The Sadducees were one of the Jewish parties referred to by Josephus (War 2.8.164–66; Ant. 13.5.173; 18.1.16–17). Disputes between them and the Pharisees are mentioned in later Jewish writings (m. Yad. 4.6–7; m. ʿErub. 6.2; m. Para 3.7; m. Nid. 4.2; b. Yoma 2a, 19b, 53a; b. Sukk. 48). They are depicted in the New Testament as opponents of Jesus who, together with the Pharisees, tested him with questions (Mark 12.18; Matt. 16.1, 6). In Acts they feature as opponents of the early Christians (4.1; 5.17).

The name (probably Hebr. ⊡addūqîm) is derived from Zadok. The most likely association is with the high priest under David; although it is just possible, as one tradition suggests, that they were connected with a later Zadok, pupil of one of the Sages, Antigonus of Socho (early second century BCE), who, as they believed, rejected belief in the resurrection. There were of course Zadokites, descendants of the original high priest, who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem for many centuries before the second century BCE, which is when Josephus introduces them. Possibly the emergence of Sadducees as a party is the result of a crisis occasioned by the usurpation of the high priesthood by Jonathan in 152 BCE; possibly this is also the point at which the Essenes broke away from the high‐priestly group and moved out into the desert. In any case the Sadducees and the Pharisees both strove for influence at court and for control over the Temple, which would of course give them the power required to exercise an important role in national affairs. Fortunes changed not infrequently; doubtless the power of the Temple aristocracy was substantially limited under Roman rule, but the Sadducees were prepared to accept a measure of compromise with the Roman authorities and probably had influence with them. Once they lost their cultic function as a result of the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) they ceased to exist as a group. This may reflect the extent to which they had lost popular support.

We learn of their beliefs only from others' writings. Whereas the Pharisees accepted the authority of the Tradition of the Elders as a valuable tool for extending and interpreting the Law, the Sadducees did not (Ant. 18.1.16). Nor did they, as the New Testament also attests, believe in the resurrection of the dead (Ant. 18.1.16–17; War 2.8.165; Mark 12.18; Acts 23.8; see Afterlife and Immortality, article on Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity). Josephus also reports that they did not believe in fate but thought that men and women were in control of their actions. They are also said to have rejected belief in angels and demons (Acts 23.8).

The sense of all this is elusive. In their development of an oral tradition of legal interpretation, the Pharisees and Sages were in one way doing no more than what had been done throughout Jewish history, that is, adapting their legal traditions to changing circumstance. Why should the Sadducees oppose this? Possibly because the written Law reinforced their control over the Temple; possibly too because the Pharisees were attempting to undermine that position by transferring some of the priestly rituals and practices away from Jerusalem to the towns and villages outside. Certainly the Sadducees were concerned principally to uphold the Temple and its sacrifices: for them it was the proper observance of Temple ritual that maintained the covenant relationship between Israel and God.

Rejection of belief in the resurrection again indicates a traditionalist stance. Jews had long believed that so long as Israel obeyed the Law then God would rule over them and reward the righteous and punish the wicked in this life. Belief in the resurrection, on the other hand, was linked to beliefs that the present age was in the grip of dark powers, so that in this life the righteous would suffer, although God would ultimately vindicate them. Those who had died would be raised so that they too could receive their due rewards (Dan. 12.2). To reject belief in the resurrection and, indeed, possibly also in demonic powers who controlled this world in the present age, was then also to reject the belief that this present age was radically corrupted; in fact, from the Sadducees' point of view, those who argued the contrary view may have appeared to deny the continued existence of the covenant between God and Israel. This may also explain their denial of fate. They believed that Jews were free to influence their destiny; if they obeyed the Law and repented and made due restitution when they sinned, then all would be well. The darker views of the world associated with belief in the resurrection also entailed beliefs in the pervasiveness of the power of sin (see Rom. 5.12–21, which may owe more than a little to Paul's Pharisaic background, although such beliefs should not be thought of as specifically Pharisaic), such that men and women were no longer in control of their fate. It is such views that the Sadducees rejected.

This may suggest a further reason why the Sadducees disappeared after 70 CE. Not only was their position as the Temple aristocracy fundamentally destroyed; their belief that the maintenance of the Temple cult would suffice to stave off real disaster for Israel had also been proven false.

See also Judaisms of the First Century CE


John Riches