outStanding in the Field
Digging into Diaspora
A Pastor Probes the Past
If you are looking for Robert MacLennan, you may well find him quite literally out
standing in the field, or more accurately on the north shore of the Black Sea. Since 1993,
MacLennan, a Presbyterian pastor for over thirty years and PTS M.Div. Class of 1966, has
been involved in an international archeological venture involving the United States and
the Ukraine. It is known as "The Black Sea Project." Unpacking MacLennan's
involvement in the project is an archeological event in itself, because the road which led
him to Chersonesus is richly layered terrain.
To begin at the
end, which is what archeologists seem to do, MacLennan will return to Chersonesus, an
ancient port city at the southwestern tip of the Crimean peninsula, in mid-August to
continue searching for evidence of a Jewish community which flourished in the Crimea about
2,000 years ago, a time when that area was a part of both the Roman Empire and the
Bosporos kingdom. He will dig with colleagues from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, the
University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA, and other universities in the United States, as
well as with Ukrainian archeologists, professors, and students from Zaporozhye State
University, in Zaporozhye; the Chersonesus Museum Preserve, in Chersonesus; and the
Ukranian Academy of Science, all in the Ukraine.
MacLennan first visted the area in 1993 when he and colleagues J. Andrew Overman and
Douglas Edwards, under the patronage of Macalester College and a private benefactor, made
a research trip to the area north of the Black Sea in search of Jewish Diaspora
communities. The trip made both academic and geographical sense, based on the history of
the area, but had been impossible prior to the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. For
eighty years the Crimean military city of Sevastopol had been closed to Westerners;
internally, during Stalin's years in power, any studies of ethnicity had been prohibited.
What MacLennan and his colleagues discovered upon arrival in Chersonesus was that
excavations carried out in the '50s, as well as others from the nineteenth century,
verified not only the presence of a Jewish public space in Chersonesus and in the eastern
city of ancient Panticapaeum (modern Kerch), but also that the Jewish community
participated in and was respected by the larger community. Nevertheless, from an
archeological perspective, the site remained largely unexplored as far as the Jewish
presence was concerned. Thus, it was determined that further excavations should be carried
out by a joint American, Russian, and Ukranian team.
The project's first
season was in July 1994 and involved fifty-five staff members and volunteers. By the
beginning of the second season in June 1995, the group had grown to sixty-two members.
During these digs, which focused on excavations of a fifth- and sixth-century C.E.
basilica, MacLennan says he and his colleagues "discovered much evidence for a
synagogue in ancient Chersonesus, [including] two menorahs, several fragments inscribed in
Hebrew and Greek, and inscriptions from various places in the Crimea indicating a Jewish
presence from at least the first century C.E." Over the next few years, they hope to
accumulate more information about "the various peoples that lived in
How did MacLennan, whose grandfather, Stuart MacLennan, built the First Presbyterian
Church of Hollywood in the early '20s and who grew up in that West Coast Christian
community, end up digging for shofars and menorahs in the Ukraine? It has all been part of
a natural progression, he says. His passion for history was nurtured by his biblical
background; the study of ancient languages and primary texts was a part of his early
While at PTS in the '60s, he pursued his fascination with "origins, primary
sources, beginnings, first causes," he says, and seriously studied languages and
primary texts in biblical studies, ancient history, and psychology. But studying the Bible
and other texts was not sufficient. In that turbulent era, he began to examine his own
attitudes and beliefs. He questioned his tradition and was troubled by its exclusivity.
"I came to see myself as wanting to be a pastor of a church in the worldto be a
part of making our society work," he explains. And so began his commitment to
creating a climate of openness in his ministry.
ministry, whether as associate minister of education in Lincoln, NE, teaching pastor in
Edina, MN, or pastor in Scarsdale, NY, has always concerned itself with dispelling myths
about "the strangers in our midst." He has been an advocate for diverse
"underdogs," including women, Japanese Americans, and Jews.
MacLennan has continually sought through his ministry to "look at real issues and
to try to find a way to bring people together." While serving in Scarsdale he
supported the Japanese ministry there and held joint services with the Japanese
congregation on Hiroshima Day and Pearl Harbor Day to celebrate a shared humanity. For a
number of years he taught a class with Rabbi Jack Stern of the Westchester Reform Temple
in Scarsdale in which parti-cipants explored Christian anti-Judaism and Jewish
A pivotal experience in his journey occurred when, in reading R. H. Charles's 1913
two-volume translation of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, he came across the rabbinic
writings Pirke Aboth (the Sayings of the Fathers). These writings gave him a new
appreciation for and understanding of emerging Judaism. "Judaism has its own unique
history," says MacLennan. "What I discovered is that Judaism is not the
background for Christianity. Judaism has a parallel growth to emerging Christianity in the
first three or four centuries C.E."
In 1988, MacLennan wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Minnesota on
"Early Second-Century Texts on Jews and Judaism." Soon he began to lecture at
synagogues on such topics as why a Christian would study the Mishnah (the core of the
later Talmuds) and on the problem and origin of anti-semitism. He started to look at what
went wrong in twentieth-century Germany and got involved in Holocaust studies.
In his studies of Jewish culture, he was drawn to the issue of what it means to be in
diaspora, an issue with which he had concerned himself in a more ecumenical way throughout
his ministry. He decided to study the Jewish Diaspora communities in the Black Sea region,
an interest shared by his colleague Overman. The rest, as they say, is history.
in the Field