Joseph of Volotsk, St.

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(c. 14391515), coenobiarch and militant defender of Orthodoxy.

Of provincial servitor origin, Ivan Sanin became the monk Joseph (Iosif) around 1460 under the charismatic Pafnuty of Borovsk. Having a robust body, superb voice, powerful will, clear mind, excellent memory, and lucid pen, Joseph was forced by Ivan III to succeed as abbot in 1477. They soon quarreled over peasants, and in 1479 Joseph returned with six seasoned colleagues to Volotsk to start his own cloister under the protection of Ivan's brother Boris. Joseph attracted additional talent and quickly developed his foundation into a center of learning rivaling its model, Kirillov-Beloozersk. Dionisy, the leading iconographer of the day, painted Iosif's Dormition Church gratis.

Joseph joined Archbishop Gennady's campaign against the Novgorod Heretics in the late 1480s. Masterminding the literary defense of Orthodoxy, Joseph personally persuaded Ivan III to sanction the synod(1504), which condemned a handful of dissidents to death and others to monastery prisons. The celebrated quarrel with Nil Sorsky's disciple Vassian Patrikeyev and the "Kirillov and Trans-Volgan Elders" erupted soon after these executions, which, the latter argued, were not canonically justifiable.

In 1507, claiming oppression by his new local prince, Joseph placed his monastery under royal protection. He was then excommunicated by his new spiritual superior, Archbishop Serapion of Novgorod(r. 15051509), for failing to consult him. Basil III, Metropolitan Simon (r. 14951511), and the Moscow synod of bishops backed Joseph and deposed Serapion, but Joseph was tainted as the courtier of the grand prince and as a slanderer, while Vassian's star rose. Nevertheless, the monastery continued to flourish. As Joseph physically weakened, he formally instituted the cogoverning council, which ensured continuity under his successors.

Joseph's chief legacies were the Iosifov-Volokolamsk Monastery and his Enlightener (Prosvetitel ) or Book Against the Novgorod Heretics. Under his leadership the cloister innovated and rationalized the lucrative commemoration services for the dead, patronized religious art, initiated one of the country's great libraries and scriptoria, and became a quasi-academy, nurturing prelates for half a century. Among his disciples and collaborators were the outstanding ascetic Kassian Bosoi (d. 1531), who had taught Ivan III archery and lived to help baptize Ivan IV; a nephew, Dosifey Toporkov, who composed the Russian Chronograph in 1512; the book-copyist Nil Polev, who donated to Iosifov the earliest extant copies of both Nil Sorsky's and Joseph's writings; and Joseph's enterprising successor, the future Metropolitan Daniel.

The Enlightener, produced before 1490 and revised through the year of Joseph's death, was his most authoritative and copied work. It served simultaneously as the foundation of Orthodoxy for militant churchman and as a doctrinal and ethical handbook for laity and clergy. Its dramatic and distorted introductory "Account of the New Heresy of the Novgorod Heretics" sets the tone of diabolic Judaizers confronted by heroic defenders of the faith. The eleven polemical-didactic discourses that follow justify Orthodoxy's Trinitarian and redemptive doctrines (14), the veneration of icons and other holy objects (57), the unfathomability of the Second Coming and the authority of Scripture and patristics (810), and monasticism (11). The standard concluding part, either appended epistles composed before the 1504 synod in the brief redaction, or the four or five extra discourses of the post-1511 extended redaction, defend the repression and execution of heretics. Joseph's conscious rhetorical strategy of lumping all dissidence together allows him to impute to the heretics the objections by fellow Orthodox to inquisitorial measures. Among his notable assertions are that one should resist unto death the blasphemous commands of a tyrant; that killing a heretic by prayer or hands is equivalent; that one should entrap heretics with divinely wise tricks; and, most famous, that the Orthodox Tsar is like God in his authority.

Joseph's extended, fourteenth-discourse and nine-tradition Monastic Rule, adumbrated in a brief, eleven-sermon redaction, was Russia's most detailed and preaching work of its kind, but chiefly an in-house work for his cloister. The blueprint for the monastery's success is contained in his polemical claim to represent native traditions and his insistence on attentiveness to rituals, modesty, temperance, total obedience, labor, responsibility of office, precise execution of commemorations, protection of community property, pastoral care, and the council's authority. In addition, ten of his extant epistles defend the monastery's property in concrete ways. Questionable sources from the 1540s and 1550s, connected with his followers' struggles, also link him to the generic defense of monastic property, supposedly at a church council in 1503. He composed a variety of other admonitions, including a call for price-fixing during a local famine.

Canonized in 1591, Joseph was venerated also by the Old Believers. The Russian Church today invokes him as the "Russian star," but some observers since the 1860s have considered his ritualism and inquisitorial intolerance an unfortunate phenomenon and legacy.

See also: basil iii; church council; daniel, metropolitan; dionisy; ivan iii; judaizers; orthodoxy; possessors and non-possessors


Goldfrank, David. (2000). The Monastic Rule of Iosif Volotsky, rev. ed. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Luria, Jakov S. (1984). "Unresolved Issues in the History of the Ideological Movements of the Late Fifteenth Century." In Medieval Slavic Culture, eds. Henrik Birnbaum and Michael S. Flier, vol. 1 of 2. California Slavic Studies 12:150171.

David M. Goldfrank