Gospel Gazette Online
Volume 17 Number 9 September 2015
Page 6

Historical Analysis of the Sadducees

Peter D. DeGraff


“The Judaism of the intertestamental period is a very complex system indeed, comprising many religious and political groups (these two ideas can hardly be separated), and a multitude of ordinary Jews who belonged to no identifiable party. Three important parties mentioned by Josephus are the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes, to which he adds a fourth, later to be known as the Zealots, which made its appearance around the year A.D. 6“ (Russell 155).


We know very little regarding the Sadducees. The reason being is as Samuel Sandmel has written, “The Sadducees are known to us essentially from their portrayal by their critics or opponents, including bitter ones. If any Sadducee ever wrote anything, not a line has come down to us” (Sandmel 156). Consequently, our only knowledge of Sadducees comes from their enemies. Not a good source! Nevertheless, the following scholars have gleaned the following concerning the Sadducees.

Frederick J. Murphy wrote: “Josephus, the New Testament, and rabbinic literature all speak of the Sadducees, but very little is really known about them. All three sources contrast the Sadducees and the Pharisees. In rabbinic literature, ritual purity and Sabbath observance are debated by the two groups. The rabbis supply little information for reconstructing Sadducean organization or beliefs. The only two solidly established traits of the Sadducees are that they were members of the ruling class, and that they did not believe in resurrection” (239).

Stephen E. Robinson has given this view concerning the make-up and political role and influence of the Sadducees:

The Sadducees were a small party of very wealthy and influential aristocrats. Most Sadducees were priests, and the high priestly families (those families from whom the high priests traditionally came) controlled the sect and its membership. The term Sadducee comes from the name of Zadok, who had been high priest at the time of King Solomon, and whose descendants had served in the office ever since, except for the time of the early Maccabean period. The name thus underscores the nature of the Sadducees as an exclusive circle of wealthy and influential high priestly families and their followers.

The Sadducees controlled the Jerusalem Temple and derived their wealth, power, and influence from it. The temple generated tremendous revenues from the sacrifices and concession, and these riches were controlled by the Sadducees. The Sadducean high priest was also the head of the Sanhedrin (the governing council of the Jews), and therefore Sadducees were also very prominent in government. In any society, it is the aristocracy that resists changes in the status quo, since they benefit from things as they are. Thus, politically the Sadducees cooperated with the Romans in return for the continued exercise of their many privileges. But it also followed that the Sadducees exerted almost no moral influence on the common people, who resented them for their aristocratic attitudes and for their cooperation with Rome. (24)

Concerning this same topic, D.S. Russell wrote:

We can picture them, then, as a small and select group of influential and wealthy men who exercised considerable power in the civic and religious life of the nation. The powerful priesthood was represented within this social aristocracy by the High Priest and his retinue and by other leading priestly officials. Not all the priests, however, were Sadducees; some indeed were members of the rival party of the Pharisees. Nor, as we have seen, were all Sadducees priests, for in the parties were wealthy traders and high-ranking government officials. They were in fact a company of people, priestly and lay, who enjoyed the same social standing and were determined to maintain the existing state of society both in Church and State. They did not begin, therefore, as a religious party, but because of their close association with the Temple and the priesthood, and because politics and religion could not readily be separated from each other, theirs gradually assumed a religious character over against the party of the Pharisees. (158)

Russell continued his discussion of the Sadducean politics and religion in these words:

In politics and in religion they were conservative in outlook, determined at all costs to maintain the status quo in both State and Church. As conservatives in politics they stood for the Israelite ideal of a theocratic state under the leadership of the High Priest. For this reason they were suspicious of the popular eschatological faith in the coming of a Messiah: as such teaching was a menace to the existing social and political order and had to be handled with the greatest care. As conservative in religion they set themselves to preserve all that they believed to be best in the priestly tradition. In particular they championed the observance of the Temple ritual and the prerogative of the priests to interpret the Law, maintaining that their interpretations, together with priestly ordinances and usages arising out of them, were in themselves a sufficient guide for those who sought to obey the commands of God. From an early date their authority as interpreters of the Law met a serious challenge from the Pharisees, who developed their own oral tradition of lay interpretation… The Sadducees rejected this tradition and stoutly defended the Torah as alone authoritative; it is unlikely, however, that they denied the sacredness of the Prophets and the Writings…” (159)

The Prophets and the Writings are all of the Old Testament aside from the Torah or five books of Moses.

Works Cited

Murphy, Frederick J. The Religious World of Jesus. Nashville: Abingdon P., 1991.

Robinson, Stephen. “The Setting of the Gospels.” Studies in Scriptures: Vol. Five, The Gospels. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986.

Russell. D. S. The Jews from Alexander to Herod. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1967.

Sandmel, Samuel. Judaism and Christian Beginnings. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1978.

[Editor’s Note: The Bible student will improve his or her understanding of the biblical text whenever he or she can expand his or her awareness of the overall context surrounding passages of Scripture. Context goes beyond the verses of Scripture under consideration and includes more than material peripheral to a verse that one might examine in a chapter, a book of the Bible or the entirety of the Bible. For instance, geographical settings, topographical facts, political circumstances and historical information—all of which are outside the biblical text—make valuable contributions to understanding the biblical text. Such is the case regarding the identification of the Sadducees. ~ Louis Rushmore, Editor]

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