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Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels (2009)

by Janet Soskice

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3102363,381 (4.13)99
In 1892, two sisters, identical twins from Scotland, made one of one of most important scriptural discoveries of modern times. Combing the library of St. Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai, they found a neglected palimpsest: one of the earliest known copies of the Gospels, a version in ancient Syriac, the language spoken by Jesus. This is the account of how two middle-aged ladies without university degrees uncovered and translated this text, bringing a treasure to world attention. This quintessentially Victorian adventure is partly a physical journey: when Westerners generally feared to tread in the region, the sisters Smith traversed the Middle East. It is also a journey of the mind: in an era when new discoveries in science and archaeology were rewriting the accepted understanding of the Bible's origins as well as those of humankind, a great contribution to knowledge was made by two whose only natural advantage was an astonishing gift for languages--From publisher description.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Read for the second time in February, 2017, for an article I'm researching. Still charming, and obviously of greater interest now that I've spent a few years working with manuscripts.

[first reviewed on 2/13/10] I loved this book...what a fun read! I admit I probably would not have been quite so tickled by it if the heroines had not been Scottish Presbyterians...! Nonetheless, an absorbing synthesis of travel narrative and insight into the world of late nineteenth century biblical scholarship. I generally have little use for modern historical-critical and philological study, but I didn't have any trouble staying interested, and I don't think one would have to be very knowledgeable about the field or the period to really enjoy the book. ( )
  LudieGrace | Aug 10, 2020 |
Really captivating! What an amazing pair! Very well told. Excellent research. I always appreciate good notes and bibliography. The author drew on the diaries of these ladies. I was sorry to not find them in the bibliography. I'm sure they would be fascinating reading. I guess they are unpublished or I'm somehow missing them. ( )
  njcur | Jun 30, 2020 |
Well done, and reads more like a novel than the true story it actually is. Filled with adventure and the exploits of two wealthy, eccentric, and spunky twins who defied nineteenth-century norms and made six trips to Egypt in a quest to find some of the oldest manuscripts of the four gospels. Especially gifted in languages, the twins learned Syriac especially for this purpose (and had already studied French, Italian, Arabic, and modern Greek), and found the manuscript in St. Catherine's monastery. ( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
Well done, and reads more like a novel than the true story it actually is. Filled with adventure and the exploits of two wealthy, eccentric, and spunky twins who defied nineteenth-century norms and made six trips to Egypt in a quest to find some of the oldest manuscripts of the four gospels. Especially gifted in languages, the twins learned Syriac especially for this purpose (and had already studied French, Italian, Arabic, and modern Greek), and found the manuscript in St. Catherine's monastery. ( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
My wife recommended this - I'm not all that interested in biblical history, but I do have an interest in 19th century pursuit of knowledge. This was well-written and held my attention throughout. ( )
  MikeRhode | Feb 6, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Herself a professor of philosophical theology at Cambridge, Soskice deftly positions the twins’ story in the wider and more profound context of ideas and discoveries of their age. With great clarity, she steadily and captivatingly unwinds the complicated threads of her narrative, explicating formidable scholarship while keeping the twins at the fore...

....For its evocation of the character, as well as the characters, of the era, “Sisters of Sinai” is a bracing and moving book, not only a story of adventure, but also a reminder of the ardor, hardship and energy invested in the pursuit of knowledge in that endlessly inquiring and industrious Victorian age.
 
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Nec Tamen Consumebatur

Yet it was not consumed.

Exodus 3:2
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On 13 April 1893, the London Daily News brought an extraordinary story - fresh from its Berlin correspondent.
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In 1892, two sisters, identical twins from Scotland, made one of one of most important scriptural discoveries of modern times. Combing the library of St. Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai, they found a neglected palimpsest: one of the earliest known copies of the Gospels, a version in ancient Syriac, the language spoken by Jesus. This is the account of how two middle-aged ladies without university degrees uncovered and translated this text, bringing a treasure to world attention. This quintessentially Victorian adventure is partly a physical journey: when Westerners generally feared to tread in the region, the sisters Smith traversed the Middle East. It is also a journey of the mind: in an era when new discoveries in science and archaeology were rewriting the accepted understanding of the Bible's origins as well as those of humankind, a great contribution to knowledge was made by two whose only natural advantage was an astonishing gift for languages--From publisher description.

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From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com: In early 1892, twin sisters Margaret and Agnes Smith, unschooled in paleography but possessed of keenly rebellious spirits, traveled from England to St. Catherine's Church, at the foot of Egypt's Mt. Sinai. There, in a "dimly lit little room below the prior's quarters," they discovered "an unpromising brick of parchment," its surfaces coated with dust. Despite the state of this "grimy codex," Agnes, the older of the sisters, was convinced that she had made a great discovery, and after 40 days of study she emerged with proof. As scholar Janet Soskice reveals in her luminous new study, "The Sisters of Sinai," Margaret and Agnes had nosed out nothing less than the earliest known copies of the Gospels -- an account written in Syriac, the language likely spoken by Jesus himself. At the time, Soskice writes, "the Bible remained an unquestioned compendium of truth, its immutable word conveyed supernaturally through the generations." And yet this codex -- so different in content from the modern edition of the Gospels -- indicated that Scripture was actually the product of years of careful revisions. The Bible, in other words, had evolved. Of course, since Agnes and Margaret were only amateurs -- and female amateurs at that -- they needed experts to validate their find. Once recruited, those experts attempted to take the bulk of the credit, and soon the twins found themselves engaged in a series of very public rows. But neither woman ever backed down, and by the mid-1890s both were deservedly famous, honored by academics and laymen alike. "The Sisters of Sinai" is by turns a rattling adventure yarn -- thick with roving Bedouin and ancient tombs -- and a testament to the power of perseverance. In the end, Soskice writes, "it was the Smiths' fierce commitment to the truth that most impresses."
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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