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.