Chewing on Words


Astute readers who have prayed the Coptic Liturgy of St Basil in English over some years may have noticed that a few words in the liturgy have changed from translation to new translation. One example of this is this prayer from the Litany of the Clergy. See if you can work out which word has given the translators a headache:


“And them that with them rightly divide the word of truth …”
(Marquis de Bute, 1882).

“As well as, those who rightly disclose with them the word of truth …”
(Fr Tadros Y Malaty, 1976)

“And those who rightly define the word of truth with Him …”
(Papal Committee, c. 1990).

“And those who rightly administer with him the word of truth …”
(Prof. Fayek Ishak, 2007).

“And those who rightly handle the word of truth with him …”
(Coptic Reader).


The word translated in Coptic Reader as “handle” is ni-et-shoat evol (nyetswt ebol). The verb construction “shoat evol” means literally to “cut out,” to incise and remove, and hence by extension, it can also mean to “minister” or administer to, or even to “excommunicate.”* But clearly, we are not praying for those who excommunicate the word of truth! The obvious meaning here is those who minister the word of truth to others, but the verb shoat tells us just how this ministry is meant to work.

“Divide,” to the modern mind, perhaps has connotations of splits in the Church and disagreements (“excommunicate!”), which might explain why its appearance in some earlier English translations was replaced by the somewhat less literal translation, “handle.” But there is no need for this substitution if we understand shoat evol in the context of the idea of transmission. When the priest distributes the Holy Body at communion, or the eulogia (baraka) after the liturgy, he divides (incises and removes) pieces of it in order to distribute it. Division of the Body of Christ (sanctified bread) is the means of the unity of the Body of Christ (us). In this context, to divide is to unify.

In a similar way, the clergy are required to ‘divide’ the word of God, Scripture, the Gospel of Christ, the same way your mouth chews on food to make it digestible and capable of entering right inside the organs of your body, and thus become part of you, one with you. Division leads to union. The mystical and transcendent Word of God—both as sanctified bread and as the teachings of the Bible—is to be ‘divided’ in the sense of reduced to something my tiny human existence is capable of receiving. And this task is particularly enjoined upon those who are ordained to minister to the people of God (although it is something we all have to do for ourselves and for those around us, insofar as we are able).

This imagery of chewing and digestion of the knowledge of God is also found in the writings of the fifth-sixth century anonymous Syrian monk we call Pseudo-Dionysius, who belongs to the same Antiochian liturgical tradition as the Liturgy of St Basil. In his discussion of the nature of angels, he discusses the symbolic use of teeth in the Bible to describe angelic beings. Apocalyptic scripture sometimes describes destructive angelic beings as having teeth:


After this, behold, there was a second beast like a bear. It rose up on one side and had three ribs in its mouth, between its teeth. Thus they said to it, “Arise, devour much flesh!” … After this, I looked and behold, a fourth beast, fearful, terrifying, and exceedingly strong. It had huge iron teeth, and it was devouring, breaking in pieces, and trampling underfoot whatever was left. (Daniel 7:5,7 OSB)

The shape of the locusts was like horses prepared for battle. On their heads were crowns of something like gold, and their faces were like the faces of men. They had hair like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth … And they had as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit(Revelation 9:7–8, 11 OSB).


But more kindly angelic beings are also sometimes indirectly described as having teeth. For example, the angels who visit Abraham eat the food he offers them, which implicitly involves chewing it with teeth:


And I will bring bread for You to eat. After that You may pass by, inasmuch as You have come to Your servant.” They said, “Do as you have said.” … He also took butter and milk and the calf he prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree as they ate. (Genesis 8:5–8 OSB).


To be clear, neither the Bible not Pseudo-Dionysius mean to suggest that angels of any kind actually have, by nature, solid teeth made of enamel and dentine, with molars and bicuspids. Angels are beings of pure spirit. Their ‘teeth,’ then, are purely symbolic. They are images intended to reveal something about their true spiritual nature. We can understand what angelic teeth reveal to Pseudo-Dionysius if we situate his discussion of angelic teeth in the context of his discussion of the nature of heavenly beings generally. His understanding of heaven involves a hierarchy of beings, each receiving the light of God from the rank above and sharing it with the rank below, each rank according to its ability. The symbolism of angelic ‘teeth,’ then, reveals to us this task of transmitting the light of God down the angelic hierarchy of ranks, each rank ‘digesting’ that divine light to make it palatable for the rank below.


Teeth have to do with the skill which produces divisions in the intake of nourishing perfection, for it is a fact that every intelligent being, having received from one which is more divine the gift of a unified conception, proceeds to divide it and to make provision for its diffusion in order that an inferior may be lifted up as far as possible.  Psuedo-Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy, 15.3 332B.


Further, the word of truth is rightly divided: literally, “with straightness,” khen ou-soouten (qen oucwouten), to “be straight, straighten, stretch.”* There is a little bit of mixing of metaphors here, but that’s by the by. Perhaps the destruction wrought by the angelic beings of Daniel and Revelation arises from their dividing the knowledge of Godwithout straightness. God is powerful, but in transmitting the creative power God instilled in them, they distort it from its original nature, and pass it on as a destructive power. They do not divide God’s gift with ‘straightness.’

In the Church, in dividing the word of truth to make it more easily digestible for others, the ministers must never deform or twist it. It must retain its true essential form, its ‘straightness.’ This is reminiscent of the Greek term orthodox, the ‘ortho-’ part of which means ‘straight.’ To depart from this measure, this ruler by which we know something is straight, would be to depart from the Truth that is the foundation of all reality. If it is twisted, this transmitted word of God would no longer be able to lift us up (as far as possible for our limited natures) towards the ineffable God who is beyond any earthly concepts like division and unity.

Well, I hope I have given you a few things to chew on …


* Raphael, M. B. (1994). The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St Basil (for the Faithful): Coptic Language Analysis. Monir Barsoum Raphael, 53.


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