The study - by Professor Thomas Thompson, one of the world's foremost authorities on biblical archaeology - says that the first 10 books of the Old Testament are almost certainly fiction, written between 500 and 1,500 years after the events they purport to describe.
Professor Thompson's claims, outlined in a new book, The Early History of the Israelite People, are being taken seriously by scholars.
The British Museum's leading expert on the archaeology of the Holy Land, Jonathan Tubb, said last week: 'Professor Thompson may well be right in many of his arguments. His book is a work of tremendous scholarship. He has been meticulous in his research, and brave in expressing what many of us have thought intuitively for a long time but have been reticent in saying.'
Professor Thompson - from Marquette University in Milwaukee - says that there is a complete absence of archaeological and historical evidence for many events portrayed in the Bible. The inevitable conclusion, he argues, is that the Israelite exile in Egypt, the Exodus and the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land never took place.
Excavations have found no trace of a settled population around Judea and Jerusalem during the 10th century BC, when the Kingdom of David and Solomon was supposed to have flourished. A community that could have supported a kingdom did not form in Judea until at least a century later, Professor Thompson said. Jerusalem did not become a large and politically influential city until about 650 BC.
He added: 'It is out of the question that Saul, David, and Solomon, as described as kings in the Bible, could have existed. I think the biblical accounts are wonderful stories, invented at the time when Jerusalem was part of the Persian Empire in the 5th Century BC.'
The Israelite nation, he believes, was a creation of the Persian Empire and was formed around 450 BC. But the people who were moved to Jerusalem at that time were not the descendants of those who had been deported from the city after the Bablyonian capture in 586 BC. They were descendants of Syrian, Philistine, Phoenician, Judean, and other peoples who had also been forcibly deported to Babylon.
The first temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem was built at the instigation of the Persians, also in 450 BC - 500 years after the date suggested by the Bible. Before then, the main centre for the worship of Yahweh was in Samaria but, according to Professor Thompson, the religion had been in decline for several centuries. The Persian motive was to build up Jerusalem, with its newly- planted population, as a city of regional importance and to reduce Samaria's standing. It was the Persian empire's practice to build temples to important regional deities.
Professor Thompson's thesis was taken calmly last week by leading spokesmen for Judaism. Rabbi Stephen Howard, chairman of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues Rabbinic Conference, said: 'The Bible was written to explore the human relationship with God, not primarily as a history book. It is the wisdom, not the historicity, of the Bible which is of prime importance.'
Rabbi Julian Jacobs, a member of Chief Rabbi's cabinet, said: 'The Bible, being of divine origin, can stand on its own feet and does not require supportive evidence.'
But the book - which is published by E J Brill in Leiden, the Netherlands - will offend some religious groups. The Reverend Clive Calver, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, which claims 1.2 million supporters, said it was the beginning of 'a new phase in attacks upon the authenticity of scripture'.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content