Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Dreams are Real … for the Biblical Writers

Posted by NT Wrong on April 22, 2008

According to most non-modernist cultures, dreams and visions are real. They’re as real as putting on your shoes, reading the newspaper, or drinking a cup of coffee. That’s not to say that these cultures couldn’t differentiate the ‘reality’ of dreams from the ‘reality’ of waking life. But they do so by saying that dreams conveyed an even deeper reality than waking life, an avenue of direct communication to the divine. That is, for most non-modernists, dreams are more real than everyday life. According to anthropologist Jeannette Marie Mageo, most non-modernists: 

“see dreams as an alternative social word, as much outside the person as a convivial party, even if what goes on there is often far from convivial. For them, dreams are the gate to a sphere inhabited, like our own, by powers and people with which and with whom they live and cope…”

– “Theorizing Dreaming and the Self,” Dreaming and the Self: New Perspectives on Subjectivity, Identity, and Emotion, ed. Jeannette Marie Mageo, 3-22 (New York: State University of New York Press, 2003), 8.

According to anthropologist Barbara Tedlock:

“in many non-Western societies dreaming and waking reality are not fully segmented or compartmentalized worlds but are rather overlapping experiences”

– “Dreaming and Dream Research,” in Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations, ed. Barbara Tedlock, 1-30 (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1992), 5.

The Rarámuri of Mexico reported incredible personal experiences to various anthropologists, including flying and remarkable transformations, not bothering to explain beforehand, and not until they were directly asked, that the experience was had during dreams. Yet on the other hand, they would not punish a wife for being unfaithful in a dream, as she was distinguished as the “soul-wife”. The Rarámuri described both dreaming and waking experiences as reality, yet also distinguished between them, the two realities co-existing and interacting “within the same pluralistic universe rather than being segmented into parallel realities” (Tedlock, 8).

Although he summarises his conclusions by utilising the now discredited social-evolutionary assumptions of his day, E. R. Dodds concludes that the ‘stage’ of attributing reality to one world and pure illusion to the other:

“was reached in antiquity only by a small number of intellectuals; and there are still to-day many primitive peoples who attribute to certain types of dream experience a validity equal to that of waking life, though different in kind”

The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures, 25; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951), 102.

Robert Gnuse summarises ancient beliefs on dreaming, for the purpose of his study on Josephus:

In the ancient world dreams were no less real for many people than the impressions received during the waking hours. Dreams were viewed not as psychological experiences of the mind but as phenomena with a special reality of their own.”

Dreams and Dream Reports in the Writings of Josephus: A Traditio-Historical Analysis (Arbeiten Zur Geschichte Des Antiken Judentums Und Des Unrchristentums, 36; Leiden, New York, Köln: Brill, 1996), 34.

Interestingly, Gnuse’s subject, Josephus, writes as a first-century historian, according to the standards of his day. Yet, he is willing to accept that dreams and their contents are a part of reality. This major difference between the ‘historiography’ done by ancients and modern historiography should be a warning to any who would make a too simplistic inference from the ancient genre of history to its factuality. When the ancients came to speak about the most significant aspects of reality, they had recourse to dreams, because dreams were considered to get one in touch with that deeper reality.

So, when ancient ‘historians’ wrote about subjects with deep importance, such as a nation’s divine history (e.g. Genesis-Kings) or about the coming and resurrection of the Son of Man (the Synoptic Gospels), dreams and visions were given a privileged position in their ‘history-writing’.


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