When wealthy Scottish lawyer John Smith died in 1866, his twin nineteen year old daughters Agnes and Margaret surprised their neighbors by wasting no time in mourning; instead, they used a bit of their large inheritance to take a boat tour of the Egyptian Nile. The adventure proved to be just a prelude to the subsequent travels of Agnes Smith Lewis (1843-1926) and Margaret Dunlap Gibson (1843-1920), learned Presbyterian sisters who spoke numerous modern and ancient languages. Biblical scholar Janet Soskice recounts the lives of two remarkable women in The Sisters of the Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels.
Bible research was a male-dominated field at the point the sisters tried their hand at the acquiring the oldest surviving Biblical texts, found only in remote monasteries in countries along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. When not on expeditions, they spent their time in Cambridge, England, where they made friends and enemies of leading Biblical scholars at a time of religious uncertainty. There were some religious leaders who wanted research stopped because finding variations in old texts might cause some people to doubt the absolute truth of scriptures. The sisters saw old texts as no threat to their faith and dedicated themselves to finding, translating, and publishing the texts for all scholars to study.
The sisters built a large home outside the campus of Cambridge University, endowed library collections, and founded Westminster College at Cambridge, a college for Presbyterians where there had only been Anglicans until the 1880s.
In Sisters of the Sinai, readers learn much about the hazards of nineteenth century travel and the jealousies of ambitious academic authors. An entertaining dual biography.
Soskice, Janet. The Sisters of the Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. ISBN 9781400041336.