The Magazine

Gospel Twins

The Cambridge women who unearthed a buried treasure.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By DAWN EDEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Sisters of Sinai

How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels

by Janet Soskice

Knopf, 336 pp., $27.95

Of all the fantastic sights to be seen in the Sinai desert in March 1892, surely one of the strangest was that of a group of travelers exiting the ancient St. Catherine's Monastery. The camel cortege featured the Gibson Girl-like silhouettes of two middle-aged Scottish widows--identical twin sisters--bobbing along in full Victorian dress, one of them struggling to read a Hebrew-language edition of the Book of Psalms.

But for those in the know, what was truly striking about the scene was the ladies' cargo, borne behind them by seven camels led by Bedouin drivers. Packed amid clothing, food, and souvenirs was a bulky camera and hundreds of negatives. Once the film was developed, scholars would gain their first look at one of the sisters' landmark discovery: the oldest existing copy of the four Gospels in Syriac.

Janet Soskice's Sisters of Sinai traces the lives of Agnes and Margaret Smith from their small-town origins to their fame as manuscript hunters and their eventual acceptance as biblical scholars at a time when women were largely barred from academia.

Soskice, a Canadian-born theology professor and fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, relates the Smiths' story in four main acts: their childhood with a lawyer-father who encouraged their study of languages (their mother having died shortly after giving birth); various Middle East explorations leading to Agnes's finding what became known as the Sinaitic Palimpsest; return to St. Catherine's with Cambridge scholars to verify the discovery; and subsequent transatlantic fame.

To the author, having to use the devout Calvinist sisters' own writings as her main source material must have been, as was once said in Sinai, a blessing and a curse. While the twins, particularly Agnes, wrote extensively about their travels and their manuscript detective work, their prim Presbyterian prose is as dry as oat cakes: During the sisters' first excursion across the Sinai, for example, Agnes notes in her diary that she told a passing Bedouin sheikh "we had come to this country to see the way by which Neby Mousa [Moses] led the Israelites; and we consider it a figure of how God leads us along the hard path of earthly life."

To keep this book moving faster than a camel's pace, Soskice goes on numerous side trips spotlighting the more colorful characters who crossed the Smiths' paths. Early on, we learn that the fiery young preacher William Bruce Robertson, a close friend of the twins' father, had earlier been friends with the "altogether outré figure" Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. We learn that Rabbi Solomon Schechter, who would later become the architect of American Conservative Judaism, idolized the founder of Presbyterianism, John Knox--even displaying a portrait of Knox in his rooms at Cambridge. And we learn that the Cambridge antiquarian Samuel Savage Lewis, later Agnes's husband, once sparked an unfortunate incident that earned him the nickname "Satan."

One of his windows .  .  . looked directly down into the chancel of St. Benet's Church. Passing the window and noticing a wedding taking place at the altar below, Lewis peered down to have a look. The bride chanced to look up and saw Lewis, "a notoriously ugly man with a straggling black beard peering down into the gloom of the church from above"; she cried "Satan!" and fainted.

Soskice is best known for her efforts to create a dialogue between feminism and mainstream theology. Her 2008 essay collection, The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language, addressed such questions as whether a feminist can call God "father." (Answer: Yes, with some mental acrobatics.) While clearly sympathizing with the Smiths' struggles to gain recognition within a nearly all-male establishment, she strenuously avoids inserting feminist language or otherwise attempting to settle political scores. The mere facts of the indignities the sisters endured because of their sex--including the baseless insinuation that Agnes got too cozy with the St. Catherine's abbot--show how much the atmosphere for female theologians has improved since their time.