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Stars of Sinai
on 1 April 2009
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.