22 September 2010

Women Did It Better: Bible Hunting

By Michelle Styles

How accurate is the modern Bible was question that occupied the 19th century mind--not just in its claims about the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood and such, but how accurate is the translation? In particular are the words of the New Testament the same as the words that the early Christians read? And how could you prove it? Even the Codex Vaticancus, which only the Pope and a few cardinals were allowed to read, was rumoured to have certain stories missing. For those of the Jewish faith, was the Wisdom of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus to Christians) and one of the fourteen books included in the Greek Old Testament originally written in Hebrew or not?

These were questions that troubled Biblical scholars through out the nineteenth century, and the answers would be provided by two intrepid Scottish sisters, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson. They succeeded where men before them failed.

Looking behind St Catherine's

The sisters inherited their wealth from their father and became great travellers. Agnes wrote one of the first guidebooks to Cyprus. At a time when women didn't attend university, they learnt fourteen languages between them. Among other things, it made it easier to communicate to their dragoman and servants in Arabic. (An early voyage down the Nile had seen them cheated). They married late in life, Margaret to a scholar and Agnes to the librarian of Parker Library in Cambridge, Samuel Savage "Satan" Lewis. The Parker Library founded by Matthew Parker (the original nosy Parker) houses three quarters of all known Anglo Saxon manuscripts and it is here Agnes learnt about old manuscripts.

Inside St Catherine's

In January 1892, the sisters set out for St Catherine's in the Sinai armed with photographic equipment, portable water filters and variety of medicines. For the trip, Agnes had learnt Syriac, one of the early languages of the New Testament. They already knew Arabic and Modern Greek and so could converse easily with the monks and the Bedouin. They had managed to procure permission to visit one of the most remote monasteries in the world, and the place most likely to hold an ancient version of the Bible.

Their mission was complicated by the fact that in 1857, Constantin von Tischendorf had borrowed (stolen according to the monks) the Codex Sinaiticus and published it to great acclaim. After Von Tischendorf's discovery, as far as they were able bible hunters scoured the monastery for more manuscripts. The sisters were convinced that something else was there, if one could get access to the library.

The sisters, with their knowledge of the Orthodox Greek ways, gained the trust of the librarian of St Catherine's. There in a dark closet, they discovered the Sinaiticus Palimpsest. A monk at some point had cleaned a copy of the New Testament in Syriac and written a Martyrology of Female Saints (basically porn for monks) over it. Agnes with her background was able to recognise it for what it was, photographed it and went back to Cambridge. There, she interested three Biblical scholars in it, persuaded them to join another expedition and the work was eventually translated. It proved to be one of the most complete and earliest manuscripts of the Four Gospels. Today, the most important book in the library at St Catherine's is the Sinaiticus Palimpsest and it still resides in the wooden box that the sisters had made for it.

Later, the two sisters returned to Cairo and bought some manuscripts pages in Hebrew. They had their friend Schetcher look at them. He immediately recognised the pages for what they were--an early Hebrew version of the Ben Sira. He also had a good idea where the manuscripts came from and travelled to Cairo. There he discovered a genizah or dead letter drop for Jewish people that contained over 800 years of manuscripts and other documents as according to Jewish law one did not destroy anything containing the Four Letters of the Holy Name. It proved to be the richest source of medieval Jewish materials in existence.

Later still Agnes purchased two Syriac palimpsests. They proved to be the only non Biblical documents of any length to survive in Palestinian Syriac, a dialect that was wiped out through the spread of Islam. So the women's contribution to our knowledge of the ancient world was immense. You can read more about them and their exploits in Sisters In Sinai by Janet Soskice.

Palimpsests are still being recovered today in odd forgotten corners of the world, and who knows what others works might be uncovered, particularly as modern techniques are so much better.

Michelle Styles writes historical romances for Harlequin Historical. She recently visited St Catherine's on a book research expedition. It is a fascinating place, made all the more fascinating by the exploits of the Smith sisters. Her next UK release is THE VIKING'S CAPTIVE PRINCESS (Dec 10), and in the US A QUESTION OF IMPROPRIETY (Dec 10). There will a free online read starting on 15 November on e-Harlequin to celebrate the publication of A QUESTION OF IMPROPRIETY.


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Blythe Gifford said...

Love this! What an interesting story. Has there ever been a biography of these women?

Danielle C. said...

The boom in intrepid women travellers is such an interesting phenomenon to come out of Victorian expansionism. This sounds like a must-read book for me! Do you know whether the sisters themselves published anything about their experiences?

Evangeline Holland said...

Ah ha!

Wonderful post, particularly since reading it sparked a bevy of ideas. *g*

Michelle Styles said...

Blythe --
Dr Janet Soskice wrote Sisters In Sinai which is a biography of the women. It is a MUST read.
Rabbi Mark Glickman got in touch privately and he has just published a book on the Cairo Genizah and has devoted a chapter to the Lewis Gibson sisters.

Danielle C -- Yes, the sisters did publish several works about their adventures. Agnes Smith Lewis in particular published a number of books.

Evengeline -- I am so pleased that it sparked a number of ideas. Do read Sisters in Sinai.
If you are interested in Victorian travel I also reccomend Stattin A Winter on the Nile which recounts Florence Nightengale's and Gustav Flauberts journey down the Nile in the winter of 1849/50 before either were famous. The voyage changed both of them and coincidently although they never spoke to each other, they did share the same ferry from Alexandria to Cairo.
Can anyone guess that I LOVE intrepid Victorian travellers?