John M. Allegro: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth; Prometheus; Buffalo, N.Y.
John M. Allegro has distinguished himself as an editor and commentator of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unfortunately, his erudition did not prevent him from writing a very foolish book. Allegro believes that the resemblance between the Scrolls and certain Christian practices and doctrines constitutes nothingless than a demonstration that Christianity, like any religion, is a myth shaped by historical forces and mystic imagination. His curious process of reasoning is worth studying, at least by literary pathologists. By a tendentious process of historical conjecture, the Teacher of Righteousness (the leader of that strange Jewish sect known as the Essenes) is identified with Jesus of Nazareth–not, of course, historically but symbolically. This reconstruction requires us to accept a number of conjectures and hypotheses, none of which is at all certain that the priest-king Alexander Jannaeus attacked the Essene community at Qumran; that references to crucifixion (hanging on trees) include the reference to “a certain exalted man who spread his hands on the many-fruited tree … who one day caused the sun to stand still” means that the crucified (conjecturally) Teacher was identified with Joshua=Jesus.
To make the historical connection between the Essenes and the early Christians, Allegro constructs an historical novel about scattered sectarians fleeing the Army of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. Frustrated in their hopes of establishing a kingdom on earth, they tum to other-worldly contemplation and are eventually absorbed into the varied streams of mythological speculation that goes by the name of the Christian Church. Eventually they, along with many others, are stigmatized as gnostic heretics by the narrow-minded early Fathers: “Irenaeus led the way in making one cycle of these myths, relating to the activities of a latter day Joshua/ Jesus and his fishermen disciples, a canon of authority…. This massive depletion in the faith’s store of tales had.:.most unfortunate consequences.”
Suppose for a moment the impossible: that all of Allegro’s strictly historical conjectures are correct. What of it? It shows a very imperfect understanding of Christian orthodoxy to suppose that one more mythological parallel to the crucifixion or one more set of historical influences on the early Church would make the slightest difference. It had always been supposed that pagan religions were suffused with a glimmer of the truth, at least since the time of St. Paul who declared to the Athenians that their unknown god was God. How much more likely that a mystical sect of Judaism, steeped in the scriptures of the Old Testament, should prefigure the revelation. As for direct influence of the Essenes, it is no more likely than that of the Pharisees afterlife. On the other hand, there should be nothing surprising in the discovery that the social practices and religious doctrines of early Jewish Christians should have much incommon with those of Jewish Essenes. Societies maintain continuity. American followers of the Korean “prophet,” the Rev. Moon, still use the language of Christianity and probably sneak off for a Big Mac, whenever they get a chance.
Allegro, like many religion scholars today, refuses to confront the inconvenient but massive evidence for the historicity of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, works that are regularly mined by historians for their accurate and valuable testimony on life in the eastern end of the Roman world. It is as if all those years of reading the Essene documents had softened his brain. Christian believers have little to fear from a work whose twisted reasoning and dissociative interpretations are as bizarre as the Essene commentaries themselves. D