Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the track of ancient manuscripts

The Sisters of Sinai, Janet Soskice

I learned about this book from a review by Teresa on Shelf Love, and I immediately went looking for a copy.  The subtitle is "How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels."  The "lady adventurers" were twin sisters, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson.  The "hidden gospels" that Agnes Smith Lewis discovered in an Egyptian monastery in 1892 are among the earliest known copies in existence, dating from the second century.  But the "how" that connects the two is more than just an account of a trip to Egypt in 1892.

Janet Soskice has written a biography of these two women that places their extraordinary discovery in the context of their extraordinary lives, tracing the people and the events that prepared them for that trip.  And their story doesn't end with the trip.  In part because male scholars tried to downplay the sisters' role and exclude them from editing the manuscript, they immersed themselves in the study of ancient languages and biblical scholarship.  Though they lacked formal academic qualifications, Agnes and Margaret published the first edition of the manuscript in 1894, scooping the scholars.  As their studies progressed, they became acknowledged experts in ancient manuscripts and  "Oriental" studies (a term then encompassing ancient Egypt and Palestine).  They went on to track other manuscripts, some of which they edited and published through the Cambridge University press.  Among the most stunning finds was a trove of 40,000 documents retrieved from the 10th century Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, "the richest archive of medieval Jewish materials in existence."

Born in a small town in western Scotland in 1843, the sisters lost their mother when they were two weeks old.  They were raised by their father, who gave them an education and an independence that for the time was more suited to boys than girls.  They were also born into a Presbyterian faith that strongly influenced every aspect and action of their long lives, including their search for biblical truth in ancient manuscripts.  From their father they learned a love of languages and of travel; for each new language they learned, their reward was a trip to that country.  When their father died suddenly in 1866, leaving them the fortune he had inherited, the twins sought solace in travel.  Their trip would not be to familiar European countries, but to Egypt and Palestine.  Agnes and Margaret joined other notable Victorian women travelers like Amelia Edwards and their fellow Scot, Isabella Bird, and like them the sisters would publish accounts of their travels.

In between later trips, the sisters lived first in London and then in Cambridge.  Both married in their 40s, but both lost their husbands after only a few years of marriage.  As with their father's death, travel proved a distraction from grief.  It was after Agnes's husband died that the sisters set out on their momentous trip to the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai desert, whose famous library had already yielded a stunning 4th century Greek Bible, the oldest and most complete found to date.  Agnes and Margaret had become interested in questions of biblical scholarship, as new scientific discoveries led some scholars to question the Bible's authorship, provenance, and authority.  Though their Presbyterian faith was rooted in the Bible, unlike many of their contemporaries the sisters could explore these questions in the abstract, with their faith unshaken.

This book works on several different levels, all of them rewarding.  One level is the biography of the sisters, and Soskice makes them live for the reader.  They were women of such character, though not always easy to live with - or travel with, for that matter.  Another level is the scholarship.  Soskice places their discovery in the context of 19th century biblical and historical studies.  She carefully tracks the different manuscripts of the Scriptures that appeared, and she cogently explains the developments in biblical studies and the arguments that ensued.  I found this part of the story very informative and easy to follow.

The book can also be read as a history of travel in the 19th century.  I was reminded not just of Isabella Bird, but also of a favorite fictional traveler, Amelia Peabody Emerson, an Egyptologist modeled on the real Amelia Edwards.  The six visits the sisters made to the Monastery of St. Catherine also reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett.  The monastery plays an important role in The Unicorn Hunt, part of her House of Niccolo series.


  1. I'm so happy to hear that you read and enjoyed this. I didn't realize that this was the same monastery as the one in The Unicorn Hunt. That's so cool!

  2. Unlike Gelis and Kathi, the sisters didn't have to come in disguise! I did pull Unicorn Hunt off the shelf to re-read that section, looking for any references to manuscripts.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!