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April 26, 2021

The Sisters Who Went to Sinai

They were not nobility. They did not hold advanced degrees. They were women in an age when being women severely limited their career prospects. And yet, twin sisters born to a Scottish lawyer in 1843 changed the field of biblical studies in a dramatic way. It started with a fateful promise. Agnes and Margaret Smith’s father vowed that he would take them to any country when they learned the language spoken there. The girls promptly responded by learning many languages between them—not only European languages but also Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac—and so they traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Widows by their late forties, the sisters found themselves with money, time, freedom, and a keen desire to study ancient biblical texts. Over the next decade, they played a significant part in not one but three major biblical discoveries. In early 1892, the Smith sisters discovered a manuscript from the late fourth century at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. It contained the four New Testament gospels in Syriac, and remains the oldest copy of the Gospels in that language. Several years later, the sisters bought more manuscripts in Egypt. Upon returning to England, they showed a fragment with Hebrew text to a rabbi and scholar named Solomon Schechter. Schechter, in turn, set out for Cairo and discovered the treasures of the Ben Ezra Synagogue—better known today as the Cairo Genizah, one of the most important historical discoveries of modern times. Finally, Agnes Smith published the intriguing Codex Climaci Rescriptus in 1909. Smith had acquired several parts of the manuscript from various sources over roughly ten years. This Aramaic translation of the Gospels is on permanent exhibit here in the museum. There is no doubt that the adventures and extraordinary intelligence of two Cambridge widows changed the face of biblical studies forever.



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