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The Sadducees

One of the major difficulties in describing the Sadducees is that all that we know about them comes from their opponents. They themselves left no written records of their history, their organization, or their views. They appear on the scene just before the great schism between the Hellenizers and the Hasidim, and they disappear as a group in the great destruction of 70 A.D. But judging from the comments in the New Testament, the Mishnah, and Josephus, they do form a formidable group.

The Name "Sadducees"

There is no doubt that the name "Sadducees" is related to the Hebrew verbal form sadaq (tsahdak), "to be righteous." But exactly how it is related is unclear. The most common suggestion is to associate it with the personal name Zadok; but if it is connected to this name, whether the Zadok of the Solomonic times, or a later Zadok, the doubling of the second consonant is difficult to explain etymologically. At present there is no satisfactory analysis available for the name.

The Origin of the Sadducees

The meaning of the name is related to theories about the origin of the sect. One theory, referred to above, is that the Sadducees were named after Zadok, the father of the priestly families in Solomon's time; it would then be a fitting name for the party in Jerusalem that was characterized for so long as priestly.1 But this cannot be easily developed, for there is no evidence for it. Besides, not all the Sadducees were priests, and some of the members of the community at Qumran were priests of the Zadokite line. Moreover, the Hasmoneans brought an end to the Zadokite priesthood as well as the Hellenizers. That would leave the use of the name Sadducees as a title without actual substance.

A second view is that they were named after Zadok, a disciple of Antigonus of Socho. Antigonus taught Boethus and Zadok; his teaching stressed that they should serve God with no thought of reward;2 because of this, the theory goes, they concluded that he did not believe in resurrection or life after death. Boethus formed the Boethusians, who may have been the Herodians of the New Testament; the son of Boethus was appointed High Priest by Herod. The other disciple, Zadok, would have been one of the early leaders in the party that took his name.

A third view is that the name is simply related to saddiq, "righteous ones" (saddiqim for the plural).3 This would be similar to and in contrast to the hasidim, the "pious ones," the early title for the group out of which developed the Pharisees.4 But this view, like the others, is etymologically difficult; the spelling of the name "Sadducee" suggests that the name is a passive--"righteous ones" would be active.

These are the possible meanings of the name of the sect. And so without any convincing solution to the problem of the name of the Sadducees, we must be satisfied to turn our attention to the few brief descriptions of the sect. Here too these descriptions raise additional questions about their beliefs.

The Nature of the Sadducees

Most treatments about the Sadducees assume that all Chief Priests and other leaders of Judaism were Sadducees.5 The text of Josephus does not say that; it says only that those priests who were Sadducees came from the governing class. Josephus only once refers to an individual Sadducee, Ananus the High Priest.6 His identification fits the class--he was from the highest level of society and was stern injustice.7 Probably a relatively small number of the governing class was Sadducean, but we have no way of knowing the numbers.

The Sadducean party was generally the party of the wealthy aristocrats. This is not actually stated in the sources; but it is a reasonable conclusion given the fact that they lived near the Temple and saw more of their needs fully satisfied by having their lives intertwine with the nobility.8 Josephus says they were able to persuade none but the rich,9 meaning among other things that they had a small following of their peers, whereas the Pharisees were backed by the masses. The party may have originally developed out of the conservative members of the aristocracy, the supporters of Onias III.10 And while it certainly had the confidence of the rich, not all the Sadducees were rich.

Many priests belonged to the Sadducees according to Josephus,11 but not all priests were Sadducees. The New Testament shows a close association between the Priests and the Sadducees (Acts 4:1 and 5:17). According to Josephus, Ananus, a Sadducee, had five sons who all became High Priests. While it is probable that the members of the priestly aristocracy were Sadducees, many priests were Pharisees. It was the priests of the Pharisees who were sent to question John (Jn. 1:19-24). And according to Acts 23, both Sadducees and Pharisees made up the Sanhedrin because Paul rallied the members who were Pharisees to his side.

The Sadducees held more of the leadership positions, but most frequently had to submit to the demands of the Pharisees.12 Because the people backed the Pharisees, the Sadducees were forced to observe the Pharisees' oral tradition. This they did not wish to do; they preferred to be unconstrained by customs and deal with the written law only. Written laws left uninterpreted were vague, which would mean that they were free to decide what they meant.13 But the Pharisees usually got their way, even when a Sadducee was High Priest. According to Yoma 1:5,whenthe High Priest was a Sadducee, the Pharisees compelled him to burn incense according to their view of Leviticus 16:13--after he had entered the Holy of Holies. According to Yoma 19b, one Sadducee explained that they complied because they were afraid of the Pharisees.

The descriptions from the literature paint the Sadducees as nasty and arrogant because they had power and competed with others for it;14 they were called boorish, rude to their peers as aliens, and quick to dispute with the teachers of the path they follow.15

The Teachings of the Sadducees

Scripture and Tradition. The Sadducees had what has been called a conservative attitude toward Scripture--they restricted authority to the written law interpreted literally, and were not open to change. But the question that is raised concerns how much of the Scripture they accepted as God's Word. We know from Josephus that they hated the traditions of the Pharisees, accepting only the written law.16 From this expression in Josephus, and the fact that Jesus limited Himself to the Pentateuch in debating the Sadducees, the Church Fathers concluded that the Sadducees only accepted the Law of Moses as Scripture.17 But this may be a misunderstanding on the part of the Fathers. When Josephus says that they rejected all but the written law, he probably meant that they did not permit legal or doctrinal deductions from the prophets. He most likely meant that they opposed unwritten traditions. According to the Talmud, in the debates the Sadducees were attacked from other books of the Bible and used them themselves in their arguments. This strongly suggests that they viewed them as Scripture as well.

The Pharisees had a large body of oral interpretation that had become binding. It was this that the Sadducees opposed. But the idea that the Sadducees took the Scripture literally and rejected oral law is not accurate; all the Jewish groups began with the literal text and added their understanding of it to justify their way of life.18 The Sadducees had their own halakah; but they did not claim that it was divinely authoritative as the Pharisees had done for their interpretations.19 Although the Sadducees held Scripture as the sole authority, they also believed that it should be modified by logic, especially in matters of doctrine. And if the interpretations of the Pharisees were not binding, then others could decide for themselves what it meant. In this the Sadducees would not be viewed as conservatives by the Pharisees, for in their opinion the Sadducees were not safeguarding the traditional faith.

The Sadducees like all Jews believed that the Torah, the Law of Moses, was on a much higher plane than the rest of the Scriptures.20 So there is no clear evidence from their arguments that they held less of the canon than the Pharisees. Apocalyptic material, or any Greek syncretism, they rejected outright. It may be that the Sadducees believed that only the Torah was canonical, or that the Torah was vastly more important than other Scripture, but there is simply no evidence for this. However, their major complaint that the Pharisees extended the "canon" with their interpretations can be demonstrated. The Sadducees rightly rejected the oral law of the Pharisees, but perhaps because they wanted the freedom to follow their own.

One of the areas of debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees concerned the calendar. Leviticus 23:15-16 began the tabulation for the Feast of Weeks using the expression "on the day after the Sabbath." The Sadducees said that "Sabbath" meant the Sabbath, and so the feast of Weeks always fell on a Sunday. But the Pharisees ruled that "Sabbath" was the first day of Passover, whatever that day was, and so the feast of Weeks could actually come on any day.21 Sandmel observes in conjunction with this that calendars are always high profile debates; until Nicea, Easter was on Sunday of the Passover week, but Nicea freed it from the Jewish calendar.22

Human Freedom and Determinism. According to Josephus,23 the three major sects disagree on the human will: the Essenes are very deterministic, the Pharisees try to combine determinism and free will, but the Sadducees believed that all human affairs result from human freedom. The question here is whether or not Josephus is making the distinctions too fine in order to harmonize the ideas with Greek philosophy. It may be that the Sadducees' strictness gave the idea they were limited to free will--they reasoned too much out. The fact that the Sadducees did not believe in God's apocalyptic intervention in history could have given the impression that they denied fate and saw everything under human control.24

Resurrection. The evidence is clear that the Sadducees denied the doctrine of the resurrection. Acts 23:6-8 records how this issue divided the Sanhedrin, for it was the Pharisees who believed in the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul. Matthew 22:23 and Acts 4:1-2 also refer to the Sadducees in this way. It is probably because the resurrection was so critical for Christianity that the New Testament focuses on this point.

Josephus confirms that the Sadducees denied the resurrection, the immortality of the soul, eternal rewards, or the "world to come."25 The Sadducees kept their focus on the status quo of the nation of Israel in this world and not the next.

There are some of references in the Mishnah that also convey this tradition about their beliefs. According to Beracoth 9:5,the blessing ends with "from everlasting." But because the Sadducees said that there was only one world, to guard against this idea the sages changed the blessing to "everlasting to everlasting." More importantly, however, is Sanhedrin 10:1,whichrecords the general belief that all Israel has a portion in the world to come. It then lists those who do not, and the Sadducees are listed because they do not believe there is such.

The doctrine of the resurrection is hinted at in the earlier Old Testament, but clearly taught in Daniel.26 It may be that the Sadducees did not put much stock in this work in that it is so apocalyptic.

Gowan thinks that it was late and not available to them in their formative thinking;27 but surely, even if a late date is taken for Daniel, the ideas it reflects were in the air long before these debates. And if Daniel was actually written earlier, then there was sufficient time for the teaching to be part of the Jewish faith. Saldarini, reflecting the common view, does not like the idea that belief in the afterlife was established in Judaism by the second century.28 The Pharisees surely seem to have thought it was. But the Sadducees were conservative; they probably would not have accepted anything that came from apocalyptic literature or that might not have been clearly formulated in the earliest times. Yet, the main issue is more likely whether or not it was clearly taught in the Law—that was the issue for any Jew. It is interesting to note that according to Sanhedrin 90b, the Pharisees proved resurrection from Exodus 15:l. We shall return to this point later.

Angels. The doctrine of angelology is more difficult. Acts 23:8 says that the Sadducees did not believe in angels. Gowan thinks there is something missing in this statement, because angels are clearly revealed in the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch, and since the Sadducees accepted that they would have believed in angels. But this argument is not convincing, since it is possible not to believe in things clearly revealed.29 Gowan suggests that what might be meant is an elaborate angelology, but he rejects this, observing that the Mishnah never mentions angels either. Rather, he thinks that the two clauses go together, and that the doctrine of angels that the Sadducees rejected refers to the idea that the dead were changed into angels.30

The Sadducees pictured God and humans as independent and distant, both in this life and the next. Rewards for righteousness were in this life, and hence they were keen on wealth and influence as evidence of divine blessing.

Concluding Observations

The reaction to the Sadducees was predictable. If they were not actually despised by the Pharisees and by the people, they were merely tolerated.31 In the pseudepigraphical work The Psalms of Solomon, written in the middle of the first century B.C., the Sadducees are simply called sinners (4:2ff). In the Mishnah the Sadducees are listed with the ignorant of the laws, the deaf mute, imbecile, and minor, because they would not admit to the legality of the ruling about the erub. Niddah 4:2 affirms that the daughter of a Sadducee is equal to a Cuthean or Samaritan woman, probably because the Sadducees were lax in their purity laws. In fact, the Sadducees are grouped together with the Samaritans and the Sectarians (minim, or "infidels," a term used for the Jewish Christians; see Beracoth 9:5). In the later Rabbinic literature they are painted in more lurid colors, as if they were heretics, not even Jews; Saldarini concludes that this is not accurate, but that the statements form a strong defense against the Sadducees.32

So the Sadducees were the religious and political sect that was largely made up of wealthy, conservative aristocrats, many of them priests. They frequently held high offices in the Temple, and with them a good bit of influence. They objected to unwritten traditions, because they preferred to have the freedom to interpret the Scriptures as they wished. They denied resurrection, immortality of the soul, rewards in the life to come, and angels in some sense. Their influence diminished until they disappeared by 70 A.D.

Saldarini adds that to outsiders the differences between Pharisees and Sadducees may appear to be minor; but "within the community such differences typically produce fierce conflicts over control and influence … ."33

There are Christians today who are very much like the Sadducees of old, although not in every sense. Although they claim to be Christian, they do not actually believe in the resurrection, especially the resurrection of Jesus. And to them, doctrines of angels (and demons) are mythical expressions from a primitive mentality. Their form of Christianity has been submitted to modern reason, with the result that a host of biblical teachings from miracles to rules for purity have been severed from the conservative interpretations and applications and given new focus. Of course, many conservatives view such "Christians" as unbelievers, followers of another faith entirely. But it is often difficult to know what the modern liberal actually believes.

The problem is that many who believe like this are in positions of leadership in the churches, seminaries, and denominations. They might not be wealthy (not all the Sadducees were); but because they are well educated they seem to reflect an aristocratic view of themselves, that they are above the common Christian's simplistic faith. Their education and their position has probably created stumbling blocks for their faith; but unfortunately it has also impressed many others and gained for them a following. Their claim to be able to retrieve the true core of Christianity may simply be a foil for rejecting what they are unable to believe or unwilling to practice.


1 IDB, s.v. "Sadducees," by A. G. Sundberg, 4:160.

2 Aboth de R. Nathan, c. 5.

3 Edersheim, Life and Times, I:323.

4 Sandmel wonders if it might not also be a derisive epithet used in scorn--"self-styled righteous" (p. 156).

5 Saldarini lists a variety of the views, ancient and modern, about the Sadducees (p. 299).

6 Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9.1 (199-203).

7 Saldarini. p. 299.

8 Sandmel, p. 157.

9 Josephus, Antiquities, 13.10.6.

10 Gowan, p. 185.

11 Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9.1.

12 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.4.

13 Saldarini, p. 117.

14 Saldarini, p. 300.

15 Ibid., 110.

16 Josephus, Antiquities 13.10.6 [403].

17 Moore, Judaism, I:68.

18 Saldarini, p. 303.

19 Gowan, p. 182.

20 Oesterly and Box, The Religion and the Worship of the Synagogue, pp. 27, 138.

21 Sandmel, p. 158.

22 Ibid., p. 440.

23 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.14 [162-166]; Antiquities, 18.1.3-4 [12-17].

24 Saldarini, p. 300.

25 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.4 [16]; Wars, 2.8.14 [165].

26 There are many passages that seem to included the idea of resurrection, and certainly immortality. The problem is that passages like Psalm 49 and Psalm 73 use language that in other passages can be interpreted differently (see the discussion in A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms [Cambridge: At the University Press, 1930], pp. xcv-xcvii). And certainly the desire to be buried in the land had for its reason a hope in the future. But such intimations did not clearly express that the dead will rise, as did the statement in Daniel.

27 Gowan, p. 183. Did they recognize Daniel as Scripture? The Essenes surely did; and there was no question of it raised in debate. But still, the acid test for any Jew was whether or not it was in the Law (Sandmel, p. 157).

28 Saldarini, p. 307.

29 Gowan, p. 184.

30 Gowan, p. 184; see also Solomon Zeitlin, "The Sadducees and the Belief in Angels," JBL 83 (1964):67-71.

31 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.4; 13.10.6.

32 Saldarini, p. 302.

33 Saldarini, p. 305.

Related Topics: Christology