October 24, 2017

Jewish Sects, (V): Sadducees -Origin, Influence and Theological Outlook

By Fred A. Shewmaker

The Sadducees were second in importance, to the Pharisees, of the five Jewish Sects. They are mentioned in the Bible far more than the remaining three sects. This sect emerged after the return from Babylonian captivity. With the return "this sacerdotal aristocracy, and especially the 'priests of the seed of Zadok' the 'sons of Zadok,' or, which comes to the same thing, 'the Zadokites'= Sadducees, naturally continues to form the centre of the newly formed state, and to be the time-honored guardians both of God's sacred heritage and their holy religion. The high-priests were also the chief functionaries of state."1 The high priest was now in power not only as the religious leader but as the political leader as well. Pfeiffer calls the Sadducees, "A Jewish religious sect of the latter half of the second Temple period, formed about 200 B.C. as the party of high Preacher Needed priests and aristocratic families."2

Concerning the time following the break of John Hyrcanus with the Pharisees as a result of the insult of Eleazar (see article II this series) F. F. Bruce wrote, "For the next fifty years, then the Sadducees retained control of the Sanhedrin, which served as the council of the rulers of the Hasmonaean dynasty, and lent their support to the dynasty."3 The son of Hyreanus followed him in power and was a patron of the Sadducees while treating the Pharisees with violence and death.

There is a controversy regarding the origin of the name, Sadducees. Peloubet wrote, "The origin of their name is involved in great difficulties but the most satisfactory conjecture is that the Sadducees or Zadokites were originally identical with the sons of Zadok and constituted what may be termed a kind of sacerdotal aristocracy, this Zadok being the priest who declared in favor of Solomon when Abiathar took the part of Adonijah, I Kings 1:33-45."4 Without going into the controversy here, I would accept this appraisal noting only that the use of the name Sadducees is from the post exile period.

The Sadducees were organized as "a priestly oligarchy."5 They were in control of the temple. They were in charge of its administration and carried on its rituals.

Proselyting was not a part of the Sadducees' activity. "The Sadducean party was closed. None but the High Priestly and aristocratic families of Jerusalem could be Sadducees."6 This exclusiveness apparently accounts for the fact that the Sadducees were never at any time a large party.

"Not a single undoubted writing of an acknowledged Sadducee has come down to us, so that for acquaintance with their opinions we are mainly dependent on their antagonists."7 One such antagonist was Josephus. He represents the Sadducees as saying "that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the traditions of our forefathers."8 "They represented the conservative position in religious matters, and so questioned the validity of oral tradition."9 "Not only were the Sadducees opposed to innovations in and departures from the written Law, but they denounced any reform in the functions of the temple."10 Although the Sadducees misinterpreted and misapplied the written law, at times, their refusal "to recognize any precept as binding unless found in the Torah"11 (law) was the right and proper attitude toward the word of God.

"The Sadducees supported zealously every government in turn, was enough to set the people against them."12 Even though they remained aloof and were unpopular with the people Pfeiffer observes, "The party was the most influential in the political and economic life of Palestine."13 Through the years they had been able to hold many of the seats in the Sanhedrin. Many of them were wealthy and a large number were of priestly descent and as a result their influence "fully balanced that of their more popular rivals."14

Those who are not conservative in their outlook usually find it difficult to view objectively the positions taken by those who are conservative. Those who have written about the Sadducees have, for the most part, been unable to treat their subject with absolute fairness. Consider the following statement: "Theologically the Sadducees must be described with a series of negatives."15

Yet, the same author in another book wrote, "They acted severely in cases involving the death penalty. The Mosaic principle of Lex Tallonis was interpreted literally."16 Thus the first statement of this author is not completely accurate. The latter statement gives us a specific example of a positive position taken by the Sadducees. They believed in an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. This might be repulsive to those who stand opposed to capital punishment and for a soft approach of any violation of law. However, the theology of the Sadducees at this point cannot be correctly termed a negative theology. The only way that one might label this as negative theology would be to say that here the Sadducees stand opposed to crime. But the fact is that on this point they were for law enforcement.

We could cite another statement by the same author and show that the Sadducees were positively for "the Written Iaw" and maintaining unchanged "the functions of the temple." We should learn the lesson from all this that many times the classifying of another's position as negative or positive may easily be affected by the position from which the classifier views the other's position.


1. McClintock & Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, (Grand Rapids: 1970), Vol. IX, p. 240.

2. Charles F. Pfeiffer, The Biblical World, :Grand Rapids: 1966), p. 326.

3. F. F. Bruce, Israel and the Nations, (Grand Rapids: 1963), p. 171.

4. F. N. Peloubet, Bible Dictionary, (Athens, Ala.: 1947), p. 576.

5. "Thomson," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids: 1957), p. 2660.

6. Charles F. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, (Grand Rapids: 1963), p. 115.

7. McClintock d Strong, Ibid., p. 235.

8. F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, (London~ 1842), p. 360 (B. X111, Ch. X, See. 6.

9. Pfeiffer, Biblical World, P. 326.

10. Ibid., p. 327.

11. Ibid.

12. Cunningham Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ, (New York &London: 1920), Vol. II, p. 214.

13. Pfeiffer, Ibid.

14. I.S.B.E., p. 2659.

15. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, p. 115.

16. Pfeiffer, Biblical World, p. 327.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 10, pp. 6-8
January 13, 1972