Orthodox America

  The Inaccuracy of Godless Scholarship

by Timothy N. Shell

It is not unusual to find miraculous occurrences recorded in the lives of the Saints. Throughout the history of the Church Christians have carefully preserved the marvelous stories of how God has manifested His Power through the lives of His holy men and women. It is precisely through these stories, however, that modernistic scholarship now attempts to chip away at historic Christianity. Scholars invariably begin with a premise that miracles are untenable. Using this assumption, they declare any stories containing miracles therefore to be fables, and we are soon left with a picture of a Christian Church devoid of any supernatural power whatever. But is it fair for secular judgment to dismiss ancient traditions solely because they are infused with the miraculous? As an answer let us take one story which scholars dismiss as fable yet which the Orthodox Church cherishes, and let us test it to determine its validity. Unlike these scholars, though, let us begin with the assumption that miracles can-and do-take place.

According to ancient tradition, in the year 230 there were seven well-liked Christian youths-Iamblicus, Maximilian, Martinian, john, Dionysius, Exacustodian, and Antoniu s-each of whom were employed in the royal palace in Ephesus, one of the most important cities in all of the Roman Empire. At this time Decius was the Emperor, and though he ruled only briefly (249-251), he quickly developed a reputation as being the most extreme in the violent persecution of the Christian Church thus far. When Decius discovered the youths' Christian convictions he demanded t ha t they renounce their beliefs. The seven were quite unwilling to do so. Since he considered these youths something of a special case he allowed them a short time in which to change their minds while he went away on a brief journey

Rather than to consider renouncing their faith, the seven in stead gave alt of their possessions to the poor, except for a small amount of money, and fled to a nearby cave at the south-east corner of Mt. Frion, which was south of the city. From there occasion ally one of them would sneak back into the city to purchase food. Decius, upon his return to Ephesus, was furious at finding out that the seven had left, and he immediately sent out spies who soon discovered their whereabouts. While the seven were asleep in side, Decius sadistically ordered his soldiers to wall up the mouth of the cave with stones so that there would be no possibility of their escape. He thought he had just sentenced them to their deaths by a slow and agonizing starvation. Instead, the seven just didn't wake up...

Later, after word of their martyrdom had spread, two other Christians from Ephesus Theodore and Rufinus, wrote an account of the seven's sufferings and placed a copy among the stones.

From the year 250, the story jumps ahead to 446. Historically speaking, these two intervening centuries were of the utmost importance. After Decius, several other em p e r or 5 had likewise launched vicious attacks on the Christians until, rather suddenly, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great himself converted to the Christian Faith. Instantly, Christianity leapt from being persecuted to being socially acceptable. By the time of Theodosius II's reign (401-450) paganism was largely extinct. Christianity, nevertheless, was far from free of problems. Numerous heresies rose up-often begun by those who had only nominally converted- and plagued not only the ecclesiastical authorities, but the Emperor himself, who felt it was his duty as Sovereign to lead his people in the Truth. One particular belief had arisen during the reign of Theodosius which denied the Orthodox teaching of the general resurrection. Theodosius had been unable to check its spread and prayed for Divine help in combating this heresy.

Shortly thereafter, a shepherd was given the thought by God to remove some of the stones which had blocked the cave for two centuries. Immediately, the seven awoke, quite unaware that anything more than a day had elapsed since they first fell asleep. One of them, Iamblicus, decided to sneak into Ephesus again to purchase a new supply of food. As he approached the city gate he was shocked to see a cross above it. Furthermore, parts of the city seemed noticeably different. Being perplexed, but assuming he must be dreaming, he signed himself with the sign of the Cross, and, entering the city, he headed for the bread sellers.

When he offered the shopkeepers the coins in payment, however , they thought that he had discovered a buried treasure since he was trying to purchase bread with 200 year old coins. Since it was illegal not to report such a find the shop-keepers dragged the frightened Iamblicus before the proconsul in the city square, where a crowd soon gathered to see the person who was rumored t to have found a treasure. Iamblicus, under questioning, claimed that he was a citizen of Ephesus, but to his distress he was unable to find a single witness to support his claim. Finally, in horror, Iamblicus fell down and pleaded, "In God's name, tell me what I ask. Where is the Emperor Decius now, who yesterday was in this city?"

The bishop, who had joined the commotion, answered him, "My son, in the whole earth there is now no emperor called Decius, Only in olden times was there such a one!"

It rapidly became apparent to all that something unusual had happened. Iamblicus volunteered to take everyone to the cave and to meet his companions as a confirmation of his testimony. After journeying to the cave, the authorities not only met with the other six but also discovered the document which Theodore and Rufinus had left, and the miracle became clear to everyone. An urgent message was then sent to the Emperor to come and witness the awesome miracle which had just occurred. This unexpected news gave Theodosius tangible proof that there was indeed a resurrection of the dead, and he rushed to Ephesus. Upon arriving, the Emperor showed his deep respect for the seven by bowing before them.

After the Saints had spoken to the King they all died, all at the same instant. Theodosius desired to make golden coffins for them, but they appeared to him in a dream and asked him to simply place their bodies in their cave until the Lord should raise them up again on the Last Day. Theodosius, though, did construct a church over the cave to cover the hallowed site.

Until the advent of “rationalism” -with its corollary of non- belief in the miraculous-the tradition of the sleepers was revered throughout the world. But beginning with the Renaissance, humanistic skepticism set in. Scholars gradually began to take the most miraculous Christian traditions and systematically to move them from "history" into "mythology." The Seven Sleepers went early. Caesar Baronius (1538-1607), not only a Renaissance scholar but a cardinal in the Roman Church, was the first to treat the story as "apocryphal." It was never taken seriously in the West again. The Roman Church still refers to the tradition as a "purely imaginative romance." With the story's sacred character thus erased, the tradition became fair game for grotesque and impious parodies, such as Mark Twain's re-telling of the story in his Innocents Abroad.

Regardless of such conclusions, let us examine this tradition on its own merits. Certainly, if the story 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. In written form, the earliest source which survives today is by a Syrian bishop named James of Sarugh (452-521). He had begun composing homilies around 474, and one of them was specifically on the subject of the Sleepers. 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 G1oria Martyrum a few years later. 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.

As an interesting footnote, the most important document in which the story was to appear was the Qur'an, the sacred book of the Muslims which they believe God revealed directly to their prophet Muhammed. In the eighteenth chapter, which in fact is titled "The Cave," verses 8-28, the Qu'ran relates the story of the Sleepers with only minor differences from the Christian tradition. With the subsequent Islamic conquering of the East, the story was soon spread as far as India.

Because of its popularity, the event was an important theme in the art of both the Latin West and the Byzantine East for 1, 000 years. The youths have been generally depicted as lying in their cave side by side, sometimes holding palms (symbolic of martyrdom), with no individualization except for their names, usually written above their heads. Any early Orthodox icons, unfortunately, were presumably destroyed during the iconoclastic heresy (8th-9th centuries).

As we might expect, pilgrimages to the site of the cave were extremely popular from the inception of the tradition. According to a ninth century writer, visitors to the cave were shown seven incorrupt bodies, and a 12th century Russian pilgrim saw the same. Although pilgrimages can be shown throughout the medieval centuries, the most famous was probably one sponsored by the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, William 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 William the Confessor at Westminster Abbey.

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the evidence sup plied by archaeology. At the cave site itself sit the remains of a basilica dedicated to the Seven Sleepers. Research done at this structure in 1927-1928 by the Austrian Archaeological Institute provided important scientific evidence regarding the tradition. It confirmed that the church could positively be dated from the reign of Theodosius II, precisely when the tradition claims it was built.

In conclusion, we find the story of the seven sleepers to have spread rapidly everywhere within a few years of the event, with numerous early written accounts still surviving. (And we must remember that at this period much of the Roman Empire was sinking into the "Dark Ages"-the sheer abundance of documentation in this case is noteworthy.) We also see, through the artistic representation and the pilgrimages to the site, that the tradition was accepted and believed world wide. Last we find that the church was indeed built at the time at which the tradition records. Legends evolve, but this tradition is fully developed when it appears! All of these details strongly indicate the presence of a powerful impetus-that is to say, a miracle. Had the story only contained natural elements, it would undoubtedly have been received as established fact by scholars, for innumerable historical events of that era have been "confirmed" on less evidence.

We see, therefore, through this example, that although miraculous stories are summarily dismissed by rationalistic scholars, the evidence may actually indicate another conclusion, as it clearly does here. Assuming miracles are impossible is a very dangerous premise with which to approach Christian history, leading to interpretations that are either blatantly wrong or at least seriously distorted. We must be constantly on our guard against this subtle and pernicious belief that we can discount God's power and still maintain accurate renderings of history.