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86 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stars of Sinai
Janet Soskice has brought to vivid life the extraordinary story of the Smith sisters, Agnes and Margaret, staunch Scottish Presbyterians, who did the unthinkable for two respectable ladies of the mid Victorian era. Not only were they well educated, in itself unusual at a time when education for ladies tended to stop at watercolouring, embroidery, a little piano playing...
Published on 1 April 2009 by Anthony O'Brien

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3.0 out of 5 stars Great story, but I never knew the twins
Two self-taught spinsters, twins, immensely rich, hunt down ancient Biblical manuscripts in the deserts of Sinai. When not thus engaged, they live in Cambridge, at first at the fringes, later at the heart of its (admittedly snooty) academic establishment. Scots, female, informally educated, living in an era when Cambridge didn't give degrees to women (and voted to keep...
Published 6 months ago by Glenn Myers


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86 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stars of Sinai, 1 April 2009
By 
Anthony O'Brien "Anto" (Ireland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sisters Of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels: How Two Lady Adventurers Unearthed the Hidden Gospels (Hardcover)
Janet Soskice has brought to vivid life the extraordinary story of the Smith sisters, Agnes and Margaret, staunch Scottish Presbyterians, who did the unthinkable for two respectable ladies of the mid Victorian era. Not only were they well educated, in itself unusual at a time when education for ladies tended to stop at watercolouring, embroidery, a little piano playing and possibly a smattering of French. The Smith sisters were fortunate in having considerable private means, but their intellectual vigour ( encouraged from the earliest by their widower father ) led them to pursue biblical scholarship. They learnt to speak and read, (besides the customary European languages, French, Italian and German), Greek, classical and modern, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac.

It was knowledge of the latter which enabled Agnes to make the discovery that transformed their lives, and propelled them into the front rank of Biblical textual scholars. Alerted to the possibility by a scholar friend, they set off for St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai, specifically to track down an ancient gospel manuscript in one of the monastery's store cupboards. It turned out to be a palimpsest, an over-written vellum book, containing in the partially erased original writing, one of the very earliest copies of the four gospels. It was written in Syriac, a language very close to the Aramaic spoken by people in Israel at the time of Jesus.

The journey, one they were to repeat six times, was arduous enough, even with the financial means to assemble the large caravan of camels, dragomans, porters, cooks and so on necessary for an extended crossing of the Sinai desert. It was an even more outstanding achievement for two Victorian ladies to organise the expedition for and by themselves. But they were always encouraged by their thought that they were following in the footsteps of characters from the Bible.

In the 19th century, at a time when the literal written word of the Bible was still sacrosanct to most Christians, Biblical scholarship was beginning to show that the manuscript sources of the Bible were many, varied, and often contradictory. The Gospel of St.Mark in the Sinai Syriac palimpsest, for instance, ends with the discovery of the empty tomb guarded by shining beings, but no further post-resurrection events. And it is still one of the earliest known versions of Mark's Gospel.

Janet Soskice has written a stunning account of the adventurous Smith twins, their lives, loves and ferocious determination to pursue their scholarly goals in the face of academic and social prejudice against women intellectuals. It is a gripping page-turner, as thrilling as any Victorian romance. Whether you are interested in Biblical studies or not, as a story of detection, courage and scholarship, it is a fascinating and enthralling read. Unputdownable.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Double trouble, 24 July 2010
This review is from: Sisters Of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels: How Two Lady Adventurers Unearthed the Hidden Gospels (Hardcover)
This is an excellent story that needed to be told. Meticulously researched, beautifully and authoritatively written by Prof. Janet Soskice. Just like the Scottish twins, who rose from the ranks of amateur linguists to international scholars of theology and philology, no extensive prior knowledge is required but an open mind will go a long way. How infuriating to learn that only a century ago, Cambridge did not award degrees to women!
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 19th century women heros telling us who we are, 2 Jan 2011
By 
Dr. C. Jeynes (England) - See all my reviews
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A brilliant book telling the story of two (very) rich Scottish widows, Dr. Agnes Smith Lewis and her twin sister Dr. Margaret Dunlop Gibson, who searched the Sinai desert (!) for ancient Syriac manuscripts (!!) near the end of the nineteenth century. The story is astonishing at all sorts of levels. They were strict Presbyterians, well connected, very well educated, multilingual, exceptionally healthy and very clever.

They found out that the monastery where von Tischendorf found the Codex Siniaticus was expected to have Gospels in Syriac which might predate the recently found "Curetonian" Diatessaron, which was 5th century. It turned out that the "Sinaitic Syriac" the palimpsest found by Mrs Lewis and her sister in 1892 had been attested by Ephraim the Syrian, placing it in the 2nd century (so it was important!). Mrs Lewis had learned Syriac especially for this expedition (being already fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and modern and Biblical Greek). (!!!)

The monks of St.Catherine's monastery, who as Greek Orthodox could not be more different from the Presbyterian sisters (who thoroughly disagreed with both their theology and their practise), had faithfully preserved all these ancient manuscripts for 1200 years and more. Actually, the first great Schism in the Church was at the Cappadocian Settlement of the fourth/fifth centuries, where the Syrian church seceded. But it was the Syriac monks who preserved the Greek philosophical manuscripts that the Islamic scholars edited later and shared with Christian scholars. And it was this new understanding that Aquinas codified (against, it must be said, very substantial obscurantist opposition), and the mediaeval rational theology that underpinned the mediaeval physicists like Buridan on whom Galileo depended. And hence our modern world.

Here is the story of one of the important manuscripts that establishes the antiquity of the Gospel texts, one of those astonishing stories that allows us to see another part of the jigsaw of who we are : this and later MS finds have pushed back the date of the Gospel texts to the first century, contradicting the prevailing scholarly opinion in the 19th century that they could be 2nd century. Does this matter? The power of the New Testament depends on being an eyewitness account. If it is not early then it is not reliable. It has become clear that it indeed very early, and the Sisters of Sinai have helped to establish this.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sinai and the West, 24 April 2010
By 
W. J. Elliott - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sisters Of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels: How Two Lady Adventurers Unearthed the Hidden Gospels (Hardcover)
A remarkable book about two women who were able to fulfil many of their dearest wishes. The fact that they were able both to amass 2,000 mss and even learn the necessary languages to read many of them is their triumph of education. Sinai has never been easily accessible for Westerners, so they must have charmed their way in. The Bete Noire who could so easily have frustrated their attempts was the 19th Century German Scholar, Tischendorf, but they built up a new relationship with the monks of Sinai, which is truly commendable. When the New Sinai website started up, last year, in its first three hours it had 20 million hits. Such is the interest in Mt. Sinai.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging tale of two likeable and determined women, 28 April 2011
By 
Jeremy Bevan (West Midlands, UK) - See all my reviews
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This is a wonderful true story in the best traditions of intrepid 19th century scholarship-cum-exploration, combining the discovery of biblical manuscripts, ferocious academic competition, intrepid travel in far-flung lands and a healthy dose of good old-fashioned Victorian eccentricity. It's the story of how twin sisters Agnes and Margaret Smith, women of independent means and robust Presbyterian Christian faith, discovered an ancient Syriac version of the Gospels at St. Catherine's monastery in Sinai, a discovery with major implications for New Testament scholarship. Janet Soskice tells their story very well, and in an accessible, flowing style. She catalogues the sisters' fascinating transformation from keen, interested amateurs with a love of travel and a gift for languages into serious scholars with a command of Syriac, Hebrew, Arabic and Greek, not to mention palaeography - acquired in crash course at Cambridge after the Sinai find.

They emerge as likeable and determined women, often struggling in the male-dominated world of Orientalist scholarship to achieve the recognition that was clearly their due. At times, the tale is racy, almost breathless, as scholars rush to secure manuscripts and publish their findings ahead of others. It's clear that the period was one of fevered excitement, with ancient manuscripts turning up in whole or in part at Cairo antique dealers almost faster than scholars could get their hands on them. Not surprisingly in such an atmosphere, there are some serious fallings-out along the way, and although Soskice is scrupulous in noting the variant accounts of all the participants in the Sinai expedition, she is not surprisingly at some pains to defend the sisters' version at some length. That they did successfully publish their findings (which extended far beyond the Syriac manuscript) in a number of scholarly books and articles shows their tenacity. And given that Cambridge failed to honour academically their considerable scholarship (not admitting women to degrees until well into the twentieth century), it's pleasing that a current Cambridge theologian should see fit to pen such an engaging account, one that would seem to do ample justice to its subjects. Very good indeed.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Victorian academic heroines brought to life., 22 Feb 2011
By 
A. Hunter (Merstham, Surrey United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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The human drama of this biblical research - the journeys and the jealousies, the diligence and determination, the erudite and the oecumenical - makes this a remarkably good book to read, as others have said. It is a real life quest for a Holy Grail, in this case the earliest available verification that the Bible has not been distorted over the centuries by translation and transcription errors and omissions (those impressed by Dan Brown's books will struggle with this true adventure). The author conveys the importance of the sisters' discovery at the time, but avoids undue hyperbole. She also includes their key role in the important discovery of the Wisdom of Ben Sira in Hebrew.
Despite their Wee Free church upbringing, and some remarks on the customs of other Christian organizations, the heroines of this tale come across as relatively broad minded in their search for truth and more generous towards their academic peers than might have been the case had their path to scholarship been more traditional and masculine.
The author reports the sisters' own sense of `Greater Providence' being responsible for providing two self-disciplined and highly intelligent ladies of independent means to find and make available to a freshly doubting world the earliest version of the four gospels. And, indeed, why not? This is a fine combination of an enjoyable yet thought-provoking read.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sisters of Sinai: How two Lady Adventurers found the hidden gospels, 27 Mar 2009
This review is from: Sisters Of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels: How Two Lady Adventurers Unearthed the Hidden Gospels (Hardcover)
Janet Soskice paints an incredible picture of the life of two women who are incredibly tenacious. Adventurers they certainly were. Despite setbacks and sadness in their personal lives, (both Agnes and Margaret ended up as widows) When they have a project they belive in they never falter in seeking a sucessful end to it. At a time when further education for women was not the norm Agnes and Margaret seek out those who were prepared to teach them ancient languages including Greek and Syriac. With this knowledge they are able to recognise and later translate important documents including early copies of the Gospels, which had been hidden for centuries.

Without male guidence or escourt they travel extensivly through Europe and the Middle East, learning from their mistakes and becoming popular with the Monks at St Catherine's Covent on Mount Siani. In all they make seven trips to find, rescue and spend time translating ancient manuscripts.

Janet Soskice seems to have gone to great lengths in researching this book which as well as telling the stories of the life and travels of two exraordinary ladies illustrates how the people of the time lived.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring and exciting tale of two lady adventurers, 26 Jun 2011
By 
H. M. Holt "souloftherose" (Tring, Herts) - See all my reviews
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Sisters of Sinai is a tale of adventure, of exotic travel and of persistence (or sheer stubbornness) in overcoming trials and adversity. Janet Soskice, a Cambridge professor in philosophical theology, tells the story of 19th century twin sisters who discovered an ancient palimpsest at St Catherine's monastery in Sinai which contained the earliest known Syriac version of the Christian Gospels. The sisters did most of their travelling unaccompanied, learned more than 12 languages between them and also made many other discoveries of ancient Jewish and Muslim manuscripts elsewhere as well as cataloguing St Catherine's extensive collection.

Sadly, despite the academic work they did in discovering and translating the manuscripts they found, they were never able to be awarded a degree from Cambridge University as the student body had recently voted to exclude women from being awarded degrees (despite or because of some of the women getting better marks than the male students), however they were awarded honorary degrees from several other academic institutions and founded Westminster College, Cambridge as a Presbyterian theological college.

Sisters of Sinai was unfailingly interesting and entertaining throughout and it was definitely inspiring to read about two women who achieved so much at a time when women were generally expected to do so little. Strongly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars sisters of sinai, 19 Sep 2010
a well researched book about a little known but important item in early church history.
it does reflect on how much primary evidence has been hiden away for many years.its discovery is almost on par with the finding of the oxyranchus papyrus.a book worth having in my opinion.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Siaters of Sinai in depth, 30 May 2009
This review is from: Sisters Of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels: How Two Lady Adventurers Unearthed the Hidden Gospels (Hardcover)
Elizabeth, not John, was inspired to find out much more about the The sisters of Sinai, having heard the story, abridged, on Radio 4. Its a wonderful account of their achievments, organising complicated travel arrangments from the UK to the Sinai desert - no Thomas Cook in those days!! Its also a story of their confidence and determination to both ignore and overcome the social preducises of their times. Two very liberated women fortunate to have had the father they had. All this and of course the fact that they did find very early and previously unknown accounts of the Gospels, which they then translated. Fact not fiction, and a great read.
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