Who were the Sadducees, and what were their teachings?

Also: Who were the Herodians and the Boethusians?

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The New Testament contains some references to a group called “Sadducees”. What kind of people were they, and what were their teachings?

The facts are that very little is known about the Sadducees and the Sadducee party. In the Bible, they are mentioned only in the NT, only in fourteen passages, and only in passing. Further: It appears that no Sadducee writings have been preserved to our day. Consequently, what is known about the Sadducees, comes from the few New Testament comments regarding them, and from ancient Pharisee writers who mentioned certain things about their opponent, the Sadducee party. (This includes the writings of the Jewish renegade general Josephus who apparently was a Pharisee before he became a Roman.)

This article takes a closer look at what we can know about the Sadducees. Also the groups called “Herodians” and “Boethusians” will be considered here, because there was a connection between them and the Sadducees.

The origin of the word ‘Sadducee’ is not known.

There are different theories on what the word “Sadducee” (in NT Greek saddoukaios) might have meant, but the facts are that there is no certain information regarding that.

Some Jewish writers have thought that the party-name saddoukaioi (as it is spelled in NT Greek, for instance in Matthew 16:1), perhaps came from a certain Sadok who lived in the 200s BCE and was a disciple of Antigonus of Soko, a figure in Jewish myths. But again, it is not known what the origin of the word saddoukaios actually was.

Some have suggested that the Sadducees perhaps were “sons of Zadok”. (Zadok was a certain priest in the days of king David.) But, there is no evidence that the Sadducees would have been Zadok’s descendants.

What the Scriptures say about the Sadducees.

In the Scriptures, the first occurrence of the word “Sadducee” is found here:

Matthew 3:1 And in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the waste land of Judaea […] 7 But when he saw a number of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, Offspring of snakes, at whose word are you going in flight from the wrath to come? (BBE)

John the Baptist called those Pharisees and Sadducees by the epithet “offspring of snakes”. Obviously, he had no high thoughts of either group.

Matthew 16:1 shows how some Sadducees, together with some Pharisees, tried to snare Jesus through tricky words and requests. They also asked for a “sign”. Jesus’ answer to them was that they were evil, and that no sign would be given them, except “the sign of Jonah”, Matthew 16:4. Verse 6 records how Jesus warned his disciples about the “leaven” (“sourdough”) of the Sadducees and of the Pharisees:

Matthew 16:6 And Jesus said to them, Take care to have nothing to do with the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (BBE)

Verse 12 clarifies that Jesus was talking about their teachings.

Matthew 16:12 Then they saw that it was not the leaven of bread which he had in mind, but the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (BBE)

So, Jesus warned people regarding the Sadducees’ and the Pharisees’ teachings. They were bad, something to keep away from.

Then, Matthew 22:23 shows that the Sadducees did not believe that the dead would be raised up. In other words: They denied the resurrection of the dead. Acts 23:8 indicates that they denied the existence of the “spirit world”.

Even Acts 4:1–2 and 5:17 mention the Sadducees.

Acts 4:1 And while they [the apostles] were talking to the people, the priests and the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees came up to them, 2 Being greatly troubled because they were teaching the people and preaching Jesus as an example of the coming back from the dead. (BBE, comment added)

Acts 5:12 Now a number of signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the Apostles; and they were all together in Solomon’s covered way. 13 The others, in fear, kept back from joining them: but the people made much of them; 14 And a great number of men and women had faith, and were joined to the Lord; 15 And they even took into the streets people who were ill, and put them on beds, so that when Peter went by, some of them might be in his shade. 16 And numbers of people came together from the towns round about Jerusalem, with those who were ill and those who were troubled with unclean spirits: and they were all made well. 17 But the high priest and those who were with him (the Sadducees) were full of envy, 18 And they took the Apostles and put them in the common prison. (BBE)

And finally, there is Acts 23 which shows how the apostle Paul used the Jewish party system, for dividing the Jewish council which had put him on trial. Paul exploited the fact that the council (the Sanhedrin) consisted of persons from both the Sadducee as well as the Pharisee parties. We read:

Acts 23:6 But when Paul saw that half of them were Sadducees and the rest Pharisees, he said in the Sanhedrin, Brothers, I am a Pharisee, and the son of Pharisees: I am here to be judged on the question of the hope of the coming back from the dead. 7 And when he had said this, there was an argument between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and a division in the meeting. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no coming back from the dead, and no angels or spirits: but the Pharisees have belief in all these. 9 And there was a great outcry: and some of the scribes on the side of the Pharisees got up and took part in the discussion, saying, We see no evil in this man: what if he has had a revelation from an angel or a spirit? (BBE)

A note: Someone might think that by doing that, Paul somehow “upheld the Pharisees” (or their teachings). But, all he did was that he caused division in that council, so that it would not pass a verdict on him. He succeeded in that.

Other parts of the New Testament show that the Pharisees were no “nice guys” either. The article noa120.htm has more on the Pharisees.

Some writers have suggested that “since Jesus did not denounce the Sadducees as often and as fiercely” as he denounced the Pharisees, the Sadducees “must have been better people”. But, that is a strange concept. That the New Testament does not mention the Sadducees as often as the Pharisees, is only what one should expect, because in New Testament times it was the Pharisee party that was in power.

What historical sources say about the Sadducees and the Sadducee party.

Above, it was shown that the Scriptures do not tell us much about the Sadducees. Also, it appears that no Sadducee writings have been preserved to our day. Besides the Bible, the old documents that can be used as a source of information regarding the Sadducees, are Pharisee writings, including those by Josephus whom many think to have been a Pharisee before he became a Roman.

The “historian” Josephus [a] seems to have thought that both the Sadducee and Pharisee parties were “ancient”, but it is not clear what he exactly meant by that. His writings also indicate that the Sadducees were Hellenistic (pro-Greek). (Before Roman times, the Greek had for a long time controlled the land of Israel and the area around it, and even in Roman times, that area was in many ways still under Greek influence.)

Josephus also wrote that the Sadducees mingled with the rich and collaborated with the Roman rulers. It appears that the Sadducees were a part of an “aristocracy” which lived a fat life at the cost of the rest of the nation.

Some writers have suggested that the Pharisees may have been more popular than the Sadducees, in the sight of the Jewish people. But, the facts are that we do not know whether either of those two elitist groups actually were “popular” among the common people.

a Again, Josephus was a renegade Jewish general. During the First Jewish-Roman War (66–70 CE), he went over to the Roman side. He was consequently granted Roman citizenship, and he changed his name to Titus Flavius Josephus. (His Jewish name might eventually have been something like Yoseph ben Mattiyahu.) As a Roman, he wrote a number of “historical works” which can be interesting but are not very reliable in regard to all details.

The Sadducees in pre-NT times.

The New Testament indicates that the Sadducees denied the existence of the “spirit realm” (Acts 23:8, “the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit”). In other words, it appears that they were “free-thinkers”, more or less like materialists.

Some say that in old writings, the first mention of the Sadducees is from the time of the Jewish warlord Johanan Hyrcanus who lived circa 164–104 BCE.

In those pre-NT times, the Sadducees came into power, and they even introduced changes to the temple ritual. This led to bitter strife and even extremely bloody fights and plain mass slaughter. But, ancient writers say that after a number of decades the Sadducee party lost its power-position, and that after that, those priests who were Sadducees, had to comply with what the people along with the Pharisees felt to be the original and proper ritual in and by the temple. – The following has some notes on that matter.

For a time, the warlord Johanan Hyrcanus managed to make himself the governor or ruler of Judea (reign circa 134–104 BCE, and he also made himself the high priest. According to Josephus, a certain Pharisee expressed doubts regarding Hyrcanus’ lineage (that is, regarding his right to be a priest). This caused Hyrcanus to become enraged. In the past, he had supported the Pharisee party and had even made Pharisee teachings into law, but now he gave his support to the Sadducee party instead.

Josephus wrote that it was a Sadducee by the name Jonathan who talked Hyrcanus into moving over to his party (‘Antiquities of the Jews’, book XIII).

It is said that the Pharisees accepted the temple rituals as they had traditionally been, while the Sadducees wanted to change things. Here, it must be noted that the Old Testament does not record all details in regard to how those rituals were to be performed. Apparently, the knowledge regarding that matter had been passed on from one priest generation to another, either orally or in writing, we do not know which. The Sadducees, however, did not accept the traditional ways but “only the Scriptures”, which of course referred to their own interpretation of what the Scriptures supposedly meant.

Johanan Hyrcanus died in 104 BCE. After this, his son Judah Aristobulus was for a short time the ruler, but in 103 BCE Alexander Jannaeus, a bloody man of extremely bad nature, rose into power. He supported the Sadducee party. (Even he was a warlord who made himself both a ruler as well as a high priest.) His reign and priesthood led to civil war in Judea. That cost great numbers of people their lives. An example of that, as recorded by Josephus:

Now as Alexander fled to the mountains, six thousand of the Jews hereupon came together [from Demetrius] to him out of pity at the change of his fortune; upon which Demetrius was afraid, and retired out of the country; after which the Jews fought against Alexander, and being beaten, were slain in great numbers in the several battles which they had; and when he had shut up the most powerful of them in the city Bethome, he besieged them therein; and when he had taken the city, and gotten the men into his power, he brought them to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. (‘Antiquities of the Jews’, book XIII, chapter 14, translation by William Whiston.)

That is an example of what kind of a man the Sadducee and high priest Alexander Jannaeus was, according to Josephus. More:

“As to Alexander, his own people were seditious against him; for at a festival which was then celebrated, when he stood upon the altar, and was going to sacrifice, the nation rose upon him, and pelted him with citrons [which they then had in their hands, because] the law of the Jews required that at the feast of tabernacles every one should have branches of the palm tree and citron tree; which thing we have elsewhere related. They also reviled him, as derived from a captive, and so unworthy of his dignity and of sacrificing. At this he was in a rage, and slew of them about six thousand. He also built a partition-wall of wood round the altar and the temple, as far as that partition within which it was only lawful for the priests to enter; and by this means he obstructed the multitude from coming at him.” (‘Antiquities of the Jews’, book XIII, chapter 14, translation by William Whiston.)

That latter quote states that Alexander Jannaeus was enraged and had 6000 people killed. – But why had the people been angry at him? Because he, a Sadducee, changed the temple ritual, from what it traditionally had been. He introduced new manners into the ritual. He did not care about what the people thought. It is said that at one time, he even called in the army to slay them, in the actual temple area. According to some writers, the reign of Alexander Jannaeus cost tens of thousands of Jews their lives, in several conflicts.

It is said that during the reigns of John Hyrcanus (ca. 134–104 BCE) and Alexander Jannaeus (ca. 103–76 BCE), the Pharisees were forced out from the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council in Jerusalem). Alexander Jannaeus’ wife Salome succeeded him, as a ruler over the Jews (reign ca. 76–67 BCE). It is said that she was favourable to the Pharisees, and that during her reign they were restored and rose to power and influence. Salome was succeeded by her son Hyrcanus who also was in favour of the Pharisees (Hyrcanus II, reign as a king ca. 67–66 BCE, and then, under Roman rule, a governor ca. 63–57 BCE, and an ethnarch of Judea, ca. 47–40 BCE.)

The time after Salome was chaotic, until the Romans took full control. But, by New Testament times, the Pharisees were again in power, in the Sanhedrin and also in regard to temple rituals and so on.

The Bible mentions Herodians. Who were they? What about the Boethusians?

The word “Herodian” appears only in three bible-passages, Matthew 22:16 and Mark 3:6 and 12:13.

It is thought that the Herodians (Greek, hêrodianoi) were a fraction of the Sadducee party – a group which was in favour of Herod I and his dynasty. Here is an excerpt from the article “Herodians” in ‘Jewish Encyclopedia’ (1901–1906):

Priestly party under the reign of King Herod and his successors; called by the Rabbis ‘Boethusians,’ as adherents of the family of Boethus, whose daughter Mariamne was one of the wives of King Herod, and whose sons were successively made high priests by him. They followed the Sadducees in their opposition to the Pharisees, and were therefore often identified with the former. […]

Excerpts from the article “Boethusians” in that same encyclopedia:

A Jewish sect closely related to, if not a development of, the Sadducees. […] The prevailing opinion now is that the Boethusians were only a variety of the Sadducees, deriving their name from the priest Boethus. […]

In other words, it appears that the “Herodians” and “Boethusians” were a sub-group (or sub-groups) within the Sadducee party. But, we have no certain information regarding this.

Who controlled the temple ritual, in New Testament times?

Josephus and other ancient writers say that in New Testament times, it was the Pharisees who were in control of the rituals in the sanctuary.

The Sadducee party had lost its power, and the high priests were no longer free to do what they wished. It is said that in NT times, the Sadducee high priests were forced to follow Pharisee instructions, at the threat of severe penalties. Further, it is said that the segan, the deputy high priest and the practical manager of things in and by the temple, was a Pharisee.

In other words: In New Testament times, the Sadducee high priests had to act as tradition required, according to how the temple ritual had been earlier, and not according to the Sadducee inventions. – Chapter 2 in the book ‘Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah’ by Alfred Edersheim contains a note regarding “the admitted fact, that when in office the Sadducees conformed to the principles and practices of the Pharisees”.

What differences were there between Pharisee and Sadducee views in regard to the temple rites?

Some details of the difference between their views that can be seen in the Bible, for instance in Acts 23:8. Here are a couple of examples from other sources: The Sadducees and the Pharisees had different views in regard to the temple ritual, such as how to perform the water ceremony during the Feast of Booths, and the manner and timing of the reaping of the first-fruit barley for the wave offer in the Passover season. The latter point affected even the date of the high day Feast of Weeks (Pentecost).

Some notes.

Was one of those parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, “better” than the other? – That is not the right question to ask. Consider the fact that Jesus castigated persons in both groups and warned people about their teachings.

Apparently, many of the Sadducees and Pharisees were “upper-class” people who lived in luxury at the cost of others. (Not all individuals in those parties, of course, but some of them.) It appears that the Sadducees were a part of the “high society”; the Pharisees perhaps were slightly lower “upper class”.

The article noa120.htm has more on the Pharisees.

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm

What does the Bible say about the Pharisees? → noa120.htm

What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → nsa060.htm

What does the word “doctrine” really mean? Likewise, what is the meaning of the terms “dogma”, “creed” and “tenet”? → nsa080.htm

What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → nga080.htm


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