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Scholar-twins in a man’s world

04 August 2009

Two sisters shone in biblical studies, says Bernard Palmer

In a Roman’s world: a Roman aqueduct and waterwheel on the Orontes River, Syria. St Paul would have passed this way <><>en route to Antioch, says Ken Duncan, the photographer-author of In the Footsteps of Paul: Experience the journey that changed the world (Thomas Nelson, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-1-4041-0482-2) — stunning images, displayed quotations from Acts and the epistles, and the author’s narrative and comments

In a Roman’s world: a Roman aqueduct and waterwheel on the Orontes River, Syria. St Paul would have passed this way <><>en route to Antioch, says Ken ...

Sisters of Sinai: How two lady adventurers found the hidden Gospels
Janet Soskice
Chatto & Windus £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

MANY READERS of the Church Times tend, no doubt, to avoid reviews of books concerned with the minutiae of biblical scholarship. They need have no such reserva­tions about Sisters of Sinai. If ever there was a human-interest story, this is it.

The “lady adventurers” of the sub-title are Scottish twins, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. They were born in 1843, the daugh­ters of an Ayrshire lawyer, John Smith. He brought them up more or less as if they had been boys. He taught them to argue and to reason. He also allowed them to roam around the streets of their home town and to travel on horseback through its surrounding fields and lanes.

The twins never went to univers­ity, but trained themselves to be­come biblical scholars who achieved international renown. They were also great travellers; and it was during a visit to a monastery in the Sinai desert that they discovered, hidden away in a cupboard, what looked like a palimpsest: one text written over another. It was Agnes who recognised the undertext as a copy of the Gospels in ancient Syriac — a finding of enormous significance.

The twins made other trips to Sinai, accompanied by biblical ex­perts, to study the manuscript in greater detail. The collaboration, however, often took an ugly turn, as the experts attempted to underplay the sisters’ part in the exercise. As Janet Soskice observes, high-minded scholars were not above low-minded tactics.

The significance of the manu­script lay in the fact that it ante­dated almost all other scriptural records by more than two centuries. The translation dated from the late second century, putting it very near the fountainhead of early Christian­ity. When eventually published, it broke all the records, unleashing a flood of reviews, correspondence, and debate.

The successful venture launched Agnes and Margaret into a whole new way of life. They had remained unwed until early middle age; but the deaths of both their husbands after only three years of marriage in each case meant that they were again able to do everything together.

They paid many visits to the Middle East, travelling independent­ly, and bargaining with dragomen as to the manner born. When their father had died in 1866, he had left them a large fortune; so they had the money, as well as the languages and leisure, to travel in style — and with an eye to collecting, photo­graph­ing, and studying thousands of ancient manuscripts that had turned up on market stalls as tourist trinkets. When they returned to their home in Cambridge, they were able to examine these with the ex­pertise they had by now acquired.

But their money did not go only on travel and antiques. They were generous supporters of charities; and one of their most noteworthy ventures was to establish and endow a Presbyterian academy in Cam­bridge, Westminster College (the sisters were keen Presbyterians). It was ironical that, only four days before they had laid the foundation-stone of the new college in May 1897, the University Senate had de­cisively rejected a proposal that Cambridge degrees should be awarded to women. Had the twins been men, they would no doubt have received in England the honor­ary degrees that were in fact con­ferred on them by a number of foreign universities.

What strikes one particularly in this admirable joint biography of the sisters is their zest for life in all its facets. A friend who knew them well remarked on the rounded sense of their personalities. Quite apart from their academic achievements, they remained regular Sunday-school teachers into old age, and performed endless and often unseen good works. Those who walked with them to church recalled being spoken to by both twins simultaneously, on different topics but in the same heavy Ayrshire accent, and being expected to follow both conversations at once.

They both survived the First World War, Margaret dying in 1920, aged 77, and Agnes in 1926, aged 83. Soskice has done full justice to two sisters, hitherto little known, who deserve this timely recognition of their remarkable lives.

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.

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