Powell wins few converts: Religious leaders react coolly to politician's theory that Jesus was stoned to death

'ENOCH POWELL has always had the sweet reasonableness of the insane,' a prominent bishop said yesterday in reaction to the maverick politician's theory that Jesus was stoned for blasphemy.

Dr Hugh Montefiore, the retired Bishop of Birmingham, said that Mr Powell had defended his interpretation of St Matthew's gospel in front of a meeting of the clergy of Worcester diocese in Hartlebury Castle two years ago.

'He told me . . . that he had been pondering this for a long time,' Dr Montefiore said. 'But the documents of the New Testament are on the whole pro-Roman and anti- Jewish; and how the reverse process of transferring blame for Jesus's death to the Romans could have got under way is never explained.'

None the less, he said: 'I don't actually think that it can be called a heresy, really. Just an inaccurate speculation. It doesn't make any difference theologically who killed him if he died for our sins.'

Asked whether it would make any difference if Jesus had been run over by a camel, the bishop said it would: 'According to Christian doctrine, he died at the hands of sinners, and even with the best will in the world, you could not call a camel a sinner.'

Nicholas Coote, assistant general secretary for the Catholic bishops' conference, said: 'Enoch Powell is a sincere and fascinating man lacking a common-sense regulator.'

A former chairman of the Church of England's doctrine commission, the Rt Rev John Baker, retired Bishop of Salisbury, said: 'Clearly, belief can put up with quite a number of errors of fact in the gospel story.

'There are obvious disagreements in the gospels as we all know: they can't all be right . . . But the faith is based on things happening in history and once you abolish the history you have abolished the faith. Once you are forced to say that the people who composed the gospel . . . had made the stuff up, knowing it to be untrue, they become rather discredited.'

Dr Baker said the writers of the gospels were not claiming to be religious dreamers. 'They are claiming to tell it as it happened, and to say, 'This is our window upon God'. If the crucifixion is going to be thrown out, then you really have torn the guts out of the story completely.'

Jewish observers were less genial about Mr Powell's speculations. Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead Synagogue, claimed that they might inflame anti-semitism. 'It is unhelpful to interfaith relations today to base one's faith on the belief that members of another faith killed your god,' he said.

'It explains the fact that anti-semitism has been largely a phenomenon of Christendom, and is not inherently found in any of the other major faiths.

''But there will be no real effect on Christian-Jewish relations, because if the author was not Enoch the book would not be taken up. I think the content of the book will mean it disappears fairly quickly,' he concluded.