Dreams, Prophecy and Violence from Early Christianity
to the Rise of Islam
BACKGROUND

How did leaders of late-antique Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities exploit dreams to bolster their own spiritual authority? The proposed project examines the nexus between dreams, prophecy and violence in early Christianity, and how that differed, if at all, from early Islam. It examines the works of Classical Greco-Roman, Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers over 1000 years, from the second to eleventh centuries CE, to show how they variously dealt with the interpretation of dreams. The Freudian school of psychoanalysis has unduly shaped western approaches to dreams and their significance since 1900. Although Sigmund Freud passed on the valuable insight that dreams have personal psychological meaning, and that they may be the product of figurative or symbolic thought (Freud 1912), this project focuses upon a totally different approach to dreams as mediums of divine inspiration and prophecy, an ideology that was shared by eastern and western pagans and monotheists in the first millennium after Christ. It aims to uncover the processes of persuasion and conversion at work in culturally-specific texts on dreaming in this period, when the important cultural role of dream-interpreter was fulfilled by pagan dream-key writers, Jewish rabbis, Christian monks and bishops, and prophets of Islam. This is what Lamoreux calls an ‘ecumenic’ discourse of dream interpretation (Lamoreaux 2002: 171-4).

 

Two infamous dream accounts show how close was the close nexus between dreams, violence and religious authority in late-antique Christianity and the early centuries of Islam. In his late ninth-century chronicle of the Byzantine empire, Theophanes the Confessor relates how, in the 620s, a lowly camel-trader named Mohammed was taken by a series of violent epileptic fits. To cover this shameful weakness, he claimed he had been overwhelmed by visions of the archangel Gabriel (Theophanes, Chronicon 6122; ed. de Boor 1980:333-4). Mohammed’s wife Chadiga was more inclined to believe her husband’s account after a monk friend told her that Gabriel commonly appeared to prophets, and thus Mohammed’s claim to prophetic authority was born. Some fifteen years earlier, Pope Gregory I, bishop of Rome from 590 until his death in 604, appeared posthumously in a dream to his successor Sabinian, who was guilty of selling papal grain stores at exorbitant prices when Rome was gripped by famine. After reprimanding the unrepentant pope for his shameful treatment of the Roman people, Gregory kicked Sabinian in the head so hard that his unfortunate victim died as a result, according to Gregory’s British hagiographer, the Anonymous of Whitby (Colgrave 1963:126).

 

Dreams, as Oberhelman rightly observed, had a ‘checkered history’ throughout the development of Christianity (Oberhelman 2008: 45). In Late Antiquity (traditionally defined as the second to seventh centuries CE), Christian attitudes towards visions, dreams, and dream symbolism were ambivalent, to say the least. While pagan dream manuals were outlawed, partly because of their focus on sexual material that was taboo for Christians, several anonymous Byzantine dream manuals were produced from the fourth century onward, telling lay Christians how to interpret the images they saw in their dreams. However, the question of how to discern divine inspiration continued to trouble Christian commentators on dreams and visions (Amat 1985; Cox Miller 1994; Graf 2010). The continuities between dreams and dream interpretation in Greco-Roman culture (cf. recent bibliography of Weber 2013) and in the Christian culture of Late Antiquity have received some scholarly attention in recent decades, since the seminal study of dreams in the Roman principate by Hanson (1980). Recent studies include those of Stroumsa (1999), Näf (2004), Harris (2009) and Dossey (2013). Dreams in the Middle Ages and Byzantine empire were the subject of an international seminar in 1983, I Sogni nel Medioevo (Gregory 1985); followed up by the work of Kruger (1992) and Moreira (2003), while the study of mutual influences between Christian and early Muslim dream interpretation traditions is a relatively recent phenomenon in western scholarship (Mavroudi 2002; Sirreyeh 2003).

 

This project will extend the existing scholarship up to the early medieval period, focusing attention on dreams and violence, especially between adherents of the major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Religious conflict has recently become a hot topic in late antique studies (see the collected essays in Mayer and Neil 2013), as has intra-religious violence (Shaw 2011) and inter-religious violence (Sizgorich 2009) in Late Antiquity. The role played by dreams and their interpretation has not yet been analysed, however. The different ways in which dreams were understood by Latin and Greek authors may be explained by the emergence of distinctive identities in the western and eastern churches, as these Christians sought to define themselves, first against Judaism and paganism, and then against Islam.

 

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