The Sisters of Sinai

You may have an image of the Victorian age as a world of stuffiness, prudishness, and repression (though not if you’ve read any Wilkie Collins!) But it was also an age of exploration and discovery: up the Nile, to the South Pole, into the heart of Africa and South America. Janet Soskice’s wonderful book, The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, reveals that Agnes and Margaret Smith, sturdy Scots Presbyterian twins, numbered among these fearless explorers and discoverers: their travels to an isolated monastery in the Sinai desert resulted in the spectacular uncovering of one of the oldest manuscripts of the Gospels ever found.

The Smith twins were born in 1843 in Scotland and raised by their immensely wealthy father (in today’s terms, a multi-multi-millionaire.) Among his other enlightened decisions about their education, he promised his girls a visit to every country whose language they learned, which resulted in an early mastery of French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The twins, who were devout Presbyterians, were also interested in Biblical languages, and between them they learned Hebrew, ancient and modern Greek, Arabic, and Syriac. Upon the death of their father, they consoled themselves with a trip to the land of Abraham and Moses, and thoroughly, unflappably enjoyed their adventure in Egypt, even through a corrupt dragoman, bad weather, and unexpected local practices. This first trip to the East spurred many others.

Both twins married, happily if briefly (Agnes’s husband died after only three years of marriage; Margaret’s husband after just three months.) It was in part to assuage their grief that the women went on a long-deferred trip in 1892: to see St. Catherine’s monastery in the Egyptian desert, near Mt. Sinai. They carried with them not only the usual letters of introduction and travelers’ paraphernalia, but extensive photographic equipment, knowledge of Orthodox monastic life, and a crucial piece of knowledge: in a small, dark closet off the archbishop’s rooms were a messy pile of ancient Syriac texts. Impossible to know their value without examining them… but Agnes and Margaret had the tools to do so.

It is important to remember that the 19th century was an anxious time for Christian believers. In a scientific age, there were questions, not only about miracles (manna from heaven, for instance) but about the veracity and soundness of the text itself. It had become clear even in ordinary households that the King James Bible had not been handed down from heaven: there were thousands of manuscripts, all slightly different, all allowing of human or scribal error. If the Gospels had not even begun to be written until 400 years after the event (the oldest text that had been found to date), how accurate could they be?

Margaret and Agnes, forthright Presbyterian women in a community of Orthodox monks, sifted through the Syriac texts with every confidence of success. And successful they were. Agnes recognized under a collection of female saints’ lives the words “of Matthew” and “of Luke” and realized she was holding a palimpsest of the Gospels. This translation turned out to date from the early second century — 150 years earlier than the earliest text that had been found thus far.

Soskice follows the women as they bring their discovery back to Cambridge and struggle for recognition among jealous scholars, other publishers, and the shaken, delighted, reverberating world of Biblical textual criticism. The story, even back in England, is incredibly exciting, and the twins themselves — sturdy, steady, infinitely curious, unafraid of hardship, never lacking energy or opinion — are marvelous. Soskice’s prose is immensely readable, and she makes liberal use of diaries and letters. I thought of ten people I wanted to give this book to, as soon as I finished it — it’s alive with interest. Try it yourself, and see what I mean.

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This entry was posted in Biography, History, Nonfiction, Religion, Travel/ Exploration. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Sisters of Sinai

  1. Oh my gosh this sounds fantastic! *adds to wishlist*

  2. Victorian exploration is quite fascinating—that combination of patronizing racist assumptions with sheer will and gung-ho attitude is interesting. I haven’t read much about female explorers of the time period, but this sounds like a good exploration of the sisters.

    • Jenny says:

      I absolutely adore Victorian exploration. They’re all a bunch of looneybirds, and these women — though apparently more commonsensical — are right up my alley.

  3. J.G. says:

    Wow. This sounds stunning. On my wishlist now, too.

    I bet those sisters did have a hard time convincing everyone that a couple of female amateurs had made such an important discovery.

    • Jenny says:

      They did! They spent years writing letters to the Times, contradicting what other people were saying about them in journals and newspapers.

  4. Iris says:

    This sounds absolutely fantastic. There is always something very interesting about early Christian texts, I think. They bshow how diverse Christianity was at that time & I like to be reminded of that in the face of some of the more radical Christians. But then, I guess me saying that is exactly fitting to today’s feelings towards religion, and for that I feel a little ashamed to even remark on it.

    • Jenny says:

      It is always interesting to look at the past and see how it’s developed into what we have now. This book was great fun, partly for that reason.

  5. Teresa says:

    Am I correct in guessing I’m one of the 10 people you wanted to give this to, what with the Victorian ladies *and* the Biblical text discovery? It sounds like a must read to me!

  6. Jenny says:

    I am really feeling the imperialist history days in the Middle East. I read a book about Egypt and the Sudan last month, and I just got through with one about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This sounds wonderful!

    • Jenny says:

      And not only is it imperialist history, it’s exploration, and languages, and Bible stuff, and text stuff, and biography, and travel. It’s really got something for everyone (and about twelve things for me.)

  7. Kathleen says:

    What a fascinating book about such brave and intelligent women. I’ve not heard of them before or this book. Sounds like a fantastic read.

  8. Christy says:

    This sounds like an interesting story, especially regarding their reception after they returned with the manuscripts.

  9. Edward says:

    Fascinating is not a useful word to use about this book. It makes it sound like the life of a movie actress. Vital, enthralling and necessary are better words. This is about the life work of two wonderful women who gave their heart and soul to something grand. You do not put a book like this on your wish list. You devour it because it is delicious. You take it in great big gulps and cannot wait to get back to it when you must put it down.

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