Bible Background: The Sadducees

What sect held the reins of power in Ancient Israel?  Why did they view Jesus as a threat?  How did their reaction to the raising of Lazarus play a part in Christ’s death?

Throughout the gospels, we read about different people groups that played a significant role in the land of Palestine during the first century.  These people influenced the culture in which Christ ministered, and He tailored His messages in order to both reach and respond to these groups.  Learning more about these people can add greater detail and deeper understanding to our study of the gospels.  What follows is a thumbnail sketch of the first of these groups–the Sadducees.

Identity

  • The Sadducees were a significant Jewish sect.  Though a religious group, their influence was most keenly felt in political matters.
  • The Sadducees opposed the Pharisees on a number of doctrinal and political issues.
  • The Sadducees were a predominantly aristocratic and an exclusive sect that held positions of authority in the upper ranks of the priesthood.
  • Many Sadducees exercised political authority as members and elders of the Sanhedrin.
  • The Sadducees took an accommodating approach to Hellenization and the Roman authorities.
  • In an effort to retain their positions of prominence, the Sadducees sought to curry the favor of the Roman government by maintaining the status quo and preserving peace within their territories.  Thus, they regarded as a threat any popular movement that could be viewed as an uprising.
  • The Sadducees were rigidly conservative and strict in their enforcement of the law.
  • The Sadducees saw themselves as guardians of the pure Jewish faith.
  • The Sadducees rejected the oral laws, which the Pharisees viewed as authoritative.  They believed that elevating the oral laws had the potential to negate the Mosaic Law itself.
  • The Sadducees interpreted Mosaic Law literally.
  • In their teaching, the Sadducees emphasized free will and the responsibility of man over any notions of dependence upon the providence of God.
  • The Sadducees denied the existence of an afterlife and the possibility of a resurrection (Mark 12:18ff; Acts 23:8).
  • The view of the Sadducees was not affected by the promise of a Messiah.
  • The Sadducees rejected the existence of angels and demons (Acts 23:8).
  • Because they rejected so many of the doctrines taught in the Old Testament, it is possible that the Sadducees only believed in the canonicity of the Pentateuch.  It is more likely, though, that the Sadducees viewed the later writings of the Old Testament as subordinate to the Mosaic books.

Historical Development

  • The origin of the term “Sadducee” is uncertain.  Some contend that the term is derived from the Hebrew meaning “righteous ones.”  Others argue that the term is linked to the proper noun “Zadok” (a leading priest under David), making the Sadducees the “sons of Zadok.”  Still others maintain that the term was a transliteration of the Greek word “sundikoi” meaning “syndics,” “judges,” or “fiscal controllers.”
  • The Sadducees rose to prominence from the aristocratic priests of the Hasmonean period.
  • While no definitive information is known about the origin of the Sadducees, it is likely that the sect developed from members of Israel’s early senate or Sanhedrin, which began prior to the Maccabean revolt.
  • The Sadducees developed an alliance with John Hyrcanus during his service as high priest.  Thus began a close connection between the high-priests of Israel and the Sadducees.
  • The aristocratic Sadducees also became allied with the rulers of the Hasmonean dynasty on the basis of political interests.
  • Under Herod the Great, the power of the Sadducees weakened significantly.  Herod reduced the strength of the Sanhedrin and interrupted the succession of the high-priestly line by installing priests of his own choosing.  During this time, the public support for the Sadducees declined.
  • When Rome took control of Judea in 6 A.D., the Sanhedrin and Sadducees were able to exercise more political control under the Roman procurator.
  • After 6 A.D., Sadducees comprised a majority of the Sanhedrin, and only Sadducees served as the high priests.
  • The Sadducees were not able to accomplish much through the Sanhedrin because the Pharisees (though a minority in the Sanhedrin) enjoyed much stronger support among the people.
  • Because their existence was tied to their political and priestly authority, the Sadducees were unable to survive after the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D.

Reaction to Christ

  • Though mentioned sporadically in the gospels, (Matthew 3:7, 16:6, 11, 12), the most significant reference to the Sadducees is made in connection to an interview with Jesus in Jerusalem in which a Sadducee attempts to corner Jesus regarding the resurrection.  In response, Christ castigates the Sadducees for their failure to understand both the Scriptures and the power of God (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38), citing Exodus 3:6 in support of the resurrection.
  • The Sadducees seem to have been relatively unconcerned with Christ early in His ministry.
  • The Sadducees became alarmed with Christ only as He came to be viewed as a greater threat (Mark 11:8; John 11:47-48).
  • Christ’s raising of Lazarus launched the Sadducees into action against Him for political reasons and because it contradicted their denial of a resurrection from the dead.
  • The Sadducees united with their enemies, the Pharisees, to take action against Christ, claiming that “…it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50).

Resources for Further Study

  1. Evans, C. and Porter, S. (eds.) Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2000)
  2. Tenney, Merrill C.  New Testament Times (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1965)
  3. Tenney, Merrill C.  The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1975)
Trey GarnerTrey Garner
Trey Garner is the Pastor of Children's Ministries at Faith Church. He has been married to his wife Deb since 2001. They have two children named Noah and Lauren. Originally from Texas, Trey appreciates barnwood, armadillos, and Blue Bell Ice Cream.