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Janet Soskice: Sisters of Sinai

Janet Soskice

Sisters of Sinai -How two lady adventurers found the hidden gospels

ISBN: 9780 0995 4654 2

Vintage, 2009, £9.99

Have you ever heard of Mrs Lewis and Mrs Gibson, twins born in Irvine, Ayrshire in 1843, and brought up by their father?  Early in life and at first in the company of their father they became inveterate travellers. Thanks to him they discovered an aptitude for languages, for in order to visit a country they had first to learn its language. At his death they inherited a large fortune which came from a rich uncle, on the condition that they lived together.

This they did, although each was married for a short time, and through it all continued to travel in the Middle East in pursuit of early manuscripts of the bible in Syriac and Arabic. These they tracked down in the libraries of desert monasteries, and in the hands of dealers – notably in the course of six visits to St Catherine’s at the foot of Mount Sinai. Much of their work was in the company of professional academics, who experienced difficulty in recognising in these wealthy ladies with broad Scots accents, the powerful intellects and single minded dedication of true scientific investigators.

Their last twenty years or so were passed in Cambridge, initially in the company of one husband, in the house he designed – ‘Castlebrae’ at the foot of Castle Hill. Their learning, their eccentricity, their philanthropy, became legendary. They were awarded honorary degrees by German universities, but no recognition came from Cambridge. They were women, they were Presbyterian, they taught – in the York Street Mission Sunday School.

Their story as related by Janet Soskice (appropriately a Cambridge academic) is a fitting if long delayed tribute to those ladies, who can be heard quarrelling in their broad Scots accents about supposed errors – which only they are in a position to identify.

Anyone with a concern for the story of the bible down the centuries, its versions and translations, or for the amazingly late appearance of women in academia would profit from this introduction to Mrs Lewis and Mrs Gibson, to their endurance, their courage, their linguistic gifts, and their humour – above all, their faith.

Anselm SSF