Cannonball Read #32: The Sisters of Sinai


I may have mentioned that I’m not normally a non-fiction reader. Lately though, I’ve been perusing my library’s new book section on the shelves near the front desk while my daughters get their books and movies. I find a book with an interesting subject, and since there’s no committment other than the time to read it, I’ll grab it. So I’ve read a few non-fiction books during the Cannonball Read, such as Paul Newman: A Life and The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. For the most part, they’ve been pop-culture subjects. The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels has a more academic subject – a dual biography of two women searching for ancient manuscripts.

I should really say a triple biography, because though Sisters of Sinai focuses on Agnes and Margaret Smith, the manuscripts themselves take on lives of their own, and Janet Soskice gives their histories, and in some cases journeys, a thorough telling. This book was dense, in a way, filled with information about languages, Bible stories, religion, politics, history; but the tale of these two sisters was exciting and enjoyable enough to engage me till the end.

I had heard of various Biblical manuscript discoveries, but in a vague way, really. I hadn’t heard of these two female adventurers, Agnes and Margaret Smith, though, and I suspect you haven’t either. Born in 1843, these twins would make some of the most important scriptural discoveries in the Middle East… ever.

Soskice starts off in the prologue:

“The latter half of the nineteenth century was a time of anxiety over the Bible. This concerned not only the Scriptures’ factual claims… but also bore down upon the integrity of the text itself: was what had percolated down through the centuries still the same now as it was in the beginning?”

She succinctly gives us a brief background and sets us up for:

“On 13 April 1893, the London Daily News brought an extraordinary story–fresh from its Berlin correspondent. Two ladies, a Mrs. Lewis and her sister, Mrs. Gibson, had travelled to Mount Sinai in Egypt and discovered an ancient manuscript of the Four Gospels.”

The author follows the eight decades of lives of the twins, from birth to death and their most extraordinary lives, and discoveries. Not only was it a major feat for a woman to be educated, but for these women to persist in travels and discoveries during the Victorian era is quite remarkable. Their wealth did allow doors to be opened, certainly, but their determination and intellects did the rest.


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