Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Sisters of Sinai By Janet Soskice

Certainly there are those who indulge in extreme sports or push their bodies to the ultimate test by competing in the Sahara Desert event-- one of the races in the " Racing the Planet ". Yet I think that the Smith sisters, Margaret and Agnes, were far more daring.

They were born in Scotland in 1843. Their father, widowed and bringing up the twins, didn't stint when it came to their education. The family of three traveled extensively and to encourage the acquisition of languages he offered travel to any country whose language they learned. That resulted in trips to France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Both girls ease with languages eventually extended to Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and in time old Syriac. Their upbringing included Biblical studies and church going. If you read and reread the Bible there's a curiosity regarding the land of the Bible.

Several years ago Bruce Feiler wrote, The Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses. He was infatuated with the same yearning that propelled Margaret and Agnes.

The first time they set out to see the biblical land they employed a chaperone. Given the time two young women traveling alone was not really acceptable. Soskice writes of their mishaps and the difficulty with their guides. Despite these setbacks they were smitten with the land and were to return many times.

While they both married their marriages were not to last more than several years. Both husbands died; however, Agnes's husband was a scholar and through him Agnes met a number of progressive male scholars.

Having heard and read about James Rendel Harris's discovery of The Apology of Aristides at St Catherine's Monastery near Mount Sinai they both yearned to visit.

In 1892 they set out for the monastery in the hopes of discovering some ancient biblical manuscripts. They took photographic plates and cameras to substantiate any finds.

Janet Soskice vividly paints a picture of the monastery and the disheveled manner in which some of the oldest manuscripts were stored. What follows is as exciting as a mystery novel. Not only do the twins make a remarkable discovery in a small dark room—having been told of the room by James Rendel Harris, but the translation and ensuing battle with two male biblical scholars makes for a fascinating read.

Their discovery: The Sinai Palimpsest— the words of Matthew and Luke written in Syriac, a "dialect of the Aramaic Jesus had spoken". And the translation "it preserved was even older, dating from the late second century A. D."

Listen to an interview with the author, Janice Soskice.

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