In 1892, twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson crossed an Egyptian desert in search of a treasure at the foot of Mount Sinai. Devout Presbyterians with a gift for languages, the sisters had learned of a cache of ancient manuscripts at Saint Catherine’s Monastery that hadn’t been fully explored by scholars. The few who had taken a look had made some astonishing finds, one of which was the Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century Greek manuscript of the Bible. The widowed sisters had money, time, travel experience, and knowledge; so they decided to investigate the collection themselves. Their discovery, a palimpsest manuscript of the Gospels in Syriac, the Aramaic dialect that Jesus spoke, drew the attention of scholars and has become an important part of the study of the history of the Biblical text.
When Jenny reviewed Sisters of Sinai earlier this year, I immediately added it to my TBR list. It covered far too many of my interests for me not to: Biblical history and textual criticism, the Victorian era, feminism, scholarship, travel. So many things that appeal.
Much of the book is a travelogue, detailing the sisters’ journeys down the Nile, around Greece, and across the desert. They eschewed professional guides and packaged tours, preferring to make their own arrangements and never choosing the easy route. Their keen interest in manuscript hunting arose only after their first trip to Egypt.
After discovering the palimpsest manuscript and having its importance verified by scholars who studied their photographs, the sisters organized a trip back to Sinai with a group of scholars to transcribe the palimpsest and catalog the monastery’s other manuscripts. At this point, the story becomes one of academic intrigue. Professional rivalries end up tainting their quest, as competing claims for credit, as well as some cultural missteps, put the scholars at odds with one another and with the brothers at the monastery. Because Agnes and Margaret are women and largely self-taught, some of their collaborators are appalled at the idea of giving them credit. One of the men on their team even goes so far as to say he should get credit for whatever is discovered at the monastery because he is the world’s primary Syriac scholar.
Undaunted, the twins do whatever they can to preserve their place in the history of the manuscript, and they continue hunting, transcribing, and writing about other important ancient texts. They become savvy buyers of manuscripts, and their good eyes lead to the discovery of a stolen manuscript and an important collection of Jewish texts. Being excluded from the academy also doesn’t stop them from putting their stamp on it. They use their wealth to endow Westminster College in Cambridge, a school for the study of reformed theology. Eventually, more and more scholars come to appreciate their work, and they receive multiple honorary degrees honoring their efforts.
The sisters’ lives touch on lots of different ideas, and Sisters of Sinai author Janet Soskise packages all of this information in such a way that readers who already know something of these topics won’t feel talked down to and readers who are new to them will be able to understand. (With such a mix of topics, almost any reader would be unfamiliar with something here!) I was especially impressed with the crash courses in textual criticism and religious thinking of the era, both of which are complex and fascinating topics. Without oversimplifying, Soskise tells readers precisely what they need to know to understand the intellectual context in which the sisters lived, but she avoids getting bogged down in unnecessary details. I could have done with a clearer explanation of issues involved with dating, but most readers won’t miss that. (The small amount of study I’ve done regarding textual criticism raised some questions that might not occur to others.)
Mostly, it’s Margaret and Agnes themselves who make this book so good. Their energy, their curiosity, their strong opinions, and their willingness to learn and change make them a pleasure to know. They lived at a time when the church was feeling threatened by modern methods of study, especially when applied to Biblical texts, but they refused to buy in to that fear:
It was their fierce commitment to the truth that most impresses. At a time when many feared new manuscripts finds would destroy the trust of the faithful in their Scriptures … , Agnes and Margaret were convinced that, if the Bible was God’s truth, then no scientific finds could damage its fundamental integrity.
Of course one had to grow and that, in their view, was part of God’s plan. Considering the question of why God should allow variants and scribal errors to creep into biblical manuscripts, Agnes … drew upon Darwinist reasoning: “man becomes a nobler animal through his effort to supply his own wants.” We are not flawless automatons, and generations of scribes were bound to make mistakes, but “the very variants which frighten the weak-minded amongst us act as a stimulant to others, inciting them to search the Scriptures more diligently … ” It was this openness to truth, and thirst to get at the truth behind tradition, that endeared Agnes and Margaret to the great scholars with whom they worked and corresponded, and which excites us still today.
Indeed it does excite us still.