Eusebius the Evangelist: Rewriting the Fourfold Gospel in Late Antiquity, Book Review

Title: Eusebius the Evangelist: Rewriting the Fourfold Gospel in Late Antiquity 
Author: Jeremiah Coogan
Publisher: Oxford, 2023
Price: $110 (amz)  
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 256

An interesting recent development in the study of early Gospel scholarship is a renewed focus on the cross-reference system that fourth-century historian Eusebius innovated. This paratextual apparatus was designed to enable the close study of Gospel parallels (“horizontal reading”) while maintaining the narrative coherence of each individual account (“vertical reading”). In past generations, the significance of Eusebius’s reading aid would have been relegated to studies of historical theology. However, several helpful works have recently been published that provide a thorough orientation to the significance and reception of Eusebius’s canon tables. 

For example, in The Fourfold Gospel (Baker, 2017), Francis Watson briefly introduces the canon tables and shows their significance for navigating the unity and diversity of the canonical Gospels. In The Eusebian Canon Tables (Oxford, 2019), Matthew Crawford contextualizes Eusebius’s textual innovation and traces the reception history of the tables in several different manuscript traditions. In Eusebius the Evangelist: Rewriting the Fourfold Gospel in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2023), Jeremiah Coogan works in this stream of research but also interrogates several assumptions in previous studies. 

Noting that the Eusebian apparatus quickly became “a standard feature of Gospel manuscripts and transformed subsequent Gospel reading,” Coogan observes that this cross-reference system “offers an invaluable window into the emergence of a fourfold Gospel and the late ancient transformation of textuality” (3). Accordingly, Coogan structures his study around the publication technology that enabled the Eusebian apparatus (chapter 2, “Technology”), the social world of Gospel production in early Christianity (chapter 3, “Gospel Writing”), and the various readerly effects of this paratextual device (chapters 4–5, “Creative Juxtaposition” and “Reading Eusebius’ Gospels”). 

A key strength of Coogan’s work is its careful attention to the experience of readers who encounter the fourfold Gospel that bears the marks of Eusebius’s system. As Coogan notes, the design of numbered sections of text with corresponding columns that mark out textual parallels effectively guides readers “to discover similarity and difference in the fourfold Gospel” (p. 21; cf. pp. 97–114). Codex manuscripts that employ the Gospel apparatus also usually included a paratextual preface that disclosed Eusebius’s primary purpose in constructing his system (see Eusebius’s Epistle to Carpianus, pp. xiii–xvi). In this preface, Eusebius conveys his aim to showcase parallels among Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John while also allowing a reader to maintain focus on an individual narrative at any given point. 

Coogan thoroughly examines these features but also broadens the scope of his analysis to include the varied possibilities that the Eusebian system allowed. Drawing on the concept of “affordances,” Coogan notes that a material feature like the Gospel apparatus serves a particular purpose but is also open to further creative innovations among those who encounter and appropriate it in their reading of these biblical texts (see pp. 4–8; 28–42, 56–58). The possibilities that the canon tables afford can align with the original intention of the system but can also enable unanticipated functions (e.g., the use of the tables in artistic manuscript illuminations or as a general strategy of segmenting the text). 

In this vein, Coogan considers some of the obvious connections that Eusebius makes in his tabular arrangement (e.g., the feeding of the five thousand account) but also some of the surprising readings that are generated by juxtaposition within the same grouping. Coogan shows that in Eusebius’s thinking these parallels are based on the notion of “similar things” (τὰ παραπλήσια) rather than “exact equivalence” or a perfect correspondence among the granular details of an event (pp. 100–102). This means that some of the parallels noted in the apparatus are based on conceptual resemblance or theological similarity in addition to verbal overlap. 

For example, in Luke 22:32, Jesus tells Peter to strengthen his brothers after he returns from his betrayal of Jesus. In John 21, Jesus restores Peter and commands him to “feed [his] sheep” after his departure. Eusebius juxtaposes these passages and thus implicitly connects Peter’s threefold denial before the crucifixion in Luke’s account with Jesus’s threefold command after the resurrection. Interestingly, in this particular textual connection, Eusebius “shares an insight with modern scholars but articulates it differently” (p. 113n63). Moreover, because the apparatus omits any kind of commentary, much textual analysis is still required in order to discern the significance of the paralleled passages. In these entries, Eusebius “juxtaposes similar material and lets the reader take it from there” (p. 107). 

In this volume, Coogan draws upon and advances prior scholarship on the Eusebian canon tables. In doing so, Coogan successfully refutes two related positions of previous generations of scholarship: 1) that the canon tables are an unsophisticated primitive reference system, and 2) that Eusebius devised them for the apologetic purpose of resolving historical contradictions in the Gospel narratives. Coogan’s work shows on the contrary that the Eusebian apparatus is a complex and coherent technological innovation and that Eusebius often prioritized thematic and theological correspondence in his textual groupings. Though his system did assist apologists defending the faith, it was primarily aimed at helping readers navigate the fourfold Gospel. 

Some aspects of Coogan’s central thesis need further interrogation (primarily his contention that in developing his cross-reference system Eusebius is engaging in an act of Gospel (re)writing rather than Gospel reception). However, this pushback would entail considering further not the historical and interpretive value of this volume but rather the host of historiographical commitments currently being re-negotiated in the wake of the material turn in the study of early Christianity (which goes beyond the scope of this brief review!). 

Overall, this is an interesting and instructive volume that confirms the continuing vitality of scholarship on the Eusebian canon tables. Coogan’s work demonstrates through meticulous analysis that Eusebius’s apparatus had a formative effect on the reading of the fourfold Gospel in the fourth century and can still inform Gospel studies for anyone willing to put it to use.

Book Review
July 24, 2023


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