Recovering wisdom from the desert

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
12 Apr 2009

In Holy Week 2009, BBC Radio 4 has been serialising a reading of Janet Soskice's fascinating book Sisters of Sinai (Chatto & Windus, 2009) as Book of the Week in the 'Women's Hour' programme strand.

Soskice is a thoughtful and influential philosophical theologian whose books The Kindness of God (on biblical imagery of sex, gender and kinship) and Metaphor and Religious Language (which looks at how to speak appropriately, imaginatively and rationally of God, and should be required reading for the likes of poorly informed sceptics such as A. C. Grayling) are full of wisdom and insight.

Sisters of Sinai is in a different vein. As the description on the book explains, "It tells an extraordinary tale of nineteenth century exploration; how two Scottish sisters made one of the most important ancient manuscript finds of the age. Hidden in a cupboard beneath the monastic library at St Catherine's in the Sinai desert the twins discovered what looked like a palimpsest: one text written over another. It was Agnes [Lewis] who recognized the obscured text for what it was - one of the earliest copies of the Gospels written in ancient Syriac.

"Once they had overcome the stubborn reluctance of Cambridge scholars to authenticate the find and had lead an expedition of quarrelsome academics back to Sinai to copy it, Agnes and Margaret - in middle years and neither with any university qualifications - embarked on a life of demanding scholarship and bold travel.

"In this enthralling book, Janet Soskice takes the reader on an astonishing journey from the Ayreshire of the sisters' childhood to the lost treasure trove of the Cairo genizah. We trace the footsteps of the intrepid pair as they voyage to Egypt, Sinai and beyond, Murray's guide book in hand coping with camels, unscrupulous dragomen, and unpredictable welcomes. We enter the excitement and mystery of the Gospel origins at a time when Christianity was under attack in Europe.

"Crucially this is the story of two remarkable women who, as widows, were undeterred in their spirit of adventure and who overcame insuperable odds to become world class scholars with a place in history."

New York-based New Testament scholar Deirdre Good points out that the manuscript concerned is a 4th century Syriac text of the gospels called the Sinai Palimpsest, whose origins have been documented by Agnes Lewis in the Gorgias Theological Library series. It is the source identified in the United Bible Society Greek New Testament Introduction as Syr^s.

Professor Good adds: “There is another Old Syriac version of the Four Gospels, Syr^c, called Curetonian Syriac in the British Library (edited by William Cureton). While both these texts are copies, their underlying text could go back to the second century. Metzger thinks that the Sinaitic Syriac represents an earlier text than the Curetonian.

“The Peshitta version of the Syriac text comes into being around the beginning of the 5th century, perhaps to supplant the Old Syriac tradition,” she adds.

It is good to be reminded how much love, endeavour, scholarship and enterprise has been involved in unearthing the texts behind the Christian traditions that have been passed on to us for understanding and developing.

By contrast, Grayling’s contribution to the recent New Statesman series about ‘God 2009’ is to dismiss the major religions as “[having] their roots in the superstitions and fancies of illiterate peasants living several thousand years ago.” This is a little like discounting great artistic traditions by alleging that they started out as cave daubings. It not only shows unwarranted contempt for ancient civilisations and the evolution of human culture (judging one by the discontinuous standards of another), it also involves inattention to modern traditions of intellectual and historical enquiry and to ways of looking at the world which are not immediately convenient to one's own.

Thankfully, patience for encountering, appreciating and learning from ‘the other’ (and indeed the Other) goes on, as people seek not just to recover material from the past but also to continue the dialogical journey of faith and reason in the present. Janet Soskice is involved in both ventures.

You can buy the books mentioned through Ekklesia by clicking on the links.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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