In The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, Janet Martin Soskice tells the story of twin sisters Agnes and Margaret Smith, born in Scotland in 1843, who made a discovery that would have implications for the future of biblical studies.
As beneficiaries of an enormous fortune, Agnes and Margaret grew up in high society, but there was nothing bourgeois or stuffy about them. With a gift for languages and an insatiable appetite for travel, the sisters traveled to far-off places such as Egypt, Greece, and Syria. Soskice describes their trip to Jerusalem in 1868, a wonderful image of "proper" European ladies as intrepid adventurers:
The ladies rode side-saddle in their white riding habits. They held the reigns and parasols in their left hands, keeping their right hands free for Murray's Guidebook to Syria. On their heads were scarves of white cambric, worn like Turkish veils beneath straw hats. It was the first time Agnes, Margaret, and Grace [an older chaperone] had slept in tents.
It was not to be the last.
The central adventure in the book is Agnes and Margaret's trip in 1892 to Saint Catherine's Monastery at Sinai, where they made the tremendous discovery of a Syriac manuscript. Soskice leads us to the moment of the discovery so that we, too, feel as though we have been riding along with these colorful sisters, privy to their surprises and hard labors. She also maintains suspense throughout, as when she writes of the sisters' first clue about the possibility of a Syriac manuscript:
And then Rendel Harris told them something he had not disclosed in his book. There was a dark closet off a dark chamber beneath the archbishop's rooms. This closet contained chests of Syriac manuscripts that Harris had lacked time fully to examine. He thought these might prove to be some of the earliest texts of Christianity, in the language close to the original Aramaic spoken by Jesus and his disciples. He encouraged Agnes in her study of Syriac, and planted in her mind the possibility that she, too—though only a beginning—might find something extraordinary at Sinai.
The Sisters of Sinai includes villains (like the dragoman Certezza and the greedy scholar Constantin von Tischendorf), romance (each sister gets married), and, of course, adventure. Knowledge of several languages is an important key, one that allows these early nineteenth-century women to make incredibly important discoveries and travel to such "exotic" sites. (It will make you want to learn Arabic, Greek, and Syriac, as well.)
The sisters' story is a good reminder for scholars and researchers that textual variations are not to be dismissed as mistakes, but should be seen as further impetus for study. As Soskice quotes Agnes: "...the very variants which frighten the weak minded among us act as a stimulant to others, inciting them to search the Scripture more diligently." This passionate pursuit of knowledge, even in the face of difficulties with translations and transcriptions and the like, flows throughout the entire narrative.
The Sisters of Sinai also reminds us that the artifact is the vestige of both human learning and devotion. Scholars and holy men are quite often at odds in this book. For the monks, a book was the physical trace of some long-departed brother or sister in the faith, who had executed it letter by letter, prayer by prayer; was this to be handed over to men whose only concern was with comparative philology? For their part, the scholars often had difficulty understanding why the monks should sit so protectively on their treasure, and why their own scholarly interrogations had to cease at regular intervals while the monks said their prayers or retired early to their beds in order to rise before dawn, once again, to pray. In this way we are reminded that art history is not only about aesthetic appreciation of objects, but also about understanding objects' significance to their original creators, owners, and inheritors.
About the Book
Janet Martin Soskice. The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Alfred Knopf, New York: 2009