Two Strategies for the Muscovite Church the Josephites and the Non Possessors

The last three decades of the fifteenth century were a formative period for two alternative strategies in the development of the Muscovite Church. After a period of smouldering they flared up after the Moscow Council of 1503. They were backed by two monastic movements headed by Joseph of Volokolamsk (1440-1515) and Nil of Sora (14331508). Naming the followers of the latter 'Nestyazhateli' ('non-possessors', or 'those who have no possessions') is an over-simplification, because the Josephites, too, had no personal possessions, although their monasteries were rich landowners. Both parties were followers of the Hesychast tradition and both were zealous for the purity of the Orthodox faith. Thus both were active in fighting against the heresy of the Judaizers that affected the Muscovite Church from the 1470s through to the early sixteenth century. And, of course, both were preoccupied with the desire to reinforce the standing of the Muscovite Church; their mutual differences lay deeper.

In sum, the Josephites were trying to build up the Church by adding to it as much secular power as possible and by ensuring the maximum autonomy for Moscow. On the other hand, the Non-Possessors invented some extraordinary measures to diminish the secular power of the Church. They tried to block any church decisions beyond the canonical competence of the local Church of Moscow, while at the same time gently but consistently acting to re-establish intellectual, ideological and, potentially, canonical dependence on the Greeks.

The war between the two parties became open after the Council of 1503, at which both Joseph and Nil, as well as their followers, were present. The main dates and events are as follows:

Moscow Council of 1503: Main differences between the two parties became apparent, although the details of this earliest stage of the polemics are not clearly known.

1510: Debates between Joseph of Volokolamsk and the closest disciple of the late Nil of Sora (d. 1508), Vassian Patrikeev (c.1470-1545), a former prince, who had been forcibly tonsured as a monk but was still influential at court. Vassian reacted to Joseph's writings against Nil and himself.

1511: Varlaam became Metropolitan of Moscow and advocated a friendly policy towards the Non-Possessors.

1518: Maxim the Greek (surnamed Trivolis, c.1470-1555) arrived in Moscow and became a close friend and teacher of Vassian Patrikeev.

1521: Metropolitan Varlaam was uncanonically deposed (and, probably, jailed) by the Grand Prince Basil III (the details of this story are not clear, but it certainly marked a turning point in Basil III's attitude towards the Josephites).

1522: Daniel, head of the Josephites after the death of Joseph of Volokolamsk (d. 1515), became Metropolitan.

1525: Second 'marriage' (canonically treated as adultery) of Grand Prince Basil III, opposed by the Non-Possessors. His former wife Solomonia Saburova, divorced for sterility and forcibly tonsured, would later become St Sophia of Suzdal.

1525: Condemnation of Maxim the Greek by Metropolitan Daniel.

1531: Condemnation of Vassian Patrikeev and (for the second time) Maxim the Greek by Metropolitan Daniel. Vassian was to die in prison after several years of captivity.

1539: Metropolitan Daniel deposed 'by his own will' for being involved in political intrigues.

1542: Macarius became Metropolitan of Moscow (until his death in 1563), and began his programme of totally restructuring the Muscovite Church, implying a kind of compromise between the two parties.

1547: Coronation of Ivan IV ('the Terrible'; 1530-84) as the Tsar of All Russia, subsequent softening of the official attitude towards the Non-Possessors.

1547 or 1548: Maxim the Greek is released and acquitted after twenty-two years in prison and excommunication. He will never be allowed, however, to return home, being forced to live in the Holy Trinity Monastery near Moscow, where he influenced its hegumenos, the elder Artemius.

1551: Council of Moscow called the Stoglav ('Hundred Chapters'), the name taken from its main document; the high point of Metropolitan Macarius' programme of restructuring.

1553: A Josephite, Vassian Toporkov, nephew of Joseph of Volokolamsk and an accuser of Maxim the Greek, together with other Josephites, exert influence upon Tsar Ivan IV and replace the circle close to Metropolitan Macarius.

1554: Condemnation, excommunication and escape by fleeing to Lithuania of the elder Artemius. Maxim the Greek would die soon after in 1555. The Non-Possessors now had no leader within Russia.

1564: Escape of Prince Andrew Kurbskij (1528-83) to Lithuania, to live under the spiritual guidance of the elder Artemius. The programme of the Non-Possessors as a whole became that of the political opposition. In the same year Tsar Ivan IV started his policy of terror (oprichnina).

1560s-15 70s: Literary polemics between Kurbskij and Ivan IV on the current problems of the Russian Church and the status of the power of the Tsar.

1589: Establishment of the Patriarchate of Moscow in an attempt to establish secure canonical grounds for the Muscovite Church.

The whole period can be seen as having three major stages: first, acute opposition of the two parties (1503-47); second, compromised church structure created by Macarius (especially in 1547-53); and third, destruction of Macarius' system inspired by the Josephites (from 1553 to the death of Ivan IV in 1584). This was followed in the 1580s by an attempt to reinvigorate Macarius' programme.

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