The Rotation.org Writing Team recommends using the "Good News Translation" for John 11:1-44 for a couple of very good reasons.
We recognize that your church may prefer a different translation, but, as is often the case when teaching children, readability and clarity are more important than using a more difficult adult-preferred translation. This is especially true considering that we have FORTY-FOUR VERSES in this story.
The Good News translation does a good job of making the sentence structure of the story intelligible to young ears and eyes --which is important because this is a long story.
And the Good News translation does a good job of STICKING WITH many of the most familiar words used by most other major translations.
The Good News translation of the most memorable lines all sound right:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
Jesus wept is still there in verse 35.
And Jesus' shouts sound familiar:Lazarus come out! Untie him! Let him go!
Another good pick is the New Living Translation. Like the Good News translation the New Living translation preserves certain keywords and phrases that are familiar across many translations but makes the sentence structure and story flow more readable.
We do not recommend the NIV or NRSV for John 1:1-44 because their more formal tone and sentence structure become a long and difficult journey over the course of forty-four verses, especially for younger readers. And John's writing style doesn't help (as any Sunday School teacher can tell you).
Forty-four verses of King James English would be punishment, not teaching.
Picking the right translation for this story
Thoughts and suggestions from Writing Team Member, Neil MacQueen.
Hopefully, your church is one of those that believe that the "Bible Version Wars*" are over, and you have a teacher's freedom to select the best translation for the particular passage you want to teach your children. If you have that freedom, you should exercise it, especially with the John 11:1-44, the Raising of Lazarus.
So which translation should you pick? It depends on the passage, and how a particular translation actually TRANSLATES the passage and key verses in the passage:
For example: If you pick the Good News, NLT, NRSV or NIV translations to teach the story of Lazarus, then your children will learn, "I Am the Resurrection and the Life." But if you use the popular CEV or The Living Bible translations, your children will learn this key verse as: “I am the one who raises the dead to life!"
This story's key verse in the story is a good example of picking a translation that is both readable and familiar.
Readability and Familiarity are the two criteria for picking a good translation for a Bible passage.
Readability is straightforward–can the kids read the passage with comprehension, or is it over their heads?
Familiarity is more nuanced and passage-dependent criteria, and the key verse in the story of Lazarus is a good example of why familiarity matters. In the classroom, we want them to be reading and understanding the key verse "I Am the Resurrection and the Life" because this is likely the way they will hear it in worship and for the rest of their lives in other churches and outside the church.
Keep in mind that the translation that best meets these two criteria can change depending on the passage you are working with. For example, for Psalm 23, I would go with a more formal NRSV or KJV version because that passage is timeless poetry, not a story narrative or complex theological argument.
And within every translation, they re-word some verses better than others. You have to read them and compare them.
Readability + Familiarity = That's how you pick the best translation for each passage.
Examples of translation "readability" using John 11
Here is John 11, verse 3 in the King James Version:
Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying,
"Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick."
(Sounds poetic; but they'll stumble over "behold, he whom thou;" you'll waste class time explaining "sent unto him;" etc.)
Here it is in the New Revised Standard:
So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,
“Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
(Seriously, who says, "he whom you love"?)
And finally from the Good News Translation:
The sisters sent Jesus a message:
“Lord, your dear friend is sick.”
Here is John 11:40 in the King James Version:
Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe,
thou shouldest see the glory of God?
(What a tongue twister that will be incomprehensible to children.)
And verse 40 in the Good News Translation:
“Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?”
As Jesus himself said in verse 9 of Lazarus' story, "those who walk in broad daylight do not stumble." A teacher's job is to help turn the lights on, and a good translation that doesn't obscure the words or Word is a great beginning!
Where can you get the different (best) version of the Bible passage if you or your church does not own that version?
Simply go to a website like www.BibleGateway.com, search for your passage, and then print or copy the text. All the versions listed there allow you the right to make copies of a limited amount of scripture for teaching purposes.
*Re: "Bible Version Wars"
There was a time when The Church believed that only the Latin translation of scripture was authentic and permissible. (Even though the NT was written in Greek. Go figure.)
During the Reformation, Protestants insisted that the Bible should be understandable in the language of the people and not just the clergy. Thus, many versions appear every century –each trying to get back to what the original text was trying to say.
In many conservative English-speaking churches, the 1611 King James version is still considered to be the only acceptable version. However, with each passing decade, this ERRANT belief in the KJV's superiority wanes a little more. (The KJV was designed to speak in the language of its day, not ours.)
In modern times, we have many translations because we have better research and because language continues to change. Each translation comes with its own tendencies and attempts at being true to the original text while being intelligible to modern ears. The Good News translation seems to strike the correct balance for teaching young people.
As teachers, it is our responsibility and privilege to help students understand what's in the Bible, and to that end, we have many wonderful translations and tools and should not be limited by those who neither understand the tools nor understand how to teach children.
~Written by Neil MacQueen for the Writing Team
Neil is a Presbyterian minister specializing in Christian education and children's curriculum.