Podcast episode

Episode 54: Frances Flannery on Jewish Dreams in Antiquity

This is a long and rich interview which brings together many themes from the history of western esotericism. It is our first foray specifically into the territory of dreams since Episode 7, and it deals with both the apocalyptic and Hekhalot traditions which have been the subject of the previous few episodes. It also takes a bold look at the problem of interpreting religious experience, with a perfect guide in Professor Flannery, whose work deals with the problem of religious experience head-on, but in a culturally- and historically-situated way.

Amid a great deal of interesting discussion, we cover:

  • The general context of ancient dreaming, in which dreams, rather than being forays into subjective states, are avenues for the acquisition of divine messages,
  • The central importance of dream interpretation in the ancient Jewish dreaming-culture, and
  • The innovative incorporation,  which we find in ancient Jewish dream-texts, of the interpretation into the dream itself,
  • The figure of the angelic dream-guide, which may be a development within Judaism of the Hellenistic model of the oneiros,
  • The extraordinary text 2 Esdras 3-14, the Jewish core of the Christian apocryphon known as 4 Ezra, which has multiple esoteric levels, and which describes a step-by-step spiritual journey involving some righteously altered states of consciousness,
  • The question of the use of chemical enhancements (opiates, in this instance) for the attainment of altered states of consciousness in traditional esoteric sources,
  • The development of new types of esoteric discourse within the nascent Rabbinic movement, centred on the kinds of practices associated with the Hekhalot texts and, more generally, the cultivation of visionary experiences,
  • The relevance of the Hellenic incubation-traditions for interpreting 4 Ezra and a host of related works,
  • The question of interpreting experience, and the importance of using the body as the basis for such interpretation (thus hopefully avoiding the kind of idealised, reified constructions familiar to readers of Eliade and his ilk),
  • The theme of ascent/descent in Hellenistic Jewish dreaming,
  • The related connection between what happens to the soul in ancient Jewish dreaming and what happens to the soul in death,
  • The specific Semitic vocabulary of verbs ‘to see’ used in ancient dream texts,
  • And the gendered nature of ancient Jewish dream-texts, and the few accounts of women’s dreams which come down to us from that era.

Interview Bio:

Professor Frances Flannery is the author of some fifty publications large and small, including two recent books and two edited books. She specializes in apocalypticism in early Judaism and early Christianity, particularly as it relates to dreams, visions, and religious experience. Her work in apocalypticism has taken her into other areas, including analyzing religious terrorism. A former environmental scientist, her current focus is eco-theology that addresses the relationship of earth, human, and non-human animals in the Hebrew Bible. She also laments the influence of apocalyptic thinking on humanity’s treatment of the environment. Currently, she is Interim Academic Unit Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University in Virginia, where she lives with her family (human and non-human) and engages in community peacebuilding, interfaith dialogue, and public education on religion and climate change.

Works Discussed in this Episode:


  • Death, the brother of Sleep: Homer, Iliad 16.671-672; cf. Hesiod, Theogony 756.
  • The ‘Dream of Scipio’: This is an interesting textual story which goes all the way back to Plato and continues right through the middle ages. Cicero, the late-Republican period Roman lawyer and man of letters, wrote a treatment of politics and the ideal state, entitled de re publica, modelled on Plato’s Republic. Cicero’s work is lost except for the Dream, which came in Book 6 of the de re publica, and which tells of a dream which Scipio Æmelianus, the Roman general who razed Carthage to the ground, had, in which his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, appeared to him and took him on a celestial journey owing much to Plato’s Myth of Er, much to Stoic cosmology, and possibly something to Jewish apocalyptic. The ‘tour of the Earth from above’, in particular, is reminiscent of the Book of Watchers in 1 Enoch. The Dream survived because the 5th century Platonist Macrobius wrote an esoteric exegesis of it, full of Late Platonist metaphysics, astrology, and astral journey motifs. The podcast will of course be covering this fascinating work in due course.
  • Ezra: the text known as 4 Ezra 3-14 can be found under the name 2 Esdras in any collection of the apocrypha, or at the Online Critical Pseudepigrapha.
  • Ishtar’s descent to the netherworld: see James Pritchard (Ed.), 1969. Ishtar’s Descent into the Netherworld, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Women dreaming: Miriam in L.A.B. 9:10 (Pseudo-Philo); Rebeca in Jubilees 35:6; Pilate’s wife in Matthew 27:19, plus Josephus: Glaphyra in Jewish Wars 2.114-116 and Antiquities 17.329-353; Stratonicê in Against Apion 1.206-207.


  • Flannery, F.; Schantz, C. & Werline, R. A. (Ed.), 2008. Experientia, Volume 1: Inquiry into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA.
  • Schantz, C. & Werline, R. A. (Ed.), 2012. Experientia, Volume 2: Linking Text and Experience. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA.
  • Oppenheim, L., 1956. The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East: With a Translation of an Assyrian Dream-Book. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
  • Roddy, N., 2001. The Romanian Version of the Testament of Abraham: Text, Translation, and Cultural Context. Society, Atlanta, GA.
  • Stone, M. E., 1990. Fourth Ezra: A Commentary on the Book of Fourth Ezra. Fortress, Minneapolis.

Recommended Reading:

  • Flannery, F. (2014). ‘Dreams, Visions, and Religious Experience in the Apocalypses and Apocalypticism’. In: Collins, J. J. (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature, Oxford University Press.
  • Flannery-Dailey, F., 2004. Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests: Jewish Dreams in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras. Brill, Leiden.
  • Flannery-Dailey, F. (2006). ‘Lesson on Early Jewish Apocalypticism and Mysticism from Dream Literature’. In: DeConick, A. D. (Ed.), Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism, Society of Biblical Literature.
  • Hanson, J. (1980). ‘Dreams and Visions in the Greco-Roman World and Early Christianity’, ANRW 23.2 : 1395-437.
  • LiDonnici, L. R., 1995. The Epidauran Miracle Inscriptions. Scholars Press, Atlanta, GA.



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