Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.47

Bart J. Koet (ed.), Dreams as Divine Communication in Christianity: From Hermas to Aquinas. Studies in the history and anthropology of religion, 3.   Leuven; Walpole, MA:  Peeters, 2012.  Pp. xii, 292.  ISBN 9789042927575.  €42.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Jennifer Eyl, The College of Wooster (jeyl@wooster.edu)

Table of Contents

This collection of essays is Volume 3 in the series Studies in the History and Anthropology of Religion. The purpose of the book is to examine “the phenomenon of dreaming in the Christian realm from the first to the thirteenth century” (1). The volume consists of eleven essays, including the Editor’s introduction. The essays range in topic from the Shepherd of Hermas and Tertullian’s de Anima, to Bernard of Clairvaux and Clare of Assisi. The predominant approach is that of academic theology, with many contributors from the Tilburg School of Theology in the Netherlands.

Bart Koet’s introductory essay raises significant questions that pertain to the volume as a whole: How does one define “dream,” and does that definition change over time? How have Freud and Jung had an impact on how we view dreams today, one that does not match the way people in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages viewed dreams? What is the relationship between “visions” and “dreams”? Koet’s essay sets the reader up for the essays to come, by delineating general issues that all authors will address, mutatis mutandis: 1) dream terminology, 2) identity of the dreamer and his/her audience, 3) trustworthiness of the dream, and 4) the function of dreams. Koet then provides a brief synopsis of the ten essays that follow.

Mark R.C. Grundeken and Joseph Verheyden co-author the first contribution, in which they focus their attention of Vision Five in the Shepherd of Hermas. This narrowed focus does not arrive until ten pages into the essay, however, during which the authors provide a catalogue of the Visions, Mandates, and Similitudes of Hermas. Finally narrowing their focus is certainly a good idea, given the sheer number of dreams and visions in this late first/early second century text. The authors review the history of interpretations of Vision Five, after which they present their own analysis. The authors conclude that, unlike other biblical dream narratives, the Shepherd of Hermas does not use Scripture to qualify or legitimize a dream, but rather, the dreams legitimize Hermas.

Kris De Brabander’s essay (“Tertullian’s Theory of Dreams”) looks at Tertullian’s theorizing of dreams in the De anima. As De Brabander points out, Tertullian is the first Christian author to write extensively on dreaming, dedicating five chapters of De Anima to the topic. After summarizing the Carthaginian’s theory about the human soul, De Brabander narrows his focus to Tertullian’s dream theories: how dreams ought to be classified, their origins, and their potential to convey information from God. He concludes his essay by exploring the connection between Tertullian’s conviction that dreams are a reliable source of divine information and his involvement with Montanism.

Vincent Hunink’s contribution examines the dreams in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. Hunink provides a synopsis of the four dream/visions in the Perpetua narrative, and restates the range of conclusions that many other scholars have asserted: that the visions served to embolden Perpetua as she anticipates her death, that the visions inspired the third century reader (Christian or otherwise), that Perpetua stands as a recognizable female heroine vis-à-vis her defeated father, that the visions educated listeners/readers about the Christian afterlife, and that the visions made for “good stories” à la the Greek novel.

Bart Koet (“Jerome’s and Augustine’s Conversion to Scripture though the Portal of Dreams”) compares two literary dream narratives of Augustine and Jerome (smartly eschewing the question of whether the dreams were actually dreamed). Jerome’s dream report comes in Epistle 22 to Eustochium, in which he is famously criticized by a divine judge for being more “Ciceronianus” than “Christianus.” Koet points to Ep. 22 as a subtle turning point in Jerome’s life; the ascetic refers to Classical literature far less often after the letter than before. Despite some scholars’ understanding that Jerome was critical of dream interpretation, we see that this dream, in particular, figured prominently in his call to virginity and struggle to appreciate canonized texts despite their unimpressive grammar and syntax. Koet compares Jerome’s dream to Monica’s dream in Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine is much more amenable to the value of dreams and treats his mother’s dream as the foreshadowing of his conversion. The dream in Book 3 is fulfilled in Book 8, when Augustine confirms to his mother that the transformation is complete, using the same terminology as a divine figure in her dream. Koet’s comparison aptly notes that in both cases, we see educated Christian theologians who had long been fond of Classical literature turn their lives toward “unrefined Scripture” via dreams.

Giselle de Nie (“‘A Smiling Serene Face’: Face-to-Face Encounters in Early Christian Dream Visions”) explores the increasing number of accounts of seeing divine faces in early Christian dreams and visions. Her essay considers divine encounters from Paul to Gregory of Tours. We have a number of examples of Greeks, Romans, and Israelites who witnessed deities, but such glimpses were always accompanied by extreme danger for the mortal. De Nie argues that the danger of witnessing a deity face-to-face is displaced by dreamers seeing the luminous faces of dead saints.

Arnold Smeets’ “The Dazzle of Dawn” examines dreams in Gregory the Great’s Moralia (Book 8) and Dialogues (Book 4). Smeets discusses Gregory’s six theories of dream origins (162), a list which grew in length from the time of Cicero or Philo. Gregory is concerned with discerning dreams which come as revelation from God or as trickery from God’s adversary, Satan. Furthermore, dreams for Gregory (observes Smeets) pertain to larger questions of life after death and the existence and eternity of the human soul.

Vim Verbaal (“Mysteria Somniorum”) looks at dreams in Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Verbaal explores in detail the dual attitude that Bernard has towards dreams; on the one hand, dreams are unreliable, irrational, and not sufficient evidence for doctrinal arguments. On the other hand, Bernard used dreams in several of his teachings at the monastery, to rouse and invigorate novice monks. Dreams and visions had meaning “as far as they [could] be used as a signum, as s signpost on the way to spiritual growth” (201).

Krijn Pansters’ contribution (“Franciscus Somnians”) is concerned with dream phenomena for late Medieval Christianity, specifically in the many vitae of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Pansters outlines five stages of Francis’ conversion process, and argues that dreams were significant catalysts at each stage. Furthermore, dreams were “leading principles in his modelling of the brotherhood into a new religious order” (209). Pansters observes that dreams “are a most effective instrument in the hands of a late Medieval hagiographer” wishing to demonstrate the divine origin of a saint’s actions and motivations (224).

Clare of Assisi once dreamed that she was suckling milk from the breast of Saint Francis, at his behest. Gerard Pieter Freeman (“Clare of Assisi’s Vision of Francis”) examines the various scholarly interpretations of this dream, as well as the details of the dream, preserved in documents towards Clare’s canonization. He argues that the dream is best understood in light of aspects of medieval mysticism: purification, illumination, and union (251).

Harm Goris (“Thomas Aquinas on Dreams”) traces Aquinas’ reuse of Aristotle in his Summa Theologiae. Medieval scholastics first introduced to Greek philosophers and mathematicians in twelfth century translations quickly incorporated ancient Greek ideas into their developing theological ideas, including Aquinas. While Aristotle rejected the possibility that dreams were of divine origin (and, therefore, could not be used to prognosticate), Aquinas borrows much from Aristotle but leaves open the door for the prophetic use of dreams. Goris details how Aquinas invents a distinction between dreams sent from God and dreams sent from demons. If from God, the dreams are legitimately prophetic; if from demons, any attempt at reading them for future information is a sin.

The volume provides close readings of a number of influential visions and dreams in Christian history. Each essay includes an introductory section, bringing the reader to the historical figure or text to be discussed. Given that the volume spans one thousand years, this pattern is helpful indeed for the reader whose knowledge may include several such figures, but not all of them. Yet, more than providing ground-breaking essays on these various Christian texts and authors, the volume’s strength is that it marshals in one space such a range of examples which a reader may want to explore. For example, the essay on Perpetua does not offer anything new, per se, about Perpetua or her diary, but placing the text alongside the Shepherd of Hermas, Tertullian, Jerome, et al, creates a new light in which to view Perpetua (as well as the other examples).

Given that many Christian figures examined in this volume have very similar ideas about dreams that non-Christians had, the reader wonders what is specifically “Christian” about their ideas. What the volume implicitly demonstrates is a shift over time in the suspected origins of dreams. While some ancients such as Aristotle did not agree that dreams originate from a divine source, most Greeks and Romans did believe this to be possible, and thus sought to determine which deity or daimon sent a dream. Christians collapse the world of daimones into the singular “demonic”—the generic apparatus of God’s adversary, Satan. Thus, figures such as Gregory the Great and Thomas Aquinas are careful to discuss the divine/demonic dilemma of dream origins, as there are only two ultimate choices: God (or one among his retinue) or Satan (or one among his retinue). The volume is a welcome addition to scholarship which looks at Christianity and various divinatory practices, even if the historical figures examined would resist their dream interpretation practices being categorized as such.

A distinct oversight in the volume, however, is the number of typos. A review ought not to focus on such issues, but the sheer number of editorial mistakes is surprising. Some mistakes are to be expected, as all the authors are writing in a non-native language. However, some mistakes appear to be negligence; for example, the lifespan of Bernard of Clairvaux is printed as 1190-1153, instead of 1090-1153 (179). Many pages have multiple typos. The editors would be advised to include an errata sheet with the volume.

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