Once upon a time, the cruel emperor Decius came to the city of Ephesus to build new temples at which all citizens, but especially the Christians, would be required to worship him by sacrifices, or else die.
Now in this city lived seven Christian men named Maximian, Malchus, Marcian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine. When they refused to participate in emperor-worship, they were condemned to death. They gave away all their property, gathered provisions for a last meal, and went to hide themselves in a cave. They ate their meal, grieved their coming deaths, and fell into a sound sleep.
Decius could not find them, even after interrogating their parents. On a hunch that they were inside the cave, he had the mouth of the cave covered with boulders, to starve them to death in their hiding place.
The seven men slept for 360 years.
A farmer building a stable had need of more rock to build with, and he began to use the stones from the mouth of the cave. The noise and light woke the seven sleepers. Thinking they had slept for only one night, they sent Malchus into the city to buy more food. As Malchus came near Ephesus, he saw the gates of the city adorned with crosses, to his astonishment. When he tried to buy bread, the baker was so astonished at his ancient coins that he thought Malchus must have found a buried treasure, and he caused a great uproar. The bishop and the governor intervened, and Malchus led them to the cave to meet his companions. Here were the seven famous martyrs of the Decian persecution of three centuries ago, alive and well.
They were taken to see the Christian emperor Theodosius. He embraced them and said, “I see you as though I saw the Savior restoring Lazarus,” to which Maximian replied, “Believe us! For the faith’s sake, God has resuscitated us before the great resurrection day, in order that you may believe firmly in the resurrection of the dead.”
And then they died. The emperor began preparing elaborate reliquaries for their bodies, but they appeared to him in a dream and asked to be put back into the earth to await the final resurrection.
Thus the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. It was first written down in the fifth century by Jacob of Serugh, and put into Latin by Gregory of Tours. The seven sleepers are listed in the Roman Martyrology, with today (July 27) as their birthday (whether that birth is figurative, or somehow supposed to be literally the birthday of all seven).
Their story is everywhere in the early middle ages: in Syrian, Greek, Coptic, Anglo-Saxon, and Arabic. The Anglo-Saxon occurrence is especially interesting: If a dwarf is giving you nightmares, you should get seven wafers, write the names of the seven sleepers on them, and have a virgin hang the wafers around your neck. The Arabic occurrence is even more weighty, being part of Surah 18 (“The Cave”) of the Quran, in which Allah says that he had angels rotate them from right to left sides, apparently to keep their bodies healthy. In some versions of the story (including the Quranic), they have a dog with them for the whole adventure. In a later addition, King Edward the Confessor had a vision of the seven sleepers rolling over from their right sides onto their left. He sent a delegation to Ephesus to investigate, and sure enough, they had rolled over. This was understood as a prophecy of the Muslim attacks about to break out on Europe; every time the sleepers roll over, trouble is coming. By the thirteenth century, their images are all over the stained glass, enamels, and illuminated manuscripts of medieval art. One historian has counted 45 sites dedicated to the seven sleepers. They were even more popular in the Eastern churches than in the Latin West, though they are commemorated on other days than July 27.
What are we to make of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the original Rip Van Winkles for Christ? I take the whole story to be a medieval urban legend, though an especially cool one. Sabine Baring-Gould pointed out long ago that “sleepers” mythology is widespread in world folklore, and reported on a striking number of sleeper legends. Even if you take the story to be a mythological way of making a point, what exactly is the point? One possibility is that it underlines something about the resurrection; their awakening in the reign of Theodosius is supposed to have clinched an argument on that subject. It might be a dramatizing of the great change that occurred in the Roman empire in a few centuries. One could imagine believers under Theodosius musing, “What if somebody had fallen asleep during the Decian persecution and then woke up with the pious Theodosius as emperor?” A cave is a pretty good time machine, though it only goes one way.