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The Dreams of Matthew 1:18-2:23

Tradition, Form, and Theological Investigation


William J. Subash

The Dreams of Matthew 1:18-2:23: Tradition, Form, and Theological Investigation critically examines the five dream passages of Matthew 1:18-2:23 to demonstrate that Matthew employed dream narratives to defend allegations concerning Jesus’ birth and to provide etiological reasons both for why Jesus went to Egypt and how Jesus happened to live in Nazareth. A diachronic survey of dream records in the Ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, Jewish, Greco-Roman, and Second Temple writings reveals that dream narratives fall into two major categories: message dreams and symbolic dreams. Every dream carries a distinct narrative function according to the objectives of the user. Typically, symbolic dreams appear in epic-like literature, and message dreams appear in narratives such as historical and religious writings.
The present analysis of the five dream accounts of Matthew 1:18-2:23 reveals that they fall into the message dream category. Each dream has at least one narrative function. In other words, Matthew does not merely record the dream experiences of the individuals but uses dreams to achieve his narrative objective.


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Chapter Two: Dreams in the Ancient Near East 19


Chapter Two DREAMS IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST This chapter investigates the function of dreams in ancient Near Eastern literature. The purpose of this investigation is to demonstrate that dreams are used as literary devices in order to evoke responses that favor parties with political, economic, or religious interests. This study will ultimately suggest interpretive clues to understand the function of the dream passages of Matt 1–2. The investigation is done through literary and narrative analysis of sample dream records, from Sumerian texts to the Egyptian writings.1 The narrative function of each dream is determined by asking three questions: (1) What is the rhetorical effect of the dream for the context? (2) What is the narrative purpose in retelling one’s dream—typically by a third person? and (3) What would have been the context that prompted presenting certain messages purporting to have originated from the deity?2 Every dream 1 Literary analysis, based on form and structure of a narrative, categorizes whether a dream account is a message or a symbolic dream. Scholars like Oppenheim, Gnuse, and Szpakowska have made extensive analysis on the form of dream accounts. See Robert K. Gnuse, The Dream Theophany of Samuel: Its Structure in Relation to Ancient Near Eastern Dreams and Its Theological Significance (New York: University Press of America, 1984), 11– 30; A. Leo Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East: With a Translation of an Assyrian Dream-Book, TAPS, vol. 46, part 3 (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1956)...

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