Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How the Hidden Gospels Were Discovered

From The Times Online.com: From The Sunday Times March 22, 2009 Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice Book Review: The Sunday Times review by James McConnachie The hunt for early Bible manuscripts was among the most romantic of all the 19th century's grand quests. In the rush for gospel gold, scholars forayed across the near East, rummaging through half-forgotten monastery libraries for precious scraps of vellum and decaying parchment codices. At the heart of this lively, inspiring double biography is the story of how a pair of spirited Presbyterian women made their own extraordinary discovery. Agnes and Margaret Smith were twins born in 1843 in Irvine, an intensely Presbyterian Scottish town where members of one church could not even buy eggs from a grocer who attended another. They first tasted the East on their quasi-pilgrimages there, Murray's Guidebook in hand. On journeys to Cairo, Jerusalem and Cyprus they learnt to read the Orient's gorgeous souks and stinking quays as biblical tableaux: “There was the gold of Ophir,” as Janet Soskice says, “the topaz of Ethiopia from the Book of Job.” They taught themselves how to manage a dishonest dragoman, how to rough it aboard a felucca and, most unusually, how to speak Greek and Arabic, fluently. Unconventionally, the twins both made love marriages in middle age. Both then lost their scholarly husbands abruptly, after three years of marriage apiece and within five years of each other. They returned to sleeping in the same bed (with a string down the middle “to avoid border disputes”) but did not retreat into respectable mourning. With characteristic indefatigability, they decided to make for the Greek Orthodox St Catherine's monastery, an ancient, extravagantly isolated Christian toehold in a desolate corner of the Sinai peninsula, and see what they could turn up. It was at St Catherine's, after all, that the piratical adventurer Constantin von Tischendorf had found (and stolen) a 4th-century copy of the New Testament. In preparation for their expedition, Agnes taught herself Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. The kindly Quaker scholar Rendel Harris was so impressed by her that he disclosed an astonishing secret. In St Catherine's, he confessed, he had seen a “dark closet off a dark chamber” where whole chests of unexamined Syriac manuscripts lurked in the gloom. In 1892, the twins travelled from their home in Cambridge to Cairo, then made their way for nine days on foot and by camel across one of the world's more inhospitable deserts. Arid plains gave way to limestone ridges, maze-like wadis and, finally, the brutal 7,000ft peaks of the Mount Sinai range. Agnes, the travel writer of the pair, had no complaint to make about the journey other than that the camel's rolling gait disturbed her reading of the Psalms in Hebrew. Since Tischendorf's escapades, the monks had tended to greet visitors with a volley of stones, thrown down from the vast fortified walls. But Agnes saw only a spiritual oasis; she likened it to a dove hiding in a cleft of the rocks. Respect for the sisters' sex ensured a welcome, and their tents were soon pitched in the monastery garden, close to “the well of Moses” and the original burning bush. Agnes dared to ask to see the oldest Syriac manuscripts and, in a dimly lit chamber, she found the promised chests. One harboured a dirty, damaged volume whose parchment pages had to be steamed apart using the twins' travel kettle. Faint beneath the main 7th-century text were two columns of older underwriting. Agnes's Syriac studies meant that she could read the headings: “Of Matthew”, “Of Luke”. Agnes had found and recognised one of the earliest New Testament manuscripts yet discovered, its text dating to the 2nd century. Yet as Soskice explains, with rather thrilling cogency, the Sinai palimpsest had significance beyond sheer antiquity. It hinted that Joseph was Jesus's biological father. And its version of Mark's gospel absolutely lacked the final verses describing the resurrection. The same absence in other early manuscripts had been dismissed as the loss of a final leaf, but the palimpsest conspicuously concluded in the middle of the page with the colophon, “Here endeth the Gospel of Mark.” The pious twins resisted the obvious inferrence: that the resurrection story was added by later hands. But they recognised their precious palimpsest's importance, meticulously photographed it and, on return to Cambridge, forcibly brought it to the attention of leading scholars. A new expedition to Sinai was hastily organised, led by Agnes and Margaret, whose friendship with the monks of St Catherine's provided an invaluable passport. On arrival, shifts of scholars worked at a rickety washstand table in the Sinai sunshine, transcribing the text with the help of a foul-smelling reagent (brought along by Agnes to help reveal the underwriting) and a monk who held down the pages during gusts of wind. They struggled to finish the task before the camel caravan came back across the desert to fetch them home. Soskice describes those days of urgent outdoor transcription with the understandable yearning of a 21st-century theologian for whom such pioneering triumphs can only be a dream. Her deft handling of a travel yarn and her feel for the culture-bucking momentum of the twins' lives makes the dream a compelling one. Unavoidably, her story slightly loses its drive following the discovery of the palimpsest. As Agnes and Margaret fight for, and gain, scholarly respectability, as scholars bicker over the text and the twins triumphantly found the Presbyterian Westminster College in the teeth of Cambridge sexism, the romance of Sinai seems too distant. The hunt for manuscripts, though, like all good quests, is never finished. A coda to the book reveals that, in 1975, a collapsed wall at St Catherine's revealed four boxes of biblical parchments, including missing leaves of the famed Codex Sinaiticus, one of the few biblical discoveries ever to surpass the Smiths' in importance. As for the original palimpsest, it transpires that it is still in the monastery library, protected by the wooden case Agnes made for it. Sisters of Sinai by Janet SoskiceChatto £18.99 pp352

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did the Sisters of Sinai play chess? I have an old ceramic plate with a chess playing twin.

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