Looking at a new app as text, art project, and cultural phenomenon

A portrait of John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible from Latin into Middle English, by the artist Thomas Kirby


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.

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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 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."

New translations of the Bible have almost always been motivated by the desire to make the Bible more accessible, Gertsman said. These translations have also coincided with changes in technology—the printing press, to take the most obvious example, made it easier and less expensive to put the Bible into vernacular language. The emoji Bible is hardly more accessible than the hundreds of Bible sites and apps out there, but like other translations, it's designed for a particular audience. "You have to understand the language, you have to have access, you have to know how to read, you have to know how to find it, you have to be online," said Gertsman. "It's kind of history repeating itself—not that I want to compare Luther's printed Bible to this new, however hilarious, invention."

In other words, the emoji Bible is both culturally and generationally bounded. It's amusing in the generic way internet culture can be amusing: Emoji themselves are funny because they approximate real-life objects in bright colors and often bizarre combinations (see: poop emoji with eyes). People have already translated a number of famous texts this way; Emoji Dick, an adaptation of Moby Dick, is probably the most famous example. The joke may only seem funny to people who understand the way ridiculous things can be taken seriously on the internet, though. "It can be very easily misunderstood by people, probably over a particular age threshold," Gertsman said. "Everyone wants to use the word 'Millennial,' and everyone wants to cast this generation as a bunch of idiots who only understand pictures."

The emoji Bible seems self-aware enough about the stereotypes it both reinforces and mocks. And it's largely been received with the same tongue-in-cheek spirit. Those who have written about it—who appear to be mostly young writers who do their work on the internet—seem to take it as a self-evidently newsworthy piece of culture and funny by definition. "It just seems like a project too good to be true," Gertsman said. It "styles itself specifically based on everything that is new. It's the crowdsourcing of ideas. There's the light bulb as a representation for 'let there be light.' The genesis of it on Twitter—it has all the right ingredients for what The New York Times would think about how this generation thinks and uses stuff."

But it's also "worth looking at because this kind of project is sure to anger all sorts of people," Gertsman added. "It's a bit of a bait, right? ... A project like this is sure to bait people who take themselves very seriously."

Case in point: When I emailed a prominent British scholar of medieval and Biblical manuscripts to talk about the emoji Bible, this was his response.

Alas, I am not clever enough to understand your question, and I am afraid I will be a disappointment to you. I don't know what 'emoji' means, and I don't think I need to know. I am therefore useless to you. I do apologise.

For all this complexity, the creator of the emoji Bible doesn't exactly deserve credit as a brilliant modern artist. If anything, Swetz deserves applause for his skills as a troll: He has passed off a tech product as a minor cultural phenomenon. To Gertsman's point, the app has gotten widespread coverage (there's no emoji for "speck of sawdust" or "plank," but if there were, I'd insert them here) even though the @BibleEmoji Twitter account has less than 10,000 followers. Almost every outlet has granted him anonymity—sometimes referring to him as an emoji with sunglasses—even though his name is on the iTunes product page. And he's successfully angered people: Beyond the standard eye rolling from commenters, he's been accused of being part of a war on Christianity (and possibly the Illuminati).

As a cultural artifact, the emoji Bible strives toward something interesting, even though the execution falls short. "The Platonic version of the emoji Bible would probably start debates about the culture that produced it and the culture that received it and how it gives insights into this culture," Gertsman said. "It's a very long way away from anything like that." That doesn't mean it's not worth studying or commenting on; it's one of a few recent, nascent translations of the Bible into fictional and internet-based languages, including Klingon and LOLcats projects. Besides, as Gertsman said, "Things in my field have been dismissed for generations because they were thought not to be serious." Of all the emoji Bible's antecedents in history, this might be the most relevant: the long tradition of judgment, outrage, and laughter directed at the profane.