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The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels

The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels

by Janet Soskice

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Agnes and Margaret Smith were not your typical Victorian scholars or adventurers. Female, middle-aged, and without university degrees or formal language training, the twin sisters nevertheless made one of the most important scriptural discoveries of their time: the earliest-known copy of the Gospels in ancient Syriac, the language that Jesus spoke. In an era


Agnes and Margaret Smith were not your typical Victorian scholars or adventurers. Female, middle-aged, and without university degrees or formal language training, the twin sisters nevertheless made one of the most important scriptural discoveries of their time: the earliest-known copy of the Gospels in ancient Syriac, the language that Jesus spoke. In an era when most Westerners-male or female-feared to tread in the Middle East, they slept in tents and endured temperamental camels, unscrupulous dragomen, and suspicious monks to become unsung heroines in the continuing effort to discover the Bible as originally written.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year 
Washington Post Best Book of the Year 
Library Journal Best Book of the Year 

“Marvelous. . . . [A] fine, fascinating account.” —Los Angeles Times
The Sisters of Sinai is a bracing and moving book . . . a reminder of the ardor, hardship and energy invested in the pursuit of knowledge in that endlessly inquiring and industrious Victorian age.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Luminous. . . . By turns a rattling adventure yarn . . . and a testament to the power of perseverance.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Sets the extraordinary life of two plucky women . . . against a backdrop of swashbuckling Bible hunters, racing each other around the world to find the latest clue in the mystery of how the Bible was first written.” —Denver Post

“You don’t need to follow a particular religion to become engrossed in this enthralling narrative. The Sisters of Sinai is a tale of grand adventure and far-flung travels, and it proves appealing even on that level. Soskice is so adept at making a rarefied subject accessible and vivid that the narrative seems almost cinematic. If the heroines hadn’t been identical twins, in a film adaptation Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith would be brilliantly cast in the lead roles.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“A combination travelogue, mystery story, adventure narrative, and accounting of the rivalries which beset scholars of major universities in Britain toward the end of the 19th century. . . . [Soskice] catches the ‘feel’ of the era and brings these forgotten scholars to life.” —Charleston Gazette
“We compliment some non-fiction books by saying they read like novels, but The Sisters of Sinai reads better than a novel. Filled with tales of derring-do, arcane knowledge, persistence in the face of extraordinary odds, and the acquiring of and preservation of priceless knowledge, The Sisters of Sinai does what the best books do—makes you want to know much more.” —The Daily Herald (Utah)
“Lively and inspiring. . . . Thrilling. . . . Soskice describes those days of urgent outdoor transcription with the understandable yearning of a 21st-century theologian for whom such pioneering triumphs can only be a dream. Her deft handling of a travel yarn and her feel for the culture-bucking momentum of the twins’ lives makes the dream a compelling one.” —The Times (London)
“This rattling tale appears to come straight from an Indiana Jones adventure. . . . Yet this real-life expedition was not led by a whip-cracking archaeologist, but by two God-fearing Ayrshire twins. . . . Janet Soskice has done an excellent job in piecing together the lives of two remarkable, and largely forgotten women who, like Moses, made a discovery at Mount Sinai that would transform their lives forever.” —The Scotsman
“An absorbing and delightful chronicle, both of two fascinating women and of a crucial moment in the history of modern faith and modern disenchantment.” —First Things
“In Sisters of Sinai Janet Soskice has achieved the impossible—she has brought biblical scholarship to life. A gripping story of two spirited women determined to pursue the truth whatever the cost, with camels to boot. Wonderful.” —Sara Wheeler, author of Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garard
“This meticulously researched effort takes what for decades has been an intriguing footnote in the history of textual serendipity and gives it the full examination it so richly deserves. . . .Exciting.” —Fine Book Magazine
“An extraordinary and compelling book, combining vivid travel adventures, wonderful characters, and absorbing journeys of the mind and heart. Janet Soskice brilliantly and accessibly unfolds one of the most gripping sagas of Biblical detection, while telling the story of two magnificent women who trespassed intrepidly in worlds that sought to exclude them.” —John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope

Matthew Shaer
The Sisters of Sinai is by turns a rattling adventure yarn—thick with roving Bedouin and ancient tombs—and a testament to the power of perseverance. In the end, Soskice writes, "It was the Smiths' fierce commitment to the truth that most impresses."
—The Washington Post
Caroline Alexander
Herself a professor of philosophical theology at Cambridge, Soskice deftly positions the twins' story in the wider and more profound context of ideas and discoveries of their age. With great clarity, she steadily and captivatingly unwinds the complicated threads of her narrative, explicating formidable scholarship while keeping the twins at the fore…For its evocation of the character, as well as the characters, of the era, Sisters of Sinai is a bracing and moving book, not only a story of adventure, but also a reminder of the ardor, hardship and energy invested in the pursuit of knowledge in that endlessly inquiring and industrious Victorian age.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
This book actually tells not one but several stories: the grueling feat of undertaking Victorian-era Middle Eastern travel, especially for well-born ladies; the theological and cultural misgivings between Scots Presbyterian sensibilities and Greek Orthodox monasticism; the serendipity, misogyny, and double dealings that lie behind some of the greatest biblical manuscript finds of the 19th century; bickering between academic and scholarly egos; and what the lives of intelligent, educated Protestant widows looked like in Britain in the late 1800s. The two determined Scottish sisters discussed here strove to break free from those limited cultural constraints. Soskice (philosophical theology, Univ. of Cambridge; The Kindness of God) knits all these strains together, offering a fascinating look at the lives of twins Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson, who are credited with uncovering the earliest known copies of the Gospels in Syriac, the language of Jesus, at the monastery of St. Catherine's at Mount Sinai. VERDICT Rich in detail, this is really the story of the twins' lives set against the momentous manuscript work that was their Christian witness and calling. Recommended for a wide readership, not just those interested in religion.—Sandra Collins, Byzantine Catholic Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA
Kirkus Reviews
Jesus College fellow Soskice (The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language, 2008, etc.) examines the life and work of the little-known sister "bible-hunters" who unearthed many significant ancient manuscripts. The book is as much about academic controversies surrounding biblical scholarship during the Victorian era as it is about the two proto-feminist twins, Agnes and Margaret Smith. Born to a prosperous father in Irvine, Scotland, the Smith sisters were rigorously educated in the Presbyterian faith, physically robust and eager to travel, making their first adventurous trek to Egypt upon the death of their father in 1866. They taught themselves Arabic and Greek. Agnes began to study Syriac-a dialect of Middle Aramaic-in preparation for travels to Sinai to dig for early texts of Christianity that might have been overlooked by adventurer-scholars such as Constantin von Tischendorf. The possibility that there might be texts still hidden in St. Catherine's monastery, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, was first introduced to the sisters by J. Rendel Harris, an oriental-studies scholar at Cambridge, where the sisters had relocated after the deaths of their respective husbands. Encouraged, the twins set off in 1892 for St. Catherine's, which housed a wondrous library. There Agnes discovered that underneath a manuscript about the lives of saints existed another, much older text, a palimpsest that would prove to be the earliest known copy of the Gospels in Syriac. Subsequent trips to Sinai in the company of Cambridge scholars led to more marvelous discoveries, as well as attempts to reassign credit among them all. Though the sisters were originally viewed as merely eccentric women,Soskice effectively demonstrates their important contributions to biblical scholarship in the 19th century. A recondite subject rendered fresh and accessible.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


Cambridge, 13 April 1893

On 13 April 1893, the London Daily News brought an extraordinary story-fresh from its Berlin correspondent. Two ladies, a Mrs. Lewis and her sister, Mrs. Gibson, had travelled to Mount Sinai in Egypt and discovered an ancient manuscript of the Four Gospels. Although Sinai had been searched for written treasures many times since von Tischendorf, the present discovery had "remained hidden from former investigators." Professor Rendel Harris of Cambridge, on first hearing the news, had set off for Mount Sinai where, for forty days, he and the two ladies had sat in the convent deciphering the manuscript, and they were now on their way home with the results. "It is a palimpsest manuscript," wrote Professor Harris in a letter to a German friend (the source of the Berlin correspondent's scoop), and "When Mrs. Lewis first saw it, it was in a dreadful condition, all the leaves sticking together and being full of dirt." She had steamed its pages apart with her camp kettle and, finding that the underwriting of the manuscript contained a very early text of the Gospels, had photographed the lot- some 300 to 400 pages. As to who this Mrs. Lewis and her sister might be, or what credentials they might have for the study of ancient books, the Daily News said nothing other than that both were fluent in Arabic and Greek and that Professor Harris had instructed them in the photographing of handwriting.

A further letter from Professor Harris, posted from Suez and published that very day in the British Weekly, had the same exciting story, but an equally frustrating lack of explanatory detail. It was left to the Cambridge Chronicle of the following morning, in its coverage of the breaking story, to say that "as our readers are aware, Mrs. Lewis is the widow of the Rev. S. S. Lewis"-sufficient information to identify the two ladies to the insular world of 1890s Cambridge.

An undergraduate, cracking open his Cambridge Chronicle in the Central Coffee Tavern, might recognise the Reverend S. S. Lewis as the very recently deceased Latin tutor at Corpus Christi College, and suppose his widow to be one of the two remarkably similar-looking ladies often to be found awaiting him at the college gates.

The shopkeepers on the King's Parade could report to customers that they were indeed well acquainted with Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson, for few Cambridge ladies had Paris frocks and bonnets, let alone a private coach and coachman. The two were alike in most every way-trimly built, not in their first youth, but fine-looking and energetic, with brown eyes and chestnut hair piled on their heads à la mode. They would often stop by for gloves, hats or hose, ordering their goods in brisk Scottish accents, and not occasionally countermanding each other as they spoke. The two ladies had been prominent features of the town for the last few years as well as good customers, recently fitting out a grand house they had built for themselves at the foot of Castle Hill.

Members of the town's Presbyterian congregation remembered well the first appearance amongst them of the two sisters in January of 1887, both wrapped in furs and one in deep mourning. They were twins and alone in the world and, it was said, very learned. Their father was reputed to have settled an enormous fortune on them, on condition that they never live apart from each other.

The residents of the fine, newly built houses of Harvey Road recalled Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson living briefly there while the large-some said pretentious-house at Castle Hill was being built. It was reported that they had astonished their neighbours by taking exercise on parallel bars in their back garden-in their bloomers-and that their new house avoided the cause of this distress by incorporating a tower with gymnastic ropes so that the two sisters could exert themselves in privacy.

Many knew that the two ladies were keen travellers, but few imagined they would venture as far as the Sinai, a region known to be rugged and dangerous and where, only ten years before, the university's Professor of Arabic had been murdered by bandits.

Just as surprising as the destination was the reason for the two ladies' travels. Apparently they had been searching quite purposefully for ancient manuscripts of the Bible, such as the one they had found. But on what basis, many in Cambridge might ask, were they doing so? Learned they might be, but they were not scholars and they had not a university degree between them. The hunt for early copies of the Bible was a difficult scholarly pursuit and dangerous furthermore, especially for ladies, since you could hardly know what-or whom-you might meet in the untravelled Levant.

For most people, the Bible was still an unquestioned compendium of truth, its immutable word conveyed supernaturally through the generations. This remained so in recent decades, despite the war that had erupted over the Bible in particular and religious faith generally- a war in which Cambridge was one of the battle fronts. Scientists were in the ascendant in the university (once dominated by ministers in training) and Darwinian ideas (as well as actual Darwins) were swirling about. A young American visitor to the city in the 1880s wrote back to her family to report that George Darwin, Professor of Astronomy and son of the eminent Charles, had not been to chapel in a dozen years. She had it from a reliable source that he was "an argonaist [sic]. I think that is the word [Agnostic?]. But it means an infidel who does not try to make other people infidels. So many of the people here are that kind."

Even in Cambridge these free-thinking ideas were relatively new. Darwin's theories, readily generalised, had led to the notion that everything-from the shape of barnacles to the beaks of birds-had been subject to long processes of development, and if barnacles and beaks, then why not human institutions and artefacts-even religions and the Bible? This added an apparent scientific rationale to the views of certain religious radicals that the Bible as we know it emerged not contemporaneously with, but generations (even centuries) after the events it was meant to chronicle. There was thus avid popular interest in any new manuscript finds that might push reliable testimony back to earlier dates. And now it appeared that Mrs. Gibson and Mrs. Lewis, two rich but otherwise unremarkable Cambridge ladies, had made a signal discovery.

In the senior combination room of Christ's College two men who knew rather more than most about the expedition in question, a Romanian rabbi named Solomon Schechter and his friend and colleague William Robertson Smith (successor as Professor of Arabic to the Sinai murder victim), considered the newspaper coverage and reflected that something had gone amiss in the transmission of the facts of what had happened at St. Catherine's Monastery. Almost certainly there would be hell to pay.

Similar thoughts were going through the minds of the inhabitants of Castlebrae, the large house at the foot of Castle Hill. The Daily News article erred in many respects; for one thing, Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson were not in Egypt, but already back in Cambridge recovering from their arduous camel ride across the Sinai peninsula and a rough sailing from Suez to Marseilles. As they received the press reports that were catapulting them into the public eye, they recollected first setting out for Sinai just a year earlier: how Rendel Harris had persisted in teaching them the art of photography; how, on the day before their departure, they had stayed up late in their rooms in the Charing Cross Hotel, making sure the photographic apparatus they had bought for themselves was in order. They recalled their initial nine- day crossing of the Sinai peninsula and, walking ahead of their camel caravan, their first sighting of the walls of St. Catherine's, its bearded monks in black robes and stove-pipe hats hallooing from the parapets some ninety feet above (monks who were rumoured to have thrown stones at unwelcome visitors in the past), and wondering what sort of welcome awaited them. Now, with friends relaying, almost hourly, local rumours and with garbled newspaper reports reaching them from as far afield as Rome and New York, they sensed that they stood not at the end, but at the beginning of something rather daunting.

This is the true story of two sisters who, like the biblical Moses, made a discovery at Mount Sinai that would transform their lives. As in Moses's case, the miraculous turn in their circumstances would come about only after trials (including some on the Nile) had proved their worthiness, and would lead them to places they could scarcely have imagined.

Chapter Two

The Birth and Upbringing of the Lady Bible-Hunters

On 11 January 1843 twin girls were born to a Scottish lawyer named John Smith and his wife, Margaret. Mrs. Smith died only two weeks later, and her husband resolved never to marry again and to bring the twins up by himself. The older (by one hour) was named Agnes and the second twin Margaret, after their mother. Their father never once spoke to them of their mother, and they had no other close relations.

The Smith family lived in Irvine, a quiet, conservative and civic- minded town of some 6,000 about thirty miles south-west of Glasgow on Scotland's west coast. A contemporary account speaks of the "Dutch quaintness of its principal street . . . a strange medley of crow- stepped gable ends, thatched cottages, last century mansions with outside stairs, and new buildings of banks and shops and residences of well-to-do burghers"; it adds that "at most hours of the day a cannon ball might have been fired along the High Street without peril to life or limb." A stone bridge over the River Irvine connected the town to the harbour hinterland, where there was intermittent industrial activity-a ship-builder making tea-clippers, a lime works and a boiler- maker-beyond which lay the lonely marshes of the estuary.

Irvine had once been an important port, its merchants exporting coal to Ireland, importing wine from France and smuggling whiskey from the Isle of Arran that was just visible to the west on clear days, but gradually the harbour had silted up. While nearby townships, anticipating the surge of trade from America and the colonies, seized the moment to construct the deep-water ports that Glasgow manufacturers required, the Irvine city fathers could not bring themselves to spend money on improving the sea approaches, with the consequence that, just at the moment of a huge boom in shipping, the port of Irvine became a backwater.

Apart from shipping, the main source of employment for Irvine's citizens had been, until recently, hand-loom linen-weaving. Robert Burns worked in Irvine briefly in the 1780s as a flax-dresser, manually beating the fibres in preparation for weaving, before his partner's tipsy wife burned down their shop and propelled Burns towards his poetic calling. But by the 1840s Glasgow merchants had largely mechanised the linen industry, thereby hugely diminishing the numbers it employed. Soup kitchens had to be established for a "large body of the handloom weavers . . . destitute of employment and in very necessitous circumstances."

Irvine during the decades of the twins' childhood was, in short, the kind of town that people, especially ambitious young men, were "from," drawn by the economic dynamism of Glasgow or possibilities for enrichment in America or Australia.

Yet not all its citizens were distressed, and one who was indeed quite wealthy was the twins' father, John Smith. He was a self-made man and the beneficiary of Scotland's parish school system, which enabled clever boys from modest backgrounds to enter the professions. By the time he was married, aged forty, he had built up a legal practice and was the owner of a fine stone house. He was widowed only a year later.

Agnes and Margaret adored their father, and despite his emotional austerity in never mentioning their mother, he was a good and loving parent, active in the town and especially in anything that concerned his daughters-President of the Burns Society, Captain of the Irvine Company of the Ayrshire Rifle Volunteers, and a force on the board of Irvine Royal Academy throughout the twins' time as pupils. John Smith educated his daughters more or less as if they had been boys.

He taught them to argue and to reason, and gave them considerable freedom to roam around the quiet streets of Irvine and to travel on horseback through its surrounding fields and lanes.

Smith approved of education, independence of mind and foreign travel. Railway travel was in its early days; the 1840s saw train lines spreading across the map of Britain and the Continent, making travel possible for the affluent middle classes as never before. John Smith and his daughters were amongst the first beneficiaries, both because they loved to travel and because Smith had had the prescience to invest in the railways.

Finding that his daughters had a gift for languages, he early entered into a pact with them: for each foreign language they should learn, they would be taken on a visit to that country. On this happy plan, and with a twin as a constant practice partner, the sisters mastered French, German, Spanish and Italian while still quite young.

School was the Irvine Royal Academy, a short walk from home.

This forward-looking establishment educated boys and girls together, teaching them the same subjects and in the same classrooms. In this, the sisters were most fortunate. Girls' education in Scotland was generally better than that in England, on account of the Presbyterian requirement that each human soul be able to read and understand the Bible, but since a young woman's earthly future lay not in a profession but as a wife and mistress of a household, most parents still considered that their daughters' apprenticeship for later life should properly take place at home. The Argyle Commission's inquiry into girls' schools (1868) found that lack of parental ambition for their daughters was a continual drag on their progress in schooling. Teachers colluded with parents in the view that overfilling heads would cause mental collapse, hysteria or a loss of feminine softness. Most girls' schools were run half-heartedly by untrained staff and suffered from "want of method" and vagueness.

The normal pattern for girls of well-to-do parents in Scotland (as in England) was therefore light schooling, often at home, devoted to learning to read and to cultivating arts suited to feminine accomplishment, such as dancing, singing, drawing and a little conversational French. The study of Latin, Greek and commercial subjects (bookkeeping, navigation and accounting) was reserved for boys. But John Smith did not subscribe to the theory of "mental softness" for his girls.

Meet the Author

Janet Soskice grew up in western Canada and has lived for some years in England, where she is Professor in Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College. She lectures around the world and is a frequent contributor to radio and television programs.

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