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Sadducees

The Sadducees (sedûqîm) were one of the three main Jewish political and religious movements in the years between c.150 BCE and 70 CE. (The other movements were the Essenes and the Pharisees.) They had a conservative outlook and accepted only the written Law of Moses. Many wealthy Jews were Sadducees or sympathized with them.

Sources

No Sadducee texts are known; their ideas and opinions are only known from hostile sources. The Pharisees were usually vehemently opposed to the Sadducees and as a consequence, the few passages in the rabbinical literature that refer to the Sadducees almost always portray them as enemies. For example, when Pharisee teachers were discussing whether a good person could become an evil person, the example of a Pharisee who went over to the Sadducees was quoted as proof that people could become evil.note In another text, it is stated that the Sadducee sect started as a group of Pharisee heretics.note

Other sources are not kind on the Sadducees, either. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus writes in that

the behavior of the Sadducees towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them.note

The Christian texts portray the Sadducees as opponents of Jesus of Nazareth:

Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Jesus asked that he would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said to them, 'When it is evening you say, "It will be fair weather, for the sky is red"; and in the morning, "It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening." Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.' And he left them and departed.

Now when his disciples had come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said to them, 'Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.'{[Matthew 16.1-6.}}


It may be interesting to note that this passage is derived from the gospel of Mark, where only the Pharisees are mentioned:note the author of the gospel of Matthew has added the Sadducees.

The Dead Sea scrolls do not mention the Sadducees, but use a kind of code name, Manasse. (This was common practice: e.g., 'Babylon' usually means Rome.) For example, in a commentary on the prophet Nahum, we can read that 

@at the end of times, the rule of Manasse will be terminated, that his women, babies and little children will be imprisoned, and that his heroes and aristocrats will perish by the sword.note

It should be noticed that not all scholars are convinced that Manasse is identical to the Sadducees. However this may be, it is clear that none of our sources is really fiendly towards the Sadducees. If we want to reconstruct their ideas, we are forced to use hostile, circumstantial evidence.

Ideas

Due to our sources, we can not give a systematic account of the ideas of the Sadducees. Nonetheless, they mention several aspects of Sadducee theology.

The fundamental difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees is the interpretation of the Law of Moses (i.e., the five first books of the Bible, the Torah). The Sadducees maintained that the only way for truly pious behavior was to live according to the commandments in the written Law; the Pharisees, on the other hand, taught that the written Law had been given to the Jews and that they were free to interpret the Law. After all, the world had changed since the days of Moses. As a consequence, the Pharisees said that the 'written Torah' was to be supplemented with 'the oral Torah', the interpretation of the written Law by the Pharisee teachers, the rabbis. The Sadducees considered this an almost blasphemous act, because it seemed to deny the majesty of the Law of Moses.

The fact that the Sadducees had a very high opinion of the five first books of the Bible, does not mean that they denied that the other books of the Bible -e.g., the prophets and the historical writings- were divinely inspired. But they refused to accept the other Biblical books as sources of law. When a Sadducee had to judge a case, he would look in the written Torah and ignore the oral traditions that the Pharisees accepted as normative. One of the consequences was that the Sadducees stressed the importance of the priests in the Temple cult, while the Pharisees insisted on the participation of all Jews.

In practice, the Law of Moses is not always very clear and the Sadducees had interpretative traditions of their own, which were written down in a book of jurisprudence known as the Book of Decrees. The existence of this penal code is known from a rabbinical source, the Megilla Ta'anit, a calendar like text that states that the Book of Decrees was revoked on the fourth of Tammuz (no year is given). The code is described as very harsh: the author of the Megilla Ta'anit states that the Sadducees had taken the famous line Exodus 21.24, 'an eye for an eye', literally. The Pharisees allowed the person who had blinded another, to pay damages.

Several other aspects of Sadducee theology are known. For example, many sources state that they maintained that souls die with the bodies.note The rabbinical text known as 'Avot de rabbi Nathan states that a discussion about this subject was the cause of the schism between Pharisees and Sadducees.

[The Pharisee teacher] Antigonus of Sokho had two disciples who used to study his words. They taught them to their disciples, and their disciples to their disciples. These proceeded to examine the words closely and demanded, 'Why did our ancestors see fit to say this thing? Is it possible that a laborer should do his work all day and not take his reward in the evening? If our ancestors, forsooth, had known that there is no other world and that there will be a resurrection of the dead, they would not have spoken in this manner.'

So they arose and withdrew from the [study of the oral] Torah, and split into two sects, the Sadducees and the Boethusians: Sadducees named after Zadok, Boethusians after Boethus.note

The historical value of this anecdote is questionable, although it may be noted that the date of the schism (two generations after Antigonus, i.e., c.140 BCE) neatly fits the probable date of origin of the Sadducee movement (below). Whatever its reliability, the story proves that the refusal to believe in the resurrection was considered a very important aspect of Sadducee thought.

The Pharisees and Christians, on the other hand, believed in the resurrection of the dead. When the Christian teacher Paul had to explain his ideas to a court in which some members were Pharisees and others Sadducees, he found it easy to create division among his judges.

When Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, 'Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!'

And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees' party arose and protested, saying, 'We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.'note

Another aspect of the ideology of the Sadducees has been introduced in the quote above: they did not believe in angels. However, the author of Acts exaggerates a bit. No Sadducee would deny that messengers of God (Mal'ach Adonay) are mentioned on several places in the five first books of the Bible. However, many other Jews had started to believe that these messengers were winged celestial beings. For this association is no scriptural evidence.

The historian Flavius Josephus states that the Sadducees did not believe in Fate.

Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of Fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to Fate, but are not caused by Fate. But the sect of the Essenes affirm that Fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination. And for the Sadducees, they take away Fate, and say that there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly.note

In another work, Flavius Josephus gives a summary of Pharisee and Sadducee thought, which starts objective; but in the last section, which has already been quoted above and can be read again below, he betrays his true feelings about the Sadducees.

The Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws. [...] They ascribe all to Fate and to God, and yet allow that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although Fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies and that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.

But the Sadducees [...] take away Fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men's own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in the Underworld.

[...] The behavior of the Sadducees towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them.note

So, all in all, the Sadducees were a conservative group. One remarkable aspect shows this better than anything else: they sticked to the old Hebrew script, and never adapted the Aramaic alphabeth that became popular all over the ancient Near East.
 

History

The origin of the Sadducees remains a mystery. An important and controversial clue is the etymology of  the name 'Sadducees' (sedûqîm). This word may be derived from the word Tsaddîq ('righteous') or the name Zadok, who was either high priest in the age of king Solomon or the name of the founder of the sect (see above). It is not possible to choose between the alternatives: the name 'righteous ones' may have been adopted as a retort to the Hasidim - probably the early Pharisees), who claimed that they were the only pious ones; the name 'sons of Zadok', on the other hand, may refer to the fact that only the descendants of Zadok were -according to an ancient tradition- entitled to perform the priestly service in the Temple.

However this may be, the Sadducees are known from the middle of the second century BCE, and are introduced by Flavius Josephus in one breath with the Pharisees and Essenes.noteThe three movements probably originated in the same climate of national and ethical revival, which was a reaction to the dominance of the Greek culture. The cult in Temple, considered unclean because of pagan influences, was purified in 164; and in 152, one of the members of the Hasmonaean royal family usurped the high priesthood.

This was scandalous: the high priesthood was hereditary in the Zadokite family, and -if we accept that Sadducees means 'sons of Zadok'- the Sadducee movement found its origin in the opposition against the Hasmonaean usurpation. An argument against this interpretation is that the Sadducees usually collaborated with the Hasmonaean kings. (The Essenes may have originated at the same moment, as a Zadokite sect that considered the Temple still unclean and left Jerusalem.)

Whatever their relation to the Hasmonaeans, the Sadducees remained deeply involved in the Temple cult in Jerusalem for more than two centuries. The kings were usually supported by the Sadducees, who had great influence on royal policy. Only under the reign of queen Alexandra Salome (76-67 BCE), the Pharisees were influential and their leader, prince Simeon ben Shetah, formally threw the Sadducees out of the high court (Sanhedrin). But even during these years, the Sadducees retained some power. In the confused years after the death of the queen, they regained much of their former influence.

When Herod the Great became sole ruler in 40, he appointed high priests of his own choosing, but the Sadducees remained somehow involved in the management of the Temple, and this was still the case during the Roman occupation (6-70 CE), when the Roman governors appointed the high priest. It is certain that most high priests came from Sadducee families. 

The Jewish elite sympathized with the ideas of the Sadducees. It is not clear why: perhaps the interests of the wealthy people were threatened by the Pharisees (who were often common people), which caused the rich Jews to side with the opponents of their own enemies. Another explanation is that the Sadducees were very wealthy themselves. Probably, at least 20 of the 28 high priests in the century between 37 BCE and 66 CE were Sadducees.

After the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 (more), there was no room for the Sadducees any more. They were too closely linked to the cult in the Temple.

This page was created in 1996; last modified on 31 March 2014.