By March 29, 2016 Read More →

Robert S. MacLennan. “In Search of the Jewish Diaspora.” Biblical Archaeology Review 22, 2 (1996).

Plaster Fragment dating to 2nd-4th centuryWe have been looking for an ancient Roman Period synagogue, dating from the first to third century C.E., in the former Soviet Union. Sound crazy?

If your answer is “yes,” you won’t be the first to be surprised that a thriving, diverse Jewish community lived in the Crimea when this area was part of the Roman Empire and Bosporos Kingdom nearly 2,000 years ago.

In 1993, Andy Overman, Doug Edwards and I made a research trip to the former Soviet Union, concentrating on the area north of the Black Sea.(a) One of our first stops was at Kerch, near the ancient Greek city of Panticapaeum on what is known today as the Cimmerian Bosporos, a narrow strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov to the north. In the years before the turn of the era, Panticapaeum was the capital of an important Bosporos kingdom. The city is mentioned by name in Strabo’s first-century Geography.(1)

For more than 150 years, Greek inscriptions have been found in and around Panticapaeum. Twelve of them are slave manumission inscriptions dating to the first century C.E. Three inscriptions actually have dates on them, one from 40 C.E.,(2) one from 80 C.E.(3) and the last—found in Phanogoria in 1989—from 51 C.E. Some of the manumission inscriptions accidentally turned up in the course of construction projects; others were uncovered during archaeological excavations.

The 1989 manumission inscription, dating to 51 C.E., was uncovered in an archaeological excavation near Tamanicus Bay, opposite Kerch. Inscribed in Greek on light yellow marble, it was probably a public announcement of the slave’s liberation.(4) The inscription’s last lines read:

freedom [to the sons (ueioi—a word of endearment not uncommon among these inscriptions when describing the slave)] to be guaranteed by the guardianship of the Jewish community (tes sunagoges ton Ioudaion).

In the manumission inscription dating to 80 C.E., a woman named Chreste releases a slave named Heraclas. The document recites that she has done this in the proseuche. This Greek word usually refers to a Jewish building. It is the usual term throughout the Diaspora for a Jewish place of prayer until about the end of the Middle Roman Period (third century C.E.), when “synagogue,” a word often used to mean community in Jewish and non-Jewish circles, began to be used for a Jewish meeting place, a Jewish house of prayer or simply a Jewish building.(5) The inscription goes on to say that the now-freed Heraclas attends the proseuche. According to the inscription, Heraclas’s manumission is to be guaranteed by the synagogue of the Jews (tes sunagoges ton Ioudaion), or the Jewish community. (See the sidebar “A Voice from the Past: A Former Slave Enters the Jewish Community” for the entire text.)

At the time of these manumissions, a Jewish public space existed here, along with a community of Jews that supported it. Moreover, the Jewish community in Panticapaeum had apparently earned the respect of the larger community; freed slaves and their masters could trust the Jewish community in Panticapaeum to secure the slaves’ freedom. Those Jews who were to have a significant role in the care of freed slaves must have had the trust and respect of their fellow citizens, which lent legitimacy to the contract.

Today, Kerch is a port city that boasts its own museum. There, we were amazed to discover, on the floor of one of the rooms, numerous stones carved with menorahs, the seven-branched Jewish candelabra. Unfortunately, these pieces are very difficult to date, but most are believed to come from the second to fourth century C.E. We also saw a stone fragment, thought to be the conclusion of another manumission inscription probably from the latter part of the first century C.E., that mentions the synagogue of the Jews (tes sunagoges ton Ioudaion).

From Kerch, we traveled to the southwestern tip of the Crimean peninsula—to the ancient port city of Chersonesus. Chersonesus, which means peninsula in Greek,(6) was destroyed in 1475 during the Turkish conquest.(7) In the late 18th century, the Russians used Chersonesus as a quarry for building projects in nearby Sevastopol. It is possible that much of the story of ancient Chersonesus lies in the foundations of the buildings of the modern city of Sevastopol.(8)

Strabo describes Chersonesus as active in trade and populated by people from all parts of the world. Pliny and Josephus also mention Chersonesus as a significant port city on the northern coast of the Black Sea, established as early as the sixth century B.C.E. By the third century B.C.E., Chersonesus was a metropolis that maintained connections with other great cities of the world. Pottery from Cos, Delos, Delphi, Athens, Pergamon, Ephesus, Alexandria, Rhodes and Rome have been found there (see the sidebar “Hellenistic Potsherds: What Jar Handles Can Tell Us”).

As a city-state, Chersonesus was one of the oldest democratic political entities in the ancient world. In 1861, when workers were digging the foundation for a cathedral, they came upon a fragment of a large stela from the third century B.C.E. that contains a citizen’s oath and the city constitution. The oath, which was recited by everyone who wished to become a full citizen, enumerates at length the duties of citizenship:(9)

The citizen swears by Zeus, the Earth, the Sun, the Maiden, the gods and goddesses of Olympus and the heroes of the land to defend Chersonese, its land, Cercintis, the Fair Haven and the other Forts … against Greek and barbarian alike, to be faithful to the democracy and protect the saster (probably the constitution)(10) and reveal to the damiorgi (senate) any plots against it; in case of election to the offices of damiorgus (senator), to exercise them faithfully and not to divulge any state secrets; to deal fairly by every other citizen except a renegade; to take no part in any plots internal or external, private or public, but to give information of such, any oaths to the contrary notwithstanding, and to give his vote according to justice; finally not to export corn from the plain but to bring it to Chersonese. If he keep the oath may it be well with him and his, if he break it may neither sea nor land bear fruit nor his women have offspring.(11)

In the Chersonesus Museum archives, we were able to look at the unpublished excavation reports of recent local digs(12) as well as some others written in the 19th century. We also found a menorah carved in stone that has been dated to the second to fourth century C.E. Finely carved in local limestone, the fragment also contains at its base a lulav (a palm branch used in the festival of Sukkot) and a shofar (a ram’s horn used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). This combination of symbols (menorah, lulav and shofar) is found in Jewish public spaces all over the ancient world and is testimony to the reach of symbols that bound the entire Jewish community together. The stone itself was found in secondary use—in the foundation of the apse of a fifth- or sixth-century basilica.(13)

In 1956, the secretary of the Chersonesus Museum, Ms. V.V. Borisova, excavated the cemetery near the ancient Greek walls of Chersonesus. There she found another menorah in secondary use in the wall of an early Roman Period cistern. All the datable materials she found around and on top of the cistern were early Roman and earlier. When she excavated the cistern, she found materials from the late Hellenistic Period (second century B.C.E.) through the first century C.E. The menorah fragment, apparently originally part of a gravestone, is one more piece of evidence of a Jewish presence in Chersonesus, even before the Roman Period. From the evidence we have so far, this may be the earliest known menorah to have been found anywhere in the Diaspora.

By the end of our trip, we were convinced that a joint American, Russian and Ukrainian (our hosts) archaeological expedition should be mounted at Chersonesus. In many ways, the site was still unexplored; there remains the tantalizing possibility that modern excavation techniques might turn up exciting new material.

In July 1994, we had our first season. The 55 staff members and volunteers on our team came from Zaporozhye State University in the Ukraine, the Chersonesus Museum Preserve and the American colleges represented by our team, along with other American and Canadian universities. In our second season, which began at the end of June 1995, we had 62 participants. Again, 17 students and professors joined us from Zaporozhye State University in the Ukraine.

We decided to excavate in the vicinity of a fifth- to sixth-century C.E. basilica. We had reason to believe we might discover evidence of a Jewish presence here prior to the building of the basilica during the Christian period at Chersonesus.

We also continued to “excavate” in the local museum, the Chersonesus Museum Preserve. We brought a team of five translators to translate the excavation reports from previous excavations near our site.(14) In Russian reports from 1952 to 1957, we discovered that plaster fragments from a fallen third- or fourth-century C.E. wall contained numerous pieces of Hebrew and Greek writing. This discovery, of course, greatly increased the likelihood that there was an ancient Jewish presence here—along with a special Jewish public space, namely a synagogue. We later found the fragments in the museum storeroom, photographed them and included them in our list of material evidence for a Jewish community.

The plaster fragments of the fallen wall had been found resting on a second- to fourth-century C.E. mosaic floor uncovered in the south nave of what the earlier excavators called Basilica I. The mosaic floor was not connected to the Christian use of this building but was in place centuries before Christianity came to Chersonesus. We now believe that the so-called Basilica I was a Jewish public building in ancient Chersonesus. There is now enough evidence to begin the long process of reconstructing the Jewish public space, a synagogue.(15)

Some of the inscriptions are in Greek and some in Hebrew. Esti Eshel, who is presently working on these fragments, suggests the following reconstruction for one Hebrew inscription or graffito (shown below):

Hananiah from Bosporus
Amen Amen Selah

For another inscription Eshel reads, HBWH|[R], meaning “the one who has chosen.” This second fragment may well be connected to the line that mentions Jerusalem on the first fragment. If so, the entire line would read, “The one who has chosen Jerusalem”—namely, God.(b) In Eshel’s view, these fragments form part of a dedication inscription saying that “the one who has chosen Jerusalem [God] will bless Hananiah from Bosporus [the one who dedicated this inscription or money].”

In other fragments from the same wall is the Greek word EULOGIA, a blessing typical of Jewish ritual use. This word, when found in the Diaspora in synagogues or Jewish mausoleums, is associated with menorahs, lulavs and shofars.

We have now discovered much evidence for a synagogue in ancient Chersonesus. We have two menorahs, several phrases in Hebrew and Greek, and inscriptions from various places in the Crimea indicating a Jewish presence from at least the first century C.E.

In the field, we have established eight squares in the southwestern section of the basilica, partially excavated from 1931–1961 by G.D. Belov. In the first two seasons, we have established a clear chronological sequence for the site; careful stratigraphic, ceramic and numismatic analyses have already shed new light on the dating, changing prevailing opinions about Chersonesus’s chronology.(c) Around the end of the fourth century C.E., the Jewish public buildings appear to have been abandoned, replaced by the Christian basilicas that dot the area.

Earlier, however, on this fringe of the eastern Roman Empire, a vital port flourished, perhaps providing food for the large Roman military contingent. Attached to the port was a vibrant and ethnically mixed community, including Jews who may have helped supply the fish for part of the Roman world in the first four centuries of the Common Era and possibly even earlier.

We plan to continue our work in Chersonesus during the next few years, providing more information about the various peoples that lived in ancient Chersonesus.

1. Strabo, Geography III 7.4.5.

2. See V.V. Struve, Corpus Inscriptionum Regni Bosporani (Moscow: Academy of Science, 1965; in Russian and Greek), no. 1123.

3. See Struve, Corpus Inscriptionum, no. 70.

4. D.I. Danshin, “Jewish Community of Phanagoria,” Vestnik Drevnei Istorii (Journal of Ancient History) I (204) (Moscow, 1993; in Russian), pp. 59–73.

5. See the discussion of proseuche by Irena Levinskaya, “A Jewish or Gentile Prayer House? The Meaning of PROSEUCHE,” Tyndale Bulletin 41:1 (May 1990), pp. 154–159; Richard E. Oster, “Supposed Anachronism in Luke-Acts’ Use of SYNAGOGE,” New Testament Studies 39 (1993), pp. 178–208; and J. Andrew Overman, “Released to the Proseuche … with the Guardianship of the Synagogue of the Jews,” Philadelphia Society of Christian Origins (Spring 1994).

6. Herodotus 4.12.

7. See Ellis Hovell Minns, Scythians and Greeks, Survey of Ancient History and Archaeology on the North Coast of Euxine from the Danube to the Caucasus (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1913), pp. 494, 539.

8. Minns, Scythians and Greeks, pp. 516–517.

9. See Basilius Latyschev, Inscriptiones Antiquae Oprae Septentrionalis Ponti Euxini Graecae et Latinae, 1885–1900, vol. 4 (St. Petersburg, 1901), p. 79.

10. See Minns, Scythians and Greeks, pp. 490, 516, 517, 540, 612, 645.

11. V.V. Borisova, Report no. 730/2, The Excavations of the Necropolis Near the Pottery Shop in Chersonesus (1956, in Russian), and Report no. 1001, Field Descriptions of the Finds in the Pottery Workshop of Chersonesus (1955–1956, in Russian).

12. Included in this team was a student fluent in Russian, Kelly Church from Macalester College, who, along with the other translators, was responsible for translating the reports. We also assigned a photographer, Finnley MacDonald, to make photo albums of these reports. Claudia Espinoza served as our architect and Pam Pincher-Wagner as our registrar.

13. G.D. Belov was the chief archaeologist of the entire site, including the basilicas and the neighborhood around the basilicas, from 1931 to 1961.

14. The finding and restoration of the fragment are reported by Dr. Shokhin in Report no. 617, The Restoration Journal (1951, in Russian), and by S. F. Strezheletsky in Report no. 1301.I, The Excavations at Chersonesus. Diary of the Excavations (1950, in Russian [handwritten]), with the author’s drawings.

15. See J.-B. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum I (Rome: Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, 1936), pp. 173, 327, 652, 723, 25.

a. Professors J. Andrew Overman and Douglas Edwards teach, respectively, at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. The Black Sea Project’s excavations in Chersonesus are financially supported by Macalester College, the University of Puget Sound and several private contributors.

b. The phrase “The one who has chosen Jerusalem” is based on Zecharaiah 3:2, where it appears in a negative context: “May the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you.”

c. Gary Lindstrom, our field director, who has much experience as an archaeologist in Israel, and Jack Olive, also an experienced field archaeologist and a lecturer at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, have directed the work on the site.

Posted in: Greco-Roman Period

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