During the late 1960s, a renowned British scholar undid his whole career by backing a pretty wild claim: According to John Marco Allegro, an influential philologist and archaeologist, Jesus was not a living man but a mushroom. I know, it all makes sense now.
For some, the Bible represents the literal truth in all things, while others see it as a body of allegories that may not resemble historical reality but contain divine messages that need decoding. Within this ancient collection of narratives, the historical proof of Jesus is most frequently debated. Was there actually a man by that name? Was he really born in Bethlehem given the contradictions in the Gospels? If so, why do the features of his narrative reflect so many features common to older religious traditions?
There is no room to wade into the debate here, but we can certainly say that John Allegro was among those who searched for metaphor – and boy did he find one.
In 1947, Bedouin shepherds stumbled on a collection of jars containing ancient documents hidden in a harsh and remote part of the Judean Desert. These texts, now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, were to have a huge impact on our understanding of the history of Judaism and Christianity, as they contained the oldest surviving versions of books that would later be incorporated into the biblical canon. But at the time of their discovery, they were obviously untranslated, and their significance was therefore unknown. This is where Allegro comes into the story.
Allegro was among the first scholars to be permitted to decipher these invaluable ancient texts. In 1955, Allegro recommended the Copper Scroll, the largest of the scrolls, should be sent to Manchester University in the UK where it could be cut up and read.
Allegro and his colleagues then set about making sense of the documents. After years of toil and hard work – and many disagreements – the texts were finally published. Allegro then went on to write two more books on the subject in 1958, The Dead Sea Scrolls and The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which remain extremely influential.
And then things got weird…
Jesus, such a fungi
In 1970, Allegro published a new book called The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross and then, in 1979, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth. The books both expanded on his idea that Christianity was actually a cover for a secret cryptic sex cult generated by people under the influence of Amanita muscaria, more commonly known as Fly agaric – you know the ones, the iconic red toadstools with the white dots.
Within this perplexing view, Jesus was a walking metaphor for the fungus and its influences.
Using etymology, Allegro argued that early Christianity was created by an Essene cult that recorded their shamanistic practices through the texts of the New Testament, which appeared in the Dead Sea Scrolls. When the evangelists came to transcribe these stories to form the Gospels, he claimed, they actually set down a misunderstanding of the text’s true meaning. In this account, there never was a man called Jesus, there was only a cult that used mushrooms to have hallucinatory experiences.
Needless to say, Allegro’s views were not well received outside of the wider 1970s counterculture movements. There are some who believe that Allegro merely created this argument as revenge against Christian critics who dismissed his earlier translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, while others think the talented linguist just ran with the wrong idea.
Either way, Allegro’s interpretations are no less outlandish than much of the content of the historical sources he studied.