He is known for his own fiction - for I Thought of Daisy and, particularly, Memoirs of Hecate County. He is known as the author of Axel's Castle, an original and pioneering study of the influence of French symbolism on 20th-century literature. He is known for To the Finland Station, an account of Lenin's machinations and the Bolshevik hijacking of the Russian Revolution.
And he is known for the grotesque, highly
literary feud he precipitated with his former friend, Vladimir Nabokov, by presuming to challenge Nabokov's translation of
Pushkin's Evgeny Onegin.
years later, in 1969, this text was expanded again, to encompass new
material, and was reissued at virtually twice its former length. To
this day, it remains one of the basic and most popular investigative
works on the Qumran scrolls by an outsider. But even if Wilson was
an outsider in the realm of biblical scholarship, he was certainly
no mere amateur or dabbler; not even de Vaux's international team
could impugn his integrity or 'high seriousness'. Wilson was thus
able, on behalf of the literate public, to call them in some sense
The 'experts', it seemed to him, were protesting rather too vehemently, and this aroused his suspicions:
Wilson stressed how much the scrolls had in common with both rabbinical Judaism, as it was emerging during the 1st century ad, and with the earliest forms of Christianity; and he noted a marked 'inhibition', on the part of both Judaic and Christian-oriented scholars, to make the often obvious connections:
In accordance with scholarly decorum, Wilson is, of course, being tactful, couching a fairly serious charge in the most diplomatic of language.
He himself had no compunction about taking hold of the subject and placing it in historical perspective:
It is, alas, characteristic and typical of biblical scholarship, and
particularly of scholarship associated with the scrolls, that such a
connection should be made not by the 'experts' in the field, but by
an astute and informed observer. For it was Wilson who gave precise
and succinct expression to the very issues the international team
endeavored so diligently to avoid.
He knew a number, he said, whose research sometimes conflicted painfully with their most passionately held personal beliefs, and questioned whether objectivity, in such cases, was really possible. Professor Davies stressed the perennial confusion of theology with history. All too often, he said, the New Testament is taught not just as the former, but also as the latter - as a literal and accurate account of 1st-century events.
And if one takes
the New Testament - the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles - as
incontrovertible historical fact, it is impossible to do scholarly
justice to the scrolls. Christian doctrine, in effect, 'dictates the
It was thus that many scholars were intimidated against saying what they actually believed. Academic reputations are fragile things, and only the most audacious or secure individuals could afford to incur the risk involved - the risk of being discredited, of being isolated by a concerted critical barrage from adherents of the consensus.
Not even such cabals, however, can be omnipotent in suppressing dissent. Edmund Wilson may have been an outsider, but deviation from the international team's consensus was beginning to surface within the cocooned sphere of biblical scholarship itself. As early as 1950, five years before Wilson's book, Andre Dupont-Sommer, Professor of Semitic Language and Civilization at the Sorbonne, had presented a public paper which caused a sensation.7
himself to one of the Qumran texts recently translated. It
described, he explained to his audience, a self-styled 'Sect of the
New Covenant', whose leader, known as the 'Teacher of
Righteousness', was held to be a Messiah, was persecuted, tortured
and martyred. The ‘Teacher's' followers believed the end of the
world to be imminent, and only those with faith in him would be
saved. And albeit cautiously, Dupont-Sommer did not shrink from
drawing the obvious conclusion - that the 'Teacher of Righteousness'
was in many ways ‘the exact prototype of Jesus'.8
From the standpoint of Christian theological tradition, that fruit was to be particularly poisonous when it burgeoned amidst the international team themselves, in the very precincts of the Rockefeller Museum's 'Scrollery'.
1 Solomon Schecter surrounded by boxes of the manuscripts
Among the scholars of Father de Vaux's original international team, perhaps the most dynamic, original and audacious was John Marco Allegro. Certainly he was the most spontaneous, the most independent-minded, the most resistant to suppression of material.
Born in 1923, he saw service in the Royal Navy during the war and in 1947 - the year the first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered - entered Manchester University as an undergraduate studying Logic, Greek and Hebrew. A year later, he transferred to the honors course in Semitic Studies. He also developed an interest in philology, the study of the origins of language, its underlying structure and development.
Bringing his philological expertise to bear on biblical texts, he quickly became convinced that scripture could not be taken at face value and proclaimed himself an agnostic. In June 1951, he graduated with a BA, first-class honors, in Oriental Studies, and the following year received his MA for his thesis, 'A Linguistic Study of the Balaam Oracles in the Book of Numbers'.
In October of
that year, he enrolled in the doctoral program at Oxford under the
supervision of the distinguished Semitic scholar, Professor Godfrey
R. Driver. A year later, Driver recommended him for the
international team then being assembled by de Vaux, and Allegro was
assigned the crucial material found in Cave 4 at Qumran. He departed
for Jerusalem in September 1953. By that time, he had already
published four acclaimed articles in academic journals - a track
record more impressive than anyone else on the team could claim.
Unconstrained by any personal religious bias, he
explained things, often impetuously, as he saw them; and he rapidly
lost patience with his colleagues' refusal to countenance any
theories, or even evidence, that might contradict the accepted
'party line' on Christian origins. In particular, he grew
exasperated with the strained attempts to distance Christianity from
the scrolls and the Qumran community. He insisted on the obvious
connection between the two, and suggested that connection might be
closer than anyone had hitherto believed - or, at any rate, dared to
It was clear that he intended to accelerate the tempo of scroll research by injecting an element of excitement and controversy. 'I think we can look for fireworks', he wrote imprudently to John Strugnell, who was then in Jerusalem.9 That statement, as Allegro failed to appreciate, was bound to set alarm bells ringing in the Catholic-dominated 'Scrollery'. Oblivious of this, he went on to say that 'recent study of my fragments has convinced me that Dupont-Sommer is more right than he knew'.10
At the time, apparently, Strugnell was considering a career in the Church. Allegro quipped,
Allegro's first and second broadcasts attracted little attention in Britain, but the second was written up by the New York Times, which misunderstood and misquoted him, yet generated a flurry of debate. The third talk, broadcast on 30 January, was followed on 5 February by an article in the New York Times which could not but cause a sensation.
'Christian bases seen in scrolls', the headline proclaimed:
The same article hinted at trouble to come, quoting a Catholic scholar as saying that 'any stick now seems big enough to use against Christianity' provided it could be used 'to dislodge belief in the uniqueness of Jesus'.13
Allegro, in fact, was beginning to trespass on very sensitive territory indeed. On 6 February, Time Magazine ran an article entitled 'Crucifixion Before Christ'.
Two days later, The Times reported that three American religious leaders, one Jewish, one Catholic and one Protestant, had joined forces to refute Allegro and warn against any attempt to depict 'the Essenes' as precursors of Christianity.14
All this controversy was,
of course, finding its way back to de Vaux, together with requests
that something be done. Allegro, however, appears to have been
almost naively insouciant. On 9 February, he wrote to de Vaux
claiming he was 'being accused of saying the most astonishing
things, some of which are true, and are indeed astounding, others
come from the bosoms of eager reporters'.15
Noting that Strugnell and Milik were alleged to be preparing rebuttals of his statements, he commented,
On 4 March, de Vaux replied, warning Allegro that a rebuttal was
indeed being prepared. It would not be just from Strugnell and
Milik, however. Neither would it be confined to a scholarly journal.
On the contrary, it would take the form of a letter to The Times in
London and would be signed by all the members of the international
Not mincing words, he responded that a letter to The Times 'should be most interesting to the London public, who have never heard my broadcasts':
He went on to invoke Edmund Wilson, indicating just how worried de Vaux's team should be by the suspicions Wilson had voiced. In effect, he was attempting to use Wilson as a deterrent:
It seems clear that, by this time, Allegro was becoming nervous. On 6 March, he wrote to another member of the international team, Frank Cross, who had just been offered an appointment at Harvard University:
But in the same
letter, he admitted that the barrage of criticism was wearing him
down and that he was feeling, both physically and mentally, 'at the
end of my tether'. Certainly he had no desire to see the publication
of a letter which alienated him publicly from the other members of
the team and, by so doing, impugned his credibility.
On 16 March 1956, the letter duly appeared in The Times, signed by Strugnell as well as by Fathers de Vaux, Milik, Skehan and Starcky, most of the team's 'big guns':
To publish this sort of accusation - especially in a letter to The Times - is remarkable behavior. It patently reflects a conclave of academics 'ganging up' on one of their own members.
Forced on to the defensive, Allegro replied with a letter to The Times of his own, which explained and justified his position:
It is a reasonable enough statement, a legitimate correction of an important misquotation. It also indicates how eager Allegro's colleagues were to 'jump on him', to find an excuse for discrediting him. In any case, Allegro added,
The bickering and ill-feeling continued until finally, on 8 March 1957, Allegro wrote angrily to Strugnell:
As we have already noted, Allegro was the first of the international
team to publish all the material entrusted to his charge. He remains
the only one to have done so. John Strugnell, on the other hand, in
accordance with the 'go-slow' policy of the team, has published
virtually nothing of the substantial materials at his disposal. The
only major work to which he did address himself, entitled 'Notes in
the Margin', comprises 113 pages of criticism of Allegro, which
Eisenman labels a 'hatchet-job'.
He attacked Wilson, Dupont-Sommer and, especially, Allegro. He then went on to make the extraordinary statement that the,
He concluded in positively inflammatory fashion:
Allegro was now being portrayed not merely as an erring scholar, but as a veritable Antichrist.
While this controversy was still raging around him, Allegro was
already becoming involved in another. The new bone of contention was
to be the so-called 'Copper Scroll', found in Cave 3 at Qumran in
1952. As we have noted, the two fragments that made up the 'Copper
Scroll' remained unopened for three and a half years. Speculation
was rife about their contents. One researcher attempted to read the
indentations showing through the copper and visible on the outside
of the roll. It seemed to say, he suggested, something about
treasure. This suggestion elicited a salvo of derision from the
international team. It proved, however, to be quite correct.
Wright-Baker's machine performed its task, and Allegro quickly embarked on a translation of what had been revealed. The contents of the fragment proved so extraordinary that he kept them initially wholly to himself, not even divulging them to Cross or Strugnell, both of whom wrote to beg for details. His reticence cannot have improved his relations with them, but Allegro was in fact waiting for the second fragment of the scroll to arrive in Manchester.
Any partial or premature disclosure, he felt, might
jeopardize everything. For what the 'Copper Scroll' contained was a
list of secret sites where the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem
was alleged to have been buried.
If the 'Copper Scroll' did
indeed indicate where the actual contents of the Temple lay hidden,
Qumran could no longer be so depicted. On the contrary, connections
would become apparent between Qumran and the Temple, the centre and
focus of all Judaic affairs. Qumran would no longer be a
self-contained and insulated phenomenon, but an adjunct of something
much broader - something that might encroach dangerously on the
origins of Christianity. More disturbing still, if the 'Copper
Scroll' referred to a real treasure, it could only be a treasure
removed from the Temple in the wake of the AD 66 revolt. This would
upset the 'safe' dating and chronology which the international team
had established for the entire corpus of scrolls.
In a letter to another of his colleagues, dated 23 April 1956, he gave vent to his impatience, but remained excited and optimistic, and referred to Milik with cavalier disdain:
A month later, Allegro wrote to Gerald Lankester Harding, in charge of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, and de Vaux's colleague. Perhaps he already sensed something was in the wind and was trying to circumvent de Vaux personally, to appeal to an alternative and non-Catholic authority.
In any case, he pointed out that as soon as the press release pertaining to the 'Copper Scroll' was issued, reporters would descend en masse. To deal with this contingency, he suggested that Harding, the international team and everyone else involved close ranks and adopt a 'party line' towards the media. On 28 May, Harding, who had been warned and briefed by de Vaux, wrote back.
The treasure listed in the 'Copper Scroll', he said, didn't
appear to be connected with the Qumran community at all. Nor could
it possibly be a real cache - the value of the items cited was too
great. The 'Copper Scroll' was merely a collation of 'buried
treasure' legends.28 Four days later, on 1 June, the official press
release pertaining to the 'Copper Scroll' was issued. It echoed
Harding's assertions. The scroll was said to contain 'a collection
of traditions about buried treasure'.29
On 5 June, he wrote to Harding,
At the same time, however, he was still appealing to Harding as a possible ally against the phalanx of Catholic interests. Did not Harding think, he asked, that,
He adds that,
The same point is stressed in a letter to Frank Cross in August:
To de Vaux personally, he observed dryly,
Allegro had originally believed a full translation of the text of the 'Copper Scroll' would be released fairly promptly. It must now have been clear to him that this wasn't going to occur. In fact, four years were to pass before a translation of the text appeared, and then it was published by Allegro himself, who by that time had lost all patience with the international team.
He still would have preferred to publish his popular book after the 'official' translation, scheduled to be done by Father Milik, and was led to believe this would be possible. Milik's translation, however, was suddenly and unexpectedly subject to further delays, which may well have been deliberate. Allegro was asked to postpone his own publication accordingly. At one point, indeed, this request, transmitted through an intermediary, appears to have been attended by threats - from a member of the team whose name cannot be divulged for legal reasons.
Allegro replied that,
of this letter wrote back sweetly that Allegro must not imagine
himself the victim of persecution.36 Thus, when Allegro went ahead
with his own publication, he found himself in the embarrassing
position of seeming to have pre-empted the work of a colleague. In
effect, he had been maneuvered into providing the international team
with further ammunition to use against him - and, of course, to
alienate him further from them. Milik's translation, in fact, did
not appear until 1962 - two years after Allegro's, six years after
the 'Copper Scroll' had been sliced open in Manchester and ten years
after it had been discovered.
The first edition of forty thousand copies sold out in seventeen days, and Edmund Wilson reviewed it enthusiastically on the BBC. The Dead Sea Scrolls, now in its second edition and nineteenth printing, continues to be one of the best introductions to the Qumran material. De Vaux did not see it that way, and sent Allegro a lengthy critique. In his reply, dated 16 September 1956, Allegro stated that 'you are unable to treat Christianity any more in an objective light; a pity, but understandable in the circumstances'.37
In the same letter, he draws attention to a text among the scrolls which refers to the 'son of God':
After everything that had passed, Allegro would have been extremely naive to assume that he could still be accepted by his erstwhile colleagues as a member of their team. Nevertheless, that was precisely what he seems to have done. In the summer of 1957, he returned to Jerusalem and spent July, August and September working on his material in the 'Scrollery'.
From his letters of the time, it is clear that he did indeed feel himself part of the team again and had no doubt that all was well. In the autumn, he traveled back to London and arranged with the BBC to make a television program on the scrolls. In October, he returned to Jerusalem with producer and film crew.
They immediately went to see Awni Dajani, Jordanian curator of the Rockefeller Museum and one of Allegro's closest friends. The next morning, Dajani took them round 'to get things moving with de Vaux'.
In a letter of 31 October to Frank Cross, whom he still assumed to be his ally, Allegro described the ensuing events:
Allegro described himself as still flummoxed. Awni Dajani, however, was beginning to get annoyed. He apparently saw the program as 'a very definite boost for Jordan - antiquities and tourism', and declared a preparedness to assert his authority.
He was, after all, an official representative of the Jordanian government, whom not even de Vaux could afford to defy:
In the same letter, Allegro tried to persuade Cross to appear in the program. After consulting with de Vaux, Cross refused. By now, the penny had pretty much dropped for Allegro and he knew precisely where he stood in relation to his former colleagues.
On the same day that he wrote to Cross, he had also written to another scholar, a man who was not officially a member of the international team but had been allowed to work with the scrolls. Allegro repeated the account of his contretemps and then added that he was 'starting a campaign, very quietly for the moment, to get the scrollery clique broken up and new blood injected, with the idea of getting some of the stuff Milik, Strugnell and Starcky are sitting on, published quickly in provisional form'.41
Two months later, on 24 December 1957, he wrote to the same scholar saying that he was worried:
This report is extremely disquieting. Scholars outside the
international team have suspected that some form of monitoring and
selection was taking place. Here, Allegro confirms these suspicions.
One can only wonder what might have happened to any fragment that
held doctrines opposed to that of the Church.
One may not immediately sympathize with Allegro as his personality manifests itself through his letters - cavalier, impudent, cheerfully iconoclastic. But it is impossible not to sympathize with the academic integrity of his position.
He may indeed have been
egocentric in his conviction that his particular interpretation of
the Qumran material was valid and important. But the statements
quoted above constitute an appeal on behalf of scholarship itself
-an appeal for openness, honesty, accessibility, impartiality.
Unlike de Vaux and the international team, Allegro displays no
propensity for either secrecy or self-aggrandizement. If he is
conspiring, he is conspiring only to make the Dead Sea Scrolls
available to the world at large, and quickly enough not to betray
the trust reposed in academic research. Such an aspiration can only
be regarded as honorable and generous.
On 10 January 1959, after the latest in a long series of postponements, he wrote to Awni Dajani:
After repeating what he'd come increasingly to see as a viable short-term solution - nationalization of the Rockefeller Museum, the 'Scrollery' and the scrolls by the Jordanian government - he reveals the sense of punctilio to which he'd previously felt subject: 'I might even let out an instance or two when information has been suppressed - but I'll only do that if De Vaux looks like winning.'45
In 1961, King Hussein appointed Allegro honorary adviser on the scrolls to the government of Jordan. The post, however, though prestigious enough, entailed no real authority.
It was not until November 1966, five years later, that the Jordanian government finally acted on Allegro's suggestion and nationalized the Rockefeller Museum. By then, as we have seen, it was too late. Within the year, the Six Day War was to erupt, and the museum, the 'Scrollery' and its contents all passed into Israeli hands; and Israel, as we have noted, was too much in need of international support to risk a head-on confrontation with the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy. Only four years before, Pope John XXIII had officially and doctrinally exculpated the Jews of any responsibility for Jesus' death, and excised all vestiges of anti-Semitism from Roman Catholic Canon Law.
No one wished to see this sort of
conciliatory work undone.
The result of his efforts appeared in 1970 as
Sacred Mushroom and the Cross - the work for which Allegro today is
most famous, and for which he is almost universally dismissed.
What turned The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross into a scandal were Allegro's conclusions about Jesus. In attempting to establish the source of all religious belief and practice, Allegro asserted that Jesus had never existed in historical reality, was merely an image evoked in the psyche under the influence of an hallucinatory drug, psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms.
In effect, he argued,
Christianity, like all other religions, stemmed from a species of
psychedelic experience, a ritualistic rite de passage promulgated by
an orgiastic magic mushroom cult.
It is certainly not inconceivable that such substances were known to, and perhaps employed by, lst-century Judaism and early Christianity. One must also remember the climate and atmosphere of the late 1960s. Today, in retrospect, one tends to think in terms of the so-called 'drug culture' - in terms of a facile ersatz mysticism, of Ken Kesey and his 'Merry Pranksters', of Tom Wolfe and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, of hippies thronging the streets of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, staging 'love-ins' and 'be-ins' in Golden Gate Park.
That, however, is only one side of the picture, and tends to eclipse
the very real excitement and expectation that psychedelia generated
even in more sophisticated and disciplined minds - the conviction,
shared by many scientists, neurologists, biochemists, academicians,
psychologists, medical practitioners, philosophers and artists, that
humanity was indeed on the verge of some genuine epistemological
Psychedelic substances were routinely used in both medicine and psychotherapy. Divinity students in Boston conducted a service under the influence of LSD, and most of them said afterwards they had indeed experienced an intensified sense of the sacred, a greater rapprochement to the divine. Even the MP Christopher Mayhew, later Minister of Defense, voluntarily appeared stoned on the nation's television screens, beaming beatifically at his interviewer, wearing the seraphically celestial smirk of a man newly promoted to sagehood.
One can see why the academic and
critical establishment recoiled in alarm from Allegro's book, even
though Allegro himself repudiated the mentality of Haight-Asbury and
never himself smoked or drank.
In a letter to The Times on 26 May 1970, fourteen prominent British scholars repudiated Allegro's conclusions.48
The signatories included
Vermes of Oxford, who'd concurred with much of Allegro's previous
work on the Qumran material, and who was soon to echo his complaints
about the international team's delays. The signatories also included
Professor Godfrey Driver, Allegro's former mentor, who had
formulated a more radical interpretation of the Qumran texts than
Allegro himself had ever attempted.
In 1987, a year before his death, he declared the international team's delays to be 'pathetic and inexcusable', and added that his former colleagues, for years, 'have been sitting on the material which is not only of outstanding importance, but also quite the most religiously sensitive':
By this time, the initiative had passed into the hands of the next generation of scholars and Allegro had left the world of scroll scholarship to pursue his research on the origins of myth and religion.
His works subsequent to The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross were moderate enough, but for most readers, as well as for the academic establishment, he was to remain an 'exile', the man who, in the sneering words of The Times, had 'traced the source of Christianity to an edible fungus'.50 He died suddenly in 1988, no longer accepted by his colleagues, but still energetic, enthusiastic about his own philological work in progress, and optimistic. It must have been some consolation for him to see, before his death, that his defiance of the international team, and his concern about their delays in releasing material, were already being echoed by others.
By the mid-1970s, biblical scholars were beginning to speak openly of a scandal. Even the most docile began to have their worries, and the international team were alienating men who had no desire to engage in academic controversy. Among the most prominent names in contemporary Semitic scholarship, for example, is that of Dr Geza Vermes, who has, since 1951, been publishing books and articles on the scrolls. Initially, he had no quarrel with the international team and their work. Like many others, however, he gradually began to lose patience with the delays in publication.
In 1977, he published a book, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective, in the first chapter of which he publicly flung down the gauntlet:
True to form, the international team did not deign to take any notice.
Nearly a decade later, in 1985, Dr. Vermes again called them to account, this time in the Times Literary Supplement:
In the same statement, Dr Vermes praised Yigael Yadin, who had just died, for the promptitude with which he'd ushered into print the Qumran material in his possession:
In his desire to avoid undignified controversy, Dr. Vermes neglected
to pursue the matter further. As before, the international team took
no notice whatever of his comments. For Dr. Vermes, the situation
must be particularly galling. He is a recognized expert in the
field. He has published translations of such scrolls as have found
their way into the public domain - through Israeli auspices, for
example. He is certainly as competent to work on unpublished Qumran
material as any member of the international team, and is probably
better qualified than most. Yet for the whole of his distinguished
academic career, access to that material has been denied him. He has
not even been allowed to see it.
These included material labeled 'of unknown provenance'. In personal conversation, Father Puech divulged three important discoveries:
To our knowledge, however, none of the revelations confided by Puech in conversation has yet appeared in print, and there seems no immediate likelihood of their doing so.
On the other hand, there has been a recent 'leak' which offers some indication of the kind of material still being suppressed. This 'leak' surfaced in 1990, in the pages of BAR, and was confided, apparently, by an unnamed scholar whose conscience was troubling him. It consists of a Qumran fragment very similar to a passage in Luke's Gospel. Referring to Jesus' imminent birth, Luke (1:32-5) speaks of a child who will be called 'Son of the Most High' and 'Son of God'.
The Qumran fragment from Cave 4 also speaks of the coming of someone who,
This, as BAR points out, is an extraordinary discovery, 'the first time that the term "Son of God" has been found in a Palestinian text outside the Bible'.58
Whatever the circumstances pertaining to the release of this fragment, it derives from the corpus of material hitherto controlled, and rigorously withheld, by the 'elusive' Father Milik.