Looking at a new app as text, art project, and cultural phenomenon
The emoji Bible started out as a public project on Twitter. Zach Swetz, a guy who works in social media and marketing, began sending out scripture verses, translated into little haloed smiley faces, and asking for feedback. Late in May, he released a full emoji Bible on iTunes.
Many news outlets smelled the blood of the Millennial, and they went after it. After all, the tagline on the digital book is “Scripture 4 Millenials” (misspelling allegedly purposeful). “OMG! The bible’s newest translation is in emoji,” said Fox News, in a headline representative of the genre. There’s a quiz. There’s a video. Many wrote about it using emoji themselves, freed by their subject from the conventions of prose. It’s an internet phenomenon, parsed in a thoroughly internet way.
The humor of the project seems like one reason why it’s been covered so widely. It offers perhaps the greatest possible ironic contrast—the world’s most read book, which governs the lives of billions of people, translated into tiny anthropomorphic cartoons. The emoji Bible represents the perfect intersection of high and low, taking something very serious and remixing it with something very silly.
As tempting as it is to interpret the emoji Bible as a well-crafted punch line, though, it’s actually part of a long and controversy-filled tradition of Biblical translation and imagery. It’s fascinating on its own terms, as a text and piece of visual art, but also as a cultural cipher—the reactions, from LOLs to outrage, offer a crystallized glimpse at everything from internet culture to the self-seriousness of scholars and theologians.
“When you told me about this, I thought it was going to be all emojis,” said Elizabeth Morrison, the head of the manuscripts division at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which has a well-regarded collection of Bibles. “And I thought, ‘I don’t want to know what the emoji for circumcision looks like.’”
No need to fear: The emoji Bible is a rather limited translation. The 3,282-page book is based on a computer program that detects certain characters or strings of characters in the King James Version of the Bible and automatically substitutes an emoji, numeral, or other symbol (e.g., &) in their place. That’s why, for example, “twined linen,” from the section of Exodus about building the tabernacle, shows up as a wine glass sandwiched between a “t” and a “d.”
This makes it a somewhat rough approximation of the text. “There was not a lot precision in the language,” said Morrison of the emoji Bible. “Especially in Semitic languages like Hebrew, there’s a lot of nuance in individual words.” There are many different names for God in the Hebrew translation of the Bible, for example; like any translation, the emoji Bible takes words that might have many meanings and assigns them one.
But even if these kinds of symbols are a bit imprecise, history offers many examples of Biblical imagery, in texts and otherwise. Cathedral stained-glass windows might tell the story of the Stations of the Cross. Medieval illuminated Bibles feature intricate drawings beside the text. Historiated initials often emphasize the praiseworthiness of a certain paragraph with an elaborately illustrated letter. Even children’s picture Bibles, light on words and heavy on cartoons, have a kinship with the emoji Bible.
The emoji Bible is more like a translation than an illustration—its takes words from one language and puts them into the symbols of another. Like many translations before it, this one has been dismissed. Take, for example, this tweet from the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:
Ah… Dear Millennials, please insist on using WORDS to translate the Bible, not emoji. Please. It’s important. @BibleEmoji
— Albert Mohler (@albertmohler) June 1, 2016
Reactions like this suggest, “Oh, you’re trivializing the message of religion, and this isn’t really a true translation because you’re not able to get the message of the Bible in the serious way,” said Morrison. “But of course, that’s exactly what [people] accused John Wycliffe of doing.”
Wycliffe translated the Bible into Middle English from Latin in the 14th century. The translators who came before him got criticism, too. In the fourth century, “when the Bible was translated into Latin, [it] was the language that people understood,” said Elina Gertsman, a medieval-art historian at Case Western Reserve University. “That’s why it’s called the ‘vulgate’—it’s the ‘vulgar-language’ Bible. Now when we look at the Latin Bible, it seems like this learned, scholarly thing.”
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