John took up his post at Manchester University in September 1954. He immediately began writing The Dead Sea Scrolls, the book that made his name. He stated the reasons for writing the book in his first proposal to Penguin:
We have the remains of a very considerable library from the Essene settlement, of interest not only to specialist historians but to the intelligent public in general, for it is becoming clear that a study of the sectarian literature is going to play a large part in the understanding of Christian origins (John Allegro to Penquin Books, Sept. 21, 1954.)
The Dead Sea Scrolls tells the story of the discovery of the scrolls: where they came from, what they contain, how they are studied, what they have to tell us about first-century Judea, and how they bear on the origins of Christianity. Founded on John’s experience of studying the scrolls in Jordan, it was written very much for the general reader. It represents a fair summary of what the scholars so far knew about the scrolls and points to some of the most significant issues they raised.
The main sections cover the discovery and exploration, the daily life of the sect, their study and thought, the historical framework, and the role of the Teacher of Righteousness. The book goes on to explain the significance of the scrolls for Old Testament studies – that they prove the ancient Hebrew lineage of extant versions of the Old Testament but draw on a source still more ancient. It also brings together what scholars had so far gathered from their translations about the life and thought of the Essenes and their relevance to the beginnings of Christianity.
The opening chapters recast the spell of the scrolls. They describe how, out of the heat and the choking dust of the Dead Sea basin, were sifted the precious scraps of leather, many torn or nibbled or crumbled, holding messages from two thousand years past, maybe a hundred generations, recalling many more generations beyond that. The scrolls spoke of laws, traditions, and memories that reached towards the time of people’s first writings. For John, the spell lay in the fragility of the past, the sense of consequences held in one’s fingers: to handle material hidden by someone to whom its preservation mattered very much indeed – who had wanted to keep it secret and sacred when others threatened to destroy; who had even torn some of it to bits to hide its secrets. To handle what these frightened men had handled, to return to light their rules and messages, to hear their voices. And these voices could help people understand where their own religion came from.
The Dead Sea Scrolls © 1956, was also printed in second editions as:
The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reappraisal © 1964
The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls Revealed © 1981