Agnes and Margaret Smith

Agnes Smith Lewis (left) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson
Westminster College, Cambridge, beneficiary of the Westminster Sisters

Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926)[1] and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843–1920),[2] nées Smith (sometimes referred to as the Westminster Sisters), were English Semitic scholars and travellers. As the twin daughters of John Smith of Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, they learned more than 12 languages between them, specialising in Arabic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, and Syriac, and became acclaimed scholars in their academic fields, and benefactors to the Presbyterian Church of England, especially to Westminster College, Cambridge.[1][2]

Personal life and education

A plaque commemorating the Smith Sisters in Westminster College, Cambridge
The grave of James Young Gibson and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

Agnes and Margaret Smith, twins born on 11 January 1843 to Margaret Dunlop and John Smith, a solicitor and amateur linguist. Their mother died three weeks after their birth, and they were brought up by nannies, a governess, and their father.[3][1][2] They were educated in private schools in Birkenhead, Cheshire and Kensington, London (1853–62),[1][2] with travels in Europe guided by their father.[4]

After their father's death, they were left a large inheritance.[1][2] They settled in London and joined the Presbyterian church in Clapham Road.[5] Already conversationally fluent in German, French and Italian,[6] they continued to learn languages and travelled in Europe and the Middle East, including travelling up the Nile and visiting Palestine in 1868.[7] In 1870, Agnes wrote Eastern Pilgrims, an account of their experiences in Egypt and Palestine.[8]

In 1883, the twins, by then also quite fluent in Modern Greek, travelled to Athens and other parts of Greece,[9] beginning a lifelong affectionate relationship with Greek Orthodoxy, especially the monks in office at Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.[10] On 11 September 1883, Margaret married James Young Gibson, a scholar trained for the ministry of the United Presbyterian Church, but later working on Spanish translations. In 1887, Agnes married Samuel Savage Lewis, a classicist, librarian, and fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Samuel was also a clergyman. Each marriage soon ended with the death of the husband.[2][1]

Margaret was buried with her husband in Dean Cemetery in western Edinburgh. The grave lies on the north wall of the main cemetery. Agnes was buried with hers in Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge.[1][2]

Academic work

Plaque in St Columba's Church, Cambridge, commemorating Agnes and Margaret Smith

By 1890, the sisters settled in Cambridge. Agnes began to study Syriac. Inspired by Quaker and Orientalist J. Rendel Harris's account of his discovery at Saint Catherine's Monastery of a Syriac text of the Apology of Aristides they travelled to the monastery in 1892, and discovered one of the earliest Syriac versions of the Old Syriac Gospels next to the earlier known Curetonian Gospels, now in the British Library, which gave insight into the Syriac transmission and added valuable variants to New Testament studies.[11] It was one of the most important palimpsest manuscript finds since that of the Codex Sinaiticus in 1859 by Constantin von Tischendorf. The year after (1883), they returned with three Cambridge scholars that included Professor Robert L. Bensly and Francis C. Burkitt, and their wives, as well as J. Rendel Harris, to copy the whole of the manuscript[12] The palimpsest manuscript was found to have been overwritten by the Lives of Holy Women in Syriac dated to 779 CE by John the Recluse as well as also having four 6th century folios with a Syriac witness of the Departure of Mary (Transitus Mariae) underneath.[13][14]

Her second most valuable attribution to the field of Aramaic (Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Syriac) studies and New and Old Testament text critique was the purchase of another unique palimpsest manuscript, the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, in Egypt (Cairo 1895; Port Tewfik 1906), and the largest batch from an anonymous Berlin (Germany) scholar (1905), containing underneath several individual manuscripts in Christian Palestinian Aramaic of various lectionaries with Gospels, Epistles, and Old Testament pericopes, an early apocryphal text Dormition of Mary with the hagiographic story of Peter and Paul (5th–7th century),[15][16] and Greek with Gospels (7th/8th centuries),[17] overwritten by the Syriac translation of Scala paradisi and Liber ad pastorem by the monk John Climacus of Sinai (8th–9th century), of which now surfaced the missing quire at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.[18][19]

After the return from their first trip to Sinai Agnes made herself acquainted with Christian Palestinian Aramaic (Palestinian Syriac) by the help of a script table by Julius Euting (German Orientalist).[20] Margaret learned Arabic.[21] During this expedition, Agnes catalogued the collection of Syriac and Margaret of Arabic manuscripts.[1][2][22] It was also on their first expedition (1892) that they were made acquainted with two additional, complete, and dated Christian Palestinian Aramaic (Palestinian Syriac) Gospel lectionaries B and C (1104, 1118), and remnant D in the library of Saint Catherine's Monastery,[23] which they edited 1899 in a synoptic version, including the earlier published Vatican Gospel A from 1030 (Vat. sir. 19).[24]

In their travels to Egypt, Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson were able to acquire among other unique manuscripts in Christian Palestinian Aramaic as e.g. an hagiographic palimpsest manuscript The Forty Martyrs of Sinai, and Eulogios the stone-cutter from the 6th–7th century (1906) overwritten by a Christian Arabic text (8th century);[25][26] a nearly complete eleventh-century lectionary in 1895[27] of Christian Palestinian Aramaic with noteworthy biblical pericopes, and later 1905 some of the missing folios from a German collector (Westminster College, Cambridge);[28][29] several leaves under Syriac Christian homilies where Agnes detected separate 7th and 8th century Qu'ranic manuscripts, which she and Alphonse Mingana dated as possibly pre-Uthmanic.[30][31][32] These palimpsest folios were lent to the exhibition “Internationale Ausstellung für Buchgewerbe und Graphik" in Leipzig 1914, and due to the outbreak of the First World War they were only returned in 1936 after the successful intervention by Paul Kahle.[33] They collected about 1,700 manuscript fragments and books including the acquisition of Eberhard Nestle library with rare editions,[1] now known as the Lewis-Gibson collection, including some formerly of the Cairo Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, the earliest Hebrew fragments of a Ecclesiasticus manuscript, identified by Solomon Schechter.[34][35][36] The sisters continued to travel and write until the First World War when they slowly withdrew from their activity as scholars due to ill health.[1][2]

Though the University of Cambridge never honoured the two scholarly twins with degrees, they received honorary degrees from the universities of Halle, Heidelberg,[1][2][37] Dublin, and St Andrews,[1][2][38] and both were honoured in addition with the Triennial gold medal of the Royal Asiatic Society, the blue riband of oriental research in 1915.[1]

At Cambridge, they attended St Columba's Church.[39] They were generous hostesses at their home, Castlebrae, which became the centre of a lively intellectual and religious circle.[40]


St Columba's United Reformed Church, Oxford, established as the Presbyterian chaplaincy to the University of Oxford, with the help of the Smith sisters

The sisters used their inheritance to endow the grounds and part of the buildings of Westminster College in Cambridge.[1] This was long after Nonconformists were allowed to become full members of the Oxbridge universities by the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts; and that Presbyterian college moved from Queen Square, London to a site acquired from St John's College, Cambridge in 1899. They also helped the establishment of the Presbyterian chaplaincy to the University of Oxford, now at St Columba's United Reformed Church, Oxford.


Agnes Smith Lewis

Margaret Atheling And other Poems (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917)

Margaret Dunlop Gibson

  • How the Codex Was Found: A narrative of two visits to Sinai from Mrs. Lewis's journals, 1892 – 1893 (Cambridge, 1893)
  • An Arabic Version of the Epistles of St. Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians with part of the Epistle to the Ephesians from a ninth century MS. in the Convent of Saint Catharine on Mount Sinai. (London, 1894)
  • Catalogue of the Arabic mss. in the Convent of Saint Catharine on Mount Sinai. (London, 1894)
  • An Arabic Version of the Acts of the Apostles and the Seven Catholic Epistles. (London 1899)
  • The Commentaries of Ishodad of Merv, Bishop of Hadatha c. 850 ad. (London 1911)
  • Matthew and Mark in Syriac. (London 1911)
  • Luke and John in Syriac. (London 1911)
  • The Acts of the Apostles and the Catholic Fathers. (London 1913)
  • The Epistles of St Paul. (London 1916)

Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson


A collection of scrapbooks of press cuttings relating to Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson can be found at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.[41]


  • Müller-Kessler, Christa (2004), Dunlop Gibson, née Smith (1843–1920), in Oxford Dictionary of the National Biography, vol. 22. Oxford: Oxford Press, pp. 89–90.
  • Müller-Kessler, Christa (2004), Lewis, Agnes Smith (1843–1926), in Oxford Dictionary of the National Biography, vol. 33. Oxford: Oxford Press, pp. 579–580.


  • Whigham Price, Alan (1964), The Ladies of Castlebrae. The Life of Dr. Agnes Smith Lewis and Dr. Margaret Dunlop Gibson (Annual Lecture to the Presbyterian Historical Society, October 1964; University of Durham. Durham.
  • Whigham Price, Alan (1985), The Ladies of Castlebrae. London. ISBN 0-86299-228-1
  • United Reformed Church (2004), A Gift Box ISBN 0-85346-222-4.
  • Cornick, D. and C. Binfield (editors) (2006) From Cambridge To Sinai United Reformed Church. ISBN 978-0-85346-251-4
  • Jefferson, Rebecca J. W. (2009) "Sisters of Semitics: A Fresh Appreciation of the Scholarship of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson" in Medieval Feminist Forum 45/1, pp. 23–49 [1]
  • Soskice, Janet (2009), Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels. London. ISBN 978-1-4000-3474-1
  • Brock, Sebastian P. (2014), Agnes Lewis (1843–1926) and Margaret Gibson (1843–1920), in Predrag Bukovec (ed.), Christlicher Orient im Porträt – Wissenschaftsgeschichte des Christlichen Orients. Religionen im Vorderen Orient (RVO) 2. Hamburg. pp. 267–280. ISBN 978-3-8300-7812-8


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Christa Müller-Kessler, Lewis, Agnes Smith (1843–1926), in Oxford Dictionary of the National Biography, vol. 33 (Oxford, 2004), pp. 579–580.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Christa Müller-Kessler, Dunlop Gibson, née Smith (1843–1920), in Oxford Dictionary of the National Biography, vol. 22 (Oxford, 2004), pp. 89–90.
  3. ^ Register of Births of the Town and Parish of Irvine: 1843, at
  4. ^ Soskice, p.25
  5. ^ Soskice, p. 56
  6. ^ Soskice, p. 29
  7. ^ Soskice, pp. 33- 51
  8. ^ Agnes Smith Lewis, Eastern Pilgrims: The Travels of Three Ladies (London, 1870).
  9. ^ Agnes Smith Lewis, Glimpses of Greek Life and Scenery(London, 1884)
  10. ^ Alan Whigham Price, The Ladies of Castlebrae (London, 1985), pp. 112.
  11. ^ Bruce M. Metzger, The Syriac Versions: III. The Old Syriac Versions, in The Early Versions of the New Testament (Oxford, 1977), pp. 36–47.
  12. ^ Margaret Dunlop Gibson, How the Codex was Found (Cambridge, 1895), pp. 60–67.
  13. ^ Sebastian P. Brock, Grigory, Kessel, The ‘Departure of Mary’ in Two Palimpsests at the Monastery of St. Catherine (Sinai Syr. 30 & Sinai Arabic 514), in Christian Orient: Journal of Studies in the Christian Cultures of Asia and Africa 8 (2017), pp. 115-152.
  14. ^ Sinai Palimpsest Project.
  15. ^ Agnes Smith Lewis (ed.), Codex Climaci rescriptus: Fragments of the Sixth-Century Palestinian Syriac Texts of the Gospels, of the Acts of the Apostles, and of St Paul’s Epistles (London, 1909), pp. XI–XVI.
  16. ^ Christa Müller-Kessler, An Overlooked Christian Palestinian Aramaic Witness of the Dormition of Mary in Codex Climaci Rescriptus (CCR IV), in Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 16, 2019, pp. 81–98. Collectanea Christiana Orientalia
  17. ^ Ian A. Moir, Codex Climaci rescriptus grecus (Ms. Gregory 1561, L), Texts and Studies NS, 2 (Cambridge, 1956).
  18. ^ Sebastian P. Brock, The Syriac ‘New Finds’ at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai and Their Significance, in The Harp 27, 2011, pp. 48–49.
  19. ^ Sinai Palimpsest Project
  20. ^ Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, The Palestinian Syriac Lectionary of the Gospels (London, 1899), pp. XI–XII.
  21. ^ Price p. 110.
  22. ^ Sebastian P. Brock, Agnes Lewis (1843–1926) and Margaret Gibson (1843–1920), in Predrag Bukovec (ed.), Christlicher Orient im Porträt – Wissenschaftsgeschichte des Christlichen Orients. Religionen im Vorderen Orient (RVO) 2. (Hamburg, 2014), pp. 267–280.
  23. ^ The Gospel B had been already described before by Jan P. van Kasteren, "Emmaus-Nicopolis et les auteurs arabes", Revue Biblique 1 (1892), p. 96.
  24. ^ The Palestinian Syriac Lectionary of the Gospels Re-edited from Two Sinai MSS. and from P. De Lagard’s Edition of the Evangeliarium Hierosolymitanum (London, 1899), pp. IX–XVI.
  25. ^ The Forty Martyrs of the Sinai Desert and the Story of Eulogius from a Palestinian Syriac and Arabic Palimpsest (Cambridge, 1912), p. V.
  26. ^ Tiny fragments of the beginning of the manuscript and one folio from the middle were in the hands of a German collector; see Friedrich Schulthess, Christlich-palästinische Fragmente, in Zeitschrift der Deutsche Morgenlândischen Gesellschaft 56, 1902, pp. 257–261.
  27. ^ The last seven were in the hand of a German collector and are now stored in the Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, Germany.
  28. ^ Agnes Smith Lewis, A Palestinian Syriac Lectionary containing Lessons from The Pentateuch, Job, Proverbs, Prophest, Acts, and Epistles (London, 1897), pp. V–XI.
  29. ^ Agnes Smith Lewis, Supplement to a Palestinian Syriac Lectionary (Cambridge, 1907), p. 4.
  30. ^ A. George, Le palimpseste Lewis-Mingana de Cambridge: Témoin ancien de l’histoire du Coran, in Compte rendue de séances l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres 2011, pp. 377–429.
  31. ^ "Mingana-Lewis Palimpsest: Christian Arabic homilies of the Church Fathers". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  32. ^ Mingana, Alphonse; Smith Lewis, Agnes (1914). Leaves From Three Ancient Qur'ans; Possibly Pre-Othmanic, with a list of their variants. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. vii–viii..
  33. ^ Letter by Meredith-Owen, Dept. of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts, The British Museum of July 1957.
  34. ^ Agnes Smith Lewis, In the Shadow of Sinai. A Story of travel and Research from 1895–1897 (Cambridge, 1898), pp. 160–162.
  35. ^ Paul Kahle, The Cairo Geniza: The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy 1941 (London, 1947), pp. 6, 40.
  36. ^ Lewis-Gibson collection.
  37. ^ Soskice, p.280
  38. ^ Soskice, p.271
  39. ^ Soskice, p.282
  40. ^ Price, pp. 162–183.
  41. ^ "UoB Calmview5: Search results". Retrieved 15 January 2021.

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