In early 1892, twins Margaret and Agnes Smith, unschooled in paleography but possessed of keenly rebellious spirits, traveled from England to St. Catherine's Church, at the foot of Egypt's Mount Sinai.
There, in a "dimly lit little room below the prior's quarters," they discovered "an unpromising brick of parchment," its surfaces coated with dust. Despite the state of this "grimy codex," Agnes, the older sister, was convinced that she had made a great discovery, and after 40 days of study she emerged with proof.
As scholar Janet Soskice reveals in her luminous new study, The Sisters of Sinai, Margaret and Agnes had nosed out nothing less than the earliest known copies of the Gospels - an account written in Syriac, the language likely spoken by Jesus himself.
At the time, Soskice writes, "the Bible remained an unquestioned compendium of truth, its immutable word conveyed supernaturally through the generations."
And yet this codex - so different in content from the modern edition of the Gospels - indicated that scripture was actually the product of years of careful revisions. The Bible, in other words, had evolved.
Of course, since Agnes and Margaret were only amateurs - and female amateurs at that - they needed experts to validate their find. Once recruited, those experts attempted to take the bulk of the credit, and soon the twins found themselves engaged in a series of very public rows.
But neither woman ever backed down, and by the mid 1890s both were deservedly famous, honored by academics and laymen alike. The Sisters of Sinai is by turns a rattling adventure yarn - thick with roving Bedouin and ancient tombs - and a testament to the power of perseverance. In the end, Soskice writes, "It was the Smiths' fierce commitment to the truth that most impresses."
The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels
By Janet Soskice
Knopf, 316 pages, $27.95