The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, / by Janet Soskice

Posted by on Jan 6, 2020 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, / by Janet Soskice

Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai is a pioneering biography of two women, identical Scottish twins born in 1843, who without the opportunity for university study fashioned themselves into biblical scholars whose achievements were nothing less than spectacular. The subtitle, How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels sounds sensational, but this history truly is sensational. Agnes Smith Lewis and her sister Margaret Dunlop Gibson [End Page 341] undertook dangerous journeys to St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai where they discovered what turned out to be the second oldest manuscript of the Christian Gospels: a palimpsest on which a “racy” martyrology of women saints obscured a fourth-century Syriac translation of the original Greek text (qtd. in Soskice 160). As the translation itself dated back to the second century, and as Syriac was a dialect of the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus, this early translation promised a closer approach to the very earliest Christian beliefs. Soskice appropriately closes the first chapter of her account of these adventurous women by testifying that “this is the true story of two sisters who, like the biblical Moses, made a discovery at Mount Sinai that would transform their lives … after trials (including some on the Nile) had proved their worthiness” (6).
But if this beginning sounds like the stuff of romance and legend, the twin sisters’ story is situated in an impeccably researched history of biblical textual discoveries that shook the world of Victorian religion to its core by proving that the Christian Bible was the product of many translations and revisions. Soskice is the author of two previous monographs and co-editor of seven essay collections on subjects ranging from feminist theology to medicine and moral reasoning; she brings a sophisticated knowledge of biblical textual history to her impressive sleuthing of biographical minutiae. She is also a gifted writer who transforms the lives of two largely forgotten Scottish women into a page-turning adventure story.
The prologue takes us back to Constantin von Tischendorf’s disclosure of an ancient manuscript that he had “borrowed” from St. Catherine’s in 1859 (112), and to a new and authoritative edition of the Greek New Testament prepared by two Cambridge scholars based on their comparison of the newly discovered manuscript with the one already held in the Vatican Library. A new English translation of this revised Greek edition was then released on 17 May 1881; the Oxford University Press alone sold a million copies on the first day. But Soskice trumps this sensational bestseller story with a London Daily News story published on 13 April 1893 concerning two ladies, a Mrs. Lewis and her sister, Mrs. Gibson, who had travelled to Mount Sinai in Egypt and discovered another ancient manuscript of the Four Gospels. This was a palimpsest “in a dreadful condition, all the leaves sticking together and being full of dirt” (qtd. in Soskice 3); Lewis had steamed its pages apart with her teakettle! Thus Soskice moves her readers from the standard view of nineteenth-century biblical scholarship as the work of men from the rarified world of university scholarship to the popular media and its amazing news about a blackened wedge of manuscript found by “two ladies” in a “dark closet” (123).
But as Soskice informs us, the Daily News story was only a partial truth. The presence of two eminent male biblical scholars on the expedition was omitted although a third, Professor Rendel Harris, is mentioned. In fact, the exclusion of the two male scholars, Professor Robert Bensley and his adjutant Frank Burkitt, from the account of the sensational new find was precisely what these men had feared. While working with the sisters and Harris on the 1893 trip to the monastery whose purpose was to fully transcribe the Syriac manuscript found by Lewis on an earlier trip, conflicts boiled. It became evident that “Bensly and Burkitt resented Harris’s presence and considered Agnes and Margaret upstarts—in which judgment their wives concurred” (157). Who were these two women, and were they unqualified “upstarts”?
Soskice’s biography is the first scholarly, fully documented account of the twin sisters. Their life’s work was a crucial part of the exciting, if often scandalous, [End Page 342] history of Victorian takeovers of ancient manuscripts discovered in Middle Eastern countries. The self-taught sisters—women were barred from university degrees in England—shine forth as exemplary figures of non-exploitative scholar-adventurers open to the Oriental cultures in which they worked. Before their first trip to St. Catherine’s, Bensly had discouraged them from the undertaking, saying that their journey would be in vain because the monks wouldn’t accept women. What they found was precisely the opposite: the monks welcomed them because they were women and not “scientific scholars” (108)—a European breed that they had found could seldom be trusted—and also because, unlike the scholars who often were only learned in ancient languages, these women spoke modern Greek, their own language.
They first arrived at St. Catherine’s in January 1892 fully prepared with water filters, medicines, and a state-of-the-art photographic apparatus, complete with 1,000 nitrate negatives. They also brought with them knowledge of the Syriac language, which Lewis had begun to study because she had been so enthralled by Harris’s work. Harris had discovered at St. Catherine’s a full copy of the “Apology of Aristides” in Syriac, a work which proved the existence of an already well-formulated version of Christian belief in the first half of the second century. Harris soon became a valuable friend and supporter. It was he who told them about a “dark closet” full of Syriac manuscripts that he had not had time to examine thoroughly, and in that closet Lewis discovered the palimpsest under whose surface text she was just able to make out “Of Matthew” and “Of Luke” (124).
The rest is, as Soskice’s final chapter title makes clear, not history but “Palimpsest.” Although Lewis wrote a “masterpiece” of an introduction to what eventually became known as the “Lewis Codex” and later published an English translation (195), so that ordinary people could read this early version of the Gospels; although the sisters also published a still-valuable catalogue of Syriac and Arabic manuscripts held at St. Catherine’s, as well as many editions of ancient manuscripts; although the sisters made repeated trips to Mediterranean destinations, lawfully purchasing manuscripts and also publishing accounts of their travels; and although they achieved high acclaim as scholars in their lifetimes, Lewis being awarded four honorary doctorates and Gibson three, and the two together receiving the triennial gold medal of the Royal Asiatic Society—in spite of all these remarkable adventures and achievements, the sisters’ lives have been overwritten by the work of biblical scholars who happen to have been men. Soskice has now spelled out the hidden gospel truths of their lives. No scholar of Victorian religion, or of the lives of Victorian women, not to mention anyone who just wants to sit down with a spellbinding tale of Victorian history, should miss it.
Mary Wilson Carpenter
Mary Wilson Carpenter (, Professor Emerita at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, is the author of Imperial Bibles, Domestic Bodies: Women, Sexuality, and Religion in the Victorian Market (2003), George Eliot and the Landscape of Time: Narrative Form and Protestant Apocalyptic History (1986), and, most recently, Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England (2009). She is currently working on Victorian literature and medicine.