(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 316 pp., $27.95 (hardcover)
by Janet Soskice
Reviewed by John Merrill
Few of life’s possibilities entice the human psyche more than the prospect of finding hidden treasure. And for persons of faith, a significant Biblical artifact can be more precious than gold or jewels. Moreover, as your humble reviewer has observed elsewhere,1 the characters who engage in searches for lost artifacts, often subjecting themselves to discomfort or even downright danger, can be as unusual and intriguing as the objects of their search.
Two such unlikely adventurers (or more appropriately, adventuresses), the twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, are the protagonists of a recent book by Janet Soskice, The Sisters of Sinai. Soskice, a professor of philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge, has offered readers a deftly-written and thoroughly researched account of her quite extraordinary subjects. Raised from infancy by their staunch Presbyterian father (their mother having died shortly after their birth in 1843), the twins became accomplished linguists, incentivized by the offer to travel to each country whose language they learned. Thus encouraged, they mastered French, German, Spanish and Italian, and in the process became experienced travelers. Their father inherited a considerable sum of money and when he died, his 25-year-old daughters found themselves unexpectedly alone, but very rich.
The book chronicles the sisters’ adventures in an account that is part biography, part travelogue and part late Victorian social commentary. Through a series of coincidences—or as the sisters believed, Divine Providence—they found themselves widows at an early age, but part of Cambridge University’s colorfully diverse intellectual community, where Agnes’s late husband had been a Fellow and curator of ancient manuscripts.
In part to console their grief, the sisters resolved to visit Sinai, where they might “tread for themselves the desert pathways of the Israelites … and set eyes on the Mountain of the Law.” They also wanted to visit St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the most ancient and remote continuously occupied religious sites in the Middle East, and the repository, so it was rumored, of a marvelous manuscript collection.
Armed with a crash course in Syriac, a dialect of Jesus’ own Aramaic, and 1,000 photographic plates, the sisters made their way across the forbidding Sinai wilderness. It was high adventure, although for wealthy Victorians, the circumstances were more comfortable than for the ancient Israelites, as the sisters’ retinue included a butler, a cook and a team of Bedouin porters carrying tents, bedding, a fully-equipped kitchen and 40 days’ worth of fresh food.
Arriving at St. Catherine’s, the sisters quickly ingratiated themselves with their hosts and asked to examine the monastery’s most ancient manuscripts. One codex in particular caught Agnes’s attention. Filthy, with its leaves stuck together, it had probably not been touched for centuries. At first, it appeared to be an unexciting document, a synopsis of the lives of female saints, of which there were many known copies. But on close examination, Agnes discovered that it was a palimpset—that is, a document over-written upon an even more ancient document, and the latter turned out to be the oldest copy heretofore discovered of the Four Gospels in Syriac.
Author Soskice goes on to relate how the sisters laboriously photographed their startling find, returned to Cambridge, and organized a new expedition that included two eminent scholars (Rendel Harris and Robert Bensly). The remarkable manuscript was painstakingly brought back to life with chemical treatments before it was translated. In an age of miraculous document discoveries, the Sinai Palimpset was to take its place among the foremost.
While Soskice tells a colorful tale, her story is long on the personalities of the characters, but rather short on the substantive treatments that might be of particular interest to BAR readers. For example, the late 19th century saw great advances in textual criticism, leading up to the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus. But The Sisters of Sinai offers barely three pages on the textual contributions of the Sinai Palimpset, and only brief references to how those discoveries related to the general flow of textual criticism of the age. As another example, we learn that the sisters played an important role in Solomon Schechter’s discovery of the manuscript horde in the Cairo Genizah, but surprisingly, there is no mention of perhaps the two most important documents discovered by Schechter, the tenth century and the 12th-century fragments of the so-called Damascus Document that ultimately came to be identified as a foundational work of the Qumran Essenes.
In sum, The Sisters of Sinai is a nicely crafted tale and a pleasant read, but may be a trifle short on substance for some BAR readers.
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