Friday, January 22, 2010

The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels

By Janet Soskice
New York, Alfred Knopf, 2009

Week 3        Non-Fiction

By the 1850s, Bible anxiety was in full swing; discoveries were being made and the infallibility of the King James Version was in question. At the same time, adventure tourism was in its infancy. Into the fray strode twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson. They were rich Scottish Presbyterians, the daughters of a businessman, who believed that his daughters should be as educated as a son might have been. However in mid-1800s Scotland, there was very little advanced education for women, so Agnes and Margaret were self-taught. Their father had taken them on many trips as they were growing up, and he always insisted that they learn the language of the country they were visiting. After they had both been widowed in their early 50s, they decided that they would seek out all the lands of the Bible. Their first trip was down the Nile, then to Syria and Palestine. Agnes became quite skilled in Syriac, one of the ancient languages of the Sinai Peninsula.
A friend and fellow scholar told them of a hidden room at the St. Catherine Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and the sisters set out on a camel voyage to see if they could find any biblical treasures at the monastery. Indeed, they charmed the prefect of the monastery, Father Galakteon, and he showed them several documents that had not seen the light of day for centuries. While observing one of them, the sisters realized that there was writing on an underneath layer. This type of document was called a palimpsest, the product of a common practice in ancient times of writing over old parchment. She thought that it looked like a gospel.
It turned out to be the earliest example of the gospels ever written, and it changed the course of biblical scholarship forever, and the sisters became preeminent Biblical scholars. Throughout the rest of their lives, they were constantly searching out ancient parchments which they purchased and gave to universities; they also edited manuscripts and wrote books about their studies, discoveries and adventures. “The contribution the twins made in cataloging the Arabic and Syriac manuscripts at St. Catherine’s is literally incalculable: we cannot know when another scholar might have been entrusted with the task by the monks, or how many manuscripts might have gone missing in the interlude.” Their discoveries changed everything.
This history is filled with Indiana Jones-style adventure and De Vinci Code-type secrets, with two middle-aged women as the heroines. The book is skillfully written; there is never a dull moment with intrigue, adventure, misunderstandings, and eccentricity. There are just enough photographs and drawings to aid in the deciphering of the mystery. I enjoyed my read from beginning to end. These formidable women are the precursors to the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s. They did not know what they shouldn’t be doing.
Here is the address of the New York Times reviewof this book: found out about it in Book Marks magazine where it was given 4 stars. I checked it out of the Kalamazoo Public Library.

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