Wednesday, December 22, 2010

THE SISTERS OF SINAI by Janet Soskice

When my friend Irene, who reads much more deeply than I do, said "I love this book," I thought, Uh oh. Now I'm going to feel shallow unless I read it too. So I put a hold on it at the public library (no commitment required), and I looked at Amazon's reviews, which you can find here.

Whoa... an "enthralling narrative"? "Luminous"? "Absorbing and delightful"? "Lively and lucid"? Improbable descriptors for a book about two middle-aged female linguists who discover a Syriac palimpsest in St. Catherine's Monastery, and I've been in publishing long enough not to trust book-jacket blurbs.

Still, it's no mean feat to garner favorable reviews - or, really, any reviews at all -  from the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, Books and Culture ... well, I was beginning to be embarrassed that I hadn't heard of the book before my friend tipped me off. And now that I've read it, I pass her tip on to you.

Janet Soskice, who is Professor in Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge, has nevertheless written a fascinating biography of Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, twin sisters from Scotland who were never as famous as they deserved to be for discovering an ancient biblical manuscript.

Their discovery, which came at a time when ancient biblical manuscripts were all the rage, was of one of the oldest New Testament manuscripts ever found. It contained most of the Gospels, almost definitively proved that the original book of Mark did not include the snake-handling, poison-drinking verses in the last chapter, and was written in Syriac - first cousin to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the disciples. So why have we never heard of Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson?

Mostly because they were women. Born in 1843, they educated each other, becoming proficient in a variety of languages ancient and modern. They could not earn university degrees, because universities in mid-nineteenth century did not award degrees to women. Besides, they were Scottish Presbyterians, who were not especially in favor at Oxford or Cambridge. And several university professors desperately wanted the credit for their work.

Luckily, Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson were extremely rich and incredibly motivated.

Soskice has done a fine job of presenting them and their era in all their glorious eccentricities, turning their story into a good read even for people who are not usually fascinated by archaeological findings and ancient manuscripts.

Thanks, Irene.

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