John Allegro and the Christian Myth

John Allegro observed the way the Jesus story echoed events and ideas in Gnostic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Old Testament, and he identified the doctrine of divine light as the unifying theme. This is expressed in myth and imagery and is a key to understanding a range of
mythologies - including Christianity.

By Judith Anne Brown
May 2005

John Marco Allegro was the first British representative on the international team of scholars who gathered in Jerusalem in 1953 to collate the thousands of scroll fragments from Cave 4 by the Dead Sea. He was also the only agnostic on the team and the most willing to ask, from a non-religious perspective, what the Dead Sea Scrolls could tell us about the origins of Christianity.

The sectarian scrolls, such as the Community Rule and Thanksgiving Hymns, show many correspondences with parts of the Gospels and Acts. Pointing out the similarities in the 1950s disturbed some theologians, who felt the uniqueness of the Christian story could be under threat. But there are also obvious differences between the religious outlook depicted in the Scrolls and that of the New Testament. Allegro thought the similarities compelling and the differences intriguing. He asked: what continued, what changed, and why?

His studies on these questions culminated in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth (Westbridge Books, 1979; Prometheus Books, 1985). No one paid the book much attention. The roars of outrage raised by his controversial book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross in 1970 were still echoing around the academic world and he found it difficult to make his voice heard. As I have argued in John Marco Allegro, the Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls (pb. Wm B Eerdmans, 2005), it is time to allow Allegro a fair hearing.

Starting points

Allegro began by studying the beliefs and practices of the Qumran community as depicted in the Scrolls. Like the rest of the international editing team and its director Roland de Vaux, he called the community Essenes. Some scholars disagree with this designation, but it does seem consistent with references in the first-century writers Josephus and Pliny the Elder, and the name corresponds with the work of the sect as ’assayya, "healers" in Aramaic.

The obvious links between the practices at Qumran and those of Jesus’ disciples are well known. They include the Council of Twelve; the communal meal; healing and exorcism; sharing possessions; baptism; antagonism towards the main Jewish sects; looking to the end of the world and the coming of a messiah. Similar imagery recurs: the cornerstone, the spring of living waters, the Many; the Children of Light; the poor; the elect; the meek; the Son of God.

The most obvious difference is that the Scrolls were written in Hebrew and Aramaic before AD 68, the New Testament later and in Greek; therefore some distortion from oral tradition is possible. Secondly, the leaders are very different characters. As Allegro put it, "Nothing in Essene literature anticipates a messiah who would be a professed wine-bibber and companion of rogues and whores, and one so apparently well-disposed towards the hated imperialist enemies of his own people." And fundamentally, the Essenes hoped that their messiah would lead them to victory on earth; the Christian messiah aimed to save individual souls from the demon within rather than bring political triumph.

Essene hopes crashed with the fall of the Temple in AD 70. But on the evidence of both biblical and apocryphal writings, strands of their religion remained unbroken; in Allegro’s eyes there was much greater continuity than some of the New Testament writers and all of the early church fathers would have us believe.

What changed? How were the fervent messianist doctrines of an exclusive Jewish sect transformed into a universal religion that spread like fire? Was it all down to one man who ended three years of improbable adventures with an ignominious death on a cross? Or were the themes that had powered the messianism of the Scrolls strong and pliable enough to adapt to circumstance, to survive in a gentile world under Roman law? To what extent did Christianity represent a flowering from much deeper and older roots?

There seemed to be a gap in the contemporary evidence, for the Scrolls were presumably written before the inception of Christianity while the New Testament nowhere mentions the Essenes or the Qumran community. Allegro tried to fill the gap in two ways. First he tried to look at what was known of first-century Palestine through the eyes of the people who were there. Secondly he looked at the Gnostic texts of the first and second centuries, discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1947, and here he found a missing link: an insight into myth-making.

The Gnostic documents included the writings of Valentinus, one of their leaders, and apocryphal texts such as the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of John and the Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdalene, which seem to offer alternatives to the stories about Jesus in the New Testament. Gnostic beliefs and practices were also reported, usually disapprovingly, in the writings of early Church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Augustine, Clement, Epiphanius, and Irenaeus. By comparing scroll, biblical, and Gnostic texts, Allegro brought out common themes and approaches. He found a continuity of thought running from the Old Testament into what the Church called the Gnostic "heresies" and taking many forms, of which Essenism and Christianity were just two. This approach offered a key to understanding the link between the people of the Scrolls and the early Christians.

This is the bare outline of the comparison:

Essene world view: cyclical history based on Scripture and revealed through exegesis including wordplay; theme of divine light; wisdom; the Word; redemption through suffering.

Gnostic world view: divine light; wisdom; the Word; redeemer myths.

Early church world view: divine light; the Word (equated with the Lamb through wordplay); one redeemer.

First we should try to see things as the Essenes saw them, and then compare their world view with that of their successors: the Gnostics and the early church.

What mattered to the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

One way to understand what was going on in first-century Palestine is to try and look at it through the eyes of the people who were there, and the evidence for that is in their writings. Finding it is not straightforward – apart from the difficulty of deciphering faded fragments of parchment, the scroll writers were no social diarists. They might allude to historical events or figures that were important to them, but indirectly and only in relation to what really mattered to them: Holy Scripture.

For above all, the Essenes were people of the Book. Everything that was happening, had happened or was about to happen did so in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Their exegetical interpretation of texts, finding hidden meanings through wordplay and allusion, was a way of strengthening the message, deepening their understanding, finding significance in all that happened by tying it into Scripture. For example, in the Commentary on Nahum (4Q169):"Whither the lion, the lioness went, there is the lion’s cub (2.11). Interpreted, this concerns Demetrius, king of Greece, who sought to enter Jerusalem through the counsel of the Seekers-after-Smooth-Things. [But God did not permit the city to be delivered] into the hands of the kings of Greece, from the time of Antiochus to the appearance of the rulers of the Kittim. But then she will be trodden down […]" (quoted in Allegro, J. M. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, 1979, p. 36).

To understand this dependence on Scripture we must put aside our linear, cause-and-event view of history and look on it as they did as an ever-rolling cycle: that the Chosen People survived through wave after wave of apostasy and redemption – election through the grace of God, rebellion, chastisement, repentance, and salvation. It was a pattern that began with Adam and was exemplified under Moses and later Joshua son of Nun. Like Moses and Joshua, the Essenes’ own Teacher of Righteousness appears to seek purification by wandering the desert, and to seek atonement through his own suffering. The Scrolls show that he believed he and his followers were "chosen of grace to atone for the earth" (Community Rule VIII.67). He saw himself as following in the footsteps of Joshua son of Nun, who had led the Israelites into a Promised Land in the same way as Moses did. The Way that Joshua and the Teacher in turn set down for their followers was an interpretation of Mosaic law – the divine law revealed to Moses.

The Teacher of Righteousness believed he had been chosen by God and imbued through suffering with the ability to know God and lead his followers to grace:

"For Thou hast known me from my father’s time [and hast chosen me] from the womb… and from my youth Thou hast illumined me with an understanding of Thy judgment" (Hymns XVII, 30-32).

Divine light

Central to the Teacher’s message is the concept of divine light that appears here – "Thou hast illumined me" – and shines through the sectarian Scrolls: "from his marvellous mysteries is the light of my heart" (Community Rule (XI, 6); "the laws of the great light in Heaven" (Hymns XII, 5) and so on. The dualism of light and dark underlies the thought of the sect: "He has created man to govern the world and has appointed for him two spirits in which to walk until the time of His visitation: the spirits of truth and injustice. Those born of truth spring from a fountain of light, but those born of injustice spring from a source of darkness" (Community Rule, III, 18-19). There is light and dark, good and evil, in different measure in the soul of each person, and the ultimate aim for mankind is to defeat the powers of darkness and return to God’s full light. The people of the Scrolls believed they were predestined by the confluence of the stars to inherit more of the Divine Light than other men, and therefore to lead the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness in the final battle to come.

The imagery of light in the Scrolls looks back to the Old Testament and forward to the New. Pillars of light, blazing chariots, white-robed angels, the morning star are all facets of the divine light. There are, for example, Moses’ burning bush in Exodus 3, 2; the voice of God in the fire on the mountain in Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 4, 11-12; the transfiguration of Moses after talking with God in Exodus 34, 29 and that of Jesus in Matthew 17, 2; Zechariah’s seven lamps (Zech 4, 2) echoed in the "seven golden lamp stands" of Revelation 1, 12-16. The wisdom of God is identified with the light in Revelation 22, 5: in the New Jerusalem "they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light."

Divine light in Gnosticism

The doctrine of light was central to Gnostic belief. For the Gnostics the three great vessels of light were the sun, the moon, and Venus the morning star. Writing in the fourth century, Augustine tells us that certain Gnostic sects such as the Manichaeans honoured the sun and moon, not as deities but as channels for the Divine Substance – the light in their souls – to return to God (Augustine, de haeresibus, 46.2). His contemporary Epiphanius mentions another Jewish sect, the Ossaeans (Essenes), who fled from the Romans into Transjordan and took the name of Sampsaeans, sun-people (from Aramaic shim-sha, "sun"). These sects believed that through a world-renouncing life of prayer and ritual they must try to purify the flame of divinity in their souls from the corrupting flesh that trapped it and reunite it with the Pleroma whence it came. Some believed that in bodily terms the essence of divine power, the most powerful life-giving source, was contained in semen, and it was the rituals using this that shocked Augustine.

The morning star carries the title "Pillar of the Dawn" in Hebrew. Jesus is the "Day-spring from on high" in Luke 1, 78; "the bright and morning star" in Revelations 22.16; and in II Peter, 1.19 he is to be remembered as "a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts."

The morning star brought not only light but dew. In the ancient world, dew was known as the most powerful conceptual fluid of Nature. Pliny says of the morning star: "Its influence is the cause of the birth of all things upon earth; at both its risings it scatters genital dew with which it not only fills the conceptual organs of the earth but also stimulates those of all animals" (Natural History II.38). Pliny also tells of the healing powers of dew (XI.37), which in Exodus 16, 13ff is described as bringing manna, the bread of heaven, and in Psalm 110 is linked to the conception of the Son of God: "from the womb of the dawn, in dew I have begotten thee."

The implication is that behind the imagery of light as knowledge of God lies a deeper, more ancient principle of the divine light bringing fertility to the earth. Jesus, the dayspring from on high, can be seen as a personification or channel for that light.


In Gnostic mythology, divine light is mediated to the people through a series of redeemers in mortal guise. By taking human form, the messenger of God could share people’s woes and suffering yet show them how to rise above their tribulations. In the process he could have all sorts of adventures. One such redeemer is called Dositheus, another is Simon Magus, and a third is Jesus. As John Allegro put it, "The idea of a Redeemer, foreordained by God, who came to earth to show man the way to salvation and suffered the extremities of human anguish, lent itself to many mythologies" (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, p. 107).

Simon Magus is the hero of many Gnostic stories and the villain of many others reported in patristic sources such as Justin Martyr in the second century (Apol. I 26 56; Dial. 120) and Eusebius in the fourth (Historia Ecclesiastica II 13 14). He is entitled "the Standing One" or "the Pillar," and the third century bishop Irenaeus says he is portrayed to the Jews as the Son, to the Samaritans as the Father and to the Gentiles as the Holy Spirit (Against Heresies, I.23.1). Another third-century writer, Origen, gives him the epithet "Power of God," as indeed he appears in Acts 8.10 – "this man is that Power of God which is called Great" – where he has a confrontation with Peter over wanting to buy the secrets of the Holy Spirit. In Gnostic stories Simon often appears flying, reflecting the idea of escape from the body which Josephus says was important to the Essenes, when in death "as though liberated from long servitude, they rejoice and are borne aloft" (War II. viii 11, 154-55).

Helen: Light, Wisdom and the Word

Simon’s consort is Helen of Tyre. In Gnostic mythology, the figure of Helen variously links the concept of light – in the form of a blazing torch or a pillar of fire – with fertility and also with Wisdom or the Word of God. Her Greek name means "brightness" and her epithet recalls Helen of Troy, who lit a torch over her bedchamber to light the way home from sea for her lover. The name Tyre may also recall the Semitic word tsur or tsurah, "form" or "image," as in Ezekiel’s tsurah of the ideal Temple (Ezekiel 40-43).

The Gnostic stories may well derive from references to Tyre in the Old Testament, for example Ezekiel 26-28, Isaiah 23 and Psalm 45. Ezekiel in turn draws on ancient Canaanite mythology, where Tyre is associated with the fallen angel Daniel and with the expulsion from Eden. A local goddess of Tyre was Astarte, who is equivalent to biblical Ashtoreth, Mesopotamian Ishtar, Sumerian Inanna, Egyptian Isis, and Greek Persephone. Whichever name she takes, the story of the maiden in the underworld and her rescue by the lord of fertility each spring is one of the most ancient and recurring myths in the world. As Isis, this figure is the archetypal mother, and also a patron of the Therapeutae, an Egyptian Gnostic sect who Philo describes as celebrating the sunrise as a symbol of inner enlightenment.

In Gnostic stories, Helen appears at different times as Wisdom, the Holy Spirit or the Great Mother. Where Simon is shown as God, Helen is the First Thought who springs from his mind. She is therefore involved in the creation of matter and becomes embroiled in its corrupting toils. Compelled to assume mortal form, she passes through several incarnations (including Helen of Troy in some stories) until ending up as a prostitute in Tyre. God rescues her by coming down in mortal form as Simon – a rescue from prostitution that recalls the story of Mary Magdalene and a descent through earthly trials and tribulations that echoes the age-old myth of the fertility goddess in the underworld.

The concept of the First Thought or Wisdom – a projection of the Word of God – underlies the outlook of the Thanksgiving Hymns in the Scrolls: "By Thy wisdom [all things exist from] eternity and before creating them Thou knowest all their works forever and ever" (Hymns IX, 2).

Similarly, the incarnation represents the creative principle in the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 9.1: "O God, who madest all things by Thy Word, and by Thy Wisdom hast formed man"; and in the Fourth Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John, 1-16).

In the New Testament, the Word also becomes the lamb, the beast of sacrifice. In a Semitic context, as Allegro pointed out, the whole idea pivots on simple wordplay: the correspondence between Hebrew ’imerah, word, and Aramaic ’imera, lamb. It combines the image of Christ as the Passover lamb, sacrificed for the sins of the people, with his nature as the creative principle, Logos, the Word. The lamb is sacrificed in atonement for sins, and so the Word becomes the redeemer of the world: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John, I, 2; The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, p. 174).

Allegro had earlier suggested that in philological terms the Word could be identified with the seed of the old storm-god, which gave fertility to the earth (The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, Hodder & Stoughton 1970, p. 20). If he were right and if the gospel writer were aware of the connotations, the pun on ’imerah brought the weight of a three-thousand-year-old principle of divine progeniture behind the concept of atonement through sacrifice, a concept that was a cornerstone of Pauline Christianity.

Choosing Jesus

So Allegro saw a common fount of inspiration behind the myths and imagery of the Scrolls, parts of the New Testament and Gnostic literature. This fount is the concept of divine light, the flame which contends with the power of evil in each human soul and which we should strive to return to unity with God. The writers of the Scrolls hoped for apocalypse on earth when their godly purity would show the way to salvation; after their community was scattered, their Gnostic successors held onto the hope of individual redemption. The stories they told of Jesus, Simon, and other figures depicted in human terms this struggle for the light. "Simon and Helen appeared in many different forms and were called by a variety of names. The message of hope they proclaimed to mankind was the same, but the medium and manner of expression were adapted to suit the audience of the time" (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, p. 161).

To the Gnostics the stories were myths, and understood as such. It was the church fathers, notably Bishop Irenaeus, who chose the cycle of stories about Jesus, allotted them an improbable time and place in Roman-occupied Palestine, and called them history.

How did the Gospels of the New Testament achieve such apparent solidity? John Allegro saw them as an ingenious literary tapestry. In his view, the New Testament represented the re-working of Essenism into Christianity, with scraps of real-life history, names, and events embedded into the stories: "In the Gospels we are dealing with highly complex creations, offering several layers of interpretation. They have been woven from many strands of tradition such as we have seen contained in the Gnostic stories, and they often involve the kind of unrestrained exegesis of biblical texts evidenced in the Essene scrolls" (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, p. 193).

Through a similar sort of exegesis, it is possible that parts of Jesus’ story may be based on that of the Teacher of Righteousness. In Allegro’s reading of the Scrolls, the Teacher’s fate could well have been crucifixion. (The evidence for crucifixion is not explicit but built up through several allusions to hanging and trees, which led Allegro to think they had special significance for the Teacher’s followers.) Jesus’ death may then recall that of the Teacher a century earlier, as his words recall many of the Teacher’s. The timetable for Jesus’ story can be worked out according to the precepts in the Scrolls and set by the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 because the Damascus Document (B II, 14, recalling in turn Deuteronomy II, 14) says forty years must pass between the death of the Teacher of the Community and the end of the men of war – so if the end-time is taken to be the fall of the Temple, the crucifixion must be around AD 30 and the birth about thirty years before that, as Community leaders had to be at least 30 before taking office.

The light of the sun

A step which Allegro pointed to but did not fully explore in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth would be to show more explicitly how far the doctrine of divine light reflected, in fact was part of, the still older theme of sun-worship. In these terms, the myth of Christianity, as an expression of divine light, would fit into the syntax, as it were, of more ancient beliefs, but gain an identity of its own as an institutional church.

The sun brought the earth to life, every year and every day. The sun-gods of various religions share the same characteristics. Persian Mithras and Egyptian Horus, for example, are born on 25 December after three days of winter solstice; they have twelve companions; they perform miracles; they are killed and rise from their tomb after three days; their epithets include the Way, the Truth, the Redeemer, and in the case of Horus KRST, the Anointed One. The Gnostic sect who danced at sunrise, the eastward orientation of every church, celebrated the life-giving power of the sun. So in AD 324 it took no great revolution of belief for the Emperor Constantine, who had been a follower of the sun-god Mithras, to call his god Jesus instead, and decide that all his subjects should do the same. The myths and imagery of sun worship, whose fundamental concern is the fertility of the earth and all its creatures, easily assimilated the corresponding myths and imagery of the Christian Redeemer.

Constantine had been converted twelve years earlier, and, whether out of religious conviction or political expediency, he would have appreciated the potential for control offered by the orthodox – that is, institutional – side of the "new" religion, rather than the individualism of Gnosticism. The Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter called the church’s hierarchy of bishops and deacons "waterless canals," but the Gnostic focus on attaining inner light, each for himself, could never have had the same unifying force in society. The church’s flesh-and-blood stories of martyrs and miracle cures could appeal to people everywhere, and its hierarchy of bishops and priests offered a reasonably efficient way to control them. For the sake of consistency, this involved adopting and promulgating one coherent version of the Redeemer story. As John Allegro put it, "Absurd though the myth was in its historical and religious pretensions, and sadly misleading in its presentation of contemporary Judaism, its stories contained such elements of truth and reflections of deep religious sentiment, combined with a fluency of style and an illusory simplicity of content, as to procure a sympathetic and ready audience in the gentile world. Its protagonists, the Great Church, eventually won the day, and its hierarchy ensured that for the future the writings of the canonical New Testament should be invested with supreme and incontrovertible authority as sources of doctrine and history" (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, p. 192).

In summation, John Allegro observed the way the Jesus story echoed events and ideas in Gnostic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Old Testament, and he identified the doctrine of divine light as the unifying theme. This is expressed in myth and imagery and is a key to understanding a range of mythologies – including Christianity.

If we compare the Christian story with other contemporary writings and also with recurrent themes in the mythology of other cultures, we see it in the context of a much older and deeper current of religious thought. And if we observe this as students of human thought rather than as devotees of a particular religion, it is not to belittle Christianity as a phenomenon of history but to strengthen it as an expression of human understanding.

Article Comments

Submitted by Isaac Madhavan on Sun, 02/26/2023 - 15:20


An interesting read. However, I find your insistence on calling the area that the Jews were living in at the time Palestine. Why do this when even the Roman maps marked it as Judea?

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