The Sinaitic Palimpsest—the earliest surviving copy of the four Gospels in ancient Syriac—ranks among the most treasured manuscripts of the New Testament. It was penned in the early fifth century, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that the world learned about its existence, thanks to the discovery by Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926).
The identical twins Agnes and Margaret Smith were born in 1843 into a Scottish Presbyterian family. They lost their mother as newborns and were both widowed at an early age. Although not permitted to earn university degrees, the sisters mastered many languages—both major European languages and a handful of ancient ones. They enjoyed traveling, an activity they fully embraced after their father’s death left them with considerable means.
Driven by devotion rather than scholarly pursuits, Agnes and Margaret traveled to Sinai in 1892, where they visited St. Catherine’s Monastery. The world’s oldest continually operating monastery, St. Catherine’s boasts an exceptional collection of manuscripts from the first millennium C.E. While browsing the manuscripts, Agnes took interest in a parchment known today as Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus or the Sinaitic Palimpsest—the term palimpsest meaning that it is a recycled manuscript, a document written over an older, erased document. Once the importance of the erased text became apparent, the sisters organized a follow-up expedition to the monastery in 1893 aimed at producing a text of the manuscript (published in 1894).
The effaced text, dating to c. 400 C.E., is one of only two surviving copies of the very early Syriac texts of the Gospels, known as the “Old Syriac” version that is almost two centuries older than the standard Syriac text of the New Testament (known as the Peshitta).
In the Smith sisters’ era, new discoveries in science and archaeology were rewriting the accepted understanding of the Bible, and great advances in textual criticism were revolutionizing the study of Biblical texts. This discovery process continues today, as more than 160 known palimpsest manuscripts in St. Catherine’s Monastery are currently being studied using state-of-the-art technologies to recover erased texts.a
Who discovered the Sinaitic Palimpsest?
Answer: Agnes Smith Lewis
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