It may sound strange to say that a book about two spinster-ish sisters in the Victorian era is at its most basic level about passion, but that was the word that kept coming to my mind as I read Sisters of Sinai.
Agnes and Margaret Smith were not, strictly speaking, spinsters. They each had husbands who met unfortunate ends when they were only about three years into their respective marriages. The vast majority of the sisters’ adult lives was consumed with learning some of the most impenetrable of the ancient languages and finding equally ancient manuscripts to translate and disseminate.
21st century Christians are not as passionate as Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Regrettably, The Sisters of Sinai made me painfully aware of that truth. If one of us found ourselves with a comfortable fortune and no restrictions on what to do with it, how many of us would use our resources to increase our knowledge of the Biblical languages and travel by camel, sometimes in harsh and even dangerous conditions, to search for hidden manuscripts? Agnes and Margaret Smith were possessed by a a thirst for Biblical knowledge and a desire for adventure that led them to discover one of the earliest known copies of the gospels.
Sisters of Sinai has something for everyone. It is part biography, part adventure tale, part history, part intrigue, and part Biblical exposition. At the same time, it reads with the flow and grace of a novel, pulling the reader in and giving us a sense of the joy the Smith sisters took in making new discoveries about our sacred texts. As I read the story, I was struck by the close relationship between the sisters’ intellect and their ardor for the Word and for their own faith. It has been said that intellectual rigor dampens excitement and passion for the Bible, but Agnes and Margaret Smith blow that hypothesis out of the water. The more they learned, the more they wanted to learn. Janet Soskice has done a masterful job of making that enthusiasm infectious.
The road was not always smooth for Agnes and Margaret Smith. They did not have university degrees, and relied on their natural aptitude for languages, largely teaching themselves Syriac and Aramaic. For this reason, and also because of their gender, they were often ridiculed (and their discoveries minimized) by traditional male academics. At the same time, when they made discoveries of consequence, their male rivals often tried to find ways to steal the credit.
It was refreshing to read about two people who took such joy in Scripture translation and interpretation. Rather than being threatened by new discoveries that might challenge the way certain passages had “always” been interpreted, they were invigorated by new possibilities. Sisters of Sinai re-energized my own enthusiasm for Biblical studies, and gave me a new appreciation for all who labored in obscurity for many years to give us the gift of the Word.
LESLIE KLINGENSMITH is the pastor of St. Matthew Church in Rockville, Md., and blogs on reading at: exlibrisfides.blogspot.com.