John Marco Allegro: The Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls

By Hawkins, Ralph K. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2006 | Go to article overview

John Marco Allegro: The Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls


Hawkins, Ralph K., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


John Marco Allegro: The Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls. By Judith Anne Brown. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, xvi + 288 pp., $25.00.

This book, a biography of John Marco Allegro written by his daughter, is the eighth volume in the Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature series. The first nine chapters give an overview of Allegro's early life, and the final seven chapters are essentially a summation of Allegro's published works.

Allegro's magnum opus, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970), was the culmination of twenty years of study. In this work, Allegro argued that fertility was the common denominator of all primitive religion and that ancient people sought to understand the nature of the divine through various means, most especially through hallucinatory drugs such as those they found in certain fungi (pp. 18586). In The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross Allegro sought to "trace the expression of this simple philosophy through the sacred literature of the ancient world" (p. 186), a task he pursued "primarily through analyzing words" (p. 187). Allegro traced these ideas through Sumerian into Semitic or Indo-European languages, and into the OT and NT, which he believed could now be explained by this grand, unifying theory of religion that revealed the NT to be "a cover story for instruction in drug lore" (p. xiii). Allegro believed that "his theory established that the church was irrelevant to modern civilization" (p. 201). While Allegro had apparently imagined this book would be the tool with which he hoped "to launch his name upon history as a world thinker," it instead "ruined his career" (p. 185). "The reaction was almost universal outrage" (p. 203). The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross was written off as "a sensationalist lunatic theory" (p. 213), and Allegro's use of philology was substantively criticized (p. 208).

Allegro articulated his ideas about Jesus and early Christianity most fully in his later work, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth (Newton Abbot: Westbridge, 1979), in which he argued that Gnostic Christianity arose from the Essene movement and that the historical Jesus never existed but was, instead, an adaptation of the Teacher of Righteousness of Qumran (pp. 230-55). The book was basically ignored by the scholarly community, and out of frustration Allegro entered a Ph.D. program in English at Manchester University. However, this course of study turned out to be "too peaceful" for Allegro, who dropped out "to plan lectures, write articles, and earn his living" (p. 258), all in "feverish bursts" (p. 258). Additional books followed on a variety of subjects, as well as Allegro's spearheading of the campaign for the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls (pp. 264-70). In the mid-1980s, Allegro returned to philology, seeking to take the ideas of The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross further, a task that engrossed him until his death in 1988.

A biography of John Marco Allegro makes an unusual addition to Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature, a series designed "to make the latest best Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship accessible to scholars, students, and the thinking public. The volumes that are projected ... will seek to clarify how the Scrolls revise and help shape our understanding of the formation of the Bible and the historical development of Judaism and Christianity" (series summary by the editors in the front matter of the volume). The editors, however, "harbor strong reservations on any number of John Allegro's views" (p. …

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