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66 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read.
I thought that this book was a highly readable, fascinating account of Gibson and Lewis. These two women were among the most important scholars of Syriac (among other things) in the 19th century. They discovered important manuscripts of the Syriac Gospels in Sinai, and much of this book discusses their various trips to Sinai to work in the Monastery of St. Catherine. But...
Published on September 5, 2009 by A. Rubin

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard reading but glad I read it
The twin sisters are remarkable characters who lived a remarkable life. The author, however, is more of an historian than a story-teller so the reading is difficult at times.
Published 22 months ago by Bette Videen


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66 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read., September 5, 2009
By 
A. Rubin (Pennsylvania) - See all my reviews
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I thought that this book was a highly readable, fascinating account of Gibson and Lewis. These two women were among the most important scholars of Syriac (among other things) in the 19th century. They discovered important manuscripts of the Syriac Gospels in Sinai, and much of this book discusses their various trips to Sinai to work in the Monastery of St. Catherine. But readers also learn a lot about Cambridge life, their travels to other places, and the history of biblical scholarship. Quite enjoyable.
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31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sinai Bible, October 2, 2009
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This excellent, well written book, gives us an insight into the late Victorian era in England and the improving recognition of women and their capabilities. The two extremely wealthy twin sisters with a yen to travel and a deeply religious bent travel extensively in Egypt and then the Holy land, before getting a notion to visit the isolated monastery of St. Catherine's in the Sinai desert to look at old manuscripts. They come across a palimpsest whose bottom text appears to be an ancient Gospel in Syriac. Two amateurs making such an important discovery led to an extraordinary interest on the part of orientalist scholars. A subsequent expedition with a number of well established scholars led to better understanding of what they had and a bitter dispute over who should get credit for the find. The end result was that the sisters studied intensively to become recognized experts in the field and collectors of ancient manuscripts which they translated and published over the rest of their lifetime getting much recognition and rarely (to women) conferred honorary degrees. This was an excellent read.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Book on Many Levels, November 11, 2009
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My grandmother always used to say that "truth is stranger than fiction." It took me many years to appreciate that statement. And Janet Soskice has certainly provided strong evidence for that with this well-written biography. She has written a multi-layered book that becomes more and more fascinating as each section unfolds. This is not only a book about how an ancient manuscript of the Gospels was discovered, although that would have been interesting alone. Janet Soskice manages to intertwine the story of two sisters, twins whose circumstances were so unusual that their Presbyterian belief in Providence would be difficult to dispute, with attitudes toward women in the 19th Century, the excitement of the Academy during the Victorian era, and a travelogue of the Middle East. The book is rich, complex, exciting and sometimes extremely frustrating, as various characters render their judgments about gender, religion and values. It is very real and very genuine. The author treats her subjects with the respect they clearly deserve, while not glossing over their bigotry and eccentricities. She is, likewise, very clear in revealing the bigotry that the sisters received at the hands of the Academy, especially Cambridge. As the sisters launch on their search for manuscripts, the book can read as well as any good detective story. And the conflicts between the sisters and the more established members of academia bring some high drama and tension to the book. So the story itself is well written and quite fascinating. What I found so incredible about the book, however, was the sisters themselves. This is a story of overcoming incredible obstacles, of digging in and getting things done when, objectively, one's goals seem daunting at best and impossible at worst. In short, Janet Soskice has written the story of two absolutely amazing women who traveled through the Sinai desert without husbands when that was unheard of; befriended some wonderful Greek Orthodox monks even though they were staunch Presbyterians; discovered obscure documents written in Syriac (not exactly the ligua franca of the day); and became two of the top Orientalists in their era - and in middle age yet! It is the story of relationships developed (I just loved their relationship with Solomon Schechter!) with others who were as excited about religion, God and scholarship as they were. All in all, it was a pleasure reading of how their lives so beautifully and brilliantly unfolded, and how scholarship, religion, and their own natures grew and expanded as a result of their adventures. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of religion, the Victorian era, women's studies, archeology, or anyone who just enjoys settling down to a great read.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something for everyone, October 4, 2010
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This review is from: The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels (Paperback)
This book has it all

This book has it all: action, adventure, romance, drama, history, culture, scholarship and wit. It is thoroughly researched and eminently readable.

Twins Agnes and Margaret Smith were born in Scotland in the mid-1800s to a Scottish lawyer of considerable financial means. His wife died soon after the girls' birth and John Smith resolved to bring the girls up himself. So begins the unconventional upbringing and education of the girls who will grow up to be among the first - and the finest - of female scholars in Europe. Against the common practice at the time of only educating girls so far as necessary to manage married life, John Smith made sure his girls had the finest possible education, especially encouraging their interests in languages and travel. From an early age, he promised to take them anywhere, so long as they learned the language first. Having a twin to practice with made this challenge a bit easier.

Unfortunately, John Smith died an unexpected death just as the twins were on the verge of young womanhood. Also unfortunately, the universities and the trades were closed to women. A woman's work was considered to be raising her children and assisting her husband with his work - the only access women of the day had to the life of the mind. And, again, unfortunately, neither Agnes nor Margaret secured a marriage at this point.

The only fortunate thing at this point was that their father's wealth allowed them to travel, one of the few diversions available to unmarried women. Relying on a travel guide, they make a number of mistakes, but the trip provides them the experience they will need to travel freely and comfortably in the Middle East in their ensuing quest for early Biblical manuscripts.

Both Agnes and Margaret eventually make suitable and satisfactory marriages, albeit much later in life than most women of the time. It is through their husbands that they are able to legitimately enter the world of scholarship for which their intellect and experiences make them so well equipped. But in yet another stroke of misfortune, both marriages are short, due to the early and unexpected deaths of their husbands.

The twins again turn to the solace of travel to ease their grief, but by this time they have accumulated significantly more knowledge and expertise, as well as additional languages, including, for Agnes at least, ancient Syriac, the language the Jesus spoke. They set off for the monastery of St. Catherine's in the Sinai desert specifically because of the likelihood of finding Syriac manuscripts in a reported "dark closet". As the saying goes, luck favors those who are well-prepared. Agnes finds and photographs a palimpsest, a parchment containing a Syriac martyrology written on a much older parchment containing portions of the Gospels in Syriac. Although Agnes did not know precisely what she had found - exactly how old it was or exactly which texts it contained, for instance, she did recognize the palimpsest as an early Syriac version of the Gospels and knew that it was important.

Upon returning home, the twins immediately submit their find to well-known professors. Skeptical and rather uninterested at first, they soon realize the significance and importance of the find and another trip to Sinai is hastily arranged, with the help of the twins' travel experience and their good graces with the Greek Orthodox Church, to set about transcribing the palimpsest.

The remainder of the book mostly covers the struggles in getting the book transcribed and ready for publication, along with the political maneuverings necessary for two "lady adventurers" to be accepted in the academic world. The twins had already made inroads into the academic world through their assistance with their husbands' work, but they still faced an extraordinarily steep learning curve in order to put out a credible scholarly work starting so late into middle age. Nevertheless, the twins, with their Scottish Presbyterian determination, rise to the task and their work is very well received.

"The Sisters of Sinai" is a fascinating portrayal of two brilliant and determined women who, through extraordinary circumstances and events, were uniquely poised to find and bring to light ancient manuscripts, especially Biblical texts, to advance the nascent "science" of Biblical scholarship, despite living in a time when women had such little access to academic pursuits.

Janet Soskice has diligently researched not only her two primary subjects, but scores of other people, events and history related to her subjects. Through this book, we get fascinating glimpses into the history Bible scholarship, theology, Presbyterianism, the culture, history and geography of the Middle East, European social life, the politics of universities and many other aspects of the rich and full lives of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson.

Make no mistake, however, this book is primarily about the lives of the twins, not about their find specifically. If you are looking for a work dedicated to the palimpsest specifically or Bible scholarship generally, you will be disappointed.

Ms. Soskice is fair almost to a fault in her portrayal of not only the Smith twins, but all the characters in the book. Agnes and Margaret, though identical twins, emerge as distinct individuals each with her own personalities. We also get an excellent sense of the personalities and motivations of the other characters such as Rendel Harris, Professor and Mrs. Bensly, Mr. and Mrs. Burkitt, and the monks and dragomen encountered along the way. Like the twins themselves, Ms. Soskice mentions but does not dwell on the tragedies, difficulties and injustices the twins faced, but on the monumental works which they achieved.

Ms. Soskice's intellect is also equal to the task of presenting such intellectual ladies. Her language is rich and descriptive, without being overbearing or difficult to read. I personally added a number of new words to my vocabulary, but Ms. Soskice wields such vocabulary not as one pretentiously trying to show off, but as one comfortable with the evocative use of language.

Finally, the book offers many pictures of Agnes and Margaret, along with their friends and collegues and the places they travel. These pictures help to orient the reader in time and place and bring out the personalities of the subjects.

Altogether, this book is a gripping narrative that offers something for nearly everyone. My only regret is that I finished it. I will miss traveling with such formidable ladies.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars adventure travel + scholarly intrigue = great read, January 1, 2010
By 
S. Mosher (Arlington, VA, USA) - See all my reviews
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If either of these Scottish twins had given birth to a son, he would have grown up to be Indiana Jones or his rival. Riveting true tale of exotic travel and academic acrimony from the age when new Biblical finds made headlines as they challenged established doctrine. Yet, as Agnes Smith Lewis -- ever the devoted Presbyterian -- wrote, "the very variants that frighten the weak-minded amongst us act as a stimulant to others, inciting them to search the Scriptures more diligently." She and her sister, Margaret Smith Gibson, stand as fine role models for today's women over 50 who wonder if their passion is sufficient to carry them into a new field of interest.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable Reading, September 30, 2009
By 
Diego Banducci (San Francisco, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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Since the other positive reviews of this book do a fine job of describing its merits in detail, I will discuss other aspects of it that readers may find interesting. I'll try to be brief.

Because Janet Soskice is a Professor at Cambridge, I worried that the book would prove to be overly pedantic. Not so! Instead it moves forward at a lively pace, telling a fascinating story.

I became aware of St. Catherine's Monastery as a result of having become interested in icons in St. Petersburg, followed by several visits to Istanbul. This was supplemented by a show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles of the icons at St. Catherine's (a wonderful video of that show is available on the Getty website, getty.edu, which will take you on a short tour of St. Catherine's). There is also a fine book of the icons that were included in that show Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai (Getty Trust Publications: J. Paul Getty Museum).

Since the sisters went on their journeys across the Sinai a resort community has developed at Sharm-el-Sheikh, about 50 miles from the monastery. Daily buses run between the two.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars VERY good read, April 6, 2010
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Setting aside the story of the sisters for the moment, I loved how much I learned about things I didn't know existed before.

For example, I had no idea there was an ancient (and still active) Christian monastery in Egypt - St. Catherine's. Or that such a place had, since its inception, been the repository of historic manuscripts ... wow.

Or how about the existence of Jewish "genizah," a sort of cosmic recycling bin for sacred texts? Wow again.

Or palimpsests? Fascinating.

On the sisters Agnes and Margaret as people, I like the author's affectionate, but not blind, treatment of them; she includes their human frailties along with the glamorous stuff.

Ms. Soskice did a splendid job of describing the dog-eat-dog world of scholarly competition. And she did so without villainizing any of the players in the sisters' world.

Yet another layer of the story bespoke of women's power (or lack thereof) in England and Scotland during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Ms. Soskice is a good storyteller.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wish I had been there, January 5, 2010
This was a Christmas gift from my daughter, chosen from Christianity Today's Books and Culture best books of 2009. She couldn't have picked better. Nineteenth century twins, Agnes and Margaret Smith were strong, intelligent, adventurous Scotswomen in an era that didn't know what to do with such people. Their travels in the Middle East are a window into history, culture, and Biblical studies.

Soskice draws heavily on the sisters' diaries and published accounts of their travels to make a story that is far more than a recitation of dates and places. I was disgusted with the conflict and academic competition that followed their greatest find, and with the unwillingness of Cambridge University to grant degrees to women, even those with the scholarly credentials of Agnes and Margaret. My own travels in the Sinai and visit to St. Catherine's monastery made the account all the more vivid to me.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I agree with all the positive comments from others, May 24, 2014
This review is from: The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels (Paperback)
When my Book Club chose this, and I saw it, it didn't attract me. But, ever the team player, I decided to dive in. Well...it was wonderful...it was fun to read and I am so sorry I'm done with it. I am so glad someone wrote about these two amazing sisters and all the wonderful work they did in discovering hidden and disheveled old manuscripts. I cannot believe the difficulties in travel that they endured in order to get to the manuscripts, and not just once, but again and again. I can't believe they had to endure so much prejudice in their academic circles due to the fact they were women. The author did a wonderful job of taking you on all the journeys with Agnes and Margaret. Wonderful book...I gave up TV for five days...not even a peek...because I wanted to just travel with these two fine ladies!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, Inspiring Story, April 10, 2010
By 
D. E WARD (Oxford, OH USA) - See all my reviews
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This book was recognized by Christianity Today magazine with a 2010 award of merit in the history/biography category, and deservedly so. It tells the story of two Victorian era sisters, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson. These Scottish identical twins inherited a large fortune from their father. Both enjoyed short but happy late marriages. Then as widows living in Cambridge, England, they became leading scholars of Semitic languages. In particular, they discovered an important early Syriac manuscript of the Gospels at St. Catherine's monastery at Sinai, and then played a key role in the discovery of the manuscript treasures of the Cairo Genizah. Their courage, persistence, and faith I find very inspiring.
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The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels
The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels by Janet Martin Soskice (Paperback - August 24, 2010)
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