In the late 19th century, few women received a good education and fewer still experienced extensive travel. Women also did not leave their mark on academic scholarship.
The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice tells the remarkable story of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlap Gibson, twin sisters who located an ancient manuscript of the four Gospels.
Born in the mid-19th century, the twins received a good education, but they did not attend a university. Their father encouraged their study of languages and then arranged for them to travel to use their language skills. After their father’s death, the twins went to Egypt and the Holy Land.
After this year-long adventure, the twins settled in London seeking more opportunities than offered in their small Scottish village. They continued to study foreign languages, especially modern Greek and Arabic. Both women had brief but happy marriages. They moved to Cambridge and became acquainted with many in the academic community.
Their desire to travel to exotic places remained, so they decided to visit St. Catherine’s monastery in Egypt to see the ancient manuscripts housed in that library. Lewis began to study Syriac to be able to understand the writings.
After the hard journey, the twins received permission to view the manuscripts. While looking at one book, Lewis discovered that the text had a paper with more writing underneath it. The underneath document, known as a palimpsest, is a used page that has new writing on it. Even with her limited knowledge, Lewis knew her discovery to be an early copy of the Gospels in the Syriac language. The twins took photographs of the discovery to show to others in Cambridge.
Upon their return, several professors determined that the text photographed did indeed turn out to be one the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels to be discovered. The following year, the twins joined a group of scholars to return to the monastery to further investigate the manuscript. This research confirmed that the palimpsest discovered by Lewis dated back to the early years of Christianity. Back in England, the world learned of this find, which increased the known scholarship of Biblical studies.
The sisters continued to study ancient languages as well as travel in search of other manuscripts. They bought documents and assisted in the recovery of an important Jewish document. Until the end of their lives, Lewis and Dunlap were involved in their academic pursuits, winning praise, honor, and academic recognition.
They became two unlikely authorities on antiquities, bringing to light old manuscripts and preserving them for future generations. These two women opened the door for others to visit sites in the Middle East in search of long-forgotten documents as the field of Biblical archaeology continued to expand.
Sisters of Sinai is an exciting narrative of two women who had the time and ability to pursue their love of learning and travel. I enjoyed reading about their adventures in desert conditions where few would be willing to undertake the journey by camel and foot. I felt their excitement as they made their discoveries that helped advance the scholarship of the day. I don’t think I would brave the challenge of learning an ancient language or endure the travel necessary to pursue their interests.
Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Gibson Dunlap went down in history for leaving their mark on scholarship when most women only enjoyed careers as wives and mothers.
About the Author
Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.