The Sadducees

By Jerry Fite

In 168 B.C., conflict over the Grecian influence in the lives of the Jewish people came to a head. In December of that year Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), the Grecian ruler in Syria, plundered the Temple in Jerusalem; sacrilegiously offered swine upon the altar that he had built over God’s altar; and commanded circumcision to stop immediately. This forced intrusion kindled the religious fires of such men as Mattathias and his son, Judas. The Maccabean revolt began, and the Hasmonean line of leaders became prominent in Judea for about 104 years. During the Maccabean period (167-63 B.C.), names of the various sects among the Jews surfaced. Josephus records that one of these sects was the Sadducees (Antiquities XIII.v.9).

The origin of the word, “Sadducee” is uncertain. Some trace the word to the Hebrew verb tsaddaq which means, “to be righteous.” They see this fitting the Sadducees, for this sect believed they should only be governed by the written law of Moses, not the oral law or traditions of the Fathers. Others connect the word to the proper name “Zadok.” This name is found in the Bible referring to the High Priest in David and Solomon’s kingdom (2 Sam. 8:17; 1 Kings 1:32). Ezekiel exalts the “sons of Zadok” as the ones who “come near to Jehovah to minister unto Him” (Ezek. 40:46). Ezra, one of the sons of Zadok, returns to Jerusalem following the Babylonian Captivity to serve God as Priest, diligently teaching the people God’s law (Ezra 7:1-2, 10). Some therefore see the word “Sadducees” originating from the word “Zadok,” not due to spelling similarities, but due to the stronghold the Sadducees had on the High Priesthood during the inter-testamental period. 

The Sadducees had their nucleus in the Jewish aristocracy. Josephus writes they “were able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude of their side” (Antiquities XIII.x.6). They were determined to keep their dominance in the office of the high priest. Their problem with Herod the Great in (47-37 B.C.) was not over his being pro-Roman as much as he was Idumean. They hated him, as they had hated his father Antipater, for they saw the Idumeans encroaching on the Hasmonean royal house. Herod the Great, on becoming ruler, arrested and executed forty-five of “the principal men of Antiochus’s party” — the Sadducees (Ibid. XV.i.2). He filled the vacant seats in the Sanhedrin, but limited the Counsel’s jurisdiction to doctrinal law. 

The appointments to the presidency of the Counsel would now be vested in himself. He would eventually marry into the Hasmonean line and appoint his new father-in-law as high priest. This action not only allowed him to satisfy his desires for beautiful women, but it also helped to legitimize his  standing among the aristocracy (Ibid. XV.ix.3). Herod was crafty for he initially appointed those of the old high-priestly family as high priest. However, his intrusion through marriage into the power base of the Sadducees changed the aristocracy. While initially keeping the aristocracy of birth in place, more important to him, he was building an aristocracy of Sadducees characterized by loyalty and service to him as king. 

As we open the pages of the New Testament, we observe this type of aristocracy in place. The close connection between the Sadducees and the Herods is seen in comparing Jesus’ statement in Matthew with Mark’s. Jesus warns, “take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6). Mark records Jesus as saying, “take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod” (Mark 8:15). The high priest is connected with the sect of the Sadducees rising up and putting the apostles in public ward (Acts 5:17). The aristocracy of “the priests, the captain of the temple and the Sadducees” manifested their authority over doctrinal matters when they imprisoned the apostles for preaching the resurrection of Christ with its implications (Acts 4:1-2). They had constant political concerns. For example, the “chief priests” along with the Pharisees were concerned over the stir Jesus was causing with his miracles. They feared the people would believe on him, and “the Romans would come and take away both us and our nation” (John 11:47-48). 

Along with the Pharisees, the Sadducees’ desire to keep their political prominence may have been one of the factors blinding them to their spiritual needs. John warns these sects about the true meaning of repentance connected with his baptism (Matt. 3:7-9). Bringing forth “fruit worthy of repentance” was the need of these “offspring of vipers.” Physical identification with Abraham was not enough. Apparently, they came out of curiosity over why so many were going into the wilderness unto John. They wanted to keep their finger on the pulse of the people, not truly change their own hearts and lives toward God. They asked Jesus, “show them a sign from heaven.” Their motive was to “try” him, not accept the spiritual truth these signs confirmed (Matt. 16:1). They would acknowledge a “notable miracle” among Jesus’ apostles. But instead of believing the Christ whom the apostles preached, they threatened them in order that “it spread no further among the people” (Acts 4:6, 16, 17). 

Josephus describes the Sadducees as one of “three philosophical sects among the Jews” (Wars II.viii.2). According to Josephus, the Sadducees rejected the “oral traditions” or “traditions of the fore-fathers” which the Pharisees added to the written Law of Moses (Antiquities XIII.x.6; XIII.xvi.2). They believed that the “souls died with their bodies,” rejecting the idea of a resurrection, and the punishments and rewards of an afterlife (Ibid. XVIII.i.3). They rejected the concept of God’s providence or fate ruling in people’s lives. “But the Sadducees are those who compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil . . . ” (Wars II.viii.14). 

The New Testament confirms some of these disbeliefs that characterized the Sadducees’ philosophy. In reminding the assembly that the reason for him standing before them was his belief in the hope of the resurrection, Paul caused dissension among the Sadducees and Pharisees, dividing the assembly. Why? “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit but the Pharisees confess both” (Acts 23:8). They were known as a group who professed, “there is no resurrection” (Matt. 22:23; Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27). They did not believe in spirit-beings called angels, nor man having a separate “spirit” distinguishable from the “breath” that animates the body. 

The Sadducees came to a place of prominence in Jewish history in the last half of the second century before Christ They were known only in Jewish and Christian circles for a little over two hundred years. They gloried in the “written” Law of Moses, but were silenced by the Lord when he told them they “err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God” (Matt. 23:29). The very Scripture they acknowledged and in which they gloried (Exod. 3:6), was the basis for Jesus logically showing that there must be the resurrection from the dead, which they denied. Having no hope for life after death, the Sadducees lived for this world only, coveting its materialistic trappings. Then, they lost the only thing that was important for them to retain — their place of prominence in this world among the dignitaries. By rejecting the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, their prominence ended, never again to arise (cf. Matt. 23:37-24:2; John 11:48). The Sadducees, and their history are indeed as I learned as a child: “sad-u-cee.”

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 9 p3  May 4, 2000