Written by Hannah Fytche
If one day you wandered past the gates of Westminster College, Cambridge, you would see the words 'Nec Tamen Consumebatur' emblazoned beneath a golden image of the burning bush of God which Moses encountered at Mount Sinai. The words mean 'Nor was it consumed', referring to the bush, and are found at the College due to the two ladies - twins - who founded it in 1899. Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson took these words as an emblem of their Christian faith, and particularly their loyalty to the Presbyterian Church.
This becomes even more symbolic when it is realised that these ladies travelled six times to St Catherine's monastery at the base of Mount Sinai, where some believe the burning bush still grows. There, Agnes discovered one of the earliest known copies of the gospels, written in Syriac (a language close to Jesus' Aramaic); this was a major contribution to the academic world and an important step in gaining recognition for the achievements of women.
At the time, the academic world was male-dominated and just beginning to pay attention to women. Agnes found it difficult to engage any serious male academics in her Sinai discovery, and, when she did kindle the interests of Francis Burkitt and Professor Robert Bensly, she encountered conflict whilst travelling and working with them on the transcription of the Syriac gospels. (Janet Soskice describes their group expedition to Sinai as 'slightly disjointed', as mutual suspicion sprung up amongst the group.)
This conflict is particularly evident in the minimisation of Agnes' part in the Sinai discovery by the press and the reports of Bensly and Burkitt. Moreover, both Agnes and her sister Margaret were academically unrecognised at first, eventually receiving honorary degrees from the universities of Halle, Heidelberg, Dublin, and St Andrews, but never their own town, Cambridge.
What remains remarkable is that, throughout her adventures on the Continent and in academia, Agnes' faith was her foundation. She was not overcome by opposition; rather, she climbed from strength to strength, discovering further ancient manuscripts alongside Margaret.
Yet, Agnes' rootedness in Jesus did not prevent her from curiosity. Instead, it encouraged her to travel and discover, to question and cultivate a beautiful willingness to turn aside and wonder. There’s a similarity to Moses here, as he similarly chose to turn aside and investigate the burning bush, leading to his life-changing encounter with God.
As I embark on my three years at Cambridge University (I am in my first term at Clare College studying Theology), this image of curiosity alongside rootedness inspires me. I am thankful that today, women can go to university and be recognised for it, and I can only hope to do justice to this privilege by remaining grounded in Christ whilst studying. I hope to turn aside and discover the burning bushes of our time, the small yet extraordinary experiences of God scattered throughout our days.
For a fuller story of the adventures of Agnes and Margaret, I thoroughly recommend Janet Soskice's book 'Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels'.
Hannah is in her first year of university at Cambridge, studying Theology and Religious Studies. She enjoys writing, strawberries and being outside, as well as spending time with friends and family. Her dream is to see a world where more and more people turn aside to encounter God...and to one day finish the never-ending pile of books she plans to read!