church history lie? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
“Bishop Eusebius, a close ally of the emperor, was instrumental in crystalizing and defining the version of Christianity that was to become orthodox, and he is the first person known to have quoted this paragraph of Josephus. Eusebius once wrote that it was a permissible “medicine” for historians to create fictions–prompting historian Jacob Burckhardt to call Eusebius “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity.” (P. 255 of Godless by Dan Barker.)
So says Dan Barker about Eusebius. Now this is naturally a serious charge if it is true, but is it in fact true? Well, not really. For one thing, the description comes from a chapter heading. The heading could have come from Eusebius, but not necessarily. It could have been a summation by a medieval copyist of what Eusebius wrote. Still, even if we grant it, do we have a dangerous case? Well no. In fact, if you just spend a few minutes looking up quotes, you can see what’s going on.
Let’s go and see what Eusebius said in the chapter in entirety.
[PLATO] ‘But even if the case were not such as our argument has now proved it to be, if a lawgiver, who is to be of ever so little use, could have ventured to tell any falsehood at all to the young for their good, is there any falsehood that he could have told more beneficial than this, and better able to make them all do everything that is just, not by compulsion but willingly?
‘Truth, O Stranger, is a noble and an enduring thing; it seems, however, not easy to persuade men of it.’
Now you may find in the Hebrew Scriptures also thousands of such passages concerning God as though He were jealous, or sleeping, or angry, or subject to any other human passions, which passages are adopted for the benefit of those who need this mode of instruction.
Yes. That’s the entire chapter. Note that this is not at all about creating history. Eusebius writes about the Old Testament and I don’t know any skeptic who thinks Eusebius created that. (But hey, give it time and I’m sure someday some crazy skeptic will say that.) So what is going on?
Eusebius is writing about the use of anthropomorphisms in the Old Testament and saying that although these descriptions of God aren’t literally true, they can be helpful for those who need to be instructed in this way. Note that this does not mean it is a lie. It means it’s being explained in terms that can be understood. We should not expect the Old Testament to be the Summa Theologica for instance.
In fact, we have a parallel to this saying. That shows up in the Contra Celsum of Origen.
Others, then, may concede to Celsus that God does not undergo a change, but leads the spectators to imagine that He does; whereas we who are persuaded that the advent of Jesus among men was no mere appearance, but a real manifestation, are not affected by this charge of Celsus. We nevertheless will attempt a reply, because you assert, Celsus, do you not, that it is sometimes allowable to employ deceit and falsehood by way, as it were, of medicine?
Could this then be a sort of saying at the time? It’s possible. We don’t have enough evidence. Note in all of this, we’re not likely talking about lies, but talking about fictions. That is, it is beneficial to tell things that might not be true but serve for edification. Think of the parables of Jesus that don’t necessarily tell of true events, but are edifying, or of Aesop’s fables.
So again, we have an example of how modern day atheists too often do not check the original sources. Instead, most of them get in second hand from people who probably never checked either. (Jacob Burckhardt lived in the 19th century for instance.) The church fathers weren’t infallible and they needed a savior like we do, but always ask the person who gives a quote where it comes from and find it in its original context.