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The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels
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The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  389 ratings  ·  122 reviews
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: beneath an unpreposessing life of female saints, they detected what remains to this day among the earliest known copies of the Gospels, a version in ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published August 18th 2009 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2009)
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In one sense, this is a charming tale of two sisters whose passion for 'truth' led them to learn ancient languages, travel through deserts, negotiate academic squabbles, and discover folios previously unknown to modern scholarship. On another level, this is a story of how work from the fringes often re-orients the center of social and religious life through the work of a faithful few. The church should always be in reform (so saith Karl Barth), and the heart of reform (be it how we read scriptur ...more
Agnes and Margaret - what a pair. I had read a good review of this book in the New York Times months ago but never bought it. When my good friend the Rev. Mary Earle recommended it and lent it to me, I was really looking forward to reading it mostly because these were women adventurers in the late 1800's. But what I discovered in reading about the twins' fascinating lives and travels there was so much more to experience in this book since Janet Soskice put their discoveries into the cultural con ...more
This book was a rare surprise for me. I don't normally read history or adventure or biblical textual criticsm, but this book contains elements of each. This is the TRUE story of twin sisters, Agnes and Margaret, who lived during the second half of the 19th century. They were born in Scotland and raised Presbyterian. Due to Providence (who is an unseen but very real character in the story), they end up inheriting a fortune. Women were not permitted to attend university in Victorian England, but t ...more
Nicholas Whyte
Back when I was an undergraduate I spent two years living in the "Colony", the sprawl of buildings owned by Clare College at the foot of Castle Hill. The central building of the complex is a late Victorian mansion called Castlebrae, which had the following inscription on a plaque in the front hall:

This house was originally the home of
DR AGNES SMITH LEWIS (1843-1926) and
Inseparable twins, tireless travellers, distinguished Arabic & Syriac scholars.
Mary Ronan Drew
The Sisters of Sinai is a book about the Codex palimpsestus Sanaiticus. No, wait! Don't turn the page. The story of the discovery of this earliest version of the four Gospels in Syraic (early 4th century) and the painstaking work of bringing it to the notice of the academic world of Biblical study is an adventure story . . .

To read the rest of my review go to my blog at:

Etta Mcquade
I can't say enough about these two extraordinary women who, not typical Victorian and not college educated (because women were denied college entrance in the 1800s), mastered French, German, Italian, Spanish, along with Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Syriac, traveled by camel, slept in tents, unaccompanied, to the Middle East six times, the first time in 1868, discovering in 1893 at Mount Sinai in Egypt an ancient manuscript of the Four Gospels written in antiquainted Syriac. They photographed 400 pi ...more
Tree Riesener
Wonderful read for someone who is a an armchair traveler and enjoys tales of Biblical history. Two Scottish Victorians take off for the Sinai, cope with sand and camels, charm the reclusive monks at St. Catherine's Monastery and manage to be credited for their discovery although male scholars are sniffing around and trying to usurp their place. Excellent writing as well, lucid prose and a lively style. Pull up your chair to the fire and spend a happy Sunday reading.
A splendid non-fiction read. What fascinating twin sisters and what a difference their faith, determination and grit made in discovering and preserving one of the oldest texts of the New Testament. The book should be made into a movie. I'm astounded that two wealthy twin sisters (at that time unmarried) would journey across the Sinai on camels in the late 1800's to go to the Monastery of St. Catherine's to prove the authenticity of scripture.
When I read history, I like it to read as a story, and also to educate me. If it spurns me onto learning more about the topic, all the better. This one did. Great characters in Agnes and Margaret, Victorian era women and scholars; history told in cultural context; a bit of Biblical scholarship;and an amazing story I did not know. A fine book.
Agnes and Margaret Smith were born into wealth, allowing them to adventure unencumbered by practical concerns, but more fortuitously for the twins, their father had a remarkably progressive outlook on childrearing for a mid-nineteenth century Scotsman. John Smith supported his daughters’ education—unusual for the time, they were educated alongside boys—and Smith imbued in his young daughters a fascination with foreign languages and culture. The sisters were encouraged to live independently, and ...more
This is an amazing book! It is well written and an excellent read. I had never even heard of these sisters (Agnes Lewis & Margaret Gibson). Their lives were exciting and their scholarly contributions on the highest of levels. According to sources, they were fluent in 12 languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, & Arabic. In the mid and late 1800's they traveled Egypt& Sinai 5-6 times without their husbands -- unbelievable. They made friends with the monks at the St. Catherine's Mon ...more
Soskice, Janet. THE SISTERS OF SINAI: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. (2009). ****. This is the fascinating story of two sisters – twins – and how they managed to make one of the most important scriptual discoveries of modern times. Traveling from their native Scotland, the polyglot sisters visited Sinai, and, specifically, the monastery of St. Catherine’s at Mt. Sinai. There they discovered one of the earliest known copies of the Gospels, a version in ancient Syriac, a d ...more
The Sisters of the Sinai is a biography of two very remarkable twin sisters whose father died and left them lots of money. Agnes and Margret were from Scotland and did not believe in spending money on frivolous things. Most of the action in the book takes place in the late 1800's. The sisters grew up in an era when women not encouraged or had access to an education beyond high school.

However, these two Presbyterian women had a love of learning. They both married only to have their husbands die
Reading this book is like traveling alongside the twin sisters who discovered one of the oldest copies of the gospels in St. Catherine's Monastery. Unfortunatly, since the ladies are so assured of the superiority of their protestant brand of worship, the first half of the book was rather tedious. I wanted to be with the pilgrims holding candles in the Church of the Holy Seplicure instead of up in the balcony with the skeptics. I wanted to know more about the monks' Divine Office than Margaret's ...more
Harry Freedman
This a great book, a fantastic example of how to take a subject which at first sight seems dry and uninspiring, and turn it in to a compelling biography. The heroes of the book, 19th century, Scottish twin sisters defy the narrow expectations of prosperous Victorian society by travelling, with no male escorts, to Egypt. This begins a series of adventures in which they pursue and discover ancient Syriac and Greek manuscripts of the Bible, becoming, almost coincidentally, world renowned scholars a ...more
Marcia Rodney
If I could give this a 2.5 I would. The story is amazing, Scottish twin sisters make one of the great 19th century discoveries of early Christian literature by preparing themselves as language scholars so when they make their journeys to the Sinai they know what they have found -- despite Cambridge's big red NO! to women at the time. The telling of the story, however, was a mixed bag. I'd heard of these sisters and was prepared for a great can't put down tale, but the first part of the book left ...more
Mary Baker
I finished the book. Interesting discussion in the book group. We talked of Victorian women with money and persoanlities for travel. We talked of the power of the women who were not granted degrees from Cambridge, but were given honorary degrees from everywhere else. We talk of the choosing of what is included in the Bible and other religion's text and what was left out. Power is everything in decision making.
The style of the book was a bit tedious because Soskice seemed to keep every fact on t
Well done biography/history of two Scottish twin sisters who broke all kinds of barriers yet remained staunch traditional Presbyrterians to the end.

Anyone who is interested in intellectual history in the 19th century, particularly how new findings in linguistics and science affected a world convinced of the literal truth of the Bible, would enjoy this. It is also interesting as a tale of two very intelligent and practical Scotswomen who undertook the physical and intellectual challenges few men
Such an enjoyable, fascinating (nonfiction) book! Perfect for "theo-nerds" like myself and anyone who enjoys what is essentially an academic "mystery" novel in a way. Dense with history, interesting personalities, suspense (of the academic kind) and adventure. The places she describes from Scotland to Sinai truly come vividly alive. Those interested in the history of Scripture and manuscripts will be especially keen to read it but others interested in religion generally should also take a look. ...more
I got to this book after reading Dara Horn's book, "Guide for the Perplexed". In that novel, Horn discusses Solomon Schechter's discovery of the genizah in Fustat/Cairo. Horn notes that his discovery was started by receiving scraps of manuscripts that the twin sisters, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlap Gibson (nee Smith), whose biographies are in this book, purchased in Cairo.

I was curious about how much of what Horn put in her book was true to the history of the genizah, Schechter and the
Michael Kerr
Scottish Victorian twins, Agnes and Margaret, travel to a remote monastery and discover the earliest version of the four gospels located to date. That they are equipped to recognize their find, and that two respectable ladies were comfortable travelling alone (nine days by camel) in an age of profound sexism, makes for a charming, amusing, and unlikely tale. It's as if Miss Marple and her twin decide to pursue an interest in ancient languages and manuscripts, rather than murder.

Used to being un
A prime example that truth is stranger than fiction. This is an improbable tale of Victorian Scottish twin sisters who travel the world and take the exclusively male academic world by storm with what they find. While some reviewers say it is written like a novel, most of my book club found it to be a bit dry, despite it's intriguing topic. Still, we found it to be a fascinating glimpse of the Coptic, Protestant and Muslim faiths in Victorian England and Egypt.
Glenn Myers
Two self-taught spinsters, twins, immensely rich, hunt down ancient Biblical manuscripts in the deserts of Sinai. When not thus engaged, they live in Cambridge, at first at the fringes, later at the heart of its (admittedly snooty) academic establishment. Scots, female, informally educated, living in an era when Cambridge didn't give degrees to women (and voted to keep it that way), they nevertheless made probably the second best manuscript find of their era, the best being von Tichsendorf's dis ...more
Susan Ferguson
Agnes and Margaret Smith were twins born in Scotland in1843 to Presbyterian parents. Their mother died 2 weeks after they were born. Their father never remarried. He had unusual ideas on the rearing and education of girls for that time. Both Agnes and Margaret were highly educated and strictly reared in the church. They learned modern Greek along with other subjects reserved for boys. After the death of their father they moved to Cambridge because that was where the learning was for subjects the ...more
First, how cool is a genizah? The idea that the written word is sacred and that books that have "died" should be handled with as much respect as human remains is so very powerful.

That idea of the value of written works occurs throughout this book. However, there's a large difference in what it is that is being valued and what constitutes respect. For academics like Burkitt, Bensley, and Harris, the value of the manuscripts at St. Catherine's monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai is as windows into
Geraldine O'donnell
First of all, I declare an interest! Like the two lady adventurers, I was born and brought up in the Royal Burgh of Irvine and educated at Irvine Royal Academy. However, there the similarities end!

As a native of the ladies' home town, I appreciated the detailed background on their family and their connection to John Ferguson whose money ultimately funded their lives and their adventures. They had an intellectual curiosity that was nurtured by their enlightened father. I did learn a great deal ab
About five years ago, a friend asked me if I knew of a history of two sisters who founded some important Biblical documents in a monastery. That was about all he knew and somehow I found this book for him. This is why I love being a librarian. At the time I thought it sounded interesting and added it to my "to be read" shelf. I guess it didn't call me that strongly since it took me all this time to get to reading it myself.

However, I am glad that I finally made the acquaintance of Agnes and Marg
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Agnes and Margaret are my new heroes! After a life of study and family focus the two Scottish sisters set off on an arduous journey across Europe, Egypt and into the wilderness of the Sinai. In a time when travel for women alone was not to be attempted, these two set out on camels into the forbidding desert. While they were taken in by their reis on more than one occasion, they managed quite well and ended up at the ancient monastery of St. Catherine where they hoped to find palimpsest or recycl ...more
Barb Terpstra
One of the things I liked best about this book is how the sisters did not allow themselves to be constrained by the societal limits imposed on women in the 1800's. Although women were not often educated in that time, their father did not ascribe to that theory, and taught them languages at an early age. Their father died when they were in their 20s, and, against popular opinion they traveled to Egypt on their own. This was just the beginning of their many travels. Along the way they learned abou ...more
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