Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found The Hidden Gospels. Janet Soskice. Vintage Books 2010. ISBN 9780099546542.

This Review was first published in Essentials Spring 2014

Janet Soskice is Professor of Philosophical Theology in the University of Cambridge. She is the first Roman Catholic woman to be a Professor of Theology at one of the ancient British Universities. She has written a ripping story of two Presbyterian Scottish sisters who were awarded Honorary Doctorates by European Universities before Cambridge was awarding any kind of degrees to women.

Agnes and Margaret Smith were twins. Their mother died two weeks after their birth in 1843. Their father, a lawyer, brought them up in the tradition of strict Scots Calvinism, and encouraged their education, independence and foreign travel. He promised to take them to each country whose language they learnt. So they mastered French, German and Italian while still young. He died while they were still single and left them an enormous fortune. So they decided to travel down the Nile.

Soskice tells an entertaining story of their year away in Egypt and the Holy Land, being ripped off by their tour guide and being fed up with all the “true” shrines of Jesus. Their lesson from the trip was always learn the language before you visit the country. Returning to England they learnt Spanish and Greek (from JS Blackie Professor of Greek in Edinburgh). They travelled to Greece where they spoke to the tour guides and locals in Greek. Margaret married and while she was on her honeymoon, Agnes started to study Arabic. She wanted to visit Cyprus, and to go to St Catherine's monastery in Sinai (where they spoke Greek) on the way. They got to Cyprus but not Sinai this time.


Their story is an amazing adventure, and very well told by Soskice. Agnes also married (a keeper of manuscripts – indeed the theme of their life could called Divine Providence) but both marriages ended with the deaths of their husbands not long after they began. The twins stayed together, now in Cambridge. Agnes learnt Syriac. In 1893 they visited St Catherine's where a friend of Agnes, Dr J Rendel Harris, had asked them to look for a Syriac manuscript. They couldn't find what he wanted but Agnes found a palimpsest of the gospels in Syriac that turned out to be older than the Curetonian.

This discovery forms the centre of the fascinating story of intrigue, adventure, jealousy, death, suspicion and rejection that is the twins' story. It is a kind of Poirot and Raiders of the Lost Ark adventure. It follows on the heals of the Tischendorf saga (Soskice offers some corrections to the story), and ties in nicely with the publication of the Revised Version and the debate about the reliability and antiquity of the Greek text that underlay it. But Soskice traces many other stories, not least the amazing scholarship of two women who had no recognised formal education. The Palimpsest was published by two Cambridge academics (part of the intrigue) with an introduction by Agnes. The twins edited a series of Cambridge University Press editions of various ancient manuscripts, as well as publishing many other books; at least nine academic publications stand in Agnes' name. She became a significant scholar of Syriac especially Palestinian Syriac (the language of our Lord, she said, and upbraided the Palestinians she met for allowing so many Arabisms into the sacred language).

Overall the twins were manuscript hunters. There is a wonderful story told in the book of their cooperation with Solomon Schechter, a rabbinical scholar, in the search for manuscripts in Cairo. Beginning in the market where bits and pieces of old manuscripts were being sold, they eventually tracked down, in a Cairo synagogue, an enormous store of old Hebrew manuscripts in a genizah (a kind of large store where damaged and superseded manuscripts that couldn't be destroyed were kept). Agnes got all the ones of the Old Testament and Solomon got all the rest.

As well they used their fortune to establish a ministry training college at Cambridge (Westminster College of course) for Presbyterian ministers, and assisted with various ministries to the poor around Cambridge.

This is a terrific book. Easy to read, full of adventure and interest, covering all sorts of topics, from languages, manuscripts, university politics, women's roles, church politics, Bible, to travel, history and war. And it gives another bit of background to the search and discovery of the Biblical manuscripts.