The public is widely ignorant of the stories and people who provide the basis of Christianity, a survey has found, despite 75 per cent of respondents owning a copy of the Bible.
The National Biblical Literacy Survey found that as few as 10 per cent of people understood the main characters in the Bible and their relevance.
Figures such as Abraham and Joseph were a source of puzzlement and it was rare to find anyone who could name the Ten Commandments.
Many stories considered to be central to the Christian message were a mystery to most. As few as 7 per cent of respondents knew the story of Whitsun and only 15 per cent were familiar with the stories associated with Advent.
St John's College Durham in Durham carried out the survey and released preliminary findings yesterday. The full report is expected to be published in July.
Researchers found that 57 per cent of people knew nothing about Joseph or his brothers despite the hit musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and 60 per cent were ignorant of the story of the Good Samaritan.
The Reverend David Wilkinson, from St John's, said the consequences of ignorance went far beyond being unclear about what church leaders might preach. He said a good grounding in the stories and characters of the Bible was essential to understanding history and culture because so much of art, music and literature was bound up with religious themes.
"There are depths to many pieces of music, many of Shakespeare's plays, particular pieces of art that draw from the imagery, the stories, the language of the Bible," Dr Wilkinson told the BBC.
The Reverend Brian Brown, a Methodist preacher and visiting lecturer at St John's, said he was startled by the lack of knowledge and understanding among people questioned, despite a third of them saying that the Bible was important to them.