The Diocese of Ely Education Directorate

Using the Bible in RE

At one point the study of the Bible was central to RE. Now  with RE syllabuses that cover all six world religions, and an ever-increasing awareness of the inappropriateness of confessional RE, many young people are no longer Biblically literate.

The Bible is a challenging book for staff as well as pupils. It evokes a range of responses and interpretations. It is important therefore, to address some of the issues it raises to ensure some uniformity of approach and a consequent progression in pupils’ learning.

Why use the Bible in RE?

  • It’s the Christian Holy Book and Christianity is the predominant religious tradition in Great Britain
  • It helps the understanding of both English history and English literature.
  • It is a collection of stories of how men and women made sense of being human
  • It talks about God
  • It helps children to develop a vocabulary with which to think and talk about religious ideas
  • It helps a child to see that his/her questions have been asked by others
  • It may help a child to make sense of his/her own experiences of life
  • It’s in the Syllabus!

What is the Bible all about? (A Lightning Tour!)

  1. Beginnings – Stories wrestle with questions about life; creation, suffering, sin etc (Genesis1-12)
  2. The story of the Jewish people – In response to God’s call, Abraham and his family, who were nomads, journeyed to Canaan, where the family increased with son Isaac and his sons Jacob and Esau. (Genesis 13-38) Famine eventually drove Jacob and his 12 sons, including Joseph, to Egypt, where they became slaves. (Genesis 39-50) They escaped under Moses and travelled across the desert where they developed laws for the community under God. They settled in Palestine establishing themselves as a nation (Joshua, Judges). A monarchy was established with Saul and later David and Solomon (1&2 Samuel; 1&2 Kings).Attempts at foreign alliances brought cultural and religious pluralism (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah) and the Jews were eventually exiled as prisoners of war. (Jeremiah, Isaiah) Some returned, under the edict of a benevolent Persian overlord, but many remained in foreign lands. Empire succeeded empire; Persia, then Greece and finally Rome, but the Jews were never absorbed by their conquerors. They resented their subject status as occupied territory and constantly, below the surface, the seeds of nationalism flourished.
  3. The Story of Jesus – One Jew, Jesus, was heralded by many as the deliverer of his people. He challenged an exclusive faith, which marginalized the poor and sick and spoke of God’s love for all; Jew and non-Jew. The Romans executed him. (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) His followers continued his mission challenging people to live in God’s way (Acts, Letters)

The Faith of the Bible

Throughout their story, the Jews believed that it was God who had called and chosen them; their history was a response to God’s activity. The Jews, through experience, formed convictions about God and themselves that influenced every part of their living.

The division of the Bible into the Old and New Testaments reflects the Christian understanding that the former is the story of God’s agreement with his people (the Jews) through the Law and the latter is the story of God’s agreement with all mankind through Jesus Christ.

But it is neither helpful nor correct to make a distinction between the belief about God in the Old and New Testaments. The God of the prophets and the God of Jesus is a God of mercy, justice and love who is intimately involved in the affairs of his creation and with whom a loving relationship is both possible and the proper destiny of mankind.

In the New Testament, Jesus, in his unique life and death, both shows and is the way to this destiny.

What kind of book is the Bible?

  • It is like a library of books (39 Old Testament, 27 New Testament) and its books cover different types of writing (history, myth, law, letters etc)
  • It uses metaphor, myth and history to explore truth. It would be misleading to assume that it was all intended to be literally true.
  • It was written over a long period from about 1500BCE to the end of 1st CE (about 1600 years!) by a collection of people, many anonymous, yet all believing that they conveyed insights about God and humanity.
  • The literature bears the vocabulary, style and ideas of the culture of the day, which was very different from our own (e.g. it presupposes a flat earth; it is patriarchal)
  • It is an adult book written by believing individuals/communities for believers to learn and worship, but it speaks of experiences common to children.
  • It is a source of faith to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but it is understood in different ways (e.g. Muslims believe that the Qur’an, which contains Biblical stories, was dictated by God, whereas many Christians understand the Bible to be God inspired through the words of fallible humans).
  • The Bible is called Holy by Christians and is used in private and public worship as the Word of God. But Christians believe that Jesus is God’s Word (John 1) as he is the full revelation of God and His will.

What is the difference between the approach to the Bible in RE and in Collective Worship?

‘Teachers cannot make the Bible relevant for children, that results from the children’s engagement with the Bible.’ (Marian Carter & Jenny Rolph)

It is certainly the aim of both RE and Collective Worship that the pupils ‘engage with’ the Bible on varying levels. Perhaps the main distinction is that the children’s ‘engagement’ is the primary purpose of Collective Worship but stands alongside knowledge and understanding (AT1) in RE. It must be the case in both collective worship and RE that the teacher’s approach to the Bible can direct and enable children’s responses.

The message of a story is all in collective worship. In RE, it is important to consider the context and intention of the story. It is important that it is a part of a scheme of work, so that its causes or origins and consequences can be studied. (e.g. In collective worship, it would be quite appropriate to hear a parable that Jesus told and consider its relevance/teaching for the pupils. In RE, the time in Jesus’ ministry, the audience and its consequences would also need to be discussed; also, what it tells us about Jesus and the Gospel itself. In the same way, the story of Moses could be told in collective worship as an example of faith, obedience and awe, but in RE would need to be studied as part of a unit on, for example, the Exodus or the Passover).

As a general check -list, the following aspects of a Bible story/ passage need to be considered in RE:

  • The context in which the story is written
  • The sort of literature it is
  • The writer’s purpose in telling the story
  • Something of the theological significance behind the story

In Collective Worship, the aim is to evoke a personal response, whereas in RE, the primary aim is to evoke empathy. The latter demands more information and knowledge than the former. It demands the consideration of the Bible from others’ viewpoints; both believers and non-believers.

RE AT2 includes ‘exploration’ as well as ‘response’ and ‘reflection’, which are clearly also key elements in collective worship. There is therefore a place in RE for discussion and debate, which is not appropriate in worship. Collective worship is ‘leader-directed’ whereas it is important in RE not to impose adult ideas and interpretations on the children.

As in all RE, learning objectives are paramount and will direct the content and approach of the lesson. There is, of course, an objective in every act of worship, but this may be the offering of an experience or of an opportunity to worship.

So what should we teach about the Bible?

Most RE syllabuses reflect the current move away from the Bible stories themselves to a consideration of their place and meaning within the Christian community.

In the Cambridgeshire Syllabus, at Key Stage 1, the suggested Scheme of Work is ‘Special Books’ in which the emphasis is on the way sacred books are special to different religious communities. At Key Stage 3, the unit, ‘The Bible as a Book’ concentrates on the history and background of the Bible and ‘The Bible and what it means to Christians’ looks particularly at its place in Christian worship.

It is clear, however, that it is not possible to understand the relevance and meaning of the Bible for Christians without considering at least some of its content! This will also be an important element in the schemes of work on Festivals, Rites of Passage The Person of Jesus and in particular, Self and Community.

This move is certainly the result of an appreciation of the limited educational value of the stories as isolated stories but also of uncertainty as to which parts of the Bible are appropriate at which key Stage. There is little guidance given in the Schemes of work here.

Appropriate Stories

Before choosing a Bible story, some general questions need to be answered:

  • Will the pupils be able to grasp the theological meaning of the story? If not, the story will be in danger of being trivialised and this would certainly be poor RE. E.g. the story of Noah is about judgment and a new covenant, not water and animals and the second Creation story is about suffering and sin, not the order of creation.
  • Does the story give a false or primitive idea of God? Is it frightening or so simplistic that the children will discard (and sometimes all the rest of the Bible with it) at a later stage? Is it presenting ‘ a God of the Old Testament’ in sharp contrast to the ‘God of the New?’
  • Will it engage the pupils? Will it fit the developmental needs and present experience of the pupils?
  • What are my learning objectives? Why have I chosen this story?
  • How does it fit into the scheme of work?
  • How will I tell the story? Do I need to omit any parts/ alter the vocabulary? Read it? Summarise it? Get the pupils to act it out? Show a video? Which version of the Bible will I use?

The Developmental Approach

This ensures that pupils do not always meet Bible stories in the same form, but enter into a dialogue with the material that is appropriate to their stage of development. These stages are reflected in the guidelines for Key Stage 1 and 2. This approach is certainly applicable to the stories that lie behind the Festivals (i.e. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost) that are often told and re-told during a pupils’ time at school. It also ensures progression at Key Stage 3.

  • Responding to the excitement and drama of history
  • Looking for deeper meanings
  • Exploring the context and background
  • Developing the pupils’ critical faculties
  • Understanding something of the significance of the stories for Jews and Christians

The Story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

KS1 – story told at a very simple level, as a story of Jesus to illustrate his caring about other people. Use vv. 30-37 only. Encourage children to talk about the story and what it means to them.

KS2 – The story can be seen in its proper context of the lawyer’s question. Background information can be introduced:

  • The significance of the story in terms of racial hatred (Jews have no dealings with Samaritans)
  • The conflict between duty and compassion, the letter and the spirit of the law (an explanation of priestly and Levite duties)
  • Type of literature (parable)

KS3 – Development of the theme of racial intolerance and the breaking of barriers by Jesus. (Include Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well; John 4) (The outsider and the rejected are all part of the Kingdom)

The Story of Moses:

KS1 – Moses in the bulrushes – being special, caring, family ties Moses and the Burning Bush – Feelings of wonder and being chosen.

KS2 – Call of Moses – challenge and response/ personal experience, the story of the Exodus.

KS3 – The nature of God (I AM) Symbolism (fire/voice of God)

The Tables

The Tables on the following pages are an attempt to suggest which Bible stories are appropriate at Key Stages 1 and 2 and will fulfil the targets of the Cambridgeshire Agreed Syllabus. They are also entirely appropriate as schemes of work for the Norfolk Syllabus.

Obviously, they are by no means exhaustive, but I have tried to keep in mind while writing them the general experience of children at the two key stages:

e.g. At KS1 excitement, wonder at the world, discovery of their own uniqueness, discovery of growing abilities and skills

In years 3 and 4, concrete, literal thinkers, concerned with the question, ‘is it true?’ Beginning to search for meaning and significance in themselves and the world. Attempts at finding identity, tendency to hero worship.

In years 5 and 6, beginning to understand the concept of time and the relationship of events. Becoming more self-aware, beginning of abstract thinking and the recognition of differences between people.

I have tried to select stories from both the Old and New Testaments, but there are fewer appropriate ones from the former because many contain a primitive and nowadays, questionable view of God, if taken at face value. Moreover, an understanding of many of these stories depends on significant theological and historical knowledge.

I have included a limited number of Jesus’ miracles at Key Stage 2 and only one healing miracle at Key Stage 2 because many of Jesus’ miracles have several layers of meaning that would be more appropriate at Key Stage 3 (e.g. Raising of Lazarus, turning water into wine). I suggest the nature miracles (i.e. walking on the water, stilling the storm) if they are included at all, should be studied in PE4 or within a unit on the nature of a Gospel to allow a fruitful discussion of the inevitable, ‘Is it true?’

Different Literature in the Bible – a brief survey

Myth – A story that intends to convey truth. This truth is the important element of the story (e.g. the creation stories in Genesis seek to convey truths about the nature of man and the origin of sin and evil).

Legend – A legend is a story that has its basis in historical fact, but which has become exaggerated over the years [e.g. David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17)]

Law – The laws of the Old Testament are in the first five books of the Bible (Torah). They are concerned with the agreement between God and his people, Israel, with requirements on both sides [e.g. Ten Commandments (Exodus 20)]

History – Tricky! The whole of the Bible is set in an historical context and archaeological evidence and other sources do corroborate some Biblical narratives. But the Biblical writers interpret events in the light of their faith – it is history with a bias; but then, is there any other kind of history? (e.g. Acts of the Apostles).

Story – These are set within a historical context, but are written for a specific purpose. To discern this, it is necessary to find out the circumstances in which they were written e.g. Daniel was written at a time of persecution to encourage continuing faith; Jonah and Ruth were written to counter the exclusive nature of the Jewish faith after the Jews’ Exile to Babylon.

Prophecy – This is particular to the Old Testament and is not appropriate to Literacy Hour. The prophets were God’s spokesmen; reminding people of God’s will and speaking out against what was wrong in society (e.g. Amos).

Poetry – Written in the Hebrew poetic form, the Psalms is the hymnbook of the Jews and is used by Christians and Jews in worship. There are also three psalms in the New Testament at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel; Mary’s Song (Magnificat), Zechariah’s song (Benedictus) and Simeon’s Song (Nunc Dimittis)

Gospel – Not objective biographies, but written by believers who wish to spread the good news of Jesus.

Letter (Epistle) – Most were written by St Paul to encourage and teach the churches he had founded. Heavy on theology! One which could be used successfully with primary pupils is Paul’s letter to Philemon, which is a plea to Philemon to take back his runaway slave

Parable – A story with a message that uses striking and familiar images often used by Jesus.

Some Suggestions for using the Bible in the Classroom

With acknowledgements to Margaret Cooling’s ‘Toolkits’ Series!)

It can be a temptation to allow the creative activity to become an end in itself, so it is important to have clear RE objectives in mind.


Senses Poems

  • Jeremiah in the well; Jeremiah 38:1-13
  • The burning bush: Exodus 3:1-12
  • Mary Magdalene sees Jesus: Mark 16:8-11; John 20:11-18

This involves the pupils listening to a story and then describing it from the point of view of one of the characters with reference to all the senses. The poem should be 5 lines in length, each line dealing with a different sense. The pupils can add a sixth line if they wish, exploring what the character felt emotionally.

Sounds Poems

  • The fall of Jericho: Joshua 5:13-6:27
  • The still small voice: 1 Kings 19:1-18
  • Jesus and the moneychangers: Matthew 21; 12-17

The pupils read a story and write down all the sounds that might have been going on. They then need to decide which are the most important sounds to convey the message of the story.

Metaphors and Similes

  • The ‘I am’ sayings: John 6:35, 8:12, 9:5, 10:9, 10:11, 11:25, 14:6, 15:1, 15:5
  • Elijah on Mount Carmel: 1 Kings 18:16-46
  • Jonah

A simile likens one thing to another; a metaphor says one thing is another. Both appear in Biblical poetry (Psalm 18:2,30,33; Job 38:14). Pupils can explore the meaning of these. Pupils could also take a Biblical character and decide what they would be using metaphors:


  • If he were a tree he would be a giant oak
  • If he were a flower he would be a thistle
  • If he were a vegetable he would be a swede
  • If he were a colour he would be purple
  • If he were weather he would be a thunderstorm

The song of…

  • The Good Samaritan: Luke 10; 25-37
  • The lost coin: Luke 15: 8-10
  • The stilling of the storm: Matthew 8:23-27

The pupils listen to a story and choose an object from within it. The object can then comment, ask questions, tell the story and thus bring out its meaning.

The song of the fishing boat
Just another trip across the lake.
My life has been spent as a fishing boat.
I always wanted to be a big ship.
A storm comes upon the lake.
I feel scared, cold and damp.
I cannot fight this storm, Jesus can.
He wakes up and says “Quiet! Be still!”
And I am safe. (Year 4 pupil)


Using a church visit

  • The good shepherd: John 10:1-21
  • The Crucifixion: Matthew 26:32-54
  • The Baptism of Jesus: Matthew 3:13-17

Having seen the many ways; carvings, windows, statues etc in which the church uses art to express the meaning of a story, the pupils can then read a Bible story and choose one of the methods they have seen to express it themselves, or write why they would choose that medium. (NB It will be important for the teacher to establish which are Biblical images before the visit.)


  • Creation: Psalm 8
  • The call of the disciples: Mark 1:14-2
  • The ‘I am’ sayings: John 6:35, 8:12, 9:5, 10:9, 11, 11:25,26, 14:6, 15:1-5
  • The plagues: Exodus 7:14- 11:10

Banners can express a belief, depict a person or illustrate a story or text. They are particularly suited to the expression of a series of events are related ideas. Pupils should begin by studying the story involved and discussing its meaning. There should also be some consideration of the purpose of a banner. (Seeing banners in a church would be helpful) Paper banners are a quick method for the classroom. If it is not practical to make finished banners, designs for banners can be created on the computer or by hand.

Stolen picture

The Annunciation: Luke1: 26-38 and The Annunciation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The writing on the wall: Daniel 5:1-31 and Belshazzar’s feast by Rembrandt van Rijn

The story chosen should be read and the meaning discussed. Pupils should then be given an empty picture frame photocopied onto a piece of paper and be asked to draw a picture/rough sketch/labelled diagram of how they think the artist would have expressed the story.

  • Who would be in the picture?
  • What would their expressions be?
  • How would the relationship between the people be expressed/ (e.g. grouping, eye-contact etc)?
  • What colours would be used?
  • The pupils should then be shown a print of the painting and compare interpretations.

Book Jackets

Show the pupils a number of book covers for stories from the Bible. After reading a Bible story and discussing its meaning, pupils can then design their own cover to communicate that story and message.


Musical Stories

These can be approached in two ways:

  • Gideon: Judges 6:1-7:25
  • David and Goliath: 1 Samuel 17:1-58

The pupils could look at a story and describe characters and background in music. For example, discuss with pupils what sort of melody /sounds would best describe Goliath? The emphasis should be on interpretation as well as description.

Parts of the story can be represented in music. This activity only works on stories with ingredients that can be easily represented.

Musical Characters

  • Martha and Mary: Luke 11:38-42
  • The Pharisee and the Tax Collector: Luke 18:9-14
  • The Good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37

This can be used on any Biblical story with two or more characters with very different personalities. Their individual tune or sound should represent the kind of person they are e.g. (For the good Samaritan parable)

  • The man – a simple effect at walking speed
  • The robbers – a loud, violent effect
  • The priest- a noble aloof tune
  • The Levite – a nervous tune
  • The good Samaritan – an effect to suggest kindness and compassion
  • The innkeeper – a jolly tune

Listening Activities

  • The story of Eli and Samuel -1 Samuel 3

Pupils can listen to music on a variety of Biblical themes and discuss what they make them feel/think. Then listen to some instruments/voices and see if they can identify them. Discuss the story of Eli and Samuel and how people might ‘hear ‘ God’s voice. Consider whether people have an ‘inner voice’. Is it difficult to hear it?

Carols, Psalms, hymns, spirituals and Jazz

These are all used in Christian worship and their words and music often reflect Biblical themes and beliefs and their interpretation. Pupils may study the words, make up new tunes or accompaniments that they feel express their meaning or simply sing them! e.g.

  • The Psalm: ‘Let us with a gladsome mind’: Psalm 136
  • The hymn,’ Amazing Grace’: Luke 15:1-7, John 9
  • The spiritual ‘Joshua won the Battle of Jericho’: Joshua 5&6
  • The jazz song, ‘Oh when the saints’: Revelation 21:1-5



  • The Burning Bush: Exodus 3
  • The Tower of Babel: Genesis 11:1-9
  • The Lost Son: Luke 15:11-32
  • The Healing of the Paralysed man: Luke 5:17-25
  • The events of Holy Week: Mark 14-16

The Bible is full of dramatic stories, but it is very important that pupils are aware of the kind of story they are acting out (e.g. is it a parable or did it actually happen?) Detailed scripts are rarely necessary and can limit the pupils’ thought and involvement.

Drama enables several levels of understanding. It can be the simple re-telling of the story and so be ideal for pupils with limited literacy skills. This may simply involve pupils doing the actions while the teacher narrates. It can also, through discussion and the pupils’ own dramatising of the stories, help them to understand its meaning for believers and something of its current relevance for themselves and others.


  • The story of Creation: Genesis 1
  • The stilling of the Storm: Mark 4:35-41

This is a useful form of non-verbal communication that can express both actual happenings and abstract feelings and can be created quickly and effectively. The symbolism it involves often has close links with the RE syllabus. A narrator can help the action along if necessary!


  • Joseph’s brothers: Genesis 37
  • Jonah
  • Ruth
  • The Lost Son: Luke 15:11-32
  • Pontius Pilate: John 19

A useful way of exploring characters and situations further when the story is familiar. It involves someone sitting at the front of the class and being questioned and having to answer in role.


  • The Joseph story: Genesis 37:39-45
  • Esther
  • The betrayal of Jesus: Matthew 26; 47-56

Shy pupils can hide behind their creations and allow themselves to become more involved.

Masks help pupils to focus on facial expression and meaning. Pupils could take a story such as Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and select a character at a particular moment, representing them with a mask. The mask should express the person’s character, or their reaction to the events of the story.

Using the Bible well…
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