Religion: Jesus as Mushroom

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To some biblical scholars in Britain, the new book looked like the psychedelic ravings of a hippie cultist. To others, it was merely an outlandish hoax. One described it as reading "like a Semitic philologist's erotic nightmare."

The object of all this learned scorn was The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, which argues that Jesus was not a man but a hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria; that the New Testament was concocted by addicts of the mushroom as a code for their mystical lore; and that the God of Jews and Christians is ultimately nothing more than a magnificent phallic symbol. Normally, such preposterous stuff would be dismissed as beneath serious discussion. But in this case the author is a maverick philologist of some scholarly standing: John M. Allegro, 47, former lecturer on the Old Testament at the University of Manchester and the first Briton on the international team of editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Allegro's method is to delve behind the surface meaning and context of biblical words, conjuring instead with their frequently erotic root meaning ("Christian," he says, is a derivation from the Sumerian meaning "smeared with semen"). These half-forgotten roots, Allegro maintains, link the characters and stories of the Bible to the orgiastic, often outlawed mushroom cults of the Near East. For example, the Greek word for "stumbling block," which is used to describe the crucified Christ in Corinthians I, once meant "bolt," which leads Allegro to connect it with the phallus-shaped "bolt-plant" mushroom; thus he concludes that "stumbling block" is, in fact, a cryptic reference to getting high on mushrooms.

Besides rejecting such word games, critics have pointed out that there is more historical evidence that Jesus actually lived in Judea than that the mushroom ever did. Last week 15 distinguished theologians and philologists —including Sir Godfrey Driver, one of the chief translators of the Old Testament in the New English Bible —took to the letters columns of the Times of London to denounce Allegro's book as "an essay in fantasy rather than philology," which is "not based on any philological or other evidence" of merit.

At his home on the Isle of Man, Allegro was "staggered" by the attack on his book, but remained undaunted. "I'd match my philology with any of that lot," he said. He is forging ahead on a new book about "where we go from here, morally, now that there is no basis for Christianity." Meanwhile, he made it clear that his interest in hallucinogenic mushrooms is purely scholarly: "Drugs are like religion. With both, you can convince yourself of things which may not be true."