The latter half of the nineteenth century was a time of crisis for Christian belief. In part, this was simply the result of a long process of secularization—political, social, and intellectual—and in perhaps larger part the result of new theories and new discoveries in the sciences. The rise of Darwinism (in particular) had sent tremors through the very foundations of the edifice of faith, not simply because it proposed a far more credible alternative to a literalist reading of the creation narratives in Genesis but also because it described a wholly new cosmic reality, one whose moral frame seemed the very antithesis of Christian charity, and whose logical form seemed the very antithesis of benevolent providence.
An equally grave challenge to faith, however, arose from within the boundaries of Christian scholarship itself. It was an age that had been shaped religiously by inherited Reformation anxieties regarding the authority of Scripture, but also by the critical examination of Scripture that the arguments and divisions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had inaugurated. These two realities met with sometimes extraordinary force in the fairly new field of scriptural palaeography. It had been known for some centuries by scholars that the received text of Scripture that most Christians knew—for English readers, enshrined in the magnificent sonorities of the King James translation—was actually only one version of a text that had known many variants over the ages.
But the actual discovery of ancient texts of the New Testament that differed markedly from the later, and supposedly authoritative textus receptus, not only confronted Christian thought with the possibility that the Bible was not quite the stable property it was once imagined to be, but also apprised the (now very literate) public at large of the fact. The announcement in 1859 that Constantin von Tischendorf had discovered in Egypt what was then the oldest known biblical manuscript, as well as the subsequent translation and publication of that manuscript in 1881, raised for many people questions of greater moment than what hermeneutical strategies ought to be applied to Scripture—plain literalism, allegory, moral and typological readings, and so forth—which Christians had been debating for generations. What had now been called into doubt was the trustworthiness of the text itself.
Janet Soskice’s book, The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, 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. It relates one of the more significant episodes in the story of late-nineteenth-century palaeography—one that occurred very soon after Tischendorf’s text had been published, and well before the general susurrus of pious alarm had subsided. It does so in a way that is not only fully scholarly, but also almost ridiculously entertaining. It tells how a pair of extremely learned, extremely gifted, and extremely devout twin sisters—Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson, nées Agnes and Margaret Smith, wealthy heiresses, stout Scottish Presbyterians, and intrepid travelers—brought to light, in 1893, a Syriac translation of the four gospels almost as ancient as the Tischendorf manuscript.
This is not necessarily a book one might have expected from Soskice. In her day job, she is a distinguished Christian philosopher who teaches at Cambridge, and her published work has concerned fairly abstruse issues regarding the nature and meaning of theological language. She has always been a graceful writer, with a gift for making difficult topics lucid, but this is the first time to my knowledge that she has employed her literary talents to produce a “cracking good read.” And the results are splendid. The book tells of the two sisters’ discoveries and their lives, and of how they and their work fit into the larger intellectual, social, and religious currents of their times. The story never lags.
The Smith sisters were raised in an atmosphere of prosperity, but not of extravagance. They were only twenty-three years old when they came into their joint fortune at their father’s death in 1866; but, while they availed themselves of the liberty that their wealth provided them to pursue their scholarly interests, they did not waste their energies in the sort of lavish indulgences one might normally expect of young persons suddenly finding themselves free from both material and parental limitations. They had been reared as good Reformed Christians, and they lived their faith with an admirable mix of Victorian decency and Scots rectitude.
Their father had supplied them with far more than his money and his morals; he had seen to it that they received a very good education as well. In an age when respectable women had really only one career open to them—marriage and motherhood—he had been anything but illiberal in the tutelage he allowed them. This was especially fortunate, because his daughters were uncommonly intelligent children. From an early age, both girls had shown themselves to be extraordinary linguists, and over their lives they mastered a host of languages, ancient and modern, European and Near Eastern. And when they achieved their majority, they had no intention of packing their gifts away in some convenient closet.
They made their first Egyptian expedition in 1868, which was a fairly daring feat for young women at the time, even if accompanied (as they were) by a former schoolmistress twelve years their senior. This was the beginning of the sisters’ immersion in the world of Eastern Christianity, Middle Eastern culture, and—ultimately—biblical studies. More expeditions followed, culminating in a number of visits to the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai, in the course of which the sisters found the palimpsest manuscript of the Syriac gospels. Then commenced the laborious process of rescuing, photographing, and deciphering the text.
What makes this part of Soskice’s narrative so engaging is that she focuses on the tale of that discovery and the entire course of the sisters’ lives in the years surrounding their labors. As a result, both women emerge not only as agents in a history but as compelling and sympathetic characters at the center of a captivating story. There is the tale, for instance, of the seemingly improbable good relations they enjoyed with the Orthodox monks of their acquaintance, despite their Reformed distaste for the elaborate rituals and “superstitions” of Eastern Christianity. And then there is the tale of Agnes’ brief, somewhat misguided ventures into a literary career. Then there are the tales of the years both women spent somewhat at the margins of the academic world—but near the center of the intellectual world—of Cambridge. And there are several tales of their almost heroic indifference to the dangers, privations, and inconveniences of their travels.
And, rather sadly, there are the uncannily similar tales of both sisters’ somewhat late marriages to surprisingly evanescent husbands (James Gibson married Margaret in 1883 only to die in 1886, and Samuel Lewis married Agnes in 1887 only to expire after nearly the same span in 1891). Almost as tragically, there is also the tale of the unexpectedly proprietary disagreements that arose over the gospel manuscript between the sisters and the other scholars they brought along on their final expedition to Sinai. And so on.
Probably the most ironic story in these pages, though, and the one that casts the clearest light upon the changes that were taking shape in society at large at the turn of the last century, concerns the overwhelming vote in the Cambridge University Senate on May 21, 1896 to continue to deny women access to university degrees. The sheer absurdity of the situation should have been obvious to any reflective mind: Women were permitted to attend lectures, pursue their studies, write tutorial papers, and even sit examinations, but could not be certified as graduates—and this though many of them were far more accomplished and studious than their male counterparts. But the absurdity was made all the more resplendently obvious by the signal coincidence of the Smith sisters, four days after that vote, laying the foundation of the university’s newest establishment, Westminster College.
One should note that nothing they had discovered ever particularly shook the Smith sisters’ faith. They had to come to acknowledge a certain fluidity in the history of the Bible’s textual transmission, but to the end they remained convinced of the unshaken unity and unimpeachable integrity of the testimony of Scripture as a whole. Neither could have foreseen the textual discoveries of future years, of course, and they certainly could not have guessed how radically much of the biblical criticism of the following generations would depart from the orthodox path. But that is a tale to which they did, however inadvertently, make their own small contribution.
David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.