Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Reducing Scripture to clip art
The Emoji Bible is in better company than it deserves
It’s smiley faces all round. News has broken that the holy scriptures have at last been translated into emoji. For Martian readers, emoji are the colourful little symbols humans use on their smartphones, including winking faces, red hearts, kissing lips and praying hands. Zach Swetz, who works in social media, developed the Bible (presumably during a slow patch at work) by taking the text of the King James Bible and replacing words such as king, spirit and wine with a crown, a ghost and a glass of red plonk. So far, so forgettable.
What makes the story interesting is that after the Emoji Bible was released, Zach asked the media not to name him, because he was being trolled by excitable believers who said his work was helping to ‘usher in the Antichrist’. You can see why the believers were getting a bit above themselves with their anathemas, because Zach has basically reduced the scriptures to a series of banal, clip-art moments. David slays Goliath? 😊 Jesus dies on the cross? ☹ Moses parts the Red Sea? 😀 Mary puts baby Jesus in a manger? ❤ This is a Bible with all the subtlety of a pair of over-inflated Botox lips.
Zach shouldn’t have been surprised by the negative reactions to his new Bible, as it has ever been thus. In Reformation times, the traditional way to welcome the publication of a new Bible translation was to throw as many copies as possible onto a crackling bonfire and dance round the flames in righteous glee. That’s what happened to the Bibles of Wycliffe, Luther and Tyndale, and so the Emoji Bible, in its tiny way, is in better company than it deserves to be.
Even the mighty King James Bible, on first publication in 1611, had its fair share of hate mail. A good quantity of that came from the Puritan scholar Hugh Broughton, who said he ‘had rather be rent in pieces by wild horses’ than see the new Bible put into English churches. For the avoidance of doubt, he added: ‘I require it to be burnt.’ A whole edition of the King James Bible (1,000 copies in all) was eventually thrown on the fire in 1631, when one of the Ten Commandments was printed as: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’
One reason why the King James flopped when it first appeared was that people were happy with their old Bibles. The new version put a line through the more colourful verses in William Tyndale’s translation of 90 years earlier. A particular loss was the way the serpent speaks in the Garden of Eden. When Eve tells him she and Adam will die if they eat the forbidden fruit, Tyndale’s serpent responds: ‘Tush, ye shall not dye.’
In the 1970s and 80s, a whole slew of new Bibles started to hit the shops, and, whenever one did, you could rely on the Revd Ian Paisley to strip off his shirt and start shouting about it. The Living Bible was the Living Libel, he said, while the New English Bible was a per-version. Thankfully, ‘big Ian’ has now gone to rest from his labours, and the timing of that has been pretty great, as the Lord alone knows how many cappuccinos’ worth of froth he would have spluttered over the Emoji Bible.
You can’t really compare the King James with the Emoji, of course. If the King James is Guinness, brewed by experts, then the Emoji is a craft beer, cobbled together by enthusiasts. But like the unpredictable products of microbreweries, craft Bibles are eccentric and fascinating. For instance, bits of the Bible have been translated into fictional languages such as Klingon, of Star Trek fame, as well as Quenya (or Elvish), presumably so the elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth can get on with evangelising Mordor.
Then there’s the Bible in L33t (pronounced Leet), an alternative alphabet for ageing computer geeks who used to get a kick out of substituting numbers and other keyboard symbols for letters, just like everyone now does for pa55w0rds. So John 3:16 looks like this: ‘F0r G0d $0 l0v3d th3 w0rld, th@t h3 g@v3 hi$ 0nly b3g0tt3n $0n, th@t wh0$03v3r b3li3v3th in hi|v| $h0uld n0t p3ri$h, but h@v3 3v3rl@$ting lif3.’
Producing a new Bible used to be highly dangerous. It could land you in jail, or on top of a bonfire. The worst it can do now is land you some Daily Mail headlines, especially if your version is a comic novelty. On the up side, Christianity’s shameful bonfire days seem to be past. But on the down side, the Bible has lost its cultural status. And that, according to the most up-to-date Bible version we now have, is rather ☹ .
This article was published in the September 2016 edition of Reform.