Janet Soskice recounts the incredible discovery of the Sinai Palimpsest, one of the most important ancient Biblical manuscripts ever found
by Janet Soskice
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, 316 pp., $27.95 (hardcover)
The book is reviewed by John Merrill who points out that while the narrative may be a bit short on the heavier, more academic aspects of ancient Biblical manuscripts, Janet Soskice nonetheless weaves together an absorbing narrative that describes the discovery of the Sinai Palimpsest, one of the ancient Biblical manuscripts held in the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery located at the foot of Mt. Sinai. As far as ancient Biblical artifacts go, the Sinai Palimpsest is one of the most important: It is the oldest known copy of the Four Gospels written in Syriac, a language that the two sisters studied and were able to identify as they were perusing the collection of ancient Biblical manuscripts in the library of St. Catherine’s.Janet Soskice describes the privileged life of the two sisters, both of whom had a passion for studying languages and cultures. Their adventurous characters and interest in Biblical history and ancient Biblical artifacts led them to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert, where they stayed for a time and studied the ancient Biblical manuscripts in the monastery’s collection. Janet Soskice then explains how Agnes, while studying one of the ancient Biblical manuscripts, identified the palimpsest. She found that a later and relatively common account of the lives of the female saints was actually written over an older and much more important text. This older text, writes Janet Soskice, was written in Syriac and was eventually discovered to be the oldest account of the Four Gospels written in this ancient language. As far as ancient Biblical artifacts go, the palimpsest was an astonishing discovery that would eventually become known as the Sinai Palimpsest.
Janet Soskice’s story goes on to describe the sisters’ subsequent expedition to the Sinai—this time with eminent scholars Rendel Harris and Robert Bensly in tow—and their painstaking efforts to restore this most important of ancient Biblical manuscripts. Janet Soskice’s book, according to Merrill, lacks an in-depth discussion of the Sinai Palimpsest’s important contribution to early Biblical criticism, but he nevertheless believes that The Sisters of Sinai is a fun and fascinating story of Victorian-era adventure and discovery.
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