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In New Testament times the two main parties within the Jewish religion were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The beginnings of these two parties can be traced back to the second century BC, when Greek influence was having its effect on the Jewish people.


The influence of Greek ideas in Jewish affairs produced tension between those Jews who favoured it and those who resisted it. When conflict broke out between the two groups, the Greek ruler in Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes, used it as an excuse to invade Jerusalem and try to destroy the Jewish religion. (For details of this period of Jewish history see GREECE.) Under the leadership of a priestly family known as the Maccabees (or Hasmoneans) the Jews rebelled against Antiochus, and after three years of fighting regained religious freedom (165 BC).

When the Maccabees wanted to keep fighting and regain political freedom as well, the religiously strict Jews objected. They opposed the Maccabees’ political ambitions just as they had opposed the interference of Greek politics in Jewish affairs. These two factions were the forerunners of the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The former favoured political as well as religious freedom, whereas the latter were satisfied with religious freedom. The Maccabees carried on the war in spite of internal opposition, and after twenty years they won political independence (143 BC).

A clear division now existed among the Jews. The pro-political group consisted of powerful priests and wealthy leaders who were favoured by the Hasmonean rulers. The other group consisted largely of commoners who were politically powerless but favoured by most of the people. Later, a dispute concerning the Hasmonean ruler’s right to be high priest led to the open formation of the Sadducee and Pharisee parties. (The name ‘Sadducee’ possibly comes from Zadok, the priest of Solomon’s time whose descendants came to be regarded as the only legitimate priestly line; 1 Kings 1:38-39; Ezekiel 44:15-16; Ezekiel 48:11; see ZADOK.)

Religious power

Some of the Sadducees’ religious beliefs further emphasized the differences between the two parties. The Pharisees followed strictly the traditions handed down from their forefathers, but the Sadducees had little interest in the traditions. They were concerned only with the commandments actually written in the law of Moses. Also, they did not believe in the continued existence of the soul after death, the bodily resurrection of the dead, the directing will of God in the events of life, or the existence of angelic beings. These were all important beliefs for the Pharisees (Matthew 22:23; Acts 4:1-2; Acts 23:7-8).

In spite of their dislike for the Pharisees, the Sadducees readily joined with them to oppose Jesus (Matthew 16:1-4; Matthew 22:15; Matthew 22:23; Matthew 22:34). Jesus condemned them, along with the Pharisees, for their hypocrisy (Matthew 16:6; Matthew 16:12).

Most of the leading priests of New Testament times were Sadducees, and they enjoyed the support of the upper class Jews. The high priest, who was president of the Sanhedrin, was a Sadducee, and through him and his close associates the Sadducees exercised much power in the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-3; Acts 5:17-21; see SANHEDRIN).

The Sadducees were particularly hostile to the early Christians. This was chiefly for two reasons. Firstly, the apostles’ accusation of injustice on the part of the Sanhedrin was really an accusation against the ruling Sadducees (Acts 4:5-10; Acts 5:27-28). Secondly, the church’s rapid growth was based on the truth of the resurrection, which the Sadducees denied (Acts 4:1-2; Acts 4:10; Acts 4:17). The Sadducees had little following among the common people, and in fact were afraid of violence from them if they treated the Christians too harshly (Acts 4:2; Acts 4:17; Acts 4:21; Acts 5:17; Acts 5:26). Only when the Pharisees turned against the Christians were the Sadducees able to use the full power of the Sanhedrin against the Christians (Acts 6:12-15; Acts 7:58; Acts 8:1; cf. Philippians 3:5-6).

With the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70, the Sadducees lost the priestly base that had maintained them. The party soon died out.

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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Sadducees'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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