Lessons about Jesus should include exploration of how Muslims view him as a prophet and investigation of his Jewish identity, experts have said.

Showing pupils a range of perspectives on Jesus from different individuals and groups will make religious education more rigorous and encourage pupils to have empathy with others, according to academics.

At a time of year when questions about Jesus's identity are likely to arise, a new textbook is being launched to encourage more varied teaching.

It supports teachers to move beyond telling the story of the birth, life and work of Jesus and instead highlight the way he is seen by people from varied cultural, religious and academic backgrounds.

This would help students in GCSE and A-level RE lessons to investigate how Jesus is portrayed by assorted individuals and groups - including theologians, historians, feminists, the visually impaired, artists and southern African cultures.

Professor Rob Freathy, who led the team that put the textbook together, said: "There is no single, neutral and objective answer to the question 'Who is Jesus?'.

"Answers differ depending on who is being asked. RE teaching and assessment that recognises that, by asking pupils to think about subject matter from different perspectives, is intellectually more rigorous and can promote the educational benefits of open-ended inquiry.

"It also best prepares pupils to enter a world characterised by a radical diversity of beliefs, religions and world views."

The textbook, titled Who is Jesus?, introduces a team of fictional scholars who each have different motivations for studying Jesus, different ways of going about their studies, and different views about how Jesus is represented in the Bible and elsewhere.

With this academic team as their guides, pupils then encounter a range of contrasting answers to, and ways of answering, the question 'Who is Jesus?'.

This includes analysing sources, such as the Bible, the Koran, historical writings, rituals, interviews, architecture, artefacts and art.

Examples include Christa, a statue by Edwina Sandys of a naked female Christ on the cross, and the painting Jesus and the Cross Dressers, by Brian J Turner, which places Jesus on a road construction site alongside four male workers dressed in women's clothes.

Prof Freathy, from the University of Exeter, said: "We know these images are potentially controversial. They are designed to be provocative.

"But what we want to provoke is thought not outrage. According to the gospels, Jesus caused controversy by associating with people who were marginalised at the time, such as tax collectors and prostitutes.

"The Jesus and the Cross Dressers painting is used to stimulate discussion about which groups are rejected and excluded today, and perhaps with which groups a modern-day Jesus would mix."

The textbook, available for free online, has been written so it can be used in schools with or without a religious affiliation.

By Rod Minchin