SAINTS WHO NEVER WERE: THE SEVEN SLEEPERS OF EPHESUS

Seven sleepers. Russian icon

SEVEN SLEEPERS OF EPHESUS

Eastern Orthodoxy has never had a Reformation; Eastern Orthodoxy has never had a rational review of its catalog of saints.  That accounts for the numbers of mythical saints long painted in icons and still found in the Church Calendar today, saints venerated even though their reality is equivalent to that of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

One of the most interesting of these is the group of saints known as the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.”

According to the accepted story, these seven youths were all friends who had grown up together in the city of Ephesus, and all had become soldiers in the Roman army and were Christians, even though this was in the time of the Emperor Decius, who persecuted Christians.  The Seven youths refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and to avoid punishment they hid out in a cave on a mountain.  The Emperor, learning of their hideout, ordered it blocked up with stones.  All this is said to have happened in the middle of the 3rd century.

Here is where the “miracle” comes in.  The seven youths fell into a strange sleep, and they slept not for a few hours or days or weeks or months; they slept for almost two hundred years.

In the time of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, who lived in the first half of the 5th century, certain “heretics” appeared at Ephesus saying that the resurrection of the body was not possible.  Meanwhile, a certain man had decided to construct a building on the mountain where the long-forgotten youths lay asleep.  He had stones removed from the entrance to the cave.

At this time the youths awoke out of their two-century-long sleep, and one of them, Iamblicus, was sent into the city to buy some bread.  When he got there, he was amazed to see a cross on the gates of the city, and further surprised to hear people openly talking of Jesus.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

When Iamblicus found a place to buy bread, he paid for it with a coin bearing the image of the Emperor Decius, a two-hundred-year-old coin.  The seller considered this very suspicious, and soon the youth was accused of hiding a treasure of old coins somewhere.  He was taken before the governor and the bishop, and the bishop, realizing that there was something mysterious here, went with the youth to the cave where his companions were waiting.  The story got around, and even the Emperor came to the cave and talked with the young men.  But then the youths lay down and went back to sleep again in the cave, this time until the resurrection, which supposedly had been proved possible by their first sleep.

Now as one can tell, the logic of this tale is somewhat skewed, and it is a simple piece of folklore, recorded at least as early as the 6th century (it is found in the writings of the Syrian bishop Jacob of Serugh, c. 451-521).  One wonders why it is still put forward as the “Gospel truth” in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the Seven Sleepers can still be painted and venerated in icons, when their story has no more validity as history than that of Rip van Winkle, to whom a similar thing happened in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

Candida Moss says of such “lives of saints” (in her book The Myth of Persecution; how early Christians invented a story of Martyrdom, Harper One, 2013) that “The fact of the matter is that these aren’t historical accounts; they are religious romances written and intended to be read for moral instruction and entertainment.”  It is unfortunate that Eastern Orthodoxy does not inform its laity that much of what they read in the lives of the early saints is not history at all, but rather religious fiction, and that many of the saints depicted in icons either never existed at all or have had their stories heavily embroidered with non-historical elements.

The title on Russian “Seven Sleepers” icon usually is, with some variation, that found in the image below:

(courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It reads, OBRAZ SEDMI OTROKOV IZHE VO EFESYE, meaning “[The] IMAGE OF THE SEVEN YOUTHS WHO [were} AT EPHESUS.”

In the Russian image below, the Seven Youths are seen asleep in their cave on the mountain near Ephesus.  The names usually assigned them are Maximilian, Iamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodian (Constantine) and Antoninus.  Two patron saints of the person who owned the icon are shown in the borders of the image.  The one at left is the “Angel Khranitel,” the Guardian Angel, a generic figure in icons who represents the angel guarding every believer.

Seven Sleepers

SEVEN SLEEPERS OF EPHESUS

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