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Hebrew and Christian scriptural models of dream interpretation

In his ground-breaking study of Christianity and dreams from the second to seventh centuries, Le Goff (1985) suggested that a hierarchy could be detected in biblical accounts of dreams and visions, whereby the nearer one was to God the clearer the dream or vision and its content. At the top of the hierarchy were patriarchs such as Moses, who saw and heard God clearly in non-symbolic dreams. The prophet Mohammed’s night journey, which many medieval Muslims interpreted as a dream, would also fit into this category (Shoemaker 2012; Lamoreaux 2002:109). The patriarchs, whose spiritual authority is recognised by Jews, Muslims and Christians, were given divine direction and prophecies through dreams. Joseph could interpret both his own dreams and those of others by a divine gift. Other prophets, like Samuel and Nathan of the Hebrew scriptures, who were not as close to God, received visions with symbolic content, that were harder to understand. Both eastern and western Christian traditions drew on the same body of Hebrew and later scriptures for exempla of dreams and visions (Oberhelman 2008:46-49).

Even within Scripture, various attitudes to dreams emerge. Wisdom literature, especially the books of Ecclesiastes and Sirach, shows the harshest attitude to dreams, warning that they can often be the tool of false prophets. Scott Noegel (2007) provides an extensive bibliography on this topic. In the literature that was meant for a wider audience of Gentile or pagan backgrounds – the New Testament canon, the uncanonical books of the Apocrypha and the forged writings (pseudepigrapha) – dreams and dream interpretation are viewed more positively. An important foundation for the project will be the Jewish background to Christian dream interpretation, which I will pursue at the Center for the Study of Christianity at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We return to scriptural exempla below.

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