CHRISTIANITY would have problems if a detailed scholarly attack on the accuracy of the Bible were proved to be correct, a British Christian leader conceded over the weekend.
The Rev Clive Calver, leader of the Evangelical Alliance, to which 1.2 million Christians are affiliated, was reacting to claims by one of the world's leading biblical scholars, Professor Thomas Thompson, that Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, King David and King Solomon never existed, and that events such as the Israelites' exile in Egypt, the Exodus, and the conquest of the Promised Land never happened.
In a new book - The Early History of the Israelite People - Professor Thompson, of Marquette University Milwaukee, argues that they are fictional characters and events invented during the fifth century BC - some 500-1,500 years after the time in which the events are said to have occurred.
Christian theological reaction to the book's implications has been varied. Mr Calver, general director of Britain's Evangelical Alliance, said: 'Because I believe the Bible to be the Word of God, I suspect that it is impossible for archaeologists and historians to demonstrate that the scriptures are substantially wrong.
'However, because we are subject to reason and are not infallible, we would have to accept the implication if it ever turned out that we were wrong and the archaeologists were right. I don't believe that would ever happen. However, it is true that if it ever did, we would have problems.
'In that extremely unlikely eventuality, there would be implications not only for our understanding of the Old Testament but also for the credibility of aspects of the New Testament, including the Transfiguration where Christ appears with Moses and Elijah, and the catalogue of the heroes of faith - most major biblical figures from Abraham to King David - in Hebrews XI.
'If it was ever demonstrated that the Exodus did not happen and Moses did not exist, then the historical context in which the Ten Commandments were given would be removed, and that would have serious implications. And if it were ever shown that there was no Israelite conquest of the Promised Land - literally the land promised by God - it would have massive implications for the special status of the Holy Land itself.
'Christianity has fought many battles. However, this is the first major occasion in which archaeology has become the battlefield. Christians must take this challenge seriously and examine it critically in the belief that yet again attempts to disprove scripture will fail. 'Professor Thompson's work, with which I profoundly disagree, marks the coming of age of critical theories regarding the literal authenticity of events in the Bible. This book can be seen as initiating a new phase in attacks upon the authenticity of scripture.'
But the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Rev Bill Westwood, though theologically conservative, appeared less concerned by Professor Thompson's claims.
'The professor is obviously a child of our times,' he said. 'Whereas in past eras criticism of fundamental tenets of belief were often forbidden, the opposite is now the case.'
The questioning of basic teaching is now intellectually fashionable, indeed de rigueur, he said. 'It is the nature of our times to try to cast doubt on received truth. But, as the medieval scholar Theodore Beza observed, the Church is an anvil which has worn out many hammers.'
However, broad support for Professor Thompson's book came from the British Museum's leading expert on the archaeology of the Holy Land, Jonathan Tubb, who described it as a work of 'tremendous scholarship'.
Mr Tubb said: 'It challenges biblical received wisdom and will lead to a reassessment of the early history of the Holy Land. Professor Thompson may well be right in many of his key arguments. 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.'
A member of the Chief Rabbi's cabinet, Rabbi Julian Jacobs, made it clear that 'Orthodox Jews will not agree with Professor Thompson's denial of the history of early Israel. But the Bible - being of divine origin - can stand on its own seat and does not require supportive evidence.'
A contrasting reaction came from the non-Orthodox wing of rabbinical thought. Rabbi Stephen Howard, chairman of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues Rabbinic Conference, said: 'It is the wisdom, not the historicity, of the Bible which is of prime importance.
'Liberal Judaism is non-fundamentalist. We accept critical biblical scholarship. So we are used to the possibility that Israel was not founded exactly as stated in the Bible.'
Professor Thompson's book, published by E J Brill in Leiden, the Netherlands, is seen by many academics as the first major scholarly reassessment of the historicity of the Old Testament for more than 50 years.