Monday, December 28, 2009

THE SISTERS OF SINAI by Janet Soskice is reviewed in the Christian Century by Jean K. Dudek. Excerpts:
Imagine this: after a nine-day camel ride from Suez in 1892, identical twin sisters from Scotland arrive at the Greek Orthodox Saint Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai. They find a decrepit manuscript of the Gospels, unread for at least a millennium, written in an obscure language that one of the twins had started learning only a few months previously. The manuscript astounds biblical scholars and fascinates the Bible-reading public.

It's a preposterous story. And it's true. Janet Soskice, professor of philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Jesus College, has written a lively and lucid biography of these intrepid sisters, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dun lop Gibson (1843-1926 and 1843-1920, respectively). Don't let the title be a turnoff. The phrase "lady adventurers" might be grating, and some of us may feel we're going to scream if we see one more book purporting to reveal hitherto unknown secrets from "hidden Gospels," but not to worry. The subjects' gender is a significant part of the story, and what they found was a manuscript of the four canonical Gospels.


Much of the book is devoted to the sisters' first trip to Mount Sinai to look for ancient biblical manuscripts, particularly those written in Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. Their big find, in a closet in a desert monastery, was the earliest known Syriac version of the four Gospels—in the form of difficult-to-read underwriting in a palimpsest manuscript, the pages having been scraped and the text written over. The twins struggled to get the appropriate experts at Cambridge to look at their photographs, then traveled back to Sinai with scholars who could help transcribe the text. They wrangled with the various experts about getting the text published and about who deserved credit for what.

A few years after finding the Syriac Gospels, Lewis and Gibson bought some manuscript pages in Hebrew that turned out to be part of the book of Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Ben Sira). This was exciting because until then Ecclesiasticus had been known only in translation, and some doubted that there had ever been an original in Hebrew.

For earlier reviews go here and follow the links back.