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From Cambridge to Sinai
From Cambridge to Sinai
DavidM Cornick
United Reformed Church


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Timothy Larsen


Synoptic Sisters

The twins who discovered an ancient Syriac version of the four gospels.

In 1892, the widowed, middle-aged Scottish twins Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, ne Smith, discovered at St. Catherine's monastery, Mount Sinai, an ancient version of the four canonical gospels, known today as Codex Syriacus Sinaiticus. It was one of the greatest biblical manuscript finds of the 19th century. This codex offered valuable clues on matters of textual criticism: as Luke's gospel follows in the same column immediately after Mark 16:8, the witness of Syriacus Sinaiticus against the longer ending of Mark was particularly strong. Besides suggestive omissions, it also sheds light on the New Testament in numerous other ways. As Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic—Jesus' native language—some scholars have even argued that it conveys certain details more accurately than the Greek.

The improbable story of the "heavenly twins" has recently been explored in an admirable scholarly collection edited by David Cornick and Clyde Binfield and then popularized in Janet Soskice's well-researched and lively Sisters of Sinai. Staunch Presbyterians, Agnes and Margaret could discern in retrospect how the Almighty had providentially been preparing them throughout their entire lives to receive the gospel on Mount Sinai.

A remote branch of the twins' family had been populated by entrepreneurial, miserly bachelors. As they died off each in turn, the fortunes compounded. When the last one passed, the resulting inheritance taxes were the largest sum ever paid by a Scottish estate. The chief individual beneficiary was the twins' widowed father, John Smith. When Agnes and Margaret were 23 years old he died, leaving a bountiful fortune to them on the condition that they always live together. This they did. They even conveniently took turns being married, with Agnes being sister-in-law-in-residence until Margaret's husband died and then the other way around, these non-overlapping marriages equably lasting three years apiece.

Both twins were very bright, but Agnes was the one with the steam-powered drive for accomplishments. Scottish Reformed values ruled out a frivolous life of pleasure and, for both of them, the duties of a wife came late and left early. Agnes searched hard for a suitable vocation. In his account, Cornick tracks these efforts dispassionately. Agnes, Cornick writes, initially pursued poetry, "producing an interminable verse life of Margaret of Scotland," but met with more success with three published novels, although "only the most determined literary archaeologists would turn to them to-day."

From childhood the twins had always been enthusiastic about foreign tongues and travels. Every time they learned a new language their father would reward them with a trip to the country where it was spoken. After he died, the first great plan of these twentysomething heiresses was a trip to Egypt. Eschewing the convention of a male escort, soon they were sailing down the Nile—just the twins, a former teacher they had asked to be their female companion as an act of kindness, and sixteen hired men. They had also thought to bring manifold things that might come in handy, ranging from side saddles to guide books (Herodotus' Histories, of course). Despite a series of unfortunate events, a good time seems to have been had by all. Even their prime schoolmarm got to smoke a cigarette in a harem. They returned a year later, and Agnes turned her observations into a travel narrative that does not wither under Cornick's critical gaze, Eastern Pilgrims (1870).

Then Margaret wed James Gibson, a man of independent means who had spent several years as a Presbyterian pastor before his perfectionist and depressive tendencies made his ministerial duties completely unbearable. James and Margaret announced their marriage with a photograph showing them competing against one another at chess. Agnes was determined to go to Cyprus—which no modern female traveler had yet done, and very few of her countrymen had written about—and planned to visit St. Catherine's monastery on the way. Only a few years earlier, a Cambridge professor of Arabic had been kidnapped and murdered in the Sinai peninsula, and James insisted that his sister-in-law must abandon that part of her scheme.

After James' death, the sisters relocated to Cambridge, a move inspired by an article about the town in the Presbyterian Churchman. The twins visited the library of Corpus Christi College, where Agnes quickly got into a protracted argument with the Fellow librarian, Samuel Lewis, about the correct pronunciation of classical Greek. It was love at first fight. In an all-male university world, Samuel was the kind of rare, progressive soul who used a bit of his free time to teach Latin to bookish women. He even went so far as to pour the tea himself.

When Samuel died after three happy years of matrimony, there was no one left to tell the widows that they could not go to St. Catherine's. No copy of Aristides' Apology was thought to have survived until the scholar Rendel Harris had found a Syriac version there three years earlier. The monastery's library had never been catalogued, and there had not been a monk who could read Syriac there for centuries, so even the keepers of this collection did not know exactly what they had.

Harris was convinced there were more scholarly treasures to be found. Agnes set herself the task of learning Syriac, coolly observing that it was not that hard for someone like herself who had already mastered Hebrew and Arabic, especially when she had the aid of a Syriac grammar textbook (in German). Harris also insisted that the sisters learn the art of photography.

The monks were sometimes suspicious of European scholars, and many thought that the twins' gender was sufficient reason to doubt that they would even gain admittance. But the sisters came armed with a range of credentials, including an ostentatiously official letter from the vice chancellor of Cambridge University. In Cairo they gained the crucial permission of Archbishop Porphyrios, who, according to Soskice, "formed the impression that the twins were on a mission to convert the whole of England to the correct pronunciation of Greek." The trip to the monastery included a nine-day trek across the desert. Agnes was disappointed to discover that the camel ride was not sufficiently smooth to allow her to read her Hebrew Psalter. In good Reformed fashion, the sisters insisted that the Sabbath be strictly kept, even by their cook. Did not the Almighty command it from this very mountain?

The twins received an enthusiastic welcome at St. Catherine's. With the politeness of new guests, they accepted an invitation to join the monks for their afternoon prayers. Two full hours later, the sisters quietly decided that they were from an active rather than a contemplative order and would henceforth spend their days accordingly. Extraordinarily, these Calvinist Scots got along with Greek Orthodox monks with remarkable ease. When pressed on some point of difference between Reformed and Orthodox theology, Agnes learned how to set everything right by dropping casually into the conversation how it had recently occurred to her that the pope must be the antichrist.

The twins asked to see the volumes in an obscure closet that Harris had learned of too late in his stay to investigate, and made their momentous discovery straightaway. It was a 358-page manuscript that, although she had never seen one before, Agnes immediately recognized to be a palimpsest, that is, a parchment that had been reused. It had become a Syriac collection of hagiographies, but—it did not take her long to discern—underneath this were the gospels. No one had looked at it for generations, and the pages were stuck together. The sisters enterprisingly separated them with steam from their camp kettle. They then set about systematically photographing the pages.

On their return home, the twins tried to get Professor Bensly, Britain's leading Syriac authority, and Francis Burkitt, a rising young scholar, to examine their find. These two professional men were not anxious to waste an evening viewing the holiday snaps of two wandering widows. Eventually the twins managed to trap Burkitt at a dinner party. He and Bensly were soon in a giddy euphoria about a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.

It was hardly possible to transcribe an ancient text-beneath-a-text from Victorian-era photographs. The only thing was to go to Mount Sinai as soon as possible. The party was made up of Bensly and Burkitt and their wives, Rendel Harris, and the twins. Alas, the collaboration was fated to be filled with jealousies and misunderstandings. Cambridge did not allow women to even receive a bachelor's degree (which neither twin had), and everyone but Harris was determined to think of the sisters as travel guides rather than scholars. Mrs. Bensly resented the way that the twins were disordering her complacent assumptions about gender roles. She knew her place and occupied her time profitably by endeavoring to teach the Bedouin to knit. Margaret, by contrast, busied herself systematically cataloguing the Arabic volumes in the library. (Burkitt and Bensly, however, insisted that they must inspect first each new pile of manuscripts the monks brought her, lest another Presbyterian church lady might be able to claim that she had been the discoverer of something of scholarly significance!)

On the other hand, through a series of suspicious circumstances for which Soskice absolves the twins of all blame, the world learned about this biblical breakthrough through newspaper accounts that did not even mention Bensly and Burkitt, who had just employed their preeminent linguistic knowledge by spending forty days painstakingly transcribing in the desert. Soskice can see Bensly's point of view: "It was a hard thing, having climbed the greasy pole of academic renown with painful slowness over many years, to find oneself joined at the top by a fifty-year-old Scottish widow, who had vaulted to this height almost by accident in a matter of months."

The aging professor then promptly died, and his embittered widow wrote a book in which she pretended that Agnes had no idea what she had found but had just handed over a few queer pictures to her husband, who had himself discovered that they were Syriac gospels. As Burkitt was also ruffled, Agnes decided that there was nothing for it but to become a leading Syriac expert herself. Having found their vocation half a century into their lives, both sisters then produced more serious, meticulous, academic volumes than most university professors ever manage in the course of an entire career. In addition to various single-authored works, the twins edited two formidable series for Cambridge University Press, Studia Sinaitica and Horae Semiticae.

It is only fitting that the twins should have made two great discoveries. In 1896, they bought a variety of ancient manuscripts from private dealers in Cairo. One of these turned out to be a portion of the original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus, something so lost that some scholars had even argued that it had not been written in Hebrew. They showed it to the Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter, who immediately boasted to his wife: "As long as the Bible lives, my name shall not die."

The academy eventually recognized the sisters as true scholars. The universities of Halle-Wittenberg and St. Andrews conferred honorary doctorates on them. Not to be outdone, Heidelberg awarded them the first DDs ever given to women. Cambridge, however, decided it would be ridiculous to give honorary doctorates to women when it would not allow them even to earn a bachelor's degree; its idea of a sly nod to the sisters' achievement was to honor Archbishop Porphyrios! With no hard feelings, the sisters endowed a Cambridge professorship in modern Greek and even founded a new Cambridge college to serve Presbyterians, Westminster College.

One of the highlights of From Cambridge to Sinai is a chapter by the late, distinguished biblical scholar John O'Neill, examining the most suggestive variants in Syriacus Sinaiticus and what Agnes made of them. O'Neill's conclusion is that "she had great shrewdness and good judgment."

Wealthy eccentrics, their greatest find became something of a monomania for Margaret and Agnes. They visited what is today Syria and berated the Christians there for allowing Arabisms into their language, "the mother-tongue of our Saviour." More than one guest preacher at their local Presbyterian church was disconcerted to have his sermon found wanting for failing to take into account a salient Syriac variant. From Cambridge to Sinai also contains translations from her native German of the hilarious diary entries and recollections of Edith Klipstein, whom the twins had commissioned to paint their portraits. Living with the twins for a time while at work on the commission, Edith found that she was occasionally sent to her room under orders to memorize Syriac vocabulary lists. ("I was just young enough to put up with this madness.")

The sisters were perhaps no odder than most financially secure scholars. (Rendel Harris seemed to have gravitated toward them because of a quirky scholarly obsession he had with twins, including an involved and portentous theory about there being more than one set among the apostles.) And calling them eccentric must not become a way to dismiss them. In conclusion, therefore, it is worth allowing Agnes to have the last, thoughtful word, as she reflected on the spiritual significance of her scholarly work on the Bible:

[God] makes even our mistakes, and those of our fellow-men, to praise Him, for the very variants which frighten the weak-minded amongst us act as a stimulant to others, inciting them to search the Scriptures more diligently, to eliminate the mistakes of the mere copyists, and to ascertain what it was that the Evangelists actually wrote.

Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, is the author of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford Univ. Press). His new book, about the Bible in the 19th century, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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