28 November 2023

The Seven Sleepers of
Ephesus and parallels
in the story of a sleeping
philosopher in Crete

The caves of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing last week about the seven cities or places that have given their names to nine of the Pauline letters in the New Testament: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki. I have visited many of these place, including Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and Thessaloniki.

As I was writing about Ephesus last week (22 November), I was reminded how many times I had visited the classical ruins of Ephesus, the present day Turkish city of Selçuk, and some of the sites clustered together in the this area, including the Temple of Artemis, the Library of Celsius, the Basilica of Saint John, the Isa Bey Kami, which mut be unusual as a mosque for having a name that honours Jesus, the supposed ‘House of Mary’, and the Tomb of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

I sometimes wondered how many of the tourists who make their way from Kusadasi to Ephesus know of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus or notice the site of the cave. Yet, their story was so popular in the early Church that it is referred to even in an early Irish monastic manuscript associated with the monks of Tallaght, they were celebrated as martyrs throughout the early church, they inspired great works of literature in mediaeval Europe, and they are even discussed in one chapter of the Quran.

Tradition says the Seven Sleepers (επτά κοιμώμενοι) were a group of young men in the third century who hid inside a cave outside Ephesus (Selçuk) ca 250 CE to escape persecution and who emerged many year later – if not hundreds of years later.

In the traditional telling of this story, the seven young men were trying to escape one of the many persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire and they awoke some 300 years later.

The earliest known version of the story is told in the writings of the Jacob of Serugh (ca 450-521), a Syriac bishop who relied on an earlier, now lost Greek source. An outline of this story appears in the writings of Gregory of Tours (538-594) and in the History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon (720-799). The best-known Western version of the story appears in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (1259-1266).

The story is told in up to a dozen mediaeval languages and found in over 200 manuscripts, from the ninth to the 13th centuries. These include 104 Latin manuscripts, 40 Greek, 33 Arabic, 17 Syriac, six Ethiopic, five Coptic, two Armenian, and one each in Old French, Old English and Middle Irish.

The ninth-century Irish calendar Félire Óengusso or Martyrology of Óengus, attributed to Saint Óengus of Tallaght, commemorates the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus on 7 August. The Roman Martyrology commemorates them on 27 July, the Byzantine calendar commemorates them on 4 August and 22 October, while Syriac Orthodox calendars give various dates: 21 April, 2 August, 13 August, 23 October and 24 October.

Early versions of the story do not agree on or even specify the number of sleepers. Many accounts say there were seven sleepers along with a dog named Viricanus.

The number of years the sleepers slept also varies in the accounts. The highest number, given by Gregory of Tours, was 373 years; some accounts say 372; Jacobus de Voragine calculated 196 years – from 252 CE to 448 CE; other accounts suggest 195 years. Islamic accounts, including the Qur'an, suggest a sleep of 309 years: these are presumably lunar years, making it 300 solar years.

The lists include at least seven different sets of names for the sleepers, mainly variations on the names Maximian, Martinian, Dionisius, John, Constantine, Malchus and Serapion, although Gregory of Tours names them as Achillides, Probatus, Stephanus, Sambatus, Quiriacus and Diogenus.

According to the story, during the persecutions by the Roman emperor Decius ca 250 CE, seven young men were arrested as Christians. They were given time to recant their faith, but they refused to bow to Roman idols. Instead, they chose to give their worldly goods to the poor and they retired to a mountain cave to pray, where they fell asleep. The Emperor then ordered the mouth of the cave to be sealed.

Decius died in 251, and as the years passed Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. At some later time in the reign of Theodosius II (408-450), there were heated discussions about the resurrection of the body and life after death. At that time, a farmer decided to open up the sealed cave to use it as a cattle pen. But when he opened the cave, he found the sleepers inside. They woke up, imagining that had slept for only a day, and sent one of their number to Ephesus with a saucer of silver coins to buy ‘pure food’ in the bazaar.

When he arrived in Ephesus, the former sleeper was astounded to find buildings with crosses on them. The people of Ephesus, for their part, were astounded to find a man trying to use old coins from the reign of Decius to buy food. The bishop was summoned to interview the sleepers. They told him their story, and died praising God.

A pilgrim account written between 518 and 531, De situ terrae sanctae, records the existence of a church dedicated to the sleepers in Ephesus. The story spread rapidly throughout the Christian world.

The story was popularised in the West in the late sixth century by Gregory of Tours in his De gloria martyrum (Glory of the Martyrs). He claimed to have heard the story from ‘a certain Syrian interpreter’ (Syro quidam interpretante), although this could refer to a Syriac speaker or even a Greek speaker from the Levant.

The story of the sleepers is also referred to in the Quran (18: 9-26). But the surah does not speculate about the number of the sleepers nor about the years they slept in the cave: ‘My Sustainer knows best how many they were.’

As the earliest versions of the legend spread from Ephesus, an early Christian catacomb there came to be associated with the story and attracted pilgrims. During the Crusades, bones from Ephesus, claimed as relics of the Seven Sleepers, were brought to France in a large stone coffin and displayed in the Abbey of Saint Victor in Marseille.

The Seven Sleepers were included in the Golden Legend, the most popular book of the later Middle Ages.

The grotto of the Seven Sleepers is on the slopes of Mount Pion (Mount Coelian) near Ephesus (present-day Selçuk), with ruins of the religious site built over it. It was excavated in 1926-1928, when several hundred graves dated to the fifth and sixth centuries were found, with inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers on the walls and in the graves.

The account remained popular, even after the Reformation. The poet John Donne asks in ‘The Good Morrow’:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?

Although their story lost popular currency at the Enlightenment, Edward Gibbon gives different accounts of the story in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Their story was revived with the coming of Romanticism. The Golden Legend may have been the source for retellings of the Seven Sleepers in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in a poem by Goethe. It has many echoes in Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle and in HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes.

Later, John Buchan refers to the Seven Sleepers in The Three Hostages, where Richard Hannay surmises that his wife Mary, who is a sound sleeper, is descended from one of the seven who has married one of the Foolish Virgins.

The Three Sleepers are characters in CS Lewis novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Several languages have idioms related to the Seven Sleepers to describe someone who is a late riser or oversleeps, including Hungarian, Norwegian, Swedish and Welsh, and there is a phrase in Irish, na seacht gcodlatáin, that refers to hibernating animals.

In Germany, Seven Sleepers’ Day (Siebenschläfertag) on 27 June recalls the legend of the Seven Sleepers and is part of traditional weather lore, with the notion that the weather that day are supposed predicts the weather for the next seven weeks.

Epimenides, the sleeping philosopher in a cave in Crete, gives his name to a street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are earlier stories and legends in classical literature that provide similar myths if not the origin for the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Epimenides of Knossos, or Epimenides of Crete (Ἐπιμενίδης) was a Greek philosopher-poet from Knossos or Phaistos who lived in the seventh or sixth centuries BCE. While Epimenides was tending his father’s sheep, it is said, he fell asleep in a cave in Crete that was sacred to Zeus, and awoke after 57 years with the gift of prophecy.

Aristotle and Plutarch say Epimenides purified Athens after the pollution brought by the Alcmaeonidae, a powerful noble family who negotiated an alliance with the Persians during the Persian Wars. Pericles and Alcibiades also belonged to the Alcmaeonidae, and during the Peloponnesian War the Spartans referred to the family’s curse in an attempt to discredit Pericles.

It is said that the expertise Epimenides showed in sacrifices and the reform of funeral practices were of great help to Solon in reforming the Athenian state. But the only reward he would accept was a branch of the sacred olive, and the promise of perpetual friendship between Athens and Knossos. He is also said to have prophesied at Sparta on military matters.

He died in Crete at an advanced age, and legends say he lived until he was almost 300 years old – another parallel with the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

Several prose and poetic works have been attributed to Epimenides. But all of his works are now lost, and we only know of them through quotations by other authors. In a fragment of one of his poems, citied in the Hymn to Zeus of Callimachus, Minos of Knossos addresses Zeus:

Τύμβον ἐτεκτήναντο σέθεν, κύδιστε μέγιστε,
Κρῆτες, ἀεὶ ψευδεῖς, κακὰ θηρία, γαστέρες ἀργαί.
Ἀλλὰ σὺ γ᾽ οὐ θνῇσκεις, ἕστηκας γὰρ ζοὸς αίεί,
Ἐν γὰρ σοὶ ζῶμεν καὶ κινύμεθ᾽ ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσμέν.

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

It is yet another parallel with the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

Epimenides is also remembered today because he is quoted twice in the New Testament.

While speaking to a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in front of the Areopagus in Athens (see Acts 17: 22-34), the Apostle Paul quotes from Epimenides’ Cretica: ‘For “In him we live and move and have our being”.’

In this address in Athens, Saint Paul is citing the fourth line in the Hymn to Zeus of Callimachus, with its reference to one of ‘your own poets’ (Acts 17: 28). Saint Paul goes on to quote from Aratus’ Phaenomena: ‘For we too are his offspring’ (see verse 28).

When Saint Paul spoke to Saint Titus concerning his mission in Crete, he committed a logical fallacy by quoting Epimenides: ‘It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” That testimony is true’ (Titus 1: 12-13a).

The ‘lie’ of the Cretans is that Zeus was mortal, for Epimenides believed that Zeus is dead. The logical inconsistency of a Cretan asserting all Cretans are always liars may not have occurred to Epimenides, nor to Callimachus, who both used the phrase to emphasise their point, without irony.

However, Saint Paul must have thought long about the idea of a dead god and the dead god’s tomb as he sought to preach the Resurrection in Crete.

Epimenides is first identified as the ‘prophet’ in Titus 1: 12 by Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1, 14). Clement mentions that ‘some say’ Epimenes should be counted among the seven wisest philosophers. But he does not indicate that the concept of logical paradox is an issue.

Saint John Chrysostom (Homily 3 on Titus) gives an alternative fragment:

For even a tomb, King, of you
They made, who never died, but ever shall be.

However, it is not clear when Epimenides became associated with the Epimenides paradox, a variation of the liar paradox. Saint Augustine restates the liar paradox in Against the Academicians (III.13.29), but does so without mentioning Epimenides.

In the Middle Ages, many forms of the liar paradox were studied under the heading of insolubilia, but they were not associated with Epimenides.

Paradoxically, I have to say I have found most if not all Cretans to be truthful and honest.

Many years ago, back in the 1980s, as I entrusted someone on the beach in Rethymnon with my wallet and valuables as I went for a swim, I was advised that it was tourists and foreigners I needed to be wary of.

Epimenides also gives his name to a street in Iraklion in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (24) 28 November 2023

The Church of Christ the King, Turner’s Cross, Cork … Francis Barry Byrne was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and pioneering in the use of concrete instead of brick or stone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England. The week began with the Feast of Christ the King and the Sunday next before Advent (26 November 2023).

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting on Christ the King, as seen in churches and cathedrals I know or I have visited. My reflections are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on Christ the King;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The large sculpture of Christ the King by John Maguire above the entrance to the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church of Christ the King, Turner’s Cross, Cork:

The Church of Christ the King in Turner’s Cross on the south side of Cork, is one of the most striking 20th century church buildings in the city. The architect, Francis Barry Byrne (1883-1967), was strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the large sculpture of Christ the King by John Maguire above the entrance is a landmark work of public art.

The church is the first and one of the few Irish churches designed by a US architect, and the first Irish church built with concrete instead of brick or stone. It has a seating capacity of 1,200 and has one of the largest suspended-ceilings in any church in Europe.

The church was commissioned in 1927 by Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork and designed by the Chicago-based architect Barry Byrne. The church was built at a cost of £30,000 by John Buckley in 1929-1931 and opened on the Feast of Christ the King, Sunday 25 October 1931.

The Feast of Christ the King was then a recent innovation in the Church calendar. It was first suggested at the end of 1925 when Pope Pius XI published an encyclical, Quas Primas, in which he castigated secularism in Europe and declared that the secular powers ought to recognise Christ as King and that the Church needed to recapture this teaching.

At the time, the entire idea of kingship was quickly losing credibility in western societies, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and a wave of fascism was about to sweep across central Europe.

Since 1925, the celebration of Christ the King or the Kingship of Christ has become part of the calendar of the wider Western Church. It took on an ecumenical dimension from 1983 on with its introduction to Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others through the Revised Common Lectionary.

By the mid-1920s, the South Parish in Cork city had grown in both population and area to a point where it could no longer function with a single church. To address the situation, Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork designated Turner’s Cross as the location for a second parish church to serve the growing population.

The Cork Examiner reported that Dr Cohalan originally planned a more standard design by an Irish or British architect, but the cost had proved ‘well-nigh prohibitive.’ He changed his mind when he read an article by Barry Byrne, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Byrne had already designed three Catholic churches in the US, and all had received acclaim and criticism for their bold and innovative designs. He was well-known too for regular contributions on church design to publications such as Commonweal.

Byrne was born on 19 December 1883. His father, Charles Emmett Byrne, a native of Prince Edward Island, was a railroad blacksmith. His mother, Mary Barry Delaney, was from Chicago, with family connections with Co Wexford.

When Byrne visited an exhibition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Chicago in 1902, he was offered a place at Wright’s Oak Park studio as an apprentice tracer. Although he had little formal education, Wright saw in Byrne the same raw love and enthusiasm for architecture he too had experienced in his youth.

Byrne established his own practice in Chicago in 1915. His first large building contract was in 1921 for the Immaculata High School, Chicago. This was followed by the Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle in Chicago.

His wife Annette Cremin regularly drew artist’s impressions of his designs and in some cases designed the interior colour schemes for some of his buildings and churches.

Ireland must have seemed to be inward looking and very traditional in the 1920s, and the idea of a futuristic design by a foreign architect would have fomented strong opposition. But this was only the first of many problems to come.

The first model for the church was based on a brick exterior and interior, with a suspended wooden ceiling. It was a development of a previous design by Byrne for a church also dedicated to Christ the King in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1926), and represented a more economic solution, typically used in the US.

However, this design was subject to an overall cost restriction of £30,000 with £20,000 allocated for the building and the remaining £10,000 kept for the inner furnishings.

After investigations, the site supervising architect, JR Boyd Barrett, reported that a brick and wood church could not be built on a £20,000 budget and he suggested a complete concrete construction with plaster ceiling would be more realistic.

Although reluctant to sacrifice the brick and wood design, Byrne reworked his solution to use concrete as the main construction material. The result would involve the use of large sections of moulded concrete re-enforced for strength. Decorative features around the doors and windows would all be made from cast stone, and the stone mason was not a consideration.

The reconfigured model was a new departure in Byrne’s style and the Church of Christ the King became the first Irish church ever built from concrete. The innovative design and its use of concrete may have been the first large-scale application of re-enforced concrete construction in Ireland. At the time, ready-mix cement was unheard of, and the project involved a complete shake-up for the building industry in Ireland.

Before building work began, Barry Byrne and his wife, Annette Cremin Byrne, visited Cork to view the site and to discuss the final details of the project with Dr Coholan.

Work began in March 1929 and the foundations were blessed by Dr Cohalan on 21 July. The Initial problems were with the foundation. The soft marsh-like terrain of the site was no match for the heavy foundation. Before any walls could be erected, the building contractor, John Buckley, had to sink foundations 15 ft to reach a solid base, well above the 5-6 ft estimated by Byrne.

Other issues included strong opposition from the Society of Stone Cutters and Marble Masons. Their anger related to the selection of concrete as a base material and they instructed that the foundation stone ‘shall not be worked, as the building of the said Church is detrimental to our trade.’

A general building trade strike from May to August 1930 caused significant delays for the project. But the church still opened on time on the Feast of Christ the King, 25 October 1931. However, there is evidence of a too-hasty completion: terrazzo panels were missing on the altar reredos, the Stations of the Cross were unfurnished and an external fence was not erected for some time.

When it was completed, the church never provoked much admiration or criticism. Yet, in that years that followed, many buildings influenced by the style of Frank Lloyd Wright were built in Ireland, although church architecture in Britain and Ireland largely ignored these new styles. However, the choice of concrete as a raw material became a major influence.

Byrne was pleased with the results that he never again chose brick as his preferred material. His later churches perfected the use of concrete as a more versatile material and as a cheap alternative to brick.

The original tender submitted by John Buckley was for £20,000. The costs for the internal furnishings, including seats and marble, terrazzo and other fittings, amounted to £7,000, with the total cost at £27,000. A significant contribution of £10,000 from the Geary family foundation provided much needed support to pay off the debts.

A local sculptor, John Maguire, was contracted to build the large sculpture of Christ the King that stands over the entrance. The statue was designed by the American sculptor John Storrs and the final work was based on plaster models shipped from Storrs home in France to Cork. Maguire also worked on the marble altars and gold mosaics.

The marble terrazzo work was carried out by JJ O’Hara & Co. Dublin. This includes the black floor surface and lower wall, beige dado rail and all white marble surfaces in the sanctuary and at the reredos. The terrazzo work is said to be the first of its kind in Ireland.

Piggot & Co furnished the Mannborg Model 40 organ fitted in the concealed choir gallery, glazing and painting work was by JF O’Mahony of Cork, and the bell was supplied by Gillett and Johnston of Croydon.

It is surprising, then, that Byrne never saw the finished building in person, and it remains his only church where he did not personally supervise the construction.

Bishop Cornelius Lucey designated Turner’s Cross an independent parish in 1957. At the same time, five new churches were built in Cork, including a church for the newly formed parish of Ballyphehane.

As for Barry Byrne, he moved to New York in the early 1930s and supplemented his limited work as a building inspector and by writing articles for various publications. At the age of 62, he returned to Chicago in 1945. He died in 1967.

The church was rededicated by Bishop John Buckley on 25 May 2002, at a ceremony presided over by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster. Meanwhile, however, with the formation of new parishes, the Church of Christ the King would never again serve the huge masses for which it was commissioned. However, its design and craftsmanship have stood the test of time, and the church retains most of its original character and layout.

Inside the Church of Christ the King, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 21: 5-1 (NRSVA):

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8 And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10 Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

Inside the Church of Christ the King, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 28 November 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Preventing Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (28 November 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for all those living with HIV and AIDS. May they be enabled to live a full life, free from fear safe within the communities they live.

The Collect:

Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This Post Communion Prayer may be used as the Collect at Morning and Evening Prayer during this week.

Additional Collect

God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.

Yesterday’s Reflection (Cathedral of Christ the King, Mulingar)

Continued Tomorrow (images of Christ the King, Lichfield Cathedral)

The sanctuary and High Altar in the Church of Christ the King (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org