Charles Williams’ New Testament in the Language of the People

Charles B. Williams, The New Testament: A Translation in the Language of the People. Boston: Bruce Humphries Inc., 1937. Slightly revised in 1950 (Chicago: Moody Press).

Charles B. WilliamsCharles Bray Williams (1869-1952) was a Southern Baptist, born and raised in North Carolina. He earned the B.D. degree at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Penn., in 1900, the M.A. from the University of Chicago 1907, and the Ph.D. in Greek from the same institution in 1908. From 1905 to 1919 he was Professor of Greek and New Testament Interpretation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. From 1919 to 1921 he was President of Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Alabama. From 1921 to 1925 he served as as chair of New Testament Interpretation at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. From 1925 to 1939 he was Professor of Greek and Ethics at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Throughout his teaching career, he also served as Pastor for Baptist churches in the cities where he resided.

His translation of the New Testament “in the Language of the People” was done during his years at Union University, and was published in 1937. The text was presented in paragraphs, with many footnotes (about 20 per chapter). It is divided into the usual chapters, but it lacks the verse numbers. At the beginning of each chapter there is a summary of the contents. We give a sample passage from the version below.

The version did not attract much attention at the time, but, being the work of a Baptist professor, it did receive attention from other Baptist professors in American seminaries. In 1948, Kenneth Taylor of Moody Press (a publisher of Baptist materials in Chicago) made arrangements with Williams to issue a reprint, in which most of the footnotes were eliminated. Between 1949 and 1965 several editions were published by Moody Press. In 1966 the Moody edition was included in a Four-Translation New Testament published by The Iversen Associates in New York, which was then reprinted by Decision magazine for distribution at Billy Graham Crusades in the early 1970’s. In 1986, another edition of Williams’ version was issued by Holman Bible Publishers.

Charles Taylor and Kenneth Taylor in 1950 The Introduction added to the Moody editions contains quotations from several Baptist seminary professors, praising the accuracy of the version in extravagant terms. Edward A. McDowell of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky says that “it gives the most accurate rendering of the Greek text of any translation with which I am acquainted.” J.R. Mantley of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago calls it “the most accurate and illuminating translation in the English language.” John Mostert of the Moody Bible Institute says that “more than any other translator he brings out the aktsionsart (kind of action) of the verbs, an element little stressed in standard versions.” The “Publisher’s Preface” of some Moody editions states that “the most significant contribution in this translation, and the sphere in which it surpasses the majority of others, is in its bringing out the revealing tense distinctions in the Greek verbs.” A “good example” is “the translation of the future perfect passive tense in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. Dr. Williams has rendered these verbs correctly, ‘Whatever you forbid on earth must be what is already forbidden in heaven.’”

In his own Foreward Williams does not make such great claims of literal accuracy. Instead, he emphasizes the easiness and popular character of the work: “Our aim in publishing this new translation is that of Tyndale, ‘to cause the plowboy to know the Scriptures.’ Our aim is to make this greatest book in the world readable and understandable by the plain people.” Hence the name of the version: “A Translation in the Language of the People.” An examination of the version tends to confirm that this purpose was far more important to Williams than any pedantic attempt to represent the nuances of Greek verbal tenses. There are many renderings in which he is apparently trying to represent such nuances, but it is not a systematic attempt; in general the version is quite paraphrastic. We find that the Greek verbs are often rendered very loosely.

The first verb to be found in the Greek New Testament is ἐγέννησεν, “begat” (Matt, 1:2 and the following verses). This verb (an aorist form) clearly expresses a one-time action in the past. Yet Williams translates it, “was the father of.” And so it is immediately obvious that he does not intend to convey the precise meaning of Greek words, much less the nuances of the tenses, where this would require the use of an expression that is not currently popular.

Williams’ stylistic preferences sometime degrade the accuracy of the version. For example, in Matt. 2:5 we find the phrase οὕτως γὰρ γέγραπται διὰ τοῦ προφήτου translated “for this is what the prophet wrote.” The verb here is a perfect passive indicative, but Williams transforms it into an active verb in the simple past tense. The whole construction is quite altered, and we miss the idea that the words have been written διὰ through the prophet. This rendering cannot be called accurate, and we are left wondering why the Greek phrase was not translated properly. The version has a number of renderings that we cannot account for. In Matt. 2:13 and 20 παράλαβε is rendered “Tenderly take,” but we do not see how the notion “tenderly” can be found in the word. In Luke 7:37 ἁμαρτωλός (sinner) is improperly translated “social outcast.” Much interpretation is worked into the version. The words δικαιοσύνη … θεοῦ in Rom. 1:17 are translated “God’s Way of man’s right standing with Him.”

When he does try to bring out nuances of the Greek verbal system, Williams often gives awkward renderings which tend to exaggerate the particular force of the tenses. For instance, in John 3:34 the present tense of the verbs causes Williams to render them “continues to speak” and “continues to give”; but this oft-repeated “continues to” becomes rather tiresome in the version, and it is often no more accurate than a simple “speaks” and “gives.” Emphasizing a continuous sense of the present tense here seems arbitrary and pointless. Yet in other places where it might well be significant there is no attempt to indicate it. The present tense form πιστεύητε in John 20:31 (according to the edition of Westcott and Hort) could be translated “you might continue to believe,” but in Williams’ version we find only “you may believe.” In a few places his efforts to bring out the special meaning of tenses give rise to some misinterpretations. For example, the rendering of the aorist participle ἐνθυμηθέντος in Matt. 1:20 as “just as this thought occurred to him” is an effort to represent the force of the aorist, as Williams understands it. A footnote here says the rendering is “suggested by aor.” But an aorist participle does not necessarily have such a sense. In many cases it only indicates that the action of the participle precedes the action of the main verb of the sentence. And here it seems that the context really forbids Williams’s rendering:

But her husband, Joseph, because he was an upright man and did not want to disgrace her, decided to break the engagement by secretly divorcing her. But just as this thought occurred to him, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream …

Here the reader might wonder how the angel could have appeared to Joseph in a dream “just as this thought occurred to him.” Did Joseph decide to divorce Mary while he was sleeping? But the aorist tense of the participle does not indicate any such thing. It merely indicates that he had thought about this prior to the appearance of the angel.

We must also question the correctness of the rendering of the future-perfects in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. Concerning this, F.F. Bruce has commented:

Some reviewers of this version have singled out for special commendation a tense-rendering which is almost certainly wrong. The words of our Lord to Peter in Matt. 16:19 are here rendered: “whatever you forbid on earth must be what is already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must be what is already permitted in heaven.” The similar words addressed to all the disciples in Matt. 18:18 are rendered in the same way. This gives the opposite sense to that of the common versions, of which we may take the A.V. as the best known example: “whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Charles B. Williams has treated the Greek future-perfect as if it had the same force as the English future-perfect, whereas the Greek future-perfect commonly has the force of a specially emphatic future, denoting the inmmediate performance of a future action, or the permanence of its results. In fact, if our Lord had wished to make the statement of the A.V. and the versions which agree with it as solemnly and emphatically as possible, He could not have done so more explicitly than in the words of our Greek text here. Those reviewers who have rejoiced in Charles B. Williams’ rendering may have felt that it was a good thing to get rid of a rendering which seemed to place too much power in the hands of church officials; but it is no part of a translator’s business to soften down our Lord’s “hard sayings”. When our Lord used solemn phraseology such as we find in Matt. 16:19 and 18:18, it was not in order to voice impressive platitudes. The comparable passage in John 20:23 (A.V., “whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained”) is curiously translated: “If you get forgiveness for people’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you let people’s sins fasten upon them, they will remain fastened upon them.” A footnote justifies this rendering by stating that in these words Jesus “is emphasizing their winning others”; this is no doubt true, but there is an impartation of apostolic authority in His words which this rendering dilutes almost to the point of disappearance. 1

In his Foreword Williams says that the translation is “based on the Westcott and Hort Greek text.” He adds that “When there are conflicting variations in the Greek Manuscripts, we have generally followed the Vatican Manuscript.” Apparently Williams is saying that he sometimes follows Vaticanus where Westcott and Hort have not, and we see an instance of this in Matt. 1:18, where the translation reads “Christ Jesus” instead of “Jesus Christ.” But in general he does adhere to the text of Westcott and Hort. In John 1:18 he translates their reading μονογενης θεος as “the only Son, Deity Himself,” and in a note he informs the reader that he is following “WH and ancient Mss”; but the note does not mention that a literal translation of μονογενης θεος would be “only-begotten God,” or that other ancient manuscripts and versions read here μονογενης υιος, “only-begotten Son.” The Story of the Adulteress that is found in medieval manuscripts of the Gospel of John is entirely omitted.

This translation will be helpful to Bible students if it is used in conjunction with other more literal versions; but it is too often paraphrastic, and its treatment of the Greek tenses is too uneven, for it to serve as a reliable basis of careful study. For those who do not know Greek, but want an English edition that shows the tenses of the verbs in the Greek New Testament, I recommend the Newberry Bible published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1890, 2 and reprinted by Kregel Publications in 1973. It is an edition of the King James Version which indicates, by the use of symbols, the tenses of all the verbs and participles of the original text. The Newberry Bible is much to be preferred over Williams’ version as a reliable guide to such matters.

Michael Marlowe
February 2012

1. F.F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 180-1.

2. Thomas Newberry, ed., The Holy Bible; arranged so as to give as far as possible the accuracy, precision and certainty of the original Hebrew and Greek scriptures on the page of the Authorized version, by means of simple and appropriate signs, and with the divine titles distinguished and explained (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1890). The edition is now online at the Internet Archive.


A few weeks ago we celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the entire English Bible by Miles Coverdale, the Oxford scholar who first translated the whole Bible into English. This year, 1936, is the four hundredth anniversary of the strangling and burning of William Tyndale, who was condemned to death for translating the New Testament into English and for seeking to put it into the hands of the plain people. In these four centuries scores of other translations have been made. Then why make another, some one asks? A distinguished Bible scholar answers, “Language is a fluid thing. It does not remain fixed for a day. There is therefore constant need of retranslation.” *

Our aim in publishing this new translation is that of Tyndale, “to cause the plowboy to know the Scriptures.” Our aim is to make this greatest book in the world readable and understandable by the plain people. Only three books in the New Testament are written in anything like good literary Greek—Luke, the Acts, and Hebrews. In our translation of these books we have tried to use good, smooth English. Elsewhere we use simple every-day English which reproduces the every-day Greek which the writers used. In accord with this aim we have used practical every-day words to replace many technical religious and theological terms. In other words, we have tried to use the words and phrases that are understandable by the farmer and the fisherman, by the carpenter and the cowboy, by the cobbler and the cab-driver, by the merchant and the miner, by the milkmaid and the house-mistress, by the woodcutter and the trucker. If these can understand it, it is certain that the scholar, the teacher, the minister, the lawyer, the doctor, and all others, can.

This is not a word-for-word translation, like an interlinear. It is rather a translation of the thought of the writers with a reproduction of their diction and style. Greek idioms are not brought over into our translation, but are expressed in corresponding English idioms which express the same thoughts as the Greek idioms. It is the thoughts of our New Testament, not its single words, that we have tried to translate.

Our translation is based on the Westcott and Hort Greek text, recognized as the authoritative text throughout the English speaking world. When there are conflicting variations in the Greek Manuscripts, we have generally followed the Vatican Manuscript, which is the oldest and usually conceded the best.

To introduce the readers to each book we have inserted at the beginning of each a brief statement as to who wrote it, why, and for what purpose. At the close of the translation are added suggestive notes to explain difficult passages and to make clearer many historical, social, and religious references.

May the face of the Christ, who is the theme of this book and the light of the world, shine into the heart and upon the life of everyone who reads it!


Union University,
Jackson, Tennessee

* Here Williams is quoting a Campbellite author, Herbert L. Willett, Our Bible: Its Origin, Character, and Value (Chicago: The Christian Century Press, 1917), p. 96. “For language is a fluid thing. It does not remain fixed for a day. There is therefore constant need of retranslation and revision, lest the Word of God be left in archaic and outworn form.”


Here we reproduce the third chapter of the Gospel according to John in Williams’ version, with its footnotes, as it was printed in the original edition of 1937.

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Now there was a man named Nicodemus, who belonged to the party of the Pharisees and was a leader among the Jews. He came to Jesus one night and said to Him, “Teacher, we know that you have come from God, for no one can perform the wonder-works that you are doing, unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered him, “I most solemnly say to you, no one can ever see the kingdom of God, unless he is born from above.”

Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot again enter his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

Jesus answered, “I most solemnly say to you, no one can ever get into the kingdom of God, unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 1 Whatever is born of the physical 2 is physical, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spiritual. Never wonder at my telling you that you must all be born from above. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. That is just the way 3 it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Then Nicodemus answered by asking, “How can this be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not know this? I most solemnly say to you, we know what we are talking about and we have seen what we are testifying to, yet you are all 4 rejecting our testimony. If you do not believe the earthly 5 things I tell you, how can you believe the heavenly things, if I tell you about them? And yet no one has gone up into heaven except the Son of Man who came down out of heaven. 6 And just as Moses in the desert lifted the serpent on the pole, 7 the Son of Man must be lifted up, 8 so that everyone who trusts in Him may have eternal life.

“For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, 9 so that anyone who trusts in Him may never perish but have eternal life. For God sent His Son into the world, not to pass sentence on it, 10 but that the world through Him might be saved. Whoever trusts in Him is never to come up for judgment; but whoever does not trust in Him has already received his sentence, because he has not trusted in the name of God’s only Son. And the ground 11 for the sentence is this, that the light has come into the world, and yet, because their actions were evil, men have loved darkness more than the light. For anyone who is in the habit of doing wrong hates the light, and to keep his actions from being reproved, he does not come out into the daylight. But whoever is in the habit of living 12 the truth will come out into the daylight, that his actions may be shown to be performed with God’s help.”

After this Jesus and His disciples went into Judea, 13 and for some time He stayed there with them and kept baptizing people. But John too was baptizing people at Aenon, near Salim, for there was plenty of water there, and so the people were coming and being baptized. (For John had not yet been put in prison.) So a discussion came up between John’s disciples and a Jew about purification. And they went to John and said to him, “Teacher, the man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan, to whom you bore testimony yourself, is baptizing people and everybody is going to Him.”

John answered, “A man cannot get anything, unless it is given to him from heaven. You can bear testimony to me yourselves that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent as His announcer’ 14 It is the bridegroom who has the bride, but the bridegroom’s friend, who stands outside and listens to him, is very happy to hear the bridegroom’s voice. 15 So this happiness of mine is running over. He must grow greater and greater, 16 but I less and less.” 16

He who comes from above is far above all others. He who springs from earth belongs to the earth and speaks of earth. He who comes from heaven is far above all others. He continues to bear testimony to what He has actually seen and heard, and yet no one accepts His testimony. Whoever does accept His testimony has certified 17 with a seal that God is true. For He whom God has sent continues to speak the words of God, for God continues to give Him the Spirit without measure. The Father loves His Son and has put everything in His hands. Whoever trusts in the Son possesses eternal life, but whoever refuses to trust 18 in the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God continues to remain on him.


1. Water the symbol, the Spirit the agent, of renewal.

2. Grk., flesh.

3. I.e., as mysterious as the wind’s blowing.

4. You, in pl.

5. Necessity of new birth.

6. Only Jesus can reveal them.

7. Implied.

8. On the cross.

9. Only begotten in Grk.

10. World repeated.

11. Grk., this is the judment.

12. Grk., doing.

13. Lit., Judean land.

14. Grk., before Him, to introduce Him.

15. Grk., on account of his voice.

16. In impf.

17. Lit., sealed; certified with a seal.

18. Grk., is without trust, does not trust.