The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels (Hardcover)

How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels

By Janet Soskice

Knopf, 9781400041336, 336pp.

Publication Date: August 18, 2009



In 1892, two sisters, identical twins from Scotland, made one of one of most important scriptural discoveries of modern times. Combing the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai, they found a neglected palimpsest: beneath an unpreposessing life of female saints, they detected what remains to this day among the earliest known copies of the Gospels, a version in ancient Syriac , the language spoken by Jesus. The Sisters of Sinai is the enthralling account of how two ladies in middle age and without university degrees uncovered and translated this text, bringing a great biblical treasure to world attention.

Janet Soskice takes us, via the lives of Agnes and Margaret Smith, on a quintessentially Victorian adventure. It is partly a physical journey: when Westerners generally feared to tread in the region, the sisters Smith traversed the Middle East, sleeping in tents, enduring temperamental camels and unscrupulous dragomen, and facing uncertain welcome from monks deceived by earlier travellers. It is also a journey of the mind: in an era when religious faith was under attack, when new discoveries in science and archaeology were rewriting the accepted understanding of the Bible’s origins as well as those of humankind, a great contribution to knowledge was made by two whose only natural advantage was an astonishing gift for languages, modern as well as classical. Finally, and most movingly, it is a progress of the human spirit. Unwilling to let their lack of formal training or the disdain and jealousy of male scholars stand in their way, Agnes and Margaret became renowned scriptural authorities, in joyful pursuit of their lifelong passions for adventure and learning. Here, rousingly recounted, is the story of two unlikely and unsung heroines of the continuing effort to discover the Bible as originally written.

About the Author

Janet Soskice grew up in western Canada and has lived for some years in England, where she is Professor in Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College. She lectures around the world and is a frequent contributor to radio and television programs.

Praise For The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels


“Soskice deftly positions the twins’ story in the wider and more profound context of ideas and discoveries of their age. With great clarity, she steadily and captivatingly unwinds the complicated threads of her narrative, explicating formidable scholarship while keeping the twins at the fore….[T]he redoubtable twins—sturdy, steady, passionately curious, generous as well as thrifty—will win the reader….Sisters of Sinai is a bracing and moving book, not only a story of adventure, but also a reminder of the ardor, hardship and energy invested in the pursuit of knowledge in that endlessly inquiring and industrious Victorian age.”
- Caroline Alexander, New York Times Book Review
“You needn't follow a particular religion to become engrossed in this enthralling narrative. The Sisters of Sinai is a tale of grand adventure and far-flung travels, and it proves appealing even on that level. Soskice is so adept at making a rarefied subject accessible and vivid that the narrative seems almost cinematic.... Thanks to Soskice's compelling, well-researched book, these extraordinary women have been given the tribute they deserve.”
- Carmela Ciuraru, Christian Science Monitor
“[L]uminous….by turns a rattling adventure yarn…and a testament to the power of perseverance.”
- Matthew Shaer, The Washington Post

“Soskice’s fine, fascinating account….gives us…a rich portrait of the Smiths and all the circumstances in their lives that led them, link by link, to their startling discovery.”
- Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times
The Sisters of Sinai sets the extraordinary life story of two plucky women traveling in the Middle East—at a time when few people did—against the backdrop of swashbuckling Bible hunters, racing each other around the world to find the latest clue in the mystery of how the Bible was first written.”
- Colleen O’Connor, The Denver Post

The Sisters of Sinai is an absorbing and delightful chronicle, both of two fascinating women and of a crucial moment in the history of modern faith and modern disenchantment….[that is] not only fully scholarly, but also almost ridiculously entertaining….engaging….splendid….a ‘cracking good read’….[Soskice is] a graceful writer, with a gift for making difficult topics lucid….[B]oth women emerge not only as agents in a history, but as compelling and sympathetic characters at the center of a captivating story.”
- David B. Hart, First Things

“This meticulously researched effort takes what for decades has been an intriguing footnote in the history of textual serendipity, and gives it the full examination it so richly deserves….The story of [the sisters’] spirited adventure on camelback to Mount Sinai…makes for an exciting adventure, which Soskice accomplishes with style and aplomb. I am reminded, in this effort, of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the madman, in which a theretofore ignored interlude in literary history…became a breakthrough bestseller.”
- Nicholas Basbanes, Fine Book Magazine

“A lively and lucid biography of these intrepid sisters….A good biography can be as much fun to read as a novel, and in this case an added benefit is that the reader learns a few things about the Sinai Peninsula, Cambridge University, travel on the Nile, camel camping and textual criticism….Soskice interweaves the various facets of their lives—their personal circumstances, travels, charitable and denominational projects, and extensive roster of publications—showing how all the pieces came together. She also provides background information on some of the sisters’ interesting friends, including William Robertson Smith, J. Rendel Harris and Solomon Schechter….this book will rescue Lewis and Gibson from undeserved obscurity.”
- Jean K. Dudek, The Christian Century Magazine
“Wryly told with a marvelous sense of narrative rhythm, this is the best kind of adventure story.”
- Library Journal (Best Books of 2009)
“An utterly delightful, fantastical-yet-true romp, a story funny enough to make me laugh out loud a few times but with a lasting resonance as well.”
- Christianity Today

“In this delightful, true-life adventure tale….Soskice’s pitch-perfect chronicle not only captures the spirit, the faith, and the determination of the remarkable Smith sisters but also exposes a significant scriptural controversy that continues to ignite scholarly debate.”
- Booklist
“Engaging account….part travelogue, part biography and part tutorial in the art of translation and the preservation of ancient documents, Soskice lovingly and boldly presents this compelling story with simplicity and grace….expertly transform[ing] a complex tale into a deeply moving human story…. a splendid book on all accounts.”
- Publishers Weekly


“In Sisters of Sinai Janet Soskice has achieved the impossible - she has brought biblical scholarship to life. A gripping story of two spirited women determined to pursue the truth whatever the cost, with camels to boot. Wonderful.”
- Sara Wheeler

“An extraordinary and compelling book, combining vivid travel adventures, wonderful characters, and absorbing journeys of the mind and heart. Janet Soskice brilliantly and accessibly unfolds one of the most gripping sagas of Biblical detection, while telling the story of two magnificent women who trespassed intrepidly in worlds that sought to exclude them.”
- John Cornwell

“lively and inspiring double biography….compelling.”
- James McConnachie, The Sunday Times (London)

“This rattling tale appears to come straight from an Indiana Jones adventure. A party of western adventurers face fiendish adversaries, grotesque and poisonous creatures and relentless sandstorms as they try to retrieve a long-lost biblical treasure….Janet Soskice has done an excellent job in piecing together the lives of two remarkable, and largely forgotten women who, like Moses, made a discovery at Mount Sinai that would transform their lives forever.”
- Marc Horne, The Scotsman

“This book is a rare treat….written with the ease and style of a novel, rendering its erudition accessible to all, [it is] a set of interlocking adventure stories.  [T]old in vivid detail... we, the readers, learn a great deal about manuscript traditions of the Bible and about biblical languages, as though these were clues in a detective story.  [W]e also learn something about the shifting fortunes of a part of the world that is so central to modern politics….The [Agnes and Margaret Smith] story ought to be a triumph, yet in their lifetime, many accounts belittled their role in finding and identifying these vital manuscripts….Janet Soskice's book is the start of winning them back their rightful place in history.”
- Jane Williams, Tablet