Though the story reads like a myth or some fanciful tale for someone who does not accept miracles, what is fascinating about it is the historical context it is set in. It mentions specific historical emperors and a historical controversy taking place in a historical city (which gained even greater fame three years prior in 431 during the Third Ecumenical Synod which took place in Ephesus) during two historical epochs: one of persecution under Decius and the other of peace under Theodosius. It even tells us the specific place these Saints died. The historicity of these Saints was never officially doubted until the 16th century, mainly because of the verifiability of this tale and its immediate popularity throughout the known world.
Many have honored these seven holy youths. The Orthodox Church commemorates these Saints twice a year, on August 4th and October 22nd (the former being the date of their first sleep and the latter the date of their death), and has never doubted the veracity of this tale. The Latin Martyrology likewise honors them on July 7th. They are also regarded as pious in Islam, and are known as "People of the Cave" (Ashab Al-Kahf) with an entire section dedicated to them in the Koran (Surah 18, verse 9-26).
The rise of Protestantism and the period of the Enlightenment in the West gave rise to doubts about this tale, as John Donne noted in one of his poems in the 16th century. Caesar Baronius (1538-1607), not only a Renaissance scholar but a cardinal in the Latin Church, was the first to treat the story as "apocryphal". It was never taken seriously in the West again. The Latin Church still refers to the tradition as a "purely imaginative romance". The tale became very popular in the literature of the Romantics in a twisted form, inspiring a poem by Goethe, a cautionary tale by the Grimm brothers, and even the Washington Irving tale of Rip van Winkle as well as H.G. Wells's The Sleeper Awakes and Mark Twain's Innocence Abroad, among others.
In 2001 I had the opportunity to visit Ephesus, and along with the famous Church of Saint John the Theologian as well as the church in which the Third Ecumenical Synod took place in ancient Ephesus, one of my primary destinations was to visit the cave of the Seven Sleepers. Though a bit off the beaten track and fenced off, a hole in the fence provided me full access to the cave over which a church was built and now run down. Fully visible was the resting place of the Seven Sleepers, in which the Russian pilgrim Daniel reported in the twelfth century that he saw the actual relics of the holy youths. This pilgrimage, though short spent, made me consider more and more the veracity of this tale.
If the story of the Seven Sleepers was to have a firm basis in fact, we would expect that such a marvelous revelation would have been disseminated throughout the world in a relatively brief time. Historical facts clearly demonstrate that this indeed is precisely what happened. By the close of the sixth century the tradition can be demonstrated to have been known from Ireland to Persia, from Ethiopia to the Scandinavian countries. Because of all these early widespread beliefs in the tradition, scholars concede that the first written version of the tradition must have been composed within a single generation of the event itself, to explain its early widespread circulation.
The miracle of the Seven Sleepers was apparently first described by Bishop Stephen of Ephesus (448-51). It seems the miracle occurred during the bishopric of Basil (+ 443), who was preceded by Memnon and succeeded by Bassian (444-448), though it may have occurred during the bishopric of Memnon who also was bishop of Ephesus during the Third Ecumenical Synod. Anyone familiar with the christological controversy during this time period, as well as the administrative conflicts taking place in Ephesus among the four bishops mentioned above, will understand why it took approximately fourteen years for the story of the Seven Sleepers to be recorded. However, fourteen years in antiquity for a story to be recorded is a very short time period, especially when one considers that it was never disputed by anyone. Furthermore, the memory of Bishop Stephen was condemned at the Fourth Ecumenical Synod, and since Ephesus was in bad repute due to the Robber Synod of 449, the circumstances seemed to have been changed due to the offending name and date in later versions of the tale.
The miracle is reported to be timely because it answered a dispute going on concerning the resurrection of the dead. The Origenist controversy began in the late fourth century and by 434 had spread into Asia Minor from Egypt. Origenists denied the resurrection of the flesh, and when Bishop Stephen records that the bishop of the time regarded this miracle of the Seven Sleepers as an answer to the controversy, it seems to have prevented Origenism from being established in Ephesus. Since theological debates of various sorts were common during this time period, it is little doubted that this part of the tale could be true.
In written form, the earliest purported source which survives today is by a Syrian bishop named Jacob of Sarugh (452-521). He had begun composing poetic homilies around 474, and one of them was specifically on the subject of the Sleepers. When exactly this specific homily was composed however is hard to determine. This being the case, it is difficult to determine if he indeed is our earliest source.
Bishop Zachariah of Mitylene was a Monophysite who some time between 491 and 518 wrote his Ecclesiastical History in Syriac while residing in Constantinople and mentions the Seven Sleepers. In Book 2, chapter 1 he states: "I was able to discover from records and Acts or from letters, — truth that was carefully examined, — I shall set down here the truth of the resurrection, which took place in the days of Theodosius the king, of the bodies of the seven youths who were in a cave in the district of Ephesus, and the Syriac records; both to keep them in the memory of the saints and for the glory of God, Who is able to do all things." What these references he refers to are is not exactly known, but his intention to carefully examine the truth should be noted. It seems that there were many written records of the Seven Sleepers before him that no longer exist. However it could be that Jacob of Serugh first heard of the Seven Sleepers through Zachariah.
Theodosius the Pilgrim, in his De situ terrae sanctae, records sometime between 518 and 538 of visiting the tomb of the Seven Sleepers. He refers to it as the "Shrine of the Seven Sleepers".
Bishop John of Ephesus (c. 507 - c. 586) recorded the tale of the Seven Sleepers in his Ecclesiastical History as a historical fact that happened in his own city a century earlier. He wrote his history in Syriac, having been born in Amid north of Mesopotamia, and is considered to be very accurate in his historical approach as well as attention to details.
The earliest extant version in the Latin West dates from about 525 by a deacon named Theodosius. St. Gregory of Tours gave a complete Latin account in his Gloria Martyrum a few years later. Gregory is said to have received this tale from a Syrian, though his Latin account seems to be of Greek origin.
Interestingly the Koran, written in the early seventh century, includes the story of the Seven Sleepers in a chapter titled "The Cave" (al-Kahf). It adds important details that they were accompanied by a dog and they were asleep for 309 years. However the Muslims did not acknowledge Ephesus to be the site of the cave of the Seven Sleepers, which they called Afsis in Arabic, but the similar sounding Afsus near Elbistan in southeastern Asia Minor. They obviously chose Afsus because it was well within reach of Arab territory, whereas Ephesus was under their enemy the Romans.
A brick church was built above the seven original tombs, with mosaic floors and marble revetments by Emperor Theodosius. A large, domed mausoleum was added to the cave in the 6th century. Frescoes on the walls and vaults are mainly vegetal decorations.
As we might expect, pilgrimages to the site of the cave were extremely popular through the end of the fifteenth century, as is evidenced from the graffiti on the walls in both Latin and Greek. It also became a favored spot of burial in Late Antiquity. Theodosius on his pilgrimage in the sixth century saw the tombs of the Seven Sleepers, and according to a ninth century writer, visitors to the cave were shown seven incorrupt bodies. The 12th century Russian pilgrim Daniel saw the same. Daniel also says that many were buried there.
Although pilgrimages can be shown throughout the medieval centuries, the most famous was probably one sponsored by the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, Edward the Confessor, in response to a vision. The story of this particular pilgrimage to Ephesus was to be forever immortalized in a stone frieze in the chapel dedicated to Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey.
At the archaeological site of Ephesus, a well-paved road heading east of the Vedius Gymnasium leads to the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, about .8km (1/2 mile) away. The grotto associated with the Seven Sleepers, is located on the eastern slope of Panayirdag hill.
In 1926, research by the Austrian Archaeological Institute uncovered the ruins of the Basilica of the Seven Sleepers (built above the cave) which permitted them to specify the date. It dates back to the middle of the fifth century. Archeology was able to confirm implicitly the literary date for this tale.
Excavations were carried out in the Cave of the Seven Sleepers between 1927 and 1930. One of the most interesting features of the archaeological site is the treasure trove of over 2000 terracotta lamps that was discovered inside which were offerings to the church. They date primarily to the fourth and fifth centuries. Most of the lamps are decorated with a cross; others bear scenes from the Old Testament popular with Christians, such as Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and Daniel in the lions’ den. There are also a wide variety of secular scenes, such as fishermen and theatre performances. But alongside these are pagan religious scenes such as Hercules and the lion, Zeus and Aphrodite, pictures of temple facades, and the head of the god Attis. Were these lamps made and used by Ephesians who considered themselves Christians but retained pagan traditions, or did pagans join Christians in devotions at the Cave of the Seven Sleepers? The answer is not clear. Though we do know that Emperor Justinian did send Bishop John of Ephesus to remote areas of Asia Minor to stamp out paganism, during which he is said to have converted thousands.
The main part of the complex is the cave church in which the Seven Sleepers slept and were buried. The large cave, with a ceiling as high as many regular churches, has been lined with brick masonry to form a church. There are arch niches on the sides and a rounded apse in the back. The burial places of the sleepers in the floor are now open, empty holes.
For modern scholars, one of the most important debates deals with the origins of this tale, whether it is Greek or Syriac. According to A. Allgeier, I. Guidi, B. Heller, Th. Nöldeke, V. Ryssel, A. Krymski, etc. the hagiographical work was first written in Syriac, while M. Huber, P. Peeters and E. Honigmann insisted on the priority of certain Greek texts. What seems evident at this point and time is that the origin of this tale on the literary level is indeed Greek, as all the early authors (except Jacob of Serugh) gathered their information for this tale while living in or near the vicinity of Ephesus. Bishop Stephen of Ephesus almost certainly wrote the first history in Greek. However, some of these authors did write in Syriac, therefore, their histories, though of Greek origin, ventured east where they quickly became popular having been written in their own language. Though originally considered an Orthodox miracle, it was quickly acquired by the Syriac Monophysites.
In 1953 Ernest Honigmann defended the possible historicity of the account of the Seven Sleepers with considerable ingenuity following the archaeological and literary evidence. Honigmann established that this tradition was common to Melkite, Monophysite, Nestorian, and Jacobite Christians, and therefore precedes their division (5th and 6th centuries). Having examined all the historical records available as well as the archaeological evidence, Honigmann was able to form the final conclusion:
"From the time of Cardinal Baronius to this day no creedance has been given to this strange story; some critics spoke of 'deception and forgery'. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that, as we stated above, the report on the awakening of the seven youths must be based upon some historical fact. In the light of the archaeological evidence it now seems incontestable that about the middle of the fifth century seven young Ephesians really believed or tried to make others believe that they had been persecuted at the time of Decius, and that a high ecclesiastical dignitary, in a kind of enthusiastic self-deception, took their strange affirmation for granted, all the more providing him with the weapons which he needed for refuting certain heretics and making orthodoxy triumph."
Nowadays it is proved, as Honigmann stated, that the basis for the story is a well attested historical fact. Indeed, F. Miltner, who was in charge of excavations undertaken at Ephesus in 1926 by the Austrian Archaeological Institute found reason to believe that the church he uncovered was built at about the middle of the fifth century. This church was found at the traditional site ascribed to it in ancient Ephesus. Textual criticism also led scholars to certain conclusions which seem to confirm the results attained by the archaeological discoveries. Though archaeology and textual criticism cannot verify the miracle behind the tale, they do verify that the tale does describe an actual historical event of seven young men appearing in the midst of the Ephesians and believed to be the source of a great miracle which confirmed for all the resurrection of the dead.
1. Clive Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity: A Late Antique, Byzantine and Turkish City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979) p. 43.
2. Peter L'Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1996) pp. 199-201. Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon vol. 3 (Liverpool University Press, 2007) pp. 1-3.
3. Clive Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity: A Late Antique, Byzantine and Turkish City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979) p. 43.
4. Full catalogue: FiE IV/2, 96-200. Jewish lamps: p. 45, n.48; pagan tombstones: p. 211.
5. Ernest Honigmann, "Stephen of Ephesus (April 15, 448 - October 29, 451) and the Legend of the Seven Sleepers" Patristic Studies. Studi e testi, 173 (1953) pp. 125-168.