At the very outset it would be well to recognize that John Marco Allegro is not a scholar who can even remotely be compared to Galileo. And yet he posed a greater threat: where Galileo was persecuted for defying the authority of the Church, the case of Allegro was different: he questioned the very foundation of Christianity and Church doctrine. When in a particularly impetuous mood, he wrote one of the Catholic scholars on the International Team who had expressed the wish to become a priest - 'by the time I've finished, there won't be any Church left for you to join.' (Baigent and Leigh, p. 46)
With such an attitude, it was not long before it became clear to Father Roland de Vaux and other members of the Intemational Team that John Allegro would have to be silenced before he could become a major problem. In this they succeeded, but not before he created a storm in Biblical circles. It is not as if Allegro set out to create problems for the Church; as an agnostic he seems never to have understood that scholarship is not everything, especially as far as the Church is concerned. And he paid the price for this ignorance in terms of his own career and reputation. A brilliant Biblical scholar and a pioneering student of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Allegro was made to look like some sort of a nut. It is only now, with the release of the Scrolls, that his views are being vindicated. Truth has finally triumphed.
He was not of course the first Biblical scholar to question the basic beliefs of
77 I have based my account on Dead Sea Scrolls Deception by Baigent and Leigh. The authors have had access to the private papers and letters of John Allegro.
Christianity - its originality and even the historicity of Jesus on the basis of the Scrolls. As I noted in a previous chapter, that honour in modern times belongs probably to the Frenchman Andre Dupont-Sommer. In one Qumran text he had found references to a Teacher of Righteousness who was a Messiah and the leader of a sect calling itself the Sect of the New Covenant. According to the same text, he was persecuted, scourged and murdered. This Teacher of Righteousness, according to Dupont-Sommer, was the model used in creating Jesus the Messiah (Christ) of the Gospels.78
This claim was first made in 1950. John Marco Allegro came on the scene shortly thereafter. A talented linguist in addition to being one of the leading young Biblical scholars of his day, he joined the International Team under Father Roland de Vaux in 1953. Allegro's Catholic sounding name probably lulled de Vaux into admitting this iconoclastic Englishman into the Team. Also, there was nothing at that time to suggest that he was to become a thorn in the side of the International Team and even the Church itself. Allegro was known simply as a linguist and Biblical scholar of exceptional promise. He was given some important fragments from the Qumran Cave 3 to study and analyse.
Allegro's work on the Scrolls was extraordinarily productive, especially when matched against the output of his Ecole Biblique colleagues which appears slight by comparison. Men like Father de Vaux with his long full beard and flowing white robes concentrated on cultivating the appearance and manner of a Biblical prophet, but contributed little of substance to scholarship. He excelled mainly at public relations, where his impressive bearing and ponderous mode of expression passed for wisdom and profundity. When one examines the real contributions of the members of the International Team of the Ecole Biblique, one is struck by the fact of how relatively insignificant it is. But what they lacked in scholarship, they made up through association - with an institution that resounded with the name Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique Francaise de Jerusalem. Then there was also the prestige associated with having a monopoly over the Scrolls. All this gave the International Team and the Ecole Biblique an aura that is not justified by its scholarly performance.
Much of their 'expertise' was sheer presumption, with no one in a position to challenge them because of lack of access to the source material over which they held a complete monopoly. Baigent and Leigh saw through this when they wrote: "The more we consulted the 'experts', the more apparent it became that they knew, effectively, little more than anyone else." (p. xvii; original emphasis.)
It was not just journalists and writers like Baigent and Leigh who complained about the delay; even distinguished academic scholars like Geza Vermes and Eisenman and Wise found it to be unpardonable. Their observations are worth another look. Vermes wrote in 1985:79
Eight years ago I defined this situation as a 'lamentable state of affairs' and warned that it was 'likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the twentieth century' unless drastic measures were taken at once. Regrettably, this has not happened and the present chief editor of the fragments [of the Scrolls] has in the meantime gone on record as one who rejects as unjust and unreasonable any criticism regarding the delay.
More recently, Robert Eisenman, who has waged a tireless battle for the
78 As I also noted in Chapter III, a similar account is found in the Book of Enoch which was part of the Bible until the 3rd century after which it was removed from it and all copies destroyed. The account in the Book of Enoch dates to a period at least a century before the date assigned to the birth of Jesus.
79 Times literary Supplement, May 3. 1985. See also Baigent and Leigh, p. 64.
publication of the Scrolls described the situation as follows:80
The struggle for access to the materials was long and arduous, sometimes even bitter. An International Team of editors had been set up by the Jordanian Government to control the process. The problems with this team are public knowledge. To put them in a nutshell: in the first place, the team was hardly international, secondly it did not work well as a team, and thirdly it dragged out the editing process interminably. (p.2)
It was from the ranks of the French School - the Ecole as it is called, an extension of the Dominican Order in Jerusalem - that all previous editors were drawn, including the two most recent, Father Benoit, the head of the Ecole before he died, and John Strugnell. The International Team had been put in place by Roland de Vaux, another Dominical father. In several seasons from 1954-56 De Vaux did all the archaeology of Qumran. A sociologist by training, not an archaeologist, de Vaux had also been head of the Ecole. (pp.2-3)
It was not only incompetence that caused the delay; as we saw in previous chapters, Catholic scholars of the Ecole Biblique had very strong doctrinal reasons for preventing any public exposure of their findings. Allegro was not party to this delay and deception: he was both highly capable and also not bothered by doctrinal considerations. He saw himself as a scholar involved in an enormously exciting and important research program. And unlike his plodding colleagues, his productivity was impressive - both in quality and quantity. He soon had several significant publicalions to his credit.
In contrast to the turgid style cultivated by Biblical scholars and theologians, Allegro wrote in an easy to read, lively style. His popular book The Dead Sea Scrolls, first published in 1956, was an instant success that ran into several editions. In 1968 appeared his monumental contribution: Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, Vol 5, the fifth in the prestigious series published by Oxford University Press. At that time, he was recognized as one of the world's foremost Biblical scholars, and probably the leading authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He had an unmatched command of the primary sources and was a formidable linguist to boot.
And yet, by 1970, aged only forty-seven, Allegro was finished - discredited by de Vaux and his colleagues, kicked out of the International Team, and, worst of all, dismissed both by the popular press and in academia as a crank and a publicity hound. What had happened?
The crisis that came to head in 1970 had been brewing for a long time. His love for the subject, and his enthusiasm in making his exciting discoveries known to the public went against the interests of the institution he was working for. Where he wanted the world to know what the birth of Christianity was really like, de Vaux and his superiors at the Vatican were concerned entirely with the damage which the revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls could do to their doctrinal position and the viability of their Church. Allegro, as a scholar and an agnostic failed to see how sensitive his colleagues were to anything that appeared to threaten the foundations of their Church. His own upbringing and education as a liberal Englishman had
80 As described in Chapter VIII, Eisenman finally succeeded in acquiring photocopies of all the Scrolls. A two volume facsimile edition edited by Eisenman and Robertson is available from the Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington, DC.
probably not equipped him to deal with sombre and self-important men like Father de Vaux, Father Skehan, John Strugnell and others in the same mould; these were either ordained priests or were planning careers in the Church. It was not just doctrine that was at stake, but their careers as well.
Most of all, Allegro did not know that the institution he was working for - the Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem - was secretly controlled by the Pontifical Biblical Commission; the Commission happens to be part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - known in former times as The Holy Inquisition, as we already saw. So a modern-day Grand Inquisitor was secretly watching over the activities of John Marco Allegro!81
His own free and informal style in dealing with his colleagues - at times bordering on the flippant - also did not help matters. He once wrote John Strugnell that his 'recent study of my fragments [of the Scrolls] has convinced me that Dupont-Sommer is more right than he knew'. (Baigent and Leigh, p. 46) Allegro either did not know or didn't care that the Church regarded Dupont-Sommer as the very incarnation of the Devil.
Allegro's impetuosity seemed to know no bounds. At one time Strugnell was considering a career in the Church, as a theologian. Learning of this Allegro wrote to him:
I shouldn't worry about that theological job, if I were you: by the time I've finished there won't be any church left for you to join. (ibid.)
Under normal circumstances one would dismiss it as a joke. But the Church is not known for its sense of humour. In this case, knowing how damaging the Scrolls are to the foundations of the Church, and how close Allegro was to the truth, it had even less reason to be amused.
Blissfully ignorant of all the turmoil he was causing, Allegro went on with his campaign to popularise his findings. He gave a series of three radio talks one of which was picked up by The New York Times as I indicated in an earlier chapter. The American magazine Time also ran an article under the title: 'Crucifixion before Christ'. All this was getting back to de Vaux, who was under pressure from the Vatican to do something about silencing Allegro. This of course was not as easy as in the time of Galileo when people were simply hauled up before the Inquisition and accused of heresy. The Church had to wait for a mis-step by Allegro and use modern methods of silencing him.
Father de Vaux and his colleagues may have lacked Allegro's brilliance and scholarship, but they had behind them the immense prestige that goes with being the custodians of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Church's formidable propaganda machine. The name Ecole Biblique and the authority of its director was sufficient to command the respectful attention of the media. Eisenman and Wise put it this way:
...control of the unpublished manuscripts meant control of the field. How did this work? By controlling the unpublished manuscripts - the pace of their publication, who was given a document to edit and who
81 This fact - that the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith secretly control the Ecole Biblique, and therefore Dead Sea Scrolls research, is not widely known. Baigent and Leigh have, through their persistent investigation, managed to establish the link. There is another pointer: the Holy Inquisition was a monopoly of the Dominican order, as is its modern successor - the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem is of course a Dominican institution. Father Roland de Vaux was himself a Dominican monk. So too, incidentally, was Tomas de Torquemada, the terror of the Spanish Inquisition.
was not - the International Team could, for one thing, create instant scholarly 'superstars'. For another, it controlled the interpretations of the texts... Without competing analyses, these interpretations grew almost inevitably into a kind of 'official' scholarship. (Eisenman and Wise, p. 5)
In effect, these interpretations soon acquired the force of revelations of favored scholars - or revelations of revealed texts! And now, with its doctrinal position at stake, the Church did not hesitate to use this monopolistic authority. The March 16, 1956 issue of The Times of London carried a letter signed by Father de Vaux and several other senior members of the International Team making the following charges against Allegro:
There are no unpublished texts at the disposal of Mr Allegro other than those of which the originals are at present... where we are working. Upon appearance in the press of citations from Mr Allegro's broadcasts we are unable to see in the texts the 'findings' of Mr Allegro.
We find no crucifixion of the 'teacher', no deposition from the cross, and no 'broken body of their Master' to be stood guard for until Judgement Day. Therefore there is no 'well-defined Essenic pattern into which Jesus of Nazareth fits' as Mr Allegro is alleged in one report to have said. It is our conviction that either he has misread the texts or he has built up a chain of conjectures which the materials do not support.
This is a remarkable exercise. Leaving aside the impropriety of accusing one of their own professional colleagues in a newspaper, de Vaux and his colleagues were guilty of deliberate misrepresentation: as Allegro himself pointed out in a reply, he had never used the word Essenic; the word he had used was 'messianic' which changes the whole meaning, and at the same time challenges the uniqueness of Jesus as Christ. This was what de Vaux and his colleagues were desperately trying to deflect by falsely introducing Essenic. It was a diversionary tactic that at the same lime sought to discredit Allegro. (It is also worth noting that Eisenman and Wise have found what they believe are references to crucifixion in documents that had been held back. This is discussed briefly in a later chapter. The release of the manuscripts has tended to vindicate Allegro's position.)
Doubt and confusion had been planted in reader's minds, and Allegro's credibility seriously impugned by the allegations. Most readers were not in a position to see the subtle game that was being played. Then the mighty Church propaganda machine took over. Articles began to appear in Catholic-controlled magazines and newspapers attacking not only Allegro, but also Edmund Wilson and Dupont-Sommer. One of the authors went so far as to claim that the Scrolls add next to nothing to our knowledge of the origins of Christianity or even Judaism! The amazing thing is that the author of this article was not a Biblical scholar, had no competence to study the Scrolls, let alone express opinions about their contents. These were the modern-day incarnations of 'princes of ignorance' that had presumed to judge Galileo.
But strangely, Allegro, though in hot water with his colleagues and superiors continued his work as a member of the International Team. The Ecole Biblique was nominally an international institution located in Jordan until the 1966 Six Day War, after which it came under Israeli jurisdiction; Father de Vaux probably had no authority to fire him. Also, King Hussein, in whose territory the Ecole Biblique was then situated, had appointed Allegro to the prestigious position of advisor to the
Jordanian Government on archaeology and tourism. So the position of the officials of the Ecole Biblique was extremely delicate. De Vaux might also have thought it unwise to antagonise the British, for there were already complaints that the International Team was full of Catholics though the agreement under which the Ecole Biblique had been granted custody of the Scrolls had specified that all denominations had to be represented. All told, Allegro was too well known a scholar to be dismissed lightly - a fact that an acutely public relations conscious man like de Vaux surely recognized.
Allegro soon ran into more problems concerning a newly-discovered text known as the Copper Scroll. It is unnecessary to go into all the details; it suffices for our purposes that Allegro soon discovered that his readings of the Copper Scroll were to be held back from publication for the familiar reason: they cast serious doubts on the Church's version of the origins of Christianity. He also found that his colleagues, without informing him, had released a press statement about the Copper Scroll that was contrary to his own findings; none of them had studied it, but they put out a version that was in conformity with the Church's position. It was clearly aimed at pre-empting any damaging revelations that might come out of Allegro's study of the Copper Scroll. He was stunned by this brazen-faced duplicity.
This was soon followed by veiled threats transmitted through intermediaries to stop him from publishing his own findings. Allegro himself wrote in September 1959 to an unnamed colleague:82
As conveyed to me, the request [not to publish findings] was accompanied by the expression of some strange sentiments originating, it was said, from yourself and those for whom you were acting. There appeared even to be some forecast of consequences were I not to accede to this request.
The recipient of the letter wrote back telling Allegro not to think he was being persecuted! What strikes one as extraordinary in all this is that the only thing that seemed to be of any concern to the Ecole Biblique was the potential impact of the findings on Church doctrine; scholarship was not even secondary, only an evil to be suppressed. By no stretch of the imagination can an institution like the Ecole Biblique be called a scholarly one. Neither can its members be called scholars when they went to such lengths to hide and suppress knowledge.
Allegro found all this politicking not at all to his taste. He began to distance himself from the Ecole Biblique to concentrate more on his writing. His book The Dead Sea Scrolls had been a huge success, running into something like twenty printings. In 1970 he published his most famous book - Sacred Mushroom and the Cross - which was again a best-seller, but also gave his enemies an opportunity to destroy his credibility. They accepted it with glee.
The book itself is a tour de force demonstrating his remarkable mastery of two distinct fields - linguistics and Biblical scholarship. In this book Allegro argued that Jesus never existed historically, but was only a psychedelic image that appeared under the influence of a hallucinatory drug known as psilocybin that is found in some mushrooms that grow in the region of the Holy Land. According to his theory, Christianity grew out of a shared psychedelic experience of a group that created a fictional figure called Jesus.
82 Baigent and Leigh, p. 55. The authors do not disclose the identity of the person citing a pending court case as their reason. They acknowledge the help of Mrs Joan Allegro for allowing them access to her late husband's papers.
The theory is not as bizarre as this brief description might suggest, though I do not find it easy to accept. The book is meticulously researched and his thesis closely argued, but unlike his books on the Dead Sea Scrolls, far from convincing. The basic problem that I have with his thesis is that it can neither be proved nor disproved on the strength of available evidence. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper observed, any theory must be falsifiable. But Allegro's theory of drug-induced hallucinations leading to the emergence of Christianity among men who lived two thousand years ago defies this test. This is not something that one trained in the sciences finds easy to accept.
As might be expected, the book raised a storm. The real concern was his conclusion about the Historical Jesus - that he may have never existed: this position of course can be defended. But his enemies concentrated on the other part of his theory. They were now handed a weapon whereby he could be attacked and discredited for the part of his thesis having to do with mushrooms containing psychedelic drugs. A reviewer scoffed that Allegro had traced 'the source of Christianity to an edible fungus'. He later went on to analyse Allegro's mental state, hinting that there must be something wrong in it to lead him to such a theory. Neither the reviewer nor anybody else for that matter dared to challenge him on his really substantive conclusion - that there was no evidence for the historicity of Jesus; their main goal in fact was to divert attention away from it. It was a remarkable example of character assassination used as a diversionary tactic.
What strikes one as extraordinary in all this is the route taken by his detractors: instead of looking at Allegro's evidence and logic, they attacked him personally. It is nothing unusual for a researcher to propose an unconventional theory; without such theories there can be no progress. As I can recall, some twenty years ago, the distinguished French mathematician Rene Thorn wrote a controversial book called Structural Stability and MorphogenesisIn this he advanced a new theory, which he called 'catastrophe theory', for mathematical modeling of non-physical phenomena including wars, political revolutions, economic chaos and others. It was a brilliant and daring piece of work that at the same time failed to find acceptance among his colleagues. And yet no one made personal attacks on Thorn or cast doubts on his sanity. Then there is always the possibility that an idea may be ahead of its time.83
Apparently, this rule does not hold true for 'scholars' belonging to the Church. Allegro was subjected to relentless attack and ridicule. But a year before his untimely death in 1988, Allegro had the last word. He said in 1987 that the scholars of the International Team had for years "been sitting on the material which is not only of outstanding importance, but also quite the most religiously sensitive. ...There is no doubt... that the evidence from the Scrolls undermines the uniqueness of the Christians as a sect." (Baigent and Leigh, p. 63) This charge has also been vindicated following the release of the Scrolls transcripts. Whatever the merits of his theory about psychedelic origins of Christianity, his insights into the message of the Scrolls have proven prophetic.
Setting aside all the squalid intrigues, here is what the Allegro episode boils down to: one of the foremost Biblical scholars of his time, and probably the leading authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls who had also studied the texts in the original, declared that the evidence of the Scrolls undermines the uniqueness of both Christianity and Jesus Christ. In a letter to Father de Vaux written on September 16. 1956, Allegro told him:
83 This seems to have been the fate of Thorn's catastrophe theory also. Although the theory itself was largely rejected, it prepared the ground for the evolution of complex systems theory, one of the major new areas of mathematical research today. Professor Thorn is a winner of the Field Prize, the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize. It was awarded for his fundamental contributions to topology.
You go on to talk blithely about what the first Jewish-Christians thought in Jerusalem, and no one would guess that your only real evidence - if you can call it such - is the New Testament, that body of much worked-over traditions whose 'evidence' would not stand for two minutes in a court of law...
As for... Jesus as a 'son of God' and 'Messiah' - I don't dispute it for a moment; we now know from Qumran that their own Davidic Messiah was reckoned a 'son of God'... (Baigent and Leigh. p. 56. emphasis added.)
So, what Allegro saw in the Dead Sea Scrolls was the following: the Qumranians had their own Davidic Messiah who was called son of God! And the text from which he was citing had not been made public until they were released by Eisenman in 1991. (It could be one of the fifty texts published by Eisenman and Wise in their Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered in which the notion of Messiah, as the Son of God, appears often. It appears also in the latest revision of Geza Vermes' Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective.) The fact that Allegro found it necessary to reject the historicity of Jesus is compelling evidence that he found nothing to support Jesus of the Gospels - that 'evidence' that 'would not stand for two minutes in a court of law' in his own words. This is a serious blow to the originality of Christianity and the uniqueness of Jesus. And every new piece of evidence coming out of the Scrolls since they became public is adding to the views of Allegro.
Here then is a final point to ponder: if Allegro were really talking nonsense, de Vaux and his colleagues could have presented their evidence and refuted him. The very fact that they continued to hide their texts, choosing character assassination over refutation shows that they did not have truth on their side. No matter what one may think of his thesis about psychedelic experiences, his conclusions relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls are being vindicated by new findings, while his detractors are daily appearing in less and less favorable light.
Is it any wonder then that de Vaux set out to hound and destroy John Allegro?
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