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Out of the attic and into the classroom

THE DORLING KINDERSLEY ILLUSTRATED FAMILY BIBLE. Consultant editor Claude-Bernard Costecalde. Dorling Kindersley Pounds 25.

COLLINS SCHOOL BIBLE. New Testament with study notes. Collins Pounds 8. 99.

For many people the image of a family Bible is one of a heavy, dour, black-covered book, full of thees and thous, begats and begottens, repellant pictures (if any) and perhaps containing dates of family births and deaths. Most survivors of the species reside in lofts and attics, unread but unable, for sentimental reasons, to be thrown away. They are forgotten except when we move house.

Dorling Kindersley's Illustrated Family Bible brings the genre into the 21st century. The text consists of extracts from the New International Version Bible, profusely but not garishly illustrated with colour line drawings and some archaeological and geographical photographs, with key points of interpretation and commentary in the margins.

In a society such as ours, which has lost the ancient culture clues to understanding the Bible, and which has largely given up trying, the commentary and introductory material are invaluable. Just occasionally Jesus is awarded a halo, but mostly he looks quite normal.

The commentary is conservative. The question of the historical basis of the stories of Jonah and Daniel is not raised. Instead we are told "there are a number of reliable accounts of people being swallowed by whales", so parts of the Bible are immediately relegated to the strange-but-true level. It is implied that Moses wrote "The Books of Moses", in which his death is described.

More disappointing than the conservative commentary is that readers are rarely permitted a choice of interpretation - more radical views should be provided alongside the conservative ones. Readers can then make up their own minds.

With its one-sided commentary, Dorling Kindersley's Bible fails to reflect the range of theological scholarship. This needs to be addressed in any future edition. But this is a genuine family Bible, which could be used by anyone from seven years old upwards. It would also make a good resource for RE, as long as the teacher has additional interpretations to those supplied.

Few schools nowadays will use a school Bible, and it is difficult to imagine that for adolescents at least, any book that bears the uncool label "school" married to the equally uncool "Bible" will carry much street cred. Collins School Bible contains notes on studying the New Testament, and on its political, religious and social background, extremely brief introductions to each book (too brief to be much use), a list of biblical references to social issues that a GCSE student might find helpful, maps, and icons in the text to mark the miracles and teaching of Jesus.

The text is that of the Good News Bible, second edition, in two-colour printing, with some rather stark black and white photographs. It will not immediately captivate pupil readers.

It is hard to see how this Bible is specifically a schools' version or distinctively different from other modern Bibles with brief study notes. Nor does it contain the sort of background information pupil readers from religions other than Judaism or Christianity, or from secular backgrounds, would need.

But it will be interesting to see if the national trend towards biblical illiteracy will be reversed by these and other new versions. The test will not be in the sales figures, but in the usage.

Terence Copley is professor of religious education at the University of Exeter

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