After being translated into hundreds of languages, disseminated across the globe, and burned by persecutors, the most popular book in human history has recently reached a new milestone – the Bible has been translated into emojis.
The emoji Bible (subtitled “Scripture 4 Millenials”), a translation of the King James Version of the Bible, comes in at 3,300 pages and became available on the iTunes store for $2.99 last Sunday. The translator of the Bible has chosen to conceal his or her identity, identifying themselves only with the cool dude with sunglasses emoji and accessible at the @BibleEmoji account. The author told The Guardian that “I wanted to make it similar to how you might text or tweet a Bible verse, by shrinking the total character count.”
The book has met with a mixed reaction: the author said that they had received some “really nice” and some “not-so nice” feedback. (Can we insert a sad face emoji here?) And that’s understandable: to many, the appearance of an emoji Bible seems like a combination of irreverent frivolity and evangelical desperation. Can anyone really find spiritual succor in this way? Is this a crashingly embarrassing attempt to tap into the millennial Zeitgeist? Or, given that the author has not admitted to being Christian, perhaps this is just a cynical way to tap into Christian cash?
Certainly established religions have been using social media as a means of reaching out to people for several years. Even though he has confessed to not owning a PC, Pope Francis has posed for selfies, participated in Google hangouts with school children, and become a prolific user of Twitter. There have been Bible apps almost since the beginning of the smartphone, and there’s even in an online guide to confessing one’s sins in the Catholic Church.
But many of these are about facilitating greater engagement with Christianity, rather than replacing fundamentals. The confessional app doesn’t replace the sacrament; it’s a how-to about what to do once you’re inside the confessional (which is, let’s face it, a fairly high-stress situation for those out of practice).
The emoji Bible, on the other hand, taps into a long history of controversy about translating the Word of God. Among Christians, there are a variety of perspectives about the status of the Bible – whether or not it is the verbatim word of God, inerrant, divinely inspired, or just high-status ethically-significant literature. And the loftier one’s view of the Bible and its authorship is, the more problematic the question of its translation becomes.
Until the end of the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church used the Latin Vulgate while Eastern Orthodox Churches used the Greek Byzantine text. The translation of the Bible into vernacular languages was the cause of considerable controversy. In the late fourteenth century, a number of translations of the Bible into Middle English began to circulate in England. They were attributed to Oxford scholar John Wycliffe, the founder of the Lollard movement, who was critical of the clergy and monasticism and argued that the Bible was the only reliable guide to the nature and will of God.
Wycliffe’s ideas and the translations ascribed to him (it is thought that they are the work of several hands) landed him in hot water at the Vatican, but during his lifetime he escaped relatively unscathed. It was only after his death in 1415 that he was declared a heretic. William Tyndale, a leading figure in the Protestant reformation, was not so lucky. He was executed by strangulation and subsequently burned at the stake. His translation was the first English Bible to draw directly from the Hebrew and the Greek and it became a foundational text for many other versions. Among them is the 1611 King James Bible, which continues to be viewed as the inerrant word of God by many fundamentalist Protestants.
The scandal of Biblical translation is the question of its ability to properly confer, without alteration or error, the sanctity and intent of a presumably divine author. Whatever we learned in elementary school, words have different valences in different languages. When people are pouring over a text trying to decipher a deeper meaning, those different valences become increasingly important. If a valence is present in a translation that is not in the original language, it’s effectively a mistake.
The desire for vernacular translations is easy to understand. In the Middle Ages when Roman Catholics heard the Mass and Biblical readings in Latin, only a small percentage of the congregation understood what was being read to them. Translating the Bible into the vernacular makes the Bible accessible. Perhaps emojis do the same, but it is an imprecise and almost self-consciously satirical language. To pose an overly serious question of the project, is there a theological problem with using the halo emoji to represent God?
The intention to make the Bible accessible to all can have a dark side, though. In the past two hundred years, numerous Bible translations have focused on missionary activity. Biblical translation coincided with colonialization and the imposition of both power and the culture of the translators. Numerous studies on how translation impacts communities in Africa, in South America, and among the Inuit have shown how Biblical translations often strip indigenous peoples of their autonomy and own ability to interpret. There’s a great deal of colonial interference in Biblical translation, and that leads to the imposition of Western values that sometimes have very little to do with the ancient Mediterranean world.
While it seems unlikely that the emoji Bible will have that kind of an impact, it still represents Western culture. The prayer hands emoji is a representation of a particular kind of prayer but it doesn’t represent those religious traditions that pray without outstretched hands. Representations of supernatural figures – angels, the devil, the halo emoji – these are all pop Western cultural depictions of these figures, reduced to the least detail possible. And there are real translational problems here. In a world in which #blessed is both overtly commercial and smugly narcissistic, does the concept of a blessing have any real counterpart? Perhaps those who want pictograms in their religious texts are better off sticking to hieroglyphics.