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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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The Sadducees were a Jewish sect or party best known by their opposition to the Pharisees.

1. Sources.-Our knowledge of the Sadducees, such as it is, is derived from the following sources: (a) Gospels and Acts; (b) Josephus; (c) Rabbinical writings, mainly Mishna, Tosefta, Sifre, Sifra, and Mechilta (these are all of comparatively late date, but their value is unquestionable as embodying earlier traditions. They record various disputes that took place between Pharisees and Sadducees); (d) Zadokite fragments (these are two fragments discovered quite recently in the Cairo Genizah. They deal with the beliefs and practices of a sect that lived in Damascus probably two centuries b.c., and was clearly Sadducean). Some references to Sadducees are found in various Church Fathers, but they have no independent value. It has to be remarked of the evidence of Josephus that it almost seems that part of what he had to say regarding Pharisees and Sadducees has been lost. In Ant. XIII. v. 9, XVIII. i. 2, he refers to Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii., but there we find only a scanty reference to Pharisees and Sadducees, while his notice of the Essenes is full. Further, the tendency of Josephus to bring Jewish parties into line with Greek schools of philosophy detracts somewhat from the value of his account.

2. The name.-The explanation of the name ‘Sadducee’ has long been a puzzle. Only two views need to be mentioned. (a) It has long been held that the name is derived from a certain priest Zadok. The difficulty has been to identify the Zadok in question. A linguistic difficulty has also been urged, to account for the form Zaddúkîm from Zadok. This, however, disappears when we find that in the Septuagint and in Josephus the name is spelt Zaddok. (b) The view in Encyclopaedia Biblica supported by Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 (see article ‘Sadducees’) is that the word represents the Persian zandik. In modern Persian zandik means a Zoroastrian, hence an infidel. It is argued that, just as the Greek ἐπικοῦρος was used by Jews as = ‘infidel,’ the Persian zandik was probably applied to this sect, who, from the standpoint of the Pharisees were little better than infidels, and who further supported the introduction of foreign customs. Further, in the Arabic NT ‘Sadducee’ is translated zandakiya. It must be admitted that this view is ingenious. Its difficulties are obvious, a chief one being that we cannot argue safely from modern Persian to an ante-Christian usage. Besides, if we are to admit that the Zadokite fragments are Sadducean in character and origin-and this cannot easily be denied-it is beyond doubt that in this case the old and widely held opinion is correct. (For full discussion see W. O. E. Cesterley, The Books of the Apocrypha, their Origin, Teaching, and Contents, London, 1914, p. 132f.)

3. Opposition to the Pharisees.-That the two parties were hostile is known to all. How precisely and concisely the difference is to be defined is a problem of great difficulty. Our knowledge of the Sadducees in particular is not extensive, and a large portion of it comes from sources that certainly were not sympathetic. Geiger’s view that the Sadducees were aristocratic while the Pharisees were democratic is true so far, but does not bring out the fact that their differences were notably theological or give any explanation of those divergences. J. R. Hanne’s view that Pharisees and Sadducees carried on the old conflict of prophetism and priestism is attractive, but according to the NT it is the Pharisees who are blinded and enslaved by that ceremonialism and externalism against which prophetism protested. Wellhausen’s view that the Pharisees were essentially those devoted to the Law on religious grounds while the Sadducees were essentially a political party has really little evidence in its favour, and all our authorities agree in representing the differences between the two parties as to a great extent doctrinal. (For reference to those views see A. Hilgenfeld, Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristentums, Leipzig, 1884, p. 86 f.) Instead of attempting the ambitious task of expressing the differences in any one phrase, we shall do better simply to set down what is known of them as they existed.

(a) Standard of faith and practice.-The fundamental difference between Pharisees and Sadducees was that relating to the supreme arbiter of all disputes. What is the standard? What the final court of appeal? The Sadducees held that it was contained only in the written Law. The Pharisees held that the oral traditions were as authoritative at least as the written Law.

‘The Pharisees have delivered to the people from the tradition of the fathers all manner of ordinances not contained in the laws of Moses; for which reason the sect of the Sadducees reject these ordinances; for they affirm that only such laws ought to be observed as are written, while those which are orally delivered from the tradition of the fathers are not binding. And concerning these things great questionings have arisen among them’ (Jos. Ant. xiii. x. 6).

All other sources fully bear out the accuracy of this statement, which in a sense is the most important that we have. In its light everything else must be read and where necessary corrected. It explains the negations or Agnosticism of the Sadducean creed: no doctrine that was not clearly taught in the written Law possessed for them validity or certainty. It explains why they were more rigid than the Pharisees in enforcing the penal law (Ant. XIV. iv. 2 f.). It would be misleading to call the Sadducees the Protestants of Judaism, but there is some similarity between their divergence from the Pharisees and the divergence of Protestants from Roman Catholics on the question of authority. In both cases we have an appeal to the written Word alone, as against an appeal to the Word plus traditions, precedents, and ecclesiastical judgments. For the latter the Pharisees claimed the same sort of infallibility as the Roman Church attaches to ex cathedra pronouncements by the pope.

How did this conflict eventuate? In reality there was a clear victory for neither. Pharisaism and Sadduceeism in their long discussions affected each other. On the one hand, the complexities of life convinced the Sadducees that cases had to be met for which there was no definite guidance in the written Word, and popular feeling compelled them to fall in with the procedure of the Pharisees (Ant. XVIII. i. 4). Still, we may take it, they strove to make all new regulations in harmony with the Word. On the other hand, their insistence on the supreme authority of the Word led to an intensive study of the Word by the Pharisees, who were concerned to show, just as a Roman Catholic is, that the oral tradition was really based upon the Word. Hence the Pharisees won, but only by doing full justice to the Sadducean position.

‘The Pharisees won the day ultimately, for they were able to show by subtle exegesis that the oral tradition was based upon the written Law. But, and this is the great point, the Sadducaean principle was thus victorious; as a party they went under; but the Pharisees, by adopting the Sadducaean principle that nothing is binding that cannot be shown to be in accordance with the written Law, implicitly acknowledged that the Sadducees had been right all along’ (Cesterley, op. cit., p. 143).

(b) Providence.-According to Josephus, the Sadducees did not believe in Providence.

While the Pharisees, he tells us, hold that some things in the world happen by the will of Providence, and that other things lie in the power of men, ‘the Sadducees take away Providence, and say 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’ (Ant. XIII. v. 9). ‘The Sadducees take away Providence 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’ (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) II. viii. 14).

We cannot admit that this is an accurate account of Sadducean belief. Josephus is here straining the position of the Sadducees into correspondence with the Epicureans and sceptical individualists of Greece. If the Sadducees were the stalwart supporters of the written Word, they could not have held such a view of God and the world. Further, if Josephus is accurate here, passages such as Matthew 3:7; Matthew 16:1, Acts 5:39 f. become unintelligible. There it is implied that Sadducees believe in wrath to come, in signs from heaven, in the danger of fighting against God. Again, while Rabbinical writings contain no evidence of any dispute with the Pharisees on this topic-a silence which is very significant-the Zadokite fragments show the Sadducean doctrine of God to be in harmony with OT teaching (see Cesterley, op. cit., p. 145f.). We conclude that on this topic there was no essential difference between Pharisees and Sadducees. It follows that the popular idea of Sadducees as irreligious and rationalist is as baseless as the idea that all Pharisees were whited sepulchres.

(c) The future life.-It is clear that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body (Acts 23:8). Did they believe in the immortality of the soul? According to Josephus, they did not.

‘They take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul and the punishments and rewards in Hades’ (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) II. viii. 14).

Cesterley tries to show that in this point also Josephus is untrustworthy. Josephus, he holds rightly enough, does not separate the questions of resurrection and immortality, and represents for his Greek readers, to whom resurrection was an unfamiliar idea, the denial of the one as a denial of the other. This is not improbable in itself, but it is difficult to explain away the agreement on this point between Josephus and Acts 23:8, ‘The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit.’ Cesterley very properly connects this usage of ‘angel’ with Acts 12:15, ‘It is his angel.’ And he argues that what is meant is that Sadducees did not believe that the departed become angels or spirits (op. cit., p. 147 f.). It is not obvious how he can conclude that probably the Sadducees believed in the immortality of the soul, after admitting that they did not believe in resurrection or in the departed becoming spirits. Probably on this point the Sadducees took Agnostic ground. Their supreme standard being the written Law, it is difficult to see what else they could have done.

(d) Attitude to foreign influences.-In strong contrast to the Pharisees (see article Pharisees), the Sadducees were sympathetic to foreign, especially Hellenistic, culture. This contrast between the two parties is surprising. The Sadducees stood for the old truth against the innovations of the Pharisees. The latter were the party of progress. Yet it was the conservative Sadducee who embraced foreign culture with enthusiasm, and the progressive Pharisee who bitterly opposed it. In the history of the conflicts of political and ecclesiastical parties it is no unusual thing to find the opponents apparently exchanging rôles. Often no better explanation can be given than that suggested by Cesterley in this case, ‘the innate illogic of human nature’ (op. cit., p. 155).

(e) The Messiah.-The Sadducees held that Aaron and his family were the chosen of God from whom Messiah should proceed.

(f) The calendar.-Into this complicated subject we have no occasion to enter. It is sufficient to say that endless disputes were carried on between the two parties as to the correct dates of the feasts, arising from the fact that while the Pharisees reckoned by a lunar year, the Sadducees computed a solar year (see Cesterley, op. cit., p. 150 f.).

4. Position and influence.-In our period the Sadducees were in the position of an aristocracy. ‘This doctrine is received but by a few, yet by those still of the greatest dignity’ (Jos. Ant. XVIII. i. 4). Practically they may be identified with the Temple high-priestly caste, though there were priests who were not Sadducees, and no doubt Sadducees who were not priests. The majority of the Temple officials and their relatives constituted the main portion of the sect of the Sadducees (cf. W. Bousset, Die Religion des Judentums im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter, Berlin, 1903, p. 164 f.). The high priest and the whole Temple cultus still possessed considerable influence. But their power was waning. Various movements tended to diminish it. Essenes rejected the Temple rites almost entirely. Several late Jewish works speak deprecatingly of the present Temple compared with the former. The real religious leader was no longer the priest but the scribe. The facts that the Sadducees were harsh in punishing, and that the upkeep of the Temple was so expensive, tended to make the people favour the party who opposed the Sadducees (cf. Bousset, op. cit., p. 87 f.). With the destruction of the Temple Sadduceeism disappeared.

As to the character of the sect our knowledge is too limited to enable any just estimate to be made. According to Josephus, they did not agree too well among themselves.

‘The behaviour of the Sadducees one 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’ (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) II. viii. 14).

Their unpatriotic conduct in Maccabaean times cannot be palliated, and there is reason to fear that worldliness and an eye to the main chance dulled the purity of their devotion to the Law. On the other hand, it is important to remember that the common notion that they were mere politicians and irreligious has absolutely no foundation in the authentic evidence we possess.

5. Attitude to Christianity.-Jesus Himself referred very seldom to the Sadducees; His polemic was directed against the Pharisees. In His protest against their making void the Law by their traditions He was at one with the Sadducees. Yet it was from the Sadducees that the most bitter persecution of Judaea n Christianity arose. We know the part played by the Sadducean Sanhedrin in the trial of Jesus. They continued to persecute His disciples (Acts 4:1 ff; Acts 5:17; Acts 23:1 ff.). Josephus informs us that they were responsible for the death of James, the brother of the Lord (Ant. XX. ix. 1). There can be little doubt as to the reason for this persecution. It began when Jesus interfered with the prerogatives of the Sanhedrin by expelling the money-changers from the Temple-court. Significant also is the stress laid upon His alleged threat to destroy the Temple. In the rise of a party adhering to Jesus they feared political consequences (John 11:47 ff.). They were in power, and they meant to keep it, and anything that threatened to be a danger to their power or to the Temple cultus with which their power was bound up they strove to destroy. That any Sadducees became Christian we are not told. Many of the priests believed (Acts 6:7), but that is indecisive, as many priests were not Sadducees. But one of the disciples was ‘known unto the high priest’ (John 18:15); a considerable degree of intimacy is implied in this statement, and it is very improbable that a friend of the high priest would be anything but a Sadducee. There is a possibility, then, that the author of the Fourth Gospel was once a Sadducee. One would like to think that the two greatest of NT writers were of Pharisee and Sadducee origin respectively. Both sects had their good points, and both their grave errors. Christianity conserved what was good in both, and offered a higher unity in which their differences were transcended.

Literature.-See under Pharisees.

W. D. Niven.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sadducees'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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