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The Sisters of Sinai

How a pair of wealthy identical twins made one of the most significant scriptural discoveries in history.

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Margaret and Agnes Smith were identical twin sisters born in Scotland in the mid-19th century. They suffered tragedy early on when their mother died two weeks after giving birth; their father died when they were just twenty-three, leaving them wealthy but alone in the world.

How Margaret and Agnes made one of the most significant scriptural discoveries in history is the subject of The Sisters of Sinai, the latest book by author Janet Soskice, a fellow of Jesus College at Cambridge University. She recounts how the intrepid women found and deciphered one of the earliest known copies of the Gospels – written in ancient Syriac, the dialect of Aramaic, which was the native language of Jesus.

You needn’t follow a particular religion to become engrossed in this enthralling narrative. “The Sisters of Sinai” is a tale of grand adventure and far-flung travels, and it proves appealing even on that level. Soskice is so adept at making a rarefied subject accessible and vivid that the narrative seems almost cinematic. If the heroines hadn’t been identical twins, in a film adaptation Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith would be brilliantly cast in the lead roles.

Margaret and Agnes were well educated, thanks to their austere father’s belief that they should have the same rigorous education as boys did. They mastered French, Spanish, Italian and German early on, and as a reward they were treated to a visit to each foreign country whose language they’d learned.

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