Book Review – Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels

Written by Janet Soskice

Reviewed by Susan Geddes

This book is much more than just a travelogue or biography – it is a testament to God’s faithfulness, leading, provision and what He can accomplish in the lives of His faithful servants when lives are surrendered to Him.  

It is, “the true story of two sisters who, like the biblical Moses, made a discovery at Mount Sinai that would transform their lives.” (p.6)

Through all, God’s Word stands eternal and constant.

Born in Ayrshire in 1843, Agnes and Margaret were brought up by their lawyer father after the death of their mother when they were only two weeks old.  John Smith never spoke of their mother to the twins, but despite this emotional austerity he was a devoted and attentive father who did not subscribe to the views of the time about education for girls; he educated them as if they were boys, with an emphasis on independence of mind, foreign travel, exercise and language learning. 

They had an aptitude for languages and their father encouraged the girls to learn a language by the promise of a visit to that country; in this way they learned French, German, and Italian while quite young.  They grew up in Irvine, moving later to a small village nearby after being educated by their father and later at schools in England while their father travelled to America to execute the will of John Ferguson, a distant relative and client of his, who had left him a considerable fortune.

Strict Presbyterian values, a forward-thinking father so dedicated to their upbringing and education, and their own resilient and enterprising disposition produced two ladies of extraordinary mind and character, who could hardly fail to leave their mark on the world.  

That the twins and their achievements are so little known is quite disappointing and this book has an important place in setting the record straight regarding women and their achievements.

It was their father’s sudden and unexpected death in 1866 that prompted the twins to seriously consider their purpose in life   The “butterfly existence” of most women of their class would have been completely unacceptable to them.  Travel was then, as later, their bread and butter and their comfort in the hard times of life, and with nothing to keep them in Ayrshire, they determined to go down the Nile;  they also wanted to visit the Holy Land and most of all to visit Sinai, to see first-hand where God had spoken to Moses and to see for themselves the plains where the Israelites had gathered to hear Moses relay God’s Word.  

This first journey was to last almost a year, although the Sinai dream would remain unfulfilled for many more years, and in fact Agnes did later confess to uncertainty that they would return home at all.  They were unafraid of the dangers because they believed firmly that it was God who numbered their days.

These were unsettling times in which Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson lived, with growing scepticism about Christian beliefs. Darwin’s theories had had considerable influence and both the factual claims of Scripture and the reliability of God’s Word were being called into question as never before – had the Bible maintained its integrity through the centuries?  

The sisters were beginning to hear tales of ancient manuscripts tucked away in Greek, Coptic, Syrian and Armenian monasteries, particularly in the monastic library at St. Catherine’s at Mount Sinai where Constantin von Tischendorf had recently unearthed a magisterial Bible which he judged to be from the mid-fourth century. 

At first the sisters only wanted to visit and view the manuscripts if they could.  However, encouraged by the Quaker scholar, Dr. J. Rendel Harris who believed there may be other manuscripts, hidden from western eyes and waiting to be uncovered, the twins learned Syriac and photography and made their preparations. 

The stage was set for one of the most important finds of the nineteenth century: a “palimpsest” – a text which had been re-used but over time the original writing had reappeared – containing the Gospels.

The twins’ journeys were no mean feat. There were dangers of exploitation from unscrupulous “dragomen”, of kidnappings, illness, and accidents; people could and did die on those journeys.  The sisters were also – usually – women travelling alone.  At best, travel in those regions was extremely uncomfortable, undertaken as it was often on the backs of camels and sleeping in tents.

The sisters were committed to lifelong study, faithful service in their home church, quiet generosity and the life’s work which had opened up to them of seeking out these manuscripts which had been so wonderfully preserved.  They learned the ancient languages, they transcribed, they catalogued; when they heard about manuscripts being sold on the tourist market that was enough to send them back to Sinai in order to buy them back.  They grew in character and softened a great deal in their thinking around eastern spirituality; a deep friendship and respect grew between them and the monks. 

The book is not just about one journey – they in fact made six visits to St. Catherine’s monastery in all, making three trips in four years at one point – as well as many other travels, and their travels become, in the end, a metaphor for the wider journey of life itself, played out in a very tangible way in the lives of these two servants of God.  

Agnes and Margaret journeyed through dangers, disappointments, struggles for acceptance in Cambridge academic circles, misunderstandings, and trials as well as the excitement of travel and finding the palimpsest and many other manuscripts.  

They searched for these hidden treasures because of their staunch commitment to God’s Word. We can trust and stand on the Word as they did, even though we too live in sceptical times.

It was fascinating to learn so much about ancient Biblical texts through this book; this wasn’t something I had paid much attention to before, but it need not daunt us – as Agnes and Margaret believed, 

“if the Bible was God’s truth, then no scientific finds could damage its fundamental integrity” (p.298) 

There is a dry humour and certain restraint in Janet Soskice’s writing which seems very appropriate to the subject matter.  Her research has been meticulous, correcting previous errors and conveying the characters of Agnes and Margaret with all their humanity and eccentricities so that we really feel we know them a little. The book is itself a treasure.

We too can trust God to use our gifts, circumstances, and opportunities to accomplish His will in our lives.  May we also treasure and search the Scriptures as the sisters did and follow the Saviour’s leading whatever actual or metaphysical lands He may take us to.

Header photo by Vlad Kiselov on Unsplash 

Published 26 Jan 2023