The Sadducees of Jesus’ Day
AT THE time Christ Jesus was upon the earth there were three main Jewish sects, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. In the Christian Greek Scriptures, or “New Testament”, the Pharisees are referred to by name some one hundred times; the Sadducees are mentioned as such only fourteen times, whereas the Essenes do not appear at all. Having previously considered the Pharisees,* let us now note what the Bible and other historical works have to say about the Sadducees.
The Sadducees were the sacerdotal or priestly aristocrats. Thus we read at Acts 5:17 (NW): “But the high priest and all those with him, the then existing sect of the Sadducees.” The chief priests Annas and Caiaphas were Sadducees. (Luke 3:2) It was therefore the Sadducean chief priests that, together with the Pharisees, dispatched officers to arrest Christ Jesus.—John 7:32; 11:47, 57; 18:3.
This is further borne out when we consider the origin of their name. The term “Sadducean” is the Greek translation of “Zadokite”. Since the name “Zadok” has the meaning of morally clean or righteous, some have held that the Sadducees took this name because of their self-righteousness and strict adherence to the law of Moses. However, the weight of evidence links their name to the Levite Zadok, who was high priest in the time of David and Solomon. (1 Ki. 1:32-45; 2:35; 2 Chron. 31:10) This priestly class continued to bear the name Sadducee or Sadducean, even though the high priest line was transferred to another house, the Hasmonean, in the days of the Maccabees.
Among the Sadducees were a group known as the Boethusians, referred to in the Scriptures as the “party followers of Herod” or “Herodians”. (Mark 3:6, NW) We find these linked with the Pharisees in their efforts to discredit Christ, as recorded at Mark 3:6 where we read that “the Pharisees went out and immediately began holding council with the party followers of Herod” to destroy Jesus. (NW) Christ Jesus warned against the Sadducees’ teaching even as he did against the teaching of the Pharisees: “Keep your eyes open, look out for the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” (Mark 8:15, NW) In view of the similarity of these two texts in Mark to Matthew 16:1, 6, it is quite likely that Matthew simply referred to these as Sadducees, whereas Mark further distinguished or identified them as the “party followers of Herod”. It seems therefore that among the Sadducees were to be found both the chief priests and the “party followers of Herod”.
SADDUCEES VERSUS PHARISEES
Being of a political frame of mind, the Sadducees believed in using statecraft in dealing with other nations. They would work out the salvation of the Jewish nation, not waiting for the Messiah to deliver them; outstanding example of this being the sons of Mattathias known as the Maccabees, 166-63 B.C. The Sadducees were wealthy and favored the rich class. Both because of their favored position and because of their teachings they had little influence with the people. In striking contrast with these stood their rivals, the Pharisees, who looked for the coming of the Messiah to rid them of their national ills and who were popular among the common people although they themselves looked down upon them.—John 7:49, NW.
The Scriptures enlighten us on some of the chief differences between the teachings of the Sadducees and those of the Pharisees: “Sadducees say there is neither resurrection nor angel nor spirit, but the Pharisees publicly declare them all.” (Acts 23:8, NW) Their disbelief in the resurrection is familiar to all by reason of their trying to stump Jesus in the matter of the woman who had seven husbands.—Matt. 22:23-32.
A third major difference between the two was, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, that the Sadducees held that man was a completely free moral agent and that his prosperity depended entirely upon himself; whereas the Pharisees inclined toward a fatalism and held to a form of predestinarianism. The Pharisees held that man has an immortal soul (again, according to Josephus; other writers holding that only some of the Pharisees believed this) and that there were rewards of bliss for well-doing and punishment in Haʹdes for evil-doing after death. The Sadducees denied all this.
As regards the Scriptures, the Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, and rejected not only the inspiration of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures but also the oral tradition that the Pharisees claimed had been brought down from Moses’ day. Because of their rejection of the oral law or tradition they were termed by some as “Scripturalists” and “Bible followers”.
While claiming to reject the oral tradition, it seems, if the accounts of discussions recorded in the Pharisees’ Mishnah accurately present their views, that the Sadducees objected chiefly to the later innovations. Actually they were as bad as the Pharisees when it came to ‘straining out the gnat and gulping down the camel’.—Matt. 23:24, NW.
According to the Sadducees, the law of levirate marriage applied only to betrothed virgins, whereas the Pharisees held it to be applicable to widows. Understanding this distinction adds meaning to the question the Sadducees raised as to which of the seven husbands would have the woman in the resurrection; for according to them the woman could have actually become the wife of only the seventh. By raising this question the Sadducees were attacking both the teaching of the resurrection and that of the levirate marriage as taught by the Pharisees. The Sadducees required that the spurned woman spit in the face of the reluctant brother-in-law, whereas the Pharisees required only that she spit before his face.—Deut. 25:5-9.
In the law of retaliation, which required that a man who had given false testimony against his neighbor be punished with the same penalty he sought to bring upon another, the Sadducees required a literal carrying out of the ‘eye for eye, hand for hand’ law, but the Pharisees allowed money payments to be substituted for the actual requirements. On the other hand, the Sadducees only required payment of the literal penalty if the false testimony actually resulted in injury, whereas the Pharisees held that the intent to harm was in itself sufficient to require punishment. God’s Word on the subject reads: “Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to do unto his brother.”—Deut. 19:16-21, AS.
In general it might be said that the Sadducees interpreted the law conservatively and applied its penalties with rigor, while the Pharisees endeavored to please the people by mitigating its penalties wherever possible to do so by some specious reasoning. The Sadducees interpreted the law so literally that they forbade the rendering of conjugal dues for forty days after the birth of a male and for eighty days after the birth of a female infant, on the basis that the law spoke of a woman as being unclean for such periods of time. They even went so far as to forbid the rendering of such dues on the sabbath because of the exertion involved.—Lev. 12:2-8.
The Sadducees shared with the Pharisees the guilt of putting Jesus to death. They were extremely self-righteous and Christ warned his followers against their teaching even as he warned them against the teaching, “yeast,” of the Pharisees. (Matt. 16:6, 11, 12, NW) And while his scathing denunciation recorded at Matthew, chapter 23, was directed against the scribes and Pharisees, we are not to think that the Sadducees were less reprehensible. Rather, it seems that because of their keeping aloof from the people they came less frequently in contact with Jesus.
It was the most politically minded wing of the Sadducees, the Boethusians or party followers of Herod, that endeavored to trap Jesus on the question of the tribute money. Their feigned sincerity and their flattery of Christ did not cause him to walk into their trap. He pulled off their mask with the question, “Why do you put me to the test?” and avoided their trap by having them produce a coin with Caesar’s image upon it and then answering them, “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.”—Mark 12:13-17, NW.
It seems that right after Pentecost it was the Sadducees who figured chiefly in the persecution of the apostles, “being annoyed because they were teaching the people and were plainly declaring the resurrection from the dead in the case of Jesus” as well as because with their preaching the apostles seemed ‘determined to bring the blood of Jesus upon their heads’. (Acts 4:1, 2, 19; 5:17, 28, 29, NW) With the destruction of Jerusalem A.D. 70, the Sadducees quickly disappeared from the Jewish scene.
Forty years prior thereto, John the Baptist had warned them, as well as the Pharisees, of that impending destruction. “When he caught sight of many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the baptism he said to them: ‘You offspring of vipers, who has shown you how to flee from the coming wrath? So then produce fruit that befits repentance; and do not presume to say to yourselves, “As a father we have Abraham.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Already the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree, then, that does not produce fine fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire.’”—Matt. 3:7-10, NW.
The Sadducees, in many respects, find their counterpart in the modernist clergy of Christendom who manifest very little faith in God’s Word, show a self-righteous spirit, look to worldly governments rather than to God’s King and his kingdom and oppose the servants of Jehovah who bring this hope to the people. And with Armageddon they will pass from the world scene even as did the Sadducees with the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. He that exercises faith in the Son has everlasting life; he that disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him.—John 3:35, 36, NW.
See The Watchtower, May 15, 1953.