The Sisters of Sinai
Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai tells the story of Agnes and Margaret Smith, identical twins born in the mid-nineteenth century in western Scotland. The twins were raised by their wealthy, strict Presbyterian father following the early death of their mother after childbirth. Educated at home, they were rewarded for linguistic study with travel to any country whose language they learned. Thus, early in life they became fluent in Italian, French, Spanish, and German, later adding to their repertoire Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and the ancient biblical languages of Aramaic and Syriac. Along with their language training and their knowledge of the Bible, it is perhaps their upper-class background and the money they inherited from their father’s business dealings that made their activities and discoveries possible. Travelers and adventurers from an early age, they became enthralled with travel to biblical lands, first to see the sights where various miracles had taken place and then to ferret out lost documents.
Soskice’s book explains in engaging detail the theological and scientific controversies (and the colorful characters) that engulfed the Victorian era in the age of Charles Darwin. People debated whether the Bible was to be taken literally, the status of various biblical translations and newly discovered manuscripts written in different languages, and how to view differing versions of the Bible. Some of these suggested unorthodox interpretations of Jesus’ divinity (for example, that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus) or omitted well-known passages from a Gospel (such as the last verses of the Gospel of Mark, which include Jesus’ promise to the disciples that they might handle snakes and drink poison without harm), potentially calling into question aspects of established Christian doctrine.
Most Bibles in Victorian England were editions of the seventeenth-century King James translation, but original manuscripts in Greek, Aramaic, and Syriac were being recovered during this era of the rise of archaeology. Agnes and Margaret quickly became embroiled in the resulting controversies, especially because the scholarly establishment held them to be suspect as “uneducated women.” They were not swayed from their resolute Protestantism but became great friends with the Greek Orthodox librarian (and later abbot) of St. Catherine’s Monastery, Father Galaktéon. They also worked with Muslim clerics in Cairo and helped their Jewish rabbi friend Simon Schechter (later president of the new Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) in ferreting out a huge cache of ancient Jewish documents from a synagogue in Cairo.
It is to the author’s credit that the theological controversies of the day are explicated so clearly that twenty-first century readers can engage in some of the excitement with which nineteenth century scholars greeted each new discovery. Soskice introduces and explains Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim beliefs and scholars. She describes in detail the meaning of a palimpsest, the importance of an earlier phrase with a slightly different meaning, and the intricacies of Victorian photography. In addition to these cultural contextualizations, Soskice provides vivid descriptions of the trials of desert travel by camel to the holy places of the great Abrahamic faiths. She details the journeys of the Smiths as they crossed the Red Sea; visited the sites where Moses and the Israelites are believed to have witnessed the burning bush, received the Ten Commandments, and gathered and eaten manna; and reached St. Catherine’s monastery, an oasis for both Muslims and Christians.
Soskice describes the competitive backbiting among the Western elite of biblical scholarship. Scholars sought to receive the credit for each new discovery and to send the first notice of each discovery to the newspapers. Agnes Smith was not fully credited for her discoveries, and the documents were the subject of controversy for years in both the religious and the secular press. The controversy continued even after 1894, when she finally published The Four Gospels in the Old Syriac Version Transcribed from the Palimpsest on Mount Sinai, which included her own scholarly introduction.
In 1892, the twins traveled for the first time to the Convent of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula (built by the Emperor Justinian around 557). They planned every detail, hiring a dragoman and a cook and buying supplies and tents in Cairo. They fended off criticism both from home and from other Europeans in Cairo about the dangers of two women traveling alone. They were used to being tourists without male escorts, as they had previously done in...
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