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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.
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on 2 January 2011
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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on 24 July 2010
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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on 27 March 2009
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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on 24 April 2010
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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on 3 March 2014
A spellbinding tale, well written and structured. The story of two Presbyterian female twins who, by their own tenacity,intellect and conviction uncovered a series of "lost" biblical texts that illuminate early Christianity. The prejudice and sanctimonious humbug they encountered will make you weep,their determination will make you cheer to the rafters.
This is a wonderful book. Janet Soskice captures the milieu, the age, the mores and the social climate with the sharpest of eyes and the greatest clarity. She explains with lively detail the complexities of palimpsest recovery, biblical exegesis, ancient paleography, etc in a melange of sheer chance,skulduggery, devious manipulation and horrible bigotry with wonderful wit.
It beggars belief that these two ladies are virtually unknown today. They make "Indiana Jones " look like a complete wimp.
This book made me laugh,made me cry, made me shout "hurrah" out loud and gave me a terrible cramped arm as I just could not put it down. It also provided some astonishing insights about what we take to be the established "Christianity" of modern times.
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on 18 March 2014
The idea of two sisters travelling without male escort in what was a wild part of the Turkish empire in the 19th century, is unusual to say the least. Their aim was to reach the then isolated St.Catherine's monastery in search of an ancient biblical manuscript that had been concealed under an equally ancient work on the lives of women saints. This set off a series of events that was to transform their lives from that of devout, though liberal - they were close friends with members of the Darwin family,, Presbyterians brought up in the small Scottish town of Irvine. Agnes Smith and her sister Margaret may well have been thought to eventually live dull conventional lives, but in the event their lives were anything but conventional.

They were to make several arduous visits to the monastery. But having got the bit between their teeth, so to speak, they were to travel to numerous other places. Of course, having inherited vast wealth helped, but this wealth did not make them scholars, and that is just what they became. Agnes became an outstanding Syriac scholar and learned several other languages, she was, for example to become fluent in Arabic. Her sister also equipped herself linguistically. The two sisters eventually made their home in Cambridge, but this was when women were not allowed to sit for a degree from that university, nor receive an honorary degree. However, they were given doctorates from several prestigious European universities as well as St. Andrews in Scotland. Agnes also financially backed the establishment in Cambridge of the Presbyterian, Westminster College.

I found the early part of the book dull, but it soon took off making for not only a good read but also one very informative on not a few theological matters, not least the sisters reaction to Orthodox beliefs and ceremonials. I never imagined that I would recommend a book on obscure theological debates, or that these could be readable. But there are exceptions to all, or most, rules, and Sisters of Sinai is one.
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on 4 March 2016
Once started it is difficult to put this book down! The two sisters had such a fascinating life and their sense of adventure must have been quite exceptional. It makes history come alive and is beautifully written.
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on 3 October 2013
I chanced upon this in my local library and found the factual account of these two remarkable ladies quite fascinating, So much so I bought a copy for myself and sent a copy to my daughter who became intrigued when I told her the gist of the contents. Janet Soskice, the author, does a remarkable job of telling the reader about two Scottish twin sisters making one of the most extraordinary manuscript finds of the nineteenth century. The book is full of interest and is a surprising page turner. How two formidable wealthy women kicked against convention and set of to the Sinai to cope with unscrupulous dragomen[ up market travel agents!] privations of the desert, travels by camel etc might not set the pulse racing but it's still a cracking good read. Great to read in bed.
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on 22 February 2011
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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