22nd April 2005 at 01:00
REVELATIONS. Canongate pound;10

In 1998, the Edinburgh publisher Canongate caused a stir when it published 12 books of the Bible as separate, shirt-pocket-sized paperbacks. It was not the Authorized Version text that provoked cries of "blasphemy", but the introductions, commissioned (largely) from agnostics, atheists and liberal believers, who viewed the texts as imaginative literature, not as factual documents of faith. So Fay Weldon neatly exposed St Paul's misogyny and AN Wilson considered St Matthew's gospel a deeply anti-Semitic document.

For the evangelical critics of this venture, the chief villains were the novelist Louis de Bernieres (who described God as he appears in the Book of Job as "a mad, bloodthirsty and capricious despot") and Will Self, who quoted a friend's view of the Book of Revelation: "a load of superstitious bollocks".

Subsequent editions were published in the United States and 15 other countries, each with introductions by "local" writers. Now a comprehensive selection of these introductions has been anthologised (without the Biblical text), so we get Thor Heyerdahl pondering on the historical accuracy of the Flood and Noah's Ark in Genesis, Pier Paolo Pasolini viewing St Matthew's Gospel as a screenplay, and the Dalai Lama on Buddhist ideals in the Epistle of James. RE teachers will find they suggest many novel approaches to the biblical books. Others will relish the way they demonstrate the Bible's supreme status as a work of myth and poetry and its inadequacies as a factual discourse.

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