The Roman Emperor Decius
(~250 AD) was a notorious persecutor of Christians. When he came to the town of Ephesus in modern day Turkey
, he found seven men he tried for the crime of practising Christianity. He found them guilty, and warned them that on his return to Ephesus, if they had not reconsidered and renounced their belief, they would be tortured and killed.
The men took refuge in a cave outside the city, where they prepared to die. On entering the cave, they fell asleep. When the emperor returned, he learned of where the men had gone, and ordered the cave to be closed by an enormous stone.
After about 150 years, when Christianity
has become the state religion of the empire, the owner of the cave unblocks the opening, intending to use it as a cattle stall. When the cave is opened, the sleepers awake, and believe they have only slept for a single night. One of them goes into the city for food, is amazed to find crosses on buildings, and discovers he has trouble buying things with coins from the reign of Decius. Eventually the bishop of the city follows him back to the cave, and the Roman Emperor Theodosius shows up. The resurrection of the sleepers helps the emperor and bishop win some arguing points against the local heretics, who deny the fact of the resurrection of the body. After praising God in sundry ways, the sleepers lie back down and die a peaceful death.
Everyone, from the emperor on down to the owner of the cave, is very happy and edified by the experience.
The story of the sleepers is just one example of an ancient myth involving someone falling asleep for a long time and waking up to a world that has become unrecognizable. The sleepers story has made it into the Koran
), and it was a very popular story into the late Middle Ages, where it was the subject of numerous retellings and a popular subject for depiction in painting and illustrations.
In America, the sleeper myth was popularized by Washington Irving
in the story of Rip Van Winkle
. Other variants of the myth include the belief in the return of certain notable persons, such as
and King Arthur
. It might be argued that the death and resurrection of Christ
is a variant of this myth.