Help CBE proclaim our “daughters shall prophesy!” LEARN MORE

Published Date: September 21, 2023

Published Date: September 21, 2023

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

In the Footsteps of Historical Twin Sisters: Margaret D. Gibson’s Work on Ephesians 5:33

After several years of work, Dr. Jeff Miller and I were able to have our article “Translating Ephesians 5.33” published in the United Bible Society’s journal, The Bible Translator.[1] I was thrilled the journal wished to publish our findings supporting this translation: “Indeed, as for you individually, each husband among you must love his own wife as himself so that the wife may respect her husband.” However, the most astonishing thing for me during the process of researching was discovering Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843–1920).  

In a 1904 article, Margaret D. Gibson suggested a similar translation of Ephesians 5:33. How  did she get this interpretation—which overturns the status quo—published in an academic translation journal over a hundred years ago when virtually no Bible versions even have this translation today? Why did the men at the respected journal let this woman’s suggestions see the light of day? She wrote,

Translators take no notice of the little word ἵνα in Eph 5:33. It appears to me to be a sensible advice to husbands that everyone in particular should love his wife even as himself, ‘in order that the wife may reverence her husband.’ This shade of meaning is left unnoticed by the Authorized and the Revised versions, the word ‘see’ introduced by both in italics, tending to make it less visible.[2]

Incredible! Further research revealed that Margaret Gibson and her twin sister were famous textual scholars in their day.

The stories of Agnes and Margaret Smith are aptly told in Dr. Janet Soskice’s book, The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels.[3] Soskice regales the reader with the brilliant sisters’ explorations and exploits, a few of which follow.

The identical twins, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson née Smith were born in Scotland in 1843. Their mother passed away two weeks later, and thereafter they were raised by their father John Smith, who also added considerably to their school education. He noticed that they were proficient in languages, so he decided to nurture their passion, promising them trips to a country after mastering its language. Consequently, even when they were still young, they had already learned French, German, Spanish, and Italian.[4]

At twenty-three, they inherited money from their father’s passing. Two years later, along with a thirty-seven-year-old former schoolmistress, the sisters hired a personal sailing vessel and journeyed up the Nile River from Cairo to Nubia, and then by steamer and horseback on to Jerusalem, the first of their many trips to that region.[5] They believed every Christian had a God-given calling to do something worthwhile with their life, however humble, and they were determined to find out what that was![6]

Though the universities were not open to women at the time, in 1879 the sisters made friends with a professor of Greek at the University of Edinburgh, J. S. Blackie, and learned Greek under his system.[7] They went on to learn a total of twelve languages between them.

Both sisters were married for three years before their husbands died suddenly. Before his death, Agnes’s husband Samuel had been a classicist, librarian, and a fellow at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.[8] His deep knowledge of ancient and modern Greek (and of antiquities) plunged the sisters into the world of textual scholarship and ancient manuscripts.

Though it was dangerous to travel in Sinai, the sisters, now fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek, wanted to see the area. They especially wanted to view the manuscript collection in the monastic library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai, built around 557AD and home to thirty-five monks.[9] The Cambridge Professor of Arabic, Edward Palmer, had recently been murdered in that region, and Margaret’s husband had once been kidnapped there, too[10]—but Dr. J. Rendel Harris had reported finding a famous text in the library. Moreover, in a personal conversation, the scholar confided to the sisters that he had seen a dark closet at St. Catherine’s containing unexamined Syriac manuscripts. So in 1892, with a caravan of eleven camels and their Bedouin drivers plus a sheikh, the Scottish women traveled nine arduous days across the Sinai Desert to the monastery.[11] After gaining the monks’ trust, they spent forty days there, which was when Agnes discovered a rare codex in that dark closet—the earliest known copy of the Gospels in Syriac, dating from the second century. Two years later, the manuscript was photographed and fully transcribed, and Agnes published her findings and translation of it.[12]

Through this and other textual discoveries, and having published multiple books, the sisters quickly became Semitic textual scholars of international repute. Though the University of Cambridge did not award degrees to women, Agnes received honorary doctorates from the universities of Halle (PhD), St. Andrews (DD), Heidelberg (DD), and Dublin (LittD).[13] Margaret also received honorary doctorates from St. Andrews (DD), Heidelberg (DD), and Dublin (LittD).[14] Moreover, both were presented with the Gold Medal for Oriental Research by the Royal Asiatic Society, “the blue ribbon of Oriental research in 1915.”[15]

Besides their many achievements in scholarship, with their wealth they built Westminster College in Cambridge, which they opened in 1899.[16] In 1903, the twins also traveled to North America and gave public lectures in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, complete with press coverage.[17] Finally, at the age of 77, Margaret suffered a stroke and passed away the following day on January 11, 1920. Agnes passed away six years later.[18]   

So this was the Margaret D. Gibson who in 1904 published in an academic journal her translation: “in order that the wife may reverence her husband.” When it dawned on me that Jeff and I were able to republish and build upon her work, I could only bow in worship of our common Lord.

Photo by Stock Holm on Shutterstock.

[1]. Julie Walsh and Jeffrey D. Miller, “Translating Ephesians 5.33,” The Bible Translator 74, no. 1 (April 2023): 93–109. The full article is available open access at this link.

[2]. Margaret D. Gibson, “‘Let the Woman Learn in Silence’,” Expository Times 15 (October 1903–September 1904): 379–80, here 380.

[3]. Janet Soskice, How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 2010).

[4]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 7–9.

[5]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 269.

[6]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 15.

[7]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 19, 56–57.

[8]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 78, 79, 83, 98.

[9]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 116.

[10]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 4, 67, 96.

[11]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 114, 118, 119–20.

[12]. Agnes Smith Lewis, A Translation of the Four Gospels from the Syriac of the Sinaitic Palimpsest (London and New York: Macmillan and Co., 1894).

[13]. Christa Müller-Kessler, “Lewis, Agnes Smith (1843–1926),” in Oxford Dictionary of the National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, vol. 33 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 579–80, here 580.

[14]. Christa Müller-Kessler, “Gibson [née Smith], Margaret Dunlop (1843–1920),” in Oxford Dictionary of the National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, vol. 22 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 89–90, here 90.

[15]. According to “Austen Chamberlain, M.P., in presenting the Gold Medal for Oriental Research to Agnes and Margaret, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for 1915, p.617,” Soskice, The Sisters of Sinai, 268, 268n6.

[16]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 248.

[17]. Soskice, Two Lady Adventurers, 257.

Other Resources

Selfless Marriage: Ephesians 5:21–33
Kephale is a Body Part: Unified Interdependence in Relationship in Ephesians 5
From Poet to Judge: What Does Ephesians 5 Teach about Male-Female Roles?

Support CBE this Giving Tuesday to proclaim our "daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28)

Your gift will be doubled now until Nov. 28!"