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 Chersonesus."

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 theological training.

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 worldŠto be a part of making our society work," he explains. And so began his commitment to creating a climate of openness in his ministry.

MacLennan's 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 anti-Christianism.

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.


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