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.
As the author attempts to hide her editorial voice behind her research, the reader is left free to ponder the contrast between the Smiths' uniformly dry demeanor and the ethereal glow of the book's most memorable woman. Persis Burkitt enters the story as her Cambridge-professor husband becomes one of three professors taking part in an 1893 excursion with the Smiths to St. Catherine's to examine the palimpsest Agnes had discovered. As she joins them for the camel ride across the Sinai, the pre-Raphaelite beauty conquers souls with her exquisite manners and her unexpected command of gutter Arabic. She is as joyful and lively as the twins are antiseptic and scrupulous.
Burkitt spent several years of her childhood in Lebanon, where her mother did missionary work, taking the girl with her on a donkey as she distributed New Testaments to villagers. As a result Persis acquired not just colloquial Arabic, but the salty vocabulary favored by donkey drivers and, it now appeared, camel drivers. She upbraided the Bedouin in their own colorful dialect and was from that moment their firm favorite. They called her "Princess."
She left her young son with a nanny back home in Cambridge, but not her maternal instinct. Her adoring camel driver, a boy of 12 whose father had recently died, poured out his heart as he led her beast across the Sinai sands. The poignant image of the graceful English madonna lending her ears to the fatherless boy is particularly striking since Persis is effectively the only mother in the book.
When the travelers return to England, Burkitt quickly drops out of the picture as the Smiths enter into a dispute with her husband and another professor over who should gain credit for bringing the palimpsest to the attention of academia. Eventually the twins' scholarship would earn them honorary doctorates from St. Andrews, even as their adopted home of Cambridge was barred by its own rules from officially recognizing them.
Soskice cleverly uses a dramatic photo to drive home the extent to which women were personae non gratae at Cambridge. Taken on the day in 1896 when the university's undergrads voted overwhelmingly against awarding degrees to women, it shows throngs of young men in boater hats outside the Senate building awaiting the results of the referendum. Suspended from a window above the crowd, like a grotesque piñata, is an effigy of a bloomer-clad young woman astride a bicycle.
But surely the undergrads' vote was not targeted against the 53-year-old twin sisters whose collaboration with biblical scholars at the university had increased Cambridge's prestige.
Soskice admits as much, writing that those against women's matriculation mainly feared that the presence of ladies would force them to "cut back on their drinking, gaming, and carousing, and other pleasures that made undergraduate life so sweetly memorable." It never seems to enter her mind that, perhaps, some students were concerned not with what those progressive young women on bicycles might bring but, rather, with the opportunity for full-time marriage and motherhood that they risked leaving behind.
However much a modern-day female theologian like Soskice might find inspiration in the Smiths' breaking of barriers, very little in the twins' lives was specifically feminine. Being widowed and childless, they had no need to finesse a work/life balance. As Rabbi Schechter might have put it, if either one of those bubbes had baytzim, her impact on history would have been the same--albeit with a Cambridge degree to show for it.
Dawn Eden, a writer in Washington, is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste.