Notes on John Marco Allegro: The Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls
by Judith Anne Brown, pb. Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 2005 (ISBN 0-8028-2849-3)
John Marco Allegro was the first British member of the Dead Sea Scrolls editing team. He was also a freethinker with a genius for asking awkward questions. The questions he asked about the origin of religions, including Christianity, challenged orthodox views and provoked fury among colleagues and churchmen. But the issues he raised about freedom of thought,
freedom of speech and the nature of moral authority are as relevant now as they were in the 1960s and 70s.
Some two thousand years ago, amid the turmoil of Roman occupation and sectarian rivalry, members of a religious community hid their cherished writings in caves at Qumran among the limestone cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea. Some of these scrolls contained Old Testament texts and commentaries; others included the rules and hymns of the Qumran community.
Rediscovered by chance in the mid-twentieth century, pieced together and deciphered letter by letter, they offer a glimpse of religious life and practice in Palestine around the time of Jesus.
John Allegro was part of the first international team that worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950s. He arranged for the Copper Scroll to be opened in Manchester, and through his books, lectures and broadcasts, and his archaeological expeditions to Jordan, he did much to bring the Scrolls to public attention. But the issues he raised about their significance soon set
him apart from his colleagues, and the rift between them widened in a way that called into question the whole approach to the study and publication of the Scrolls. Allegro believed the Dead Sea Scrolls held a key to understanding the development of Christianity. Therefore they mattered to everybody and their content should be laid open as soon as possible to academic scrutiny and public
debate. Most of the other editors, for one reason or another, held back their scroll texts for so long that Allegro came to see the campaign to get them published as a mission for freedom of speech and opinion.
Why the dissension?
The sectarian scrolls revealed some similarities between the community’s beliefs and practices and those of the first Christians. Most scholars were at pains to stress the differences: Jesus Son of God figures nowhere in the Scrolls. But to John Allegro the correspondences in practice and terminology were indisputable, and suggested that parts of the gospel story
could have been based on the traditions of Qumran.
Identifying the Dead Sea sect as Essenes, he asked what had become of them after the first Christians established themselves as a group. Did the one sect influence the other? How did either survive persecution? Did Essenism go underground, to re-emerge later among the Gnostics? Did it mutate into Christianity, or was it completely quashed? How far did the cult of Jesus
originate from one historical figure; how far was the story shaped by what had gone before? Churchmen, including Allegro’s colleagues, seemed to think such suggestions threatened the central tenets of their faith, and hence their authority. In their eyes his questions seemed impetuous and irresponsible; he would have thought it irresponsible not to ask them. He believed people had the
right to know where their faith came from. He suggested in a radio broadcast that the Scrolls foreshadowed some aspects of the Christian narrative – and he was virtually outlawed from the team.
Allegro’s quest to understand where the gospel story came from took him deeper into the origins of religion itself. For clues he started with names, titles and phrases in the New Testament and the Scrolls, for many of these seemed to carry puzzling or fanciful interpretations. They led him into the web of myth, history and tradition that we find in the Bible. He took
a philological approach, tracing word derivations that reached beyond Judaism, beyond Greek mythology, to the earliest fertility cults that governed people’s lives and their relationship with the seasons of the earth. The account of this study, published in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross in 1970, outraged most of the academic establishment and the whole of the Church. The evidence
seemed too speculative, and remained unread and untested.
Allegro’s career foundered in a storm of ridicule and condemnation. Yet he held to the conviction that to understand the sources of religion we must look back into our ancestors’ world and see it through their eyes, and that we can trace our way back there through word roots. He also held that to understand where our faith came from would enable us to discard the
irrational and to take a clear-sighted approach to issues of morality and responsibility.
Allegro returned to philology in his last years, and it was an exciting quest. He was looking into the very beginnings of recorded thought and language. But he had hardly begun to substantiate his insights when he died.
This book looks at the life and ideas of an extraordinary scholar. Always independent, usually controversial, he was an original thinker who was never afraid to speak his mind.