Dreams in early Christianity

Initially, Christianity continued honoring dreams and visions as a primary way that God communicated with humans. Dreams and visions literally shaped the birthing and early development of Christianity. Angels, the communicators of God, appeared to people in dreams in ways similar to the dream appearances of the gods of the Greeks.

The births of John the Baptist and Jesus were forecast in dreams or visionary experiences. After the birth of Jesus his father, Joseph, was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s campaign to kill male infants who might threaten his rule. Jesus had numerous visionary experiences during his life that might have taken place in dreams or dreamlike states. For example, Jesus has an important confrontation with the devil after he has fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness. Such a lengthy period of physical deprivation could significantly affect dreaming and alter consciousness into dreamlike states. Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-12 tell how the devil tempted Jesus three times. First the devil tried to persuade Jesus to perform miracles to prove he is the Son of God. Then he offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. Jesus resisted and banished the devil.

After the arrest of Jesus, Pontius Pilate’s wife was warned in a dream that her husband should have nothing to do with him. Following the crucifixion of Jesus, the apostles had many dreams and visionary experiences that aided them in their mission to spread the Gospel. One famous account concerns St. Peter, who was imprisoned by Herod Agrippa, who planned to execute him. The night before he was to be condemned, Peter slept in his cell bound in chains and guarded by two soldiers. An angel awakened him, freed him of his chains, and led him out of the prison. Peter at first thought he was dreaming, then believed he had a real visitation. The experience may actually have been a combination of dreaming and visionary experience.

Many of the early church fathers who shaped the beliefs of the new religion were Platonic philosophers and Greek converts. They believed in the tradition of God speaking through dreams and visions. But a major turn in the opposite direction took place in the fourth century, and it centered on one man: Jerome.

In the fourth century Jerome is a bright young man raised in an  fluent Christian family. He is drawn to pagan beliefs and devotes himself to an intense study of Greek and Roman classics. Then he has an experience that affects Western beliefs about dreams for the next 1,600 years. During a severe illness, he has a dream that changes the course of his life. He is taken before God and a tribunal and is accused of being a pagan despite his claims of being a Christian: Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged be-fore the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: “I am a Christian.” But He who presided said: “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.’” Instantly I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the lash—for He had ordered me to be scourged—I was tortured more severely still by the fire of conscience, considering with myself that verse, “In the grave who shall give thee thanks?” Yet for all that I began to cry and to bewail myself, saying: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord: have mercy upon me.” Amid the sound of the scourges this Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged be-fore the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: “I am a Christian.” But He who presided said: “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.’” Instantly I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the lash—for He had ordered me to be scourged—I was tortured more severely still by the fire of conscience, considering with myself that verse, “In the grave who shall give thee thanks?” Yet for all that I began to cry and to bewail myself, saying: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord: have mercy upon me.” Amid the sound of the scourges this cry still made itself heard. At last the bystanders, fall-ing down before the knees of Him who presided, prayed that He would have pity on my youth, and that He would give me space to repent of my error. He might still, they urged, inflict torture on me, should I ever again read the works of the Gentiles. . . .

Accordingly I made an oath and called upon His name, saying “Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or if ever again I read such, I have denied Thee.” Dismissed, then, on taking this oath, I returned to the upper world, and, to the surprise of all, I opened upon them eyes so drenched with tears that my distress served to convince even the credulous. And that this was no sleep nor idle dream, such as those by which we are often mocked, I call to witness the tribunal before which I lay, and the terrible judgment which I feared. . . . I profess that my shoulders were black and blue, that I felt the bruises long after I awoke from my sleep, and that thenceforth I read the books of God with a zeal greater than I had previously given to the books of men.

Shaken, Jerome retires to the desert as a hermit for several years. He then resumes his career as scholar and biblical consultant and heads a monastic community in Bethlehem.

Despite his own dream experience, Jerome denies the importance of dreams. He acknowledges that dreams can reveal divine things, but he also feels that the impure and unrighteous can twist dreams for their own self-serving ends. He declares that the word of God cannot be sought through pagan practices of dream incubation.

Jerome makes his greatest contribution to Christianity by translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate. He chooses negative words to describe dreams, associating them with witchcraft and fortune-telling. Jerome’s translation remains the authoritative version in Western Christianity into modern times.

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