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Agnes and Margaret Smith

Janet M. Soskice

Agnes and Margaret Smith, not otherwise famous, were in many ways just ordinary, middle-aged ladies when both, as widows, they decided to go to Saint Catherine’s in 1892.  But they were in many ways quite unusual, in that they were highly self-educated—they didn’t have any university degrees and were very fond of languages, and they’d taught themselves Hebrew and ancient Greek and also modern spoken Greek.  And they’d always wanted to go there.

Why St. Catherine’s?  Well, because St. Catherine’s, having rested in obscurity for centuries, in the 1840s or a little bit later, the 1850s, was vaulted into the public mind by the discovery of von Tischendorf, discovering the Codex Sinaiticus, this fabulous ancient Bible.  They had always wanted to go there, just really out of piety; they were devout Presbyterians and footsteps of Moses. 

They’d read somewhere that there might be manuscripts in Syriac that hadn’t yet been examined; and this excited Agnes, the senior twin by one hour, greatly.  In the nine months between her husband’s death and going to Sinai, she taught herself Syriac, using a German-Syriac dictionary; there wasn’t an English-Syriac one.  So they were going in a way as religious tourists.  It was still very unusual, you had to be considerably wealthy, you had to go to Cairo, hire a guide and camels, ten days across the desert; very serious and quite dangerous too.  So, it’s a serious undertaking. 

They did actually, Agnes did hope she might find something, and she did.  What she found (she had terrific beginners luck) mind you they’d been told by a Quaker scholar, Rendel Harris, whose book Agnes had read and he was the one that said there might Syriac manuscripts to find.  They had been told about this dark closet underneath the Archbishop’s lodgings that he said contained chests of manuscripts, and these might be very ancient.  Now, of course, Agnes did know that Syriac was virtually the same as Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples.  So, who knows what you’d find?    You know…Matthew’s own gospel autograph, written ‘I Matthew, wrote this,’ you just don’t know.  They were amateurs, as I said, but what she did find was a palimpsest, an overwritten copy of the Gospels that has proved to be the most ancient Syriac text [of the Gospels] that we possess.  After the Codex Sinaiticus, it’s the most important document to rest in the possession of the monks at Sinai.

  • Janet Soskice

    Janet Soskice is professor of philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Jesus College. She has taught philosophy of religion, ethics and doctrine, and philosophy. Professor Soskice is a past-president of both the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain and the Society for the Study of Theology. She takes an active role in Jewish-Christian relations, Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenical discussions and the Christian-Muslim dialogue. Her recent book Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Lost Gospels (London: Chatto and New York: Knopf, 2009) won critical acclaim.