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The Codex Syriacus: The Discovery of the Oldest Gospels in Syriac

Video from Wrestling With God

The Codex Syriacus

"The Sisters of Sinai - How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels Agnes and Margaret Smith were not your typical Victorian scholars or adventurers. Female, middle-aged, and without university degrees or formal language training, the twin sisters nevertheless made one of the most important scriptural discoveries of their time: the earliest known copy of the Gospels in ancient Syriac, the language that Jesus spoke. The Syriac Sinaiticus, a late 4th century codex also known also as the Sinaitic Palimpsest or the Codex Syriacus, contains a translation of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament into Syriac. It is the oldest translation of the Bible into any language. In 778 CE it was palimpsested with a vita of female saints and martyrs. The Syriac Sinaiticus is the oldest copy of the gospels in Syriac. The Syriac Sinaiticus: The Oldest Translation of the Bible Circa 375 CE

Armed with a crash course in Syriac, a dialect of Jesus’ own Aramaic, and 1,000 photographic plates, the sisters made their way across the forbidding Sinai wilderness. For example, the late 19th century saw great advances in textual criticism, leading up to the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus. But The Sisters of Sinai offers barely three pages on the textual contributions of the Sinai Palimpset, and only brief references to how those discoveries related to the general flow of textual criticism of the age. As another example, we learn that the sisters played an important role in Solomon Schechter’s discovery of the manuscript horde in the Cairo Genizah, but surprisingly, there is no mention of perhaps the two most important documents discovered by Schechter, the tenth century and the 12th-century fragments of the so-called Damascus Document that ultimately came to be identified as a foundational work of the Qumran Essenes. Arriving at St. Catherine’s, the sisters quickly ingratiated themselves with their hosts and asked to examine the monastery’s most ancient manuscripts. One codex in particular caught Agnes’s attention. Filthy, with its leaves stuck together, it had probably not been touched for centuries. At first, it appeared to be an unexciting document, a synopsis of the lives of female saints, of which there were many known copies. But on close examination, Agnes discovered that it was a palimpset—that is, a document over-written upon an even more ancient document, and the latter turned out to be the oldest copy heretofore discovered of the Four Gospels in Syriac." from video introduction

The Remarkable Story of the Sinai Palimpsest

The Sisters of Sinai

"Few of life’s possibilities entice the human psyche more than the prospect of finding hidden treasure. And for persons of faith, a significant Biblical artifact can be more precious than gold or jewels. Moreover, as your humble reviewer has observed elsewhere,1 the characters who engage in searches for lost artifacts, often subjecting themselves to discomfort or even downright danger, can be as unusual and intriguing as the objects of their search.

Two such unlikely adventurers (or more appropriately, adventuresses), the twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, are the protagonists of a recent book by Janet Soskice, The Sisters of Sinai. Soskice, a professor of philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge, has offered readers a deftly-written and thoroughly researched account of her quite extraordinary subjects. Raised from infancy by their staunch Presbyterian father (their mother having died shortly after their birth in 1843), the twins became accomplished linguists, incentivized by the offer to travel to each country whose language they learned. Thus encouraged, they mastered French, German, Spanish and Italian, and in the process became experienced travelers. Their father inherited a considerable sum of money and when he died, his 25-year-old daughters found themselves unexpectedly alone, but very rich..." from the book review article: The Remarkable Story of the Sinai Palimpsest

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