Agnes and Margaret Smith and Their Crucial Discovery

Agnes and Margaret Smith and Their Crucial Discovery

Agnes and Margaret Smith lived at a time when scholars were raising new and disturbing questions about the Bible. Is it reliable? Having being copied by hand, how do we know that it is not full of errors or even deliberate variations? And when was the New Testament written? Did the early church read it, or was it the product of later centuries? Soon, the same questions found room in the minds of common people who had until then assumed a smooth, linear transmission of manuscripts from believers to believers.

            These questions provoked Christian scholars to investigate the matter, scouring the Middle East for ancient texts. Raised in Scotland and England by their widowed father (their mother died two weeks after their twin birth in 1843), they probably never imagined they would one day join this esteemed company and found one of the most ancient Bible manuscripts.

Early Travels

            The twins’ father, John Smith, passed on to them his love for languages and travels. In fact, he motivated to study languages by promising to take them to any country of which they had learned the language. He provided them with tutors and enrolled them in good schools (although, being women, they were barred from entering universities). When he died in 1866, he left them a large inheritance, allowing them to live comfortably and cultivate their common interests.

            Agnes wrote as they traveled. In 1870, she recorded their journey to Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine in her book Eastern Pilgrims, which was well received. She followed it with two more travel books, Glimpses of Greek Life and Scenery and Through Cyprus. Her attempts at writing novels were less successful.

            They married late for their times. In 1883, forty-year-old Margaret married James Young Gibson, seventeen years her senior – a Presbyterian who had retired from the ministry when his congregation’s pressure to preach without a script made him doubt his calling. Feeble in health, he died three years after his wedding.

            In 1887, Agnes, then forty-four, married Samuel Savage Lewis, a classicist and fellow and librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, who was seven years older than her and died unexpectedly four years later.

            Both widows and childless, the twins resumed their travels together, particularly to the Middle East, under the encouragement of biblical scholar James Rendel Harris. Travel in those days was fraught with many hardships and dangers, but the twins believed firmly that the day of our death is fixed before our birth.

            They enjoyed visiting biblical sites and tracing the steps of Bible characters. On the Athenian Areopagus, for example, Agnes read the seventeenth chapter of Acts, thinking how, in front of monuments and buildings that seemed like “superhuman creations of beauty, a wondering Jew had the courage to declare to a crowd of philosophic Athenians that ‘God dwelleth not in temples made with hands.’ His words fell upon scornful ears; yet their echo has caused the Parthenon to crumble.”[1]

            Crossing the barren desert leading to Mount Sinai, the twins gained some empathy for the wandering Israelites. “As we gazed on the interminable succession of low, sandy ridges on our left,” Agnes wrote, “we could not help thinking that the host of Israel had some excuse for grumbling at a leader who was taking them where no food and no water could be seen.”[2] Although they had the Pillar of Cloud to lead them, she said, “it must have been as hard for them to believe in its Almighty grace as it is for us to trust in our Divine Leader when the course of this world seems going against us. He does not always explain its purposes.”[3]

An Exciting Discovery

            The twins’ visit to the monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, on Harris’s encouragement, was facilitated by Agnes’s proficiency in modern Greek, which allowed her to earn the trust of the monks. Like Harris and other biblical scholars, the twins believed that God would supply evidence to disprove the growing notion that Christian thought had developed many centuries after Christ.

            It was at St. Catherine, in fact, that Harris had discovered the full Syrian text of an early presentation of Christian belief, dated around AD 120, known as the “Apology of Aristides.” It was also there that another biblical scholar, Constantine von Tischendorf, had discovered what was considered the world's oldest and most complete transcription of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, dated to around the mid-fourth century.

            While examining some of these documents, Agnes noticed a dirty volume with leaves largely stuck together. It was a collection of lives of women saints written over an older text (a type of recycled document known as palimpsest). Having studied the Syriac language, she was able to recognize some of the underneath headings: “Of Matthew” and “Of Luke.”

            Since the lives were dated AD 697, Agnes figured the undertext must have been at least 200 years older, making it the oldest known copy of the gospels in Syriac. After loosening some of the pages apart with the steam of their camp kettle, she and her sister copied some headings and photographed the pages.

            Back in England, they developed their own negatives after the professional developer they had initially hired ruined some photos. They recognized God’s providence when they discovered that they had inadvertently taken duplicate shots of the same pages that had been ruined.

            Once the photos were developed, they faced the difficult task of gaining the attention of scholars who could confirm their findings. After a series of refusals, they invited to lunch some distinguished guests, including Francis Burkitt, adjutant of Professor Robert Bensly, one of the main authorities in ancient biblical texts.

            When Agnes took Burkitt aside to show him some of her photos, his initial reaction was similar to the response of many who oblige to look at someone’s photo album. But his interest was suddenly perked up, and he asked to take some of the photos home.

Announcing the News

            After Burkitt and Bensly realized the value of discovery, they organized a new expedition to St. Catherine in order to examine the originals and transcribe the text. The team included the two scholars and their wives, Rendel Harris, and the twins. Before the trip, Agnes purchased a chemical reagent which was used in the British Museum. In spite of Bensly’s disapproval, Harris’s hesitations, and her own doubts and fears, she tried the reagent on one of the leaves with excellent results.

            The transcription was difficult and laborious. The scholars and Agnes, who knew Syriac, divided the work among them and worked long hours in the freezing cold, while Margaret catalogued the other manuscripts – a task the archbishop had assigned to the twins. There were also personal problems. Bensly and Burkitt resented the presence of Harris, who had only been invited after the twins’ insistence.

            These problems worsened after the team departed. The twins and Harris reached London earlier than the others, only to find that the Daily News had already run the story of the discovery, crediting only the three of them. This was due to a letter Harris had sent to a friend, which had leaked to the press. In the letter, Harris didn’t mention Bensly and Burkitt simply because he had already talked about them in previous letters.

            The article drew a wedge between the scholars and the twins. What’s worse, when Bensly died soon after his return, his wife wrote an account of the travels which placed the twins in a negative light. And her claim that the twins had forced the rest of the team on long marches seemed to intimate that they were to blame in her husband’s death.

            Agnes had two ways to set the record straight: through newspaper rebuttals and through the introduction she had been assigned to write for A Translation of the Four Gospels from the Syriac of the Sinai Palimpsest, published in 1894. With great diplomacy, she acknowledged the work done by Bensly and Burkitt, as well as the generosity of the monks and the Orthodox archbishop. But she also upheld the factual account of the discovery. To Harris who recommended ignoring any unfair accounts, she wrote: “Our Shorter Catechism says that ‘the ninth commandment requireth the maintaining and preserving of our own and our neighbor’s good name.’ Surely one of God’s best gifts is worth cherishing.”[4]

Completing the Work

            In spite of the interest the translation was generating, Agnes and Margaret were not satisfied with the fact that one-fifth of the palimpsest had not been transcribed, let alone translated. The delay was due to Bensly’s death and to Burkitt’s resentment over the Daily News’ article, which he interpreted as an attempt by Harris and the twins to take all the credit.

            Determined to finish the work, Agnes and Margaret decided to return to Sinai and complete the transcription. By then, Agnes had perfected her knowledge of Syriac. There was, however, a new, unexpected problem. The archbishop who had until then supported their work had been offended by a copy of How the Codex Was Found, an early booklet by Agnes.

            His reaction was not surprising. Agnes’s evaluation of the monks’ lifestyle, seen from a Protestant perspective, was rather negative. She reported a time when she was compelled to kiss a cross (which she could only do by stating out loud, “I worship the Christ who died on the cross”).

            She also objected to what she described as “’sacramentalism,’ i.e. attention to a ceremonial worship which leaves neither time nor energy for the instruction of the multitude.” In fact, she went as far as saying that, during the fifteen centuries the convent had existed, in spite of its constant ceremonies and prayers, “as for being a centre of light to the population around, it might as well never have existed.”[5]

            She only regained the archbishop’s favor after a providential encounter with a street seller revealed a manuscript that had been stolen from the monastery. Agnes, who had seen it before, stalled the street seller until she was able to contact the monks who recovered the document. After this, she and her sister were treated as honored guests.

            The completion of the transcription brought the twins great acclaim. Although Margaret was largely overshadowed by Agnes, their joint contribution was widely recognized. They received the prestigious Triennial gold medal of the Royal Asiatic Society, and were awarded honorary doctorates by some of the most prestigious universities in Europe. Cambridge, however, resisted the idea, since a degree would open doors to opportunities (such as voting rights) the institution was not willing to grant to women. When the matter was put to a vote, the undergraduates expressed their opposition, since allowing women to obtain degrees would upset their college life of partying and drinking.

            In spite of this rejection, the twins promoted and funded a Presbyterian theological college in Cambridge (Westminster College), laid its foundation stone, and provided scholarships for Presbyterian students.

            Ill health caused the twins to slow down their activities in their later years. Agnes was especially afflicted by rheumatism and loss of memory. But it was Margaret who died first, following a stroke, on the twins’ seventy-seventh birthday, 11 January 1920. Agnes became progressively incapacitated by a paralysis until she died six years later. The twins left their remaining possessions to the English Presbyterian church, mainly for Westminster College, and their home became a hostel for students. Today, their portraits hang in the hall of Westminster College.

[1] Janet Soskice, The Sisters of Sinai, How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, New York, Vintage Books, 2010, 59

[2] Ibid., 118

[3] Ibid., 119

[4] Ibid., 189

[5] Ibid., 128



Simonetta Carr