Wednesday, September 02, 2009

ANOTHER REVIEW of The Sisters of Sinai, better than the one in the WaPo, but still needing some clarifications.
The Sisters of Sinai

How a pair of wealthy identical twins made one of the most significant scriptural discoveries in history.

By Carmela Ciuraru | August 31, 2009 edition (Christian Science Monitor)

The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels By Janet Soskice Knopf 304 pp., $26.95

Margaret and Agnes Smith were identical twin sisters born in Scotland in the mid-19th century. They suffered tragedy early on when their mother died two weeks after giving birth; their father died when they were just twenty-three, leaving them wealthy but alone in the world.

How Margaret and Agnes made one of the most significant scriptural discoveries in history is the subject of The Sisters of Sinai, the latest book by author Janet Soskice, a fellow of Jesus College at Cambridge University. She recounts how the intrepid women found and deciphered one of the earliest known copies of the Gospels – written in ancient Syriac, the dialect of Aramaic, which was the native language of Jesus.

The last sentence could be phrased a little more clearly: Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic and Aramaic (not that dialect) was the native language of Jesus.
The women were keenly interested in ancient biblical manuscripts (and Agnes’ husband had been a scholar of Jewish and early Christian archaeology). With the help of a generous Quaker scholar who was intrigued by these audacious Scottish sisters – and who remained a steadfast supporter – Margaret and Agnes learned how to use camera equipment so they could photograph any important discoveries for later study. He also told them of a “dark cupboard” beneath the archbishops’ rooms at the library that contained chests of Syriac manuscripts – possibly some of the earliest texts of Christianity. Agnes had recently steeped herself in studying Syriac, in preparation for what she might find, and Margaret learned the language later on.

It was in that neglected cupboard that the women found a palimpsest: beneath a manuscript on the lives of women saints was the “yellowish-red underwriting” of the four Gospels, which they had to steam apart with a tea-kettle. The texts were small – just 8-5/8 by 6-1/4” – and nearly impossible to decipher. Agnes noted that some delicate pages “could only be discerned by letting the noon-day sunlight shine through,” to fully reveal their marks.

Despite this revelatory find, the painstaking work of transcription and translation had just begun, and Margaret and Agnes lacked sufficient knowledge to take on the entire project alone. Along with some Cambridge scholars, they toiled away at their task, eventually learning that this text dated to the late second century, which put it “very near the fountainhead of early Christianity,” Soskice writes. (The twins ended up making four trips to Sinai in five years.)

It's debatable whether the text dates to the late second century. The manuscript itself (the underwriting with the Syriac Gospels) was written in the late fourth century. It is possible that the Old Syriac translation was done as early as the second century, although this is not certain. Follow the first link above for more information.

Manuscripts from St. Catherine's Monastery are getting a lot of attention today.