Dream Interpretation in Christianity: A Brief History

Dreams and dream interpretation play a variety of roles in the Bible.  They reveal God’s presence and plan for the future (e.g., Jacob’s dream at Bethel, Gen 28:10-22), warn of impending dangers (e.g., Pharaoh’s nightmares in Gen 41), guide and reassure the faithful (e.g., Paul’s visions of the night in Acts 16:9 and 18:9), and bestow blessings (e.g., Joseph’s dream of the angel in Matt 1:20).  In some passages dreaming is presented as a form of divine inspiration, for example Joel 2:28: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”

However, some Biblical texts question the meaningfulness of dreams and the veracity of those that seem to reveal messages from God.  In Zech10:2 it says, “the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation,” while Jer 29:8 warns, “do not listen to the dreams which they dream.”  The skeptical attitude expressed in these passages does not contradict the more favorable treatment of dreams found in the other texts, but rather provides a balancing perspective that heightens awareness of the challenges of discerning God’s truth.

The imperative question then becomes, how does one distinguish a true from a false dream?  If God does indeed speak in dreams, then a faithful person should be attentive to that possibility in his or her own dreaming experience.  But if dreams can also be false or misleading, what guidance does a person have in distinguishing the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff?

The Bible itself suggests at least three possible answers.  1) Direct messages. Sometimes a dream’s meaning is so clear and distinct that no interpretation is necessary, as in Joseph’s dream of the angel in Matthew 1 and Paul’s night visions, both of which involve direct, unambiguous auditory communications.  2) Metaphorical analysis. In some cases a method of metaphoric/symbolic translation is required to understand a dream’s meaning and import, most famously with Joseph and his interpretation of Pharaoh’s two disturbing dreams of self-devouring cows and ears of grain.  Joseph emphasizes the significance of the two dreams together: “the doubling of Pharaoh’s dreams means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (Gen 41:32).  Unfortunately the text does not say how exactly Joseph knew, for example, that the number of cows and ears of grain would equal the number of years of coming plenty and famine.  3) Faith and mystical intuition. Both Joseph and Daniel say that their ability to interpret dreams ultimately rests on their faith in God’s guidance.  This faith enables Joseph to accurately identify the symbolic meaning of Pharaoh’s nightmares, succeeding where all the royal diviners and wise men had failed.  Daniel’s faith-fueled interpretive ability is so great that he can tell Nebuchadnezzar what his dream means without even hearing the dream in the first place (Dan 2).

All Biblical references to dreams and dream interpretation are intertwined in complex ways with other cultural traditions and dream teachings, making it difficult to speak of a uniquely Christian method of interpreting dreams.  It is better instead to consider some of the ways Christians have practiced, or argued against, the interpretation of dreams.

Several early Christian theologians (e.g., Tertullian, Origen, Synesius) spoke highly of dreams as an authentic source of divine inspiration.   These church fathers saw dreams, properly interpreted, as a powerful means of strengthening people’s faith and converting new people to the Christian community. Augustine, following his own conversion and vow of chastity, treated dreams skeptically as a source of sexual temptation, but he acknowledged that his deeply faithful mother Monica had an innate ability to distinguish personal dreams from truly divine dreams.  Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, evaluates divination by dreams in terms of its theological legitimacy and concludes that it may, in the right circumstances, be practiced by good Christians: “There is no unlawful divination in making use of dreams for the foreknowledge of the future, so long as those dreams are due to divine revelation, or to some natural cause inward or outward, and so far as the efficacy of that cause extends.”  A strong statement against dreams comes from Protestant reformer Martin Luther, in his commentary on the story of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis 40: “I care nothing about visions and dreams.  Although they seem to have a meaning, yet I despise them and am content with the sure meaning and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture.”  Luther does not deny that some dreams may have divine messages, but he insists that any dream must be tested for its fidelity to scripture.  This reduces dream interpretation to a process of confirming what is already known in scripture, effectively rendering dreams spiritually superfluous.

Since the Enlightenment, dream interpretation has generally been relegated to the realm of superstition and fortune-telling (or used by inquisitors to ferret out heretics).  Modern Christian theologians have for the most part conceded to the rationalist viewpoint and ignored dreams as a topic of serious, sustained reflection.  In the twentieth century the twin forces of Freudian psychoanalysis and sleep laboratory research, though disagreeing on many points, combined to dismiss religious ideas about dreams in favor of reductive psychological explanations.  Present-day Christians are thus left with an ambiguous heritage.  A phenomenon with an honored place in scripture and early history has fallen into disrepute, despite the experiential fact that people today continue to have dreams with religious significance and spiritually meaningful content.

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References:

Bulkeley, K., K. Adams, and P.M. Davis, eds. 2009. Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Covitz, Joel. 1990. Visions of the Night: A Study of Jewish Dream Interpretation. Boston: Shambhala.

Freud, S. 1965. The interpretation of dreams. Translated by J. Strachey. New York: Avon Books.

Ginzburg, Carlo. 1992. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by J. Tedeschi and A. Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harris, M. 1994. Studies in Jewish dream interpretation. Northvale: Jason Aronson.

Kagan, Richard L. 1990. Lucrecia’s Dreams: Politics and Prophecy in Sixteenth-Century Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kelsey, M. 1991. God, dreams, and revelation: A Christian interpretation of dreams. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing.

Miller, P.C. 1994. Dreams in late antiquity: Studies in the imagination of a culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Osborne, Roger. 2001. The Dreamer of the Calle de San Salvador. London: Pimlico.

Strickling, B.L. 2007. Dreaming about the divine. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Stroumsa, D. 1999. Dreams and visions in early Christian discourse. In Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming, edited by D. Shulman and D. Stroumsa. New York: Oxford University Press.