In the preface to the book, published next month, in which the maverick former politician tries to reinterpret the foundations of Christianity, Mr Powell states that the gospel 'from an early stage always has constituted the accompaniment - as the chorus of a Greek tragedy accompanies and interprets the action upon stage - of the liturgical worship of the Christian Church.
'That worship does not stand or fall by whatever may have been the textual history of the document, but derives its authority and its persuasiveness from the immemorial practice and experience of the Church itself.' His attempt to disinter an original gospel from the confusions of the four we have, cannot, he says, 'infringe belief or worship'. Mr Powell's claim that Jesus was not crucified, but stoned, is made on the basis of generally accepted methods of biblical criticism. He is a widely respected Greek scholar. Some of his apparently shocking beliefs are not controversial among biblical scholars, such as the claim that the Sermon on the Mount was never delivered as we know it, or that the New Testament's use of 'The Poor' is allegorical.
Nevertheless, the scholarly consensus ranged against the belief that Jesus was not crucified is impressive. Professor Geza Vermes, a leading authority on the religions of first-century Palestine, said yesterday 'that Jesus was handed over to the Romans and died on the cross is in my view perhaps the most certain of all the uncertainties relating to his story'.
Mr Powell seems to base his dismissal of the trial of Jesus before Pilate and the subsequent crucifixion on the grounds that it largely repeats the material from the earlier trial on a charge of blasphemy before the Jewish authorities. 'I am sure his book contains some interesting remarks. He knows Greek better than most of us,' Professor Vermes said. But Professor Vermes points out there are considerable difficulties with the original story of the trial before a Jewish court. 'If the Synoptic Gospels are followed, the Sanhedrin would have met at a time when it was quite impossible for it to have met. No capital trial . . . could have taken place at night.'
Professor Vermes argues there is also no evidence the Sanhedrin had the power to impose a capital sentence for blasphemy after Judaea became a Roman province AD6. 'Stoning was very much a lynching. People . . . picked up stones and polished off the guilty party without any judicial process.' Even if a Jewish court had had the power to impose a death penalty, Professor Vermes said, there was no evidence it could have convicted Jesus of blasphemy for calling himself the son of God. 'It is not very wise to take the phrase 'son of God' in a simplistic way, as two millennia of Christian tradition have taken it.
'The phrase 'Son of God' in Jewish parlance means everything except the Christian meaning . . . it is never used in the sense of a human being possessing the same nature as God. That is not only unattested, but it is practically inconceivable.' The argument of many scholars is not with the idea that the gospels are the product of an editing process which can be deciphered now. It is commonplace among all but orthodox Jews that the Bible as a whole can be deconstructed in this way. The book of Genesis itself has been assembled from two separate stories.
The problem comes with the conclusions Mr Powell has reached. The idea that Jesus was put to death as a blasphemer by Jews, and not as a rebel by Romans, represents a trend of editing directly opposite to the one detected by most scholars this century. Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop-elect of Rochester, said yesterday 'an unauthorised lapidation (stoning), would have created problems. If there was lapidation, how did the crucifixion story arise? Most of the apologetic in the New Testament is pro-Roman. It involves the Jews more in Jesus' death and excuses the Romans.'
There is a Talmudic legend that Jesus was stoned as a blasphemer, but this is generally regarded as an invention of the third century, designed to discredit Christian attempts to proselytise among Jews.
Hyam Maccoby, author of numerous works on Christian anti- Semitism, claimed Mr Powell's conclusions could inflame old disputes. 'It could undoubtedly have anti-Semitic repercussions. The gospels do that already: they say that Pilate was reluctant to carry out the execution. If it is now said that the Romans did not do the executions, the Jews did, this intensifies the blame against the Jews even more.'
However, Mr Powell is careful to use in his book the phrase 'The Jewish Establishment' rather than 'The Jews'.
The most comprehensive atack on his views came yesterday from the Dean of Lichfield, Dr Tom Wright, who is also a member of the Church of England's Doctrine Commission. 'This is clearly a work of great erudition, which seems to have lost touch with the distinction between that which is possible and that which is plausible,' Dr Wright said.
But these criticisms are unlikely to upset Mr Powell. At the end of his preface, he says: 'The scholarship of centuries has been devoted to the document which forms the subject of this book. It was my method in studying it to clear the mind as far as possible of preconceptions or conclusions arrived at earlier by others; and I have deliberately therefore neither ascertained nor recorded previous agreement or disagreement with the results I propose.'
Dr Wright said: 'There is something to be said for starting again from scratch, but the catty answer is that he has chosen to ignore everyone else, so he can't grumble if they return the compliment.'
'The Evolution of the Gospel' is to be published by Yale University Press next month.