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Showing 1-10 of 80 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 99 reviews
on November 11, 2009
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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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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on November 14, 2016
This is the great, well-told story of two very wealthy Scottish Prebyterian sisters who are extremely gifted in foreign languages and adventursomness who discover a third century copy of the Gospels in Syria at The Saint Catherne Monastery on the top of Mt. Sinai in the Arabian Peninsula in the late 19th century. It revolutionized biblical scholarship. This book is a must read for all serious Bible scholars and lay students of the Bible.
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on May 15, 2017
What a fascinating book about two amazing ladies. In a time when women were expected to be in the background, they persisted and had marvelous adventures with far-reaching academic and religious consequences. It is a true story that reads like a novel.
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on June 18, 2015
Wow! Where has this book been? What a treasure. The Twins came alive in Sjoskice's writing, The adventure had all the elements of a good fiction story, but was true. Visioniing the caravans of tents, tablecloths, chickens, etc going across the desert enlivened the story. Seeing the twins in their element of wealth and prestige and then seeing them in their quest was quite a dichotomy. And is is not ever thus that women's accomplishments are played down to men's. They certainly prevailed in the end. They were two of the most generous rich folks I've ever read about. What a read!
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on August 28, 2015
Fascinated. And another book shows how women's research is stolen by men for their credit. Interesting how these two Scottish ladies traveled through the dessert that long ago and all that they accomplished. I loaned this book to a man from Scotland since the ladies were from his home area. And I never saw this book again.
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on September 7, 2012
Many years ago as a fan of historian Barbara Tuchman, I ran up against the term "Popular Historian" The phrase is usually spoken with a sneer. This is popular history. Enjoy it and let the academics seethe.

There is someting quintessentially Victororian Age British about two middle aged Scottish women -twin sisters no less - leading theirown expidition into the waste lands of Palistine to locate a long lost Bibical treasure. It is simultaneously anti-stereotype. Janet Soskice relates the story of the twin sisters. Here I quote from Wikipedia in part to introduce to you how unlikely they were:
Agnes Smith Lewis PhD LLD DD LittD (1843-1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson LLD DD LittD (1843-1920), nées Agnes and Margaret Smith (sometimes referred to as the Westminster Sisters), were Semitic scholars. Born the twin daughters of John Smith of, Scotland, they learnt more than 12 languages between them, and became pioneers in their academic work and benefactors to the Presbyterian Church of England, especially to Westminster College, Cambridge.

Their father insured that they had a good education. This was not typical of the era. He had challenged them to learn foreign languages and the reward would be travel to those foreign countries. This was not typical.. They had no formal standing as scholars yet they would be remembered as among the most important scholars of biblical texts for more than their lifetimes. Clearly not typical.

Upon the death of their father they became independently wealthy. In choosing to express their religious values, they learned ancient biblical languages. The goal for this final exercise would be to find and translate what was, except to very few an unknown possibly earliest edition of the Gospels the: "Syrus Sinaiticus."

The Sisters of Sinai, takes us through the adventures of two middle aged, amateur self determined and strong women. Alternately they would face down Levantine dragomen and self important scholars and earn the trust of the isolated monks of the ancient Saint Catherine Monastery deep in the Sinai Desert.

My reporting cannot do justice to the combination of human drama, victories and tensions of the life of these women as told by Soskice. There is a certain irony that the women were motivated by sincerest religious passion, entirely in line with their age and milieu yet so much of their work was done at the expense of the limits we suppose to have been the norm for the women of that same mileu.

This books works well on several levels. The sisters earn our respect. Paying attention means learning much about biblical scholarship. A wide variety of related topics get intelligent discussion. The politics of scholarship, ancient artifacts and even old Jewish traditions are well described. All this and the style is entertaining.

It is not too much to conclude that the Smith sisters were heroes. Their history as related in this book is worth your time.
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on October 2, 2009
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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on December 1, 2013
These two woman were and are as invaluable as Mary of old { Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God}Jhn 20:17. Men must learn to obtain all of the glory and honor the seem to strive for, they must give it away even as these ladies did, in order to obtain it even as they did and will be! For one and for two trust in God and see ALL things that happen to them ,good and bad, is for the best and will do the most good! Even as these two experienced for had not they suffered set backs, as unfair as they seemed at the time, only further developed greater faith by these two and greater opportunities! I love this book and am greatful for these two sisters!
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on March 1, 2017
Fascinating read. Bought on the recommendation of a friend and passed it along to another friend which silimiar interests.
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