Sect of Skhariya the Jew

A 15th-century Russian religious movement that challenged Orthodox traditions and faced severe persecution.


The Sect of Skhariya the Jew, more widely recognized as the Heresy of the Judaizers, emerged in the late 15th century in Novgorod, Russia, marking a pivotal era of religious dissent within the Russian Orthodox Church. This sect, led by Skhariya (also known as Zacharias ben Ahron ha-Cohen), a scholar from Kiev, introduced a radical interpretation of Christianity that diverged significantly from Orthodox teachings.

Origins and Beliefs

The sect’s founder, Skhariya, arrived in Novgorod around 1470 from Lithuania, translating numerous Hebrew texts on astronomy, logic, and philosophy. The movement he initiated renounced key Orthodox doctrines, including the Holy Trinity, the divine status of Jesus, monasticism, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, ceremonies, and even the immortality of the soul. Some members also advocated for iconoclasm and promoted “self-authority” in matters of faith, suggesting a personal approach to salvation and religious belief.

Spread and Support

By the late 15th century, the movement had spread to Moscow, attracting a diverse following that included high-ranking officials, merchants, and even members of the royal family such as Yelena Stefanovna, the wife of Ivan the Young. Grand Prince Ivan III himself showed initial sympathy towards the sect’s ideas, which included secularization and challenges to the feudal division, inviting prominent sectarians to Moscow in 1480.

Persecution

Despite its initial tolerance, the movement soon faced severe opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church and the state. Leaders such as Hegumen Joseph Volotsky and Archbishop Gennady of Novgorod led the charge against the Judaizers, conducting a series of church councils aimed at eradicating the sect. These councils resulted in the outlawing of heretical books, excommunication, and execution of sect members, including Skhariya the Jew himself in 1491. The crackdown intensified after Ivan III’s death in 1505, culminating in the arrest and execution of key figures within the movement, effectively silencing the sect and its teachings.