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The Bible Emoji cometh

It's not the apocalypse, writes Kat Eschner,
just the age-old tradition of interpreting
the Good Book

An excerpt from the Emoji Bible

An excerpt from the Bible Emoji in the iOS Books app.

Is it still the word of God when it's an image as often associated with Drake as with prayer?

The Bible Emoji was released this week in the iBooks store, alongside an associated website which lets users translate their own favourite passages to include bug-eyed ghosts instead of holy spirits, and tsunami icons when Jesus walks on water. (Oddly, "Jesus" survives the translation intact.)

Some people question if the Bible Emoji is necessary. "Can you spell 'civilizational decline?' " asked one user on Twitter, who might have been thinking more of the apocalyptic beliefs of millennialism, rather than the millennials to whom the e-book is targeted. But for those who study the medieval period, the Bible Emoji looks quite familiar – to them, it resembles many of the ancient texts they work with every day.

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"This is really consistent with the history of the Bible, which is a history of translation, adaptation and experiment with media" said Professor Alexandra Gillespie, an English and medieval studies professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in the history of books.

The Bible Emoji is just "an experiment with a different kind of literacy." Reading pictures instead of words, sure, but still reading. "Those who use [emoji] a lot are actually quite sophisticated readers of them. And so it makes sense to me that this would happen," she said.

The Bible is often one of the first things to be experimented on when a new way of communicating comes along. What did Gutenberg print first, Gillespie points out: the Bible. That used to be because it was central to Western life; today, she says, it's an established tradition that's still commonly – although not always – adopted.

The history of the Bible as a text, for a medieval scholar, is in part one of experimentation with materials and different ways of writing. And to someone who studies books, the material you interact with them in changes the meaning. The Bible has been presented as a parchment scroll, written with gold ink on purple-dyed vellum, truncated into abbreviations so terse as to be almost unreadable if you don't know the code, block-printed as pictures with very few words – and those are only a few historical examples. Why so many versions? Partly it was a way of experimenting with new technologies. Sometimes they were produced for special people, like royalty.

So this is "a really interesting moment for emoji," Gillespie says. The fact that somebody has published a Bible with emoji signals that they are being taken seriously. Some of her colleagues wonder if it's the beginning of a shift for emoji into a real primary language, but she doubts it means the pictographs will become an independent language that can be used on its own. "I'm not sure that the emoji tradition is stable enough."

The creator of the Bible Emoji, who, the New York Times reports, has chosen to remain anonymous because his project has been associated online with "the satanic illuminati agenda," said they were trying to create a full version of the Bible that mimicked the way people would shrink the character count of a passage in order to text or tweet it.

That behaviour looks a lot like some of the ways people in the past abbreviated bibles, to make them smaller and more portable, or to make them cheaper, says Gillespie. She thinks that people from the Middles Ages would understand the Bible Emoji – maybe not the emoji themselves or the screen they're written on, but the reasoning behind it. And maybe they'd appreciate it more than some stunned Twitter users today.

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"It was much more common in the Middle Ages to have signs in the middle of the text, just like we'd have a cross or a smiley face," Gillespie says.

Stained glass church windows portraying biblical stories are another way medieval people – both those who could read text and those who could not – would have learned stories from the Bible.

"The emoji Bible is recalling a moment in which it was okay for it not to be about the word [but for] it to be about the image as a medium for communication," Gillespie says.

LOST IN TRANSLATION?

The Bible has taken many pictorial forms over the centuries. Here are a few of the newest, and a few of their progenitors.

  • Oh hai! The Lolcat Bible is an ongoing project dedicated to translating the entire Bible into lolspeak, which some of you may remember from the days of Ceiling Cat. (In this version of the Bible, “God=Ceiling Cat”)
  • Nothing silly about the Action Bible. Billing itself as “the most complete picture Bible ever,” it’s a comic-book-style retelling of the Bible intended for the edification of the young.
  • The Biblia Pauperum was a kind of illustrated Bible that contained biblical stories, illustrated, and a certain amount of text. The name refers to a “Bible of the poor” or “poor man’s Bible”

AP Photo/University of Texas

  • The Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed using Johannes Gutenberg’s methods, which are widely understood to have ushered in the print revolution in the West. It has illustrations, although the text (no big surprise) is a focus.
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