The Seven Sleepers are asleep in a cave for 372 years, until they are needed

Pocket Bard’s notes: This is a very long story, which means I probably won’t get to perform it often. But I really love the scene where Malchus, having woken up from nearly four centuries of sleep, tries to purchase bread with his “heirloom” coins. It’s exactly the sort of thing I would expect to happen, and I love that the Golden Legend treats that aspect of the story believably. I’m not crazy about the ending, though, and I’d probably have to adapt it a bit before I perform the story before a modern audience.

Also, I love how at the end, Jacobus questions whether the saints really slept for 372 years… because they could only have slept for 195. Awesome.

The Seven Sleepers are asleep in a cave for 372 years, until they are needed
The Golden Legend, Volume II, trans. William Granger Ryan, p.15-18

The Seven Sleepers were natives of the city of Ephesus. The emperor Decius, who decreed the persecution of Christians, came to Ephesus and gave orders to build temples in the center of the city, so that all the people might join him in worshipping the false gods. He further ordered that all Christians were to be rounded up and put in chains, either to sacrifice to the gods or to die; and the Christians in Ephesus were so afraid of the threatened punishments that friends betrayed friends, fathers their sons, and sons their fathers.

In the city were seven young Christian men named Maximianus, Malchus, Marcianus, Dionysius, Johannes, Serapion, and Constantinus, who were sorely distressed about what was happening among the Christian faithful. The seven held high rank in the palace but refused to sacrifice to the idols. Instead they hid in their houses and devoted themselves to fasting and prayer. For this they were denounced and brought before Decius. They affirmed their Christian faith, but the emperor gave them time to come to their senses before he came back to the city. On the contrary, they distributed their wealth to the poor, and by common consent withdrew to Mount Celion and kept out of sight there. They lived that way for a long time, while Malchus, one of their number, took it upon himself to provide for their needs. Whenever he had to go into the city for supplies, he put on the dress and appearance of a beggar.

Decius in time returned to Ephesus and commanded that the seven be sought out and forced to sacrifice. Malchus was alarmed when he heard this in the city and reported the emperor’s will to his friends. This aroused their fears, but Malchus set before them the food he had brought, to give them strength to face the coming trials. After they had eaten and were talking together with sighs and tears, they suddenly, by the will of God, fell asleep. The next morning the search was on but they could not be found, and Decius was disturbed at the loss of such fine young men. Then they were denounced for concealing themselves on Mount Celion, and, moreover, for giving their property to the Christian poor and persisting in the adherence to the faith. Decius therefore ordered their parents to appear before him and threatened them with death unless they told all they knew regarding their sons’ whereabouts. The parents, instead, repeated the same charges against the youths and complained that their wealth had been given away to the poor. The emperor thought about what he ought to do to the seven, and decided, by the will of God, to have the cave in which they were hiding walled up with stones, so that, thus immured, they would die of hunger and need. This was done, but two Christians, Theodorus and Rufinus, wrote an account of the martyrdom and left it concealed among the stones that closed the cave.

Three hundred and seventy-two years later, long after Decius and his whole generation had passed away, in the thirtieth year of the reign of the emperor Theodosius, there was an outbreak of heresy and widespread denial of the resurrection of the dead. This deeply aggrieved the most Christian emperor, who, seeing how the true faith was so impiously distorted, sat day after day in an inside room of his palace, wearing a hair shirt and weeping inconsolably. God in his mercy saw this and, wishing to assuage the grief of those who mourned and to confirm their faith in the resurrection of the dead, opened the treasury of his loving-kindness and awakened the aforesaid martyrs. He inspired a certain citizen of Ephesus to build a shelter for his sheepherders on Mount Celion, and to do this the masons took away the stones from the mouth of the cave and thus awakened the saints. They greeted each other, thinking that they had simply slept through the night. Then they remembered their sadness of the day before and questioned Malchus about Decius’s decision concerning them. He answered as he had on the previous evening: “They’re looking for us to make sacrifice to the idols. That’s what the emperor has in mind for us!” “And God knows,” Maximianus responded, “we will not offer sacrifice!” Having encouraged his companions, he asked Malchus to go down to the city and buy more loaves than he had the day before, and to find out what the emperor had ordered and report what he learned.

Taking five coins with him, Malchus left the cave. He wondered for a moment about the stones lying around but, having other things on his mind, thought no more about it. He approached the city cautiously and marveled at seeing a cross over the gate. Going to another gate and another, he was dumbfounded at the sight of a cross over each of them and at the different appearance of the city itself. He crossed himself and returned to the first gate, thinking that he must be dreaming; but gathering his wits and covering his face he went in. When he came to the bread sellers, he heard people talking about Christ, and was more and more bewildered. “What’s going on?” he thought. “Yesterday no one dared to utter the name of Christ, and today everybody confesses him! I don’t think I’m in Ephesus at all, because the city looks different, but I don’t know any other city like this!” He asked someone and was assured that he was in Ephesus, but kept thinking that there was some mistake and that he had better go back to his companions.

First, however, he went to buy bread, but when he offered his money, the sellers, surprised, told each other that this youth had found some ancient treasure. Seeing them talking about him, Malchus thought they were getting ready to turn him over to the emperor, and, more frightened than ever, asked them to let him go and told them to keep the bread and the money. But they laid hold of him and said: “Where are you from? Tell us where you found these coins of the old emperors, and we’ll share with you and hide you. There’s no other way you can be hidden.” Malchus was so frightened that he could find nothing to say to them, and the men, seeing that he would not answer, put a rope around his neck and led him through the streets to the middle of town. Meanwhile the rumor spread that this young man had discovered a treasure. Crowds gathered round and gaped at him. He wanted to convince them that he had not found anything, and looked all around him, hoping that someone would recognize him or he would see some of his relatives, who, he thought, must be alive. But no such thing happened, and he stood there like one demented, in the middle of the crowd.

Word of this reached Saint Martin, the bishop, and Antipater, the proconsul, a recent arrival in the city. They ordered the citizens to be careful and to bring the youth and his money to them. When he was hauled along to the church, he thought that he was being brought to the emperor. The bishop and the proconsul, amazed when they saw the coins, asked him where he had found this unknown treasure. He answered that he had not found anything at all but had taken the money out of his parents’ purse. They asked him what city he came from, and he replied: “I am sure I belong to this city, if indeed this is the city of the Ephesians.” “Get your parents here to vouch for you!” the consul said; but when Malchus gave their names, they said he was pretending to be someone else in order to escape. “How can we believe you,” the proconsul asked, “when you say the money belonged to your parents? The inscription on the coins is more than 370 years old. They go back to the first days of the emperor Decius and are not at all like our coinage. And how can your parents be that old and you so young? You are just trying to fool the wise men and elders of Ephesus. Therefore I order you to be held until you confess what you found.”

Malchus then threw himself at their feet and said: “In God’s name, my lords, tell me what I ask you, and I will tell you all I have in my heart. The emperor Decius who was here in this city… where is he now?” The bishop answered: “My son, today there is nobody on earth who is called Decius, but there was an emperor Decius long, long ago!” “My lord,” Mlachus replied, “what you say leaves me confused, and no one believes what I say. But come with me and I will show you my friends who are with me on Mount Celion, and believe them! For I know this, that we fled from the face of the emperor Decius, and yesterday evening I saw the emperor come into this city, if this is the city of Ephesus!”

The bishop thought this over, then told the proconsul that God was trying to make them see something through this youth. So they set out with him and a great crowd followed them. Malchus went ahead to alert his friends, and the bishop came after him and found among the stones the letter to them. They marveled at what they heard, and, seeing, the seven saints of God, their faces like roses in bloom, sitting in the cave, all fell to their knees and gave glory to God.

Now the bishop and the proconsul sent word to the emperor Theodosius, bidding him come quickly to see this new miracle. He rose at once, laid aside the sackcloth in which he had been grieving, and, glorifying God, hurried from Constantinople to Ephesus. All the people went out to meet him, and together they went up to the cave. The minute the saints saw the emperor, their faces shone like the sun. The emperor prostrated himself before them and gave praise to God, then rose and embraced each one and wept over them, saying: “Seeing you thus, it is as if I saw the Lord raising Lazarus from the dead!” Saint Maximianus said to him: “Believe us, it is for your sake that God has raised us before the day of the great resurrection, so that you may believe without the shadow of a doubt in the resurrection of the dead. We have truly risen and are alive, and as an infant is in his mother’s womb and lives feeling no pain, so were we, living lying here asleep, feeling nothing!”

Then, while all looked on, the seven saints bowed their heads to the ground and fell asleep, and yielded up their spirits as God willed that they should do. The emperor rose and bent over them, weeping and kissing them, and ordered golden coffins to be made for them. That very night, however, they appeared to Theodosius and said that as hitherto they had lain in the earth and had risen from the earth, so he should return them to the earth until the Lord raised them up again. Therefore the emperor ordered the cave to be embellished with gilded stones, and also decreed that all the bishops who now professed faith in the resurrection should be absolved.

There is reason to doubt that these saints slept for 372 years, because they arose in the year of the Lord 448. Decius reigned in 252 and his reign lasted only fifteen months, so the saints must have slept only 195 years.


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