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.