Want a summer read that’s part adventure story, part biography, part introduction to biblical manuscripts, part historical drama, and part faith journey? If yes, check out Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai.
The main characters are identical twins Agnes and Margaret Smith of Scotland. Their travels lead, among other places, to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. There Agnes discovered one of the oldest manuscripts of the Gospels ever found.
The sisters’ staunch Presbyterian father, widowed shortly after their births in 1843, raised his girls as one might raise boys in the Victorian era—educated, physically active, and engaged in the life of the mind. And he kept a promise that whenever his daughters learned a language, he would take them to where that language was spoken. Because the twins loved to travel, early on they mastered French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Their deep interest in the Bible and its languages eventually led them to add Hebrew, ancient and modern Greek, Arabic, and old Syriac to their resumes. It was knowledge of the latter, known only to a few people on earth, that opened the doors to Agnes’s big discovery.
Both sisters were widowed early after inheriting massive sums from distant relatives. One twin had been married to a man who traveled widely; the other, to the librarian and manuscript custodian at Cambridge. Reading of the sisters’ unlikely educations combined with their father’s promise, the means to travel, and the contacts their husbands brought into their lives will leave readers marveling at the providence of God. A pilgrimage to the sites of Abraham and Moses took the women to the land of the pyramids, and a hunch about forgotten manuscripts led straight to a dark cupboard in St. Catherine’s Monastery. Agnes’s discovery had enormous ramifications at a time when people were questioning the now-established early dating of New Testament manuscripts.
The Sisters of Sinai reads like an adventure book. The author herself has heady credentials: she’s Professor in Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College. Writing with the storytelling skill of a novelist combined with the research savvy of a scholar, Soskice recounts the twins’ challenges: traveling on camel and floating the Nile in a time of cholera when women were thought to need male escorts; interpersonal conflicts with jealous scholars who despised the sisters for lacking university degrees; and the misogyny that kept closing doors to the women and minimizing their contributions. But Solskice also provides an introduction to the world of biblical manuscripts that engages rather than makes eyes glaze over. And she draws on diaries to include the sisters’ internal pilgrimages of faith with their good, good God.
Take this one to the beach; sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
By Janet Soskice
Illustrated. 316 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. Published in 2010.