Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
In the year AD 250, seven young Christian men fled the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius, taking shelter in a cave outside the city of Ephesus. There in the cave, the men prayed and eventually fell asleep; and Decius, seeing that they had refused to abandon their Christian faith and embrace his pagan beliefs, ordered that the mouth of the cave be sealed with the men still inside.
Decius died just a year later; and during the years that followed, Christianity found gradual acceptance in the Roman Empire. By the time of the Emperor Theodosius II (AD 408-450), Christianity had become the official state religion.
One day, the story goes, the landowner decided to open the mouth of the cave, in order to use it as a cattle pen. He opened it and found the men inside—still sleeping. As light streamed into the cave for the first time in nearly two hundred years, the men awoke. Confused, they at first believed that they'd been sleeping just one night. But when one of the men left the cave in search of food, he found that Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion in Ephesus. In fact, most people now shared his belief in Jesus Christ, and there were crosses openly displayed atop buildings in the town.
The townspeople, surprised by this group of young strangers who still carried coins from the ancient Decius era, told Marinus, the bishop, about them. Marinus interviewed the sleepers, and all recounted the same story of seeking refuge in the cave. Then, singing praises to God, the men died.
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The legend of the Seven Sleepers has been told in many cultures, with some small variations, and has been depicted in art throughout the centuries.
- On the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite calendar, the Seven Holy Youths (Holy Sleepers) are remembered each August 4, and their names are listed: Maximilian, Jamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodian (Constantine), and Antoninus.
- In Islam, the Muslim Qur'an (Surah 18, verse 9-26) recounts a similar story—although in the Muslim version, the men had a dog who accompanied them to the cave, and who stood guard at the door for the entire time they were asleep. Muslims refer to the men as “People of the Cave.” Muhammad explains the story to his followers and is thus granted the status of being a prophet.
- In The Golden Legend, a popular book of the late Middle Ages, the writer adds a new detail: that their resurrection occurred in the year 378, during the reign of Theodosius.
- In the Roman Martyrology, the Seven Sleepers are mentioned on July 27, as follows: “Commemoration of the seven Holy Sleepers of Ephesus, who, it is recounted, after undergoing martyrdom, rest in peace, awaiting the day of resurrection.”
On the slopes of Mount Pion, near the ancient city of Ephesus, a popular pilgrimage site is an early Christian catacomb over which a 5th century church had been constructed. When the catacomb was first excavated in 1927-28, archeologists found inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers on the walls of the church and in the graves. And during the Crusades, victorious troops transported bones from the graves, identified as relics from the Seven Sleepers, back with them to Marseilles in a large stone coffin.
The Seven Sleepers have found their way into literature: in the poety of John Donne, in a 1530s play by John Heywood, in a poem by Goethe, in Washington Irving's “Rip Van Winkle,” in H.G. Wells' “The Sleeper Awakes,” and many other works.
The Seven Sleepers are sometimes compared to Rip Van Winkle; but no—the story is really dramatically different. In the case of Washington Irving's legendary character from the time of the Revolutionary War, most analysts seem to regard Rip as a man who was wasting his life away, letting the world pass him by while he merely existed in a bad marriage, without attempting to right what was wrong in his daily life. In sharp contrast, the Seven Sleepers were brave and righteous men who had turned their hearts and minds to God; and their heavenly Creator protected them from the fury of a pagan king, holding their lives in suspended animation for nearly two hundred years.
But is the story true? I don't know, but does that really matter?
The takeaway for the Christian reader is that God will always protect us, that we may face opponents but we need not fear, for God is with us.