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Sisters of Sinai

August 1, 2012

Three years ago Evangelical Text Criticism posted on Sisters of Sinai. At the time I read the original book by Agnes Smith Lewis, In the shadow of Sinai: A story of travel and research from 1895 to 1897 (Cambridge : Macmillan & Bowes, 1898). It wasn’t until this summer that I took time to read Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice. Here is an excellent review.

 This book puts into perspective the unusual accomplishments of Agnes Smith Lewis and her twin, Margaret Smith Gibson. Their wealthy father gave the twins an outstanding education in languages, promising a trip to every country whose language they learned, initially France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece. While these women were At first considered amateurs, they eventually met and surpassed most academic achievements in the field of Syriac studies. They remained in some sense outside of formal academia as they lived in Cambridge, where it was not possible for women to be granted university degrees.

Several important themes emerge from this book. First, the women learned Greek not only as an ancient language, but also as a modern language, and were able to communicate in modern Greek. This was the key to their ability to spend time and confer with the members of the St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai, who were all native Greek speakers. They also remained lifelong language learners. At no time did they cease to learn new languages, going from Greek and Hebrew to Syriac and Arabic in their publishing endeavors.

They also struggled with their relationship with the leader of the monastery. The Codex Sinaiticus had been removed from the St. Catherines monastery not long before, under dubious circumstances, and after residing in Russia, is now at the British Library. The manuscript which the women discovered had been long forgotten and the pages were stuck  together. So the issue is whether it was right or savvy to describe the monastery staff as negligent or in some way uneducated regarding or uncaring of their own manuscripts.

Throughout the book we read of the increasingly successful efforts of the women to engage with others, with the Greek orthodox monks, with Arabs and with Jewish rabbis, respectfully. They were aware that they had said culturally insensitive things, they were scolded for this and they did adjust their manner of interacting.  Since the English speaking world maintains its hegemony, it is still instructive to observe how these women learned to  converse in Middle Eastern languages and dialogue as equals with others. It is simply not something that comes naturally, not then and not today!

Second, the sisters took photographic equipment with them, took several hundred photographs, and developed them themselves. It was 1893, not 50 years after Tiscendorf has removed the Codex Sinaiticus from the monastery. However, the twins pioneered the use of photography in manuscript research. This meant that the manuscript that they discovered, Syriacus 30, the gospels in Old Syriac, remains to this day in the monastery.

As it happened, this manuscript is a palimpsest; the text was written over in the 8th century. The photographs did not offer enough definition, so the sisters returned to Sinai with a bottle of reagent to darken the underlying text, and a team of linguistic experts to transcribe the text word for word. Nonetheless, a new pattern was established by these women, using technology to duplicate a text and leaving the original in situ. A review of the importance of the Sinai documents is here.

Third, Agnes and Margaret worked for years on Greek, Syriac and Arabic translations and publications. They did receive honorary degrees from many institutions but never from Cambridge where they lived and founded a Presbyterian seminary, Westminster College. They were important patrons of this college in Cambridge in spite of the vote by Cambridge not to give degrees to women. The sisters also donated property and funds for neighbourhood shelters, supported the vote for women, and maintained an athletic lifestyle. Among their other publications is the 8th century text on top of the Old Syriac, Select Narratives of Holy Women.

This discovery was one of the most significant in the history of text criticism, as it brought to light a very early translation of the gospels that was previously unavailable in its entirety. These women were theologically conservative, orthodox Presbyterians, working to defend the integrity of the Greek text of the New Testament.

Incidentally, their work is also important in relation to a feminist perspective on early Christianity. Not only did these two women pioneer a new technology and take the lead in an important discovery, but the text that they discovered demonstrates that the Holy Spirit was feminine in gramatical gender in the Old Syriac, but was, at some later date, altered to the masculine in the Peshitta. In addition to this, the narratives of holy women recounts a strong tradition of women refusing marriage, and dressing and living as men.

This is a story of two women with a conservative approach to the text, who interacted in a positive way with men who were Greek Orthodox, Bedouin, Egyptian, Jewish and Arab, and were indiscriminately interested in the ancient literature of Middle East. They exercized on the parallel bars and loved technology and language learning. Naturally their careers were not without intrigue as there was constant plotting and back-stabbing, or imagined back-stabbing. For example, one expert wrote that Agnes took “a few” photographs – what a way to describe 400 self-developed photos! Another wrote that the sisters “stumbled on” the manuscript when it was used for a butter dish. In fact, Agnes could speak to the head of the monastery in his own language – Greek, asked specifically to see the manuscripts in a certain cupboard, had studied Syriac and could identify that she was looking at an early translation of the “separated” gospels, that is the four gospels, as opposed to the Diatessaron, a single gospel narrative. And no, the manuscript had never been used as a butter dish, and the sisters never ate breakfast with the members of the monastery, but ate breakfast in their own tent. More about the Saint Catherine’s Library here.

The Sisters of Sinai is a fun read. These women were truly eccentric and the academic intrigues are not to be missed!


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