The Sadducees were a political Jewish group that sided with the ruling party, most notably Rome at the time of Jesus. They were unpopular with the masses as a result, and their adversaries the Pharisees eventually became the Jewish leaders instead. Made up mostly of aristocrats, they had a vested interest in the status quo, and rejected all religious writings except the Torah. They denied the resurrection of the dead, the immortality of the soul and the existence of angels (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8). They rejected the oral traditions followed by the Pharisees.
The influence of the Sadducees disappeared after the first Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.
The New Testament and Josephus implies a connection with the verb "to be righteous," but the Talmud suggests a derivation from the name of their founder, a high priest named "Zadok". The most prominent Zadok in history was the high priest mentioned in 2 Samuel 8:17 and 15:24; and in 1 Kings 1:35, from whom all succeeding high priests claimed descent. It is in harmony with this that in the New Testament the Sadducees are the party to whom the high priests belonged. On the authority of 'Abhoth de-Rabbi Nathan (1000 AD) another Zadok is asserted to be the one from whom the Sadducees received their name. He was a disciple of Antigonus of Socho (250 BC) who taught that love to God should be absolutely disinterested (Pirqe 'Abhoth, i.3). 'Abhoth de-Rabbi Nathan's account of the derivation of the Sadduceanism from this teaching could be an imaginary deduction, with the majority of authoritative writers preferring to derive the name from Zadok, the colleague of Abiathar, the contemporary of David.
The main written authorities for the teaching of the Sadducees are the New Testament and the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. According to the former, the Sadducees denied the resurrection of the body, and did not believe in angels or spirits (Mt 22:23; Acts 23:8). More can be learned from Josephus, but his evidence is to be received with caution, as he was a Pharisee and, moreover, had the idea that the Sadducees were to be paralleled with the Epicureans. The Talmud is late; before even the Mishna was committed to writing (circa 200 AD) the Sadducees had ceased to exist; before the Gemara was completed (circa 700 AD) every valid tradition of their opinions must have vanished. Further, the Talmud is Pharisaic. The early church fathers - Origen, Hippolytus, Epiphanius and Jerome - have derived their information from late Pharisaic sources.
Origin and History
Josephus describes the Sadducees along with the contemporary sects, the Pharisees and the Essenes (Josephus, Ant, XIII, v, 9; X, vi 2; XVIII, i, 4, 5; BJ, II, viii, 14). His earliest notice of them is after his account of the treaties of Jonathan with the Romans and the Lacedemonians. He indicates his belief that the parties were ancient; but if so, they must have formerly had other names. It has been suggested that the earlier form of the conflict between the Sadducees and Pharisees was opposition between the priests and the prophets. This, however, is not tenable; in the Southern Kingdom there was no such opposition; whatever the state of matters in the Northern Kingdom, it could have had no influence on opinion in Judea and Galilee during the time of Jesus. By others the rivalry is supposed to be inherited from that between the scribes and the priests, but Ezra, the earliest scribe, was a priest with strong sacerdotal sympathies.
Tendencies of Sadducees toward Hellenism
It is possible that the priestly party gradually crystallized into the sect called the Sadducees. After the return from the Babylonian exile, the high priest drew to himself all powers, civil and religious. To the Persian authorities he was as "the king of the Jews." The high priest and those about him were the persons who had to deal with the heathen supreme government and the heathen nationalities around; this association would tend to lessen their religious fervor, and this aroused the zeal of a section of the people for the law. With the Greek domination the power of the high priests at home was increased, but they became still more subservient to their heathen masters, and were the leaders in the Hellenizing movement. They took no part in the Maccabean struggle, which was mainly supported by their opponents the chacidhim (also spelled Hasidim), as they were called (the Hasideans of 1 Macc 2:42, etc.). When the chacidhim, having lost sympathy with the Maccabeans, sought to reconcile themselves to the priestly party, Alcimus, the legitimate high priest, by his treachery and cruelty soon renewed the breach. The Hasmoneans then were confirmed in the high-priesthood, but were only lukewarmly supported by the chacidhim. See Maccabees, Books of.
The division between the Hasmoneans and the chacidhim, or, as they were now called, Pharisees, culminated in the insult offered by Eleazar to John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean high priest (Josephus, Ant, XIII, x, 5). Alexander Janneus, the son of Hyrcanus, became a violent partisan of the Sadducees and crucified large numbers of the Pharisees. Toward the end of his life he fell out of sympathy with the Sadducees, and on his deathbed recommended his wife Alexandra Salome, who as guardian to his sons succeeded him, to favor the Pharisees, which she did. In the conflict between her two sons, John Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, the Sadducees took the side of Aristobulus, the younger and abler brother. So long as the contest was between Jews, the Sadducean candidate prevailed. When the Romans were called in, they gave the advantage to Hyrcanus.
Thrown into the background by the overthrow of their candidate for the high-priesthood, they soon regained their influence. They allied themselves with the Herodiana who had supported Hyrcanus, but were subservient to Rome. Though they were not theological at first, they became so, to defend their policy against the attacks of the Pharisees. A historic parallel may be found in the Cavaliers of the reign of Charles I, as over against the Puritans.
Fear Roman Interference if Jesus' Messianic Claims Are Recognized
The Sadducees at first regarded the struggle between Jesus of Nazareth and the Pharisees as a matter with which they had no concern. It was not until Jesus claimed to be the Messiah - and the related excitement of the people which consequently drew the attention of the Roman authorities - that they intervened. Should the Roman emperor Tiberius learn that there was widespread belief among the Jews of the coming of a Jewish king who was to rule the world - and that one had actually appeared who claimed to be this man - then very soon the quasi-independence enjoyed by the Jews would be stripped from them, and gone would also be the influence of the Sadducees. An oligarchy is proverbially sensitive to anything that threatens its stability; a priesthood is unmeasured in its vindictiveness; and the Sadducees were a priestly oligarchy. Hence, only the death of Jesus would satisfy them.
Sadducees' antagonism to the Apostles
After the resurrection, the Pharisees became less hostile to the followers of Christ; but the Sadducees maintained their attitude of suspicion and hatred (Acts 4:1). Although a Pharisee, it was as agent of the Sadducean high priest that Saul of Tarsus (later Paul the Apostle) persecuted the believers. The Sadducees gained complete ascendancy in the Sanhedrin, and later, under the leadership of the high priest Annas, or as he is sometimes called by Josephus, Ananus, they put James the brother of Jesus to death (Josephus, Ant, XX, ix, 1) with many others, presumably Christians. The Pharisees were against these proceedings; and even sent messengers to meet Albinus who was coming to succeed Festus as governor to entreat him to remove Annas from the high priesthood.
Fall of the Sadducees
With the outbreak of the Jewish war, the Sadducees with their allies the Herodians were driven into the background by the Zealots, John of Gischala and Simon ben Gioras. Annas and Joshua, also called high priest by Josephus, were both put to death by the Zealots and their Idumean allies (Josephus, BJ, IV, v, 2). With the destruction of the temple and the fall of the Jewish state the Sadducean party disappeared.
Disbelief bordering on atheism
The most prominent doctrine of the Sadducees was the denial of the immortality of the soul and of the resurrection of the body. The Pharisees believed that Moses had delivered these doctrines to the elders, and that they had in turn handed them on to their successors; the Sadducees rejected all these traditions. From Acts 23:8 they believed in neither "angel or spirit," despite reverence for the same Torah which mentions these beings. Josephus distinctly asserts (Ant., XVIII, i, 4) that the Sadducees believe that the soul dies with the body while denying divine providence (BJ, II, viii, 14). Their theology might be called "religion within the limits of mere sensation."
Belief in the Pentateuch alone
The Fathers - Hippolytus, Origen and Jerome - credit the Sadducees with regarding the Pentateuch as alone canonical (Hipp., Haer., ix.24; Orig., Contra Celsum, i.49; on Mt 22:24-31; Jerome on Mt 22:31,32). This idea may be due to a false identification of the views of the Sadducees with those of the Samaritans. Had they rejected all the rest of Scripture, it is hardly possible that Josephus would have failed to notice this. The Talmud does not mention this among their errors. It is certain that they gave more importance to the Pentateuch than to any other of the books of Scripture. Jesus, in the passage commented on by Origen and Jerome, appeals to the Law rather than to the Prophets or the Psalms. It follows from the little value they put upon the Prophets that they had no sympathy with the Messianic hopes of the Pharisees.
Rough and boorish?
Josephus says that while the Pharisees have amiable manners and cultivate concord among all, the Sadducees are "very boorish" (BJ, II, viii, 14). This lack of manners is not a characteristic usually associated with either an aristocracy or with supple diplomats, yet it suits what is found in the New Testament. The cruel horseplay indulged in when our Lord was tried before the irregular meeting of the Sanhedrin (Mt 26:67,68), the shout of Ananias at the trial of Paul before the same tribunal to "smite him on the mouth," show them to be rough and overbearing. What Josephus relates of the conduct of Annas in regard to James agrees with this. Josephus, however, does not always speak in such condemnatory terms of Annas; in the Jewish Wars (IV, v, 2), Josephus calls him "a man venerable and most just." Only the violence which Annas resorted to against the Zealots better suits the earlier verdict of Josephus than the later. As to their general character Josephus mentions that when the Sadducees became magistrates they conformed their judgments to Pharisaic opinion, otherwise they would not have been tolerated (Ant., XVIII, i, 4).
The Talmud account is generally untrustworthy, late and Pharisaic. The Gemara from which most of the references are taken was not committed to writing until some seven centuries after Christ, when the traditions concerning the Sadducees had filtered through twenty generations of Pharisaism. Despite this lengthened time and suspicious medium, there may be some truth in the representations of the Talmud. In Pesachim 57a it is said, "Woe's me on account of the house of Boothus, woe's me on account of their spears; woe's me on account of the house of Hanun (Annas), woe's me on account of their serpent brood; woe's me on account of the house of Kathros, woe's me on account of their pen; woe's me on account of the house of Ishmael ben Phabi; woe's me on account of their fists. They are high priests and their sons are treasurers of the temple, and their sons-in-law, assistant treasurers; and their servants beat the people with sticks." As these are Sadducean names, this passage exhibits Pharisaic tradition as to the habits of the Sadducees.
Relation to the Temple
The Sadducean high priests made Hophni and Phinehas too much their models. Annas and his sons had booths in the courts of the temple for the sale of sacrificial requisites and tables for money-changers, as ordinary coins had to be changed into the shekels of the sanctuary. From all these the men of the high-priestly caste derived profit at the expense of desecrating the temple. They did not, as did the Pharisees, pay spiritual religion the homage of hypocrisy; they were frankly irreligious. While officials of religion, they were devoid of its spirit. This, however, represents their last stage.
The favor for the memory of John Hyrcanus shown by the writer of 1 Maccabees (16:23,14) renders probable Geiger's opinion that the author was a Sadducee. He shows the party in its best form: his outlook on life is eminently sane, and his history is trustworthy. He has sympathy with the patriotism of the Hasideans, but none with the religious scruples which led them to desert Judas Maccabeus. It is also certain that the writer of Ecclesiasticus, from his silence on the national expectation of a Messiah and the hope of a future life, was also a Sadducee.
Relation to Jesus
Denounced less by Jesus than the Pharisees
As the doctrines and practices of the Sadducees were quite alien from the teaching of Jesus and the conduct He enjoined, it is a problem why He did not denounce them more frequently than He did. Indeed, He never denounces the Sadducees except along with their opponents the Pharisees; whereas He frequently denounces the Pharisees alone. As His position, both doctrinal and practical, was much nearer that of the Pharisees, it was necessary that He should clearly mark Himself off from them. There was not the same danger of His position being confused with that of the Sadducees. Josephus states that the Sadducees had influence with the rich; Jesus drew His adherents chiefly from the poor, from whom also the Pharisees drew. The latter opposed Him all the more that He was sapping their source of strength; hence, He had to defend Himself against them. Further, the Gospels mainly recount the Lord's ministry in Galilee, whereas the Sadducees were chiefly to be found in Jerusalem and its environs; hence, there may have been severe denunciations of the Sadducees that have not come down to us.
Attitude of Sadducees to Jesus
The Sadducees probably regarded Jesus as harmless fanatic who by His denunciations was weakening the influence of the Pharisees. Only when His claim to be the Messiah brought Him within the sphere of practical politics did they desire to intervene. When they did come into conflict with Jesus, they promptly decreed His arrest and death; only the arrest was to be secret, "lest a tumult arise among the people" (Mt 26:5). In their direct encounter with our Lord in regard to the resurrection (Mt 22:25 ff; Mk 12:20 ff; Lk 20:29 ff), there is an element of contempt implied in the illustration which they bring, as if till almost the end they failed to take Him seriously.
This article incorporates text from the 1911 International Standard Biblical Encyclopedia, a work in the public domain.
- NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985, Pg. 1483