Sadducees: The secular power of religion.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 October
SADDUCEE 'sæd.ʒə.si noun. An ancient denomination of the Hebrew religion which upheld the written Law alone, and denied the supernatural and the afterlife.
[Sadducean .sæd.ʒə'si.ən adjective.]

Protestants seldom know this history, so let me fill you in.

John bar Simon was the head priest and king of Judea from 134BC to 104BC. He was a member of the Hasmonean family; his dad was Simon Maccabee, one of the Maccabees who freed Judea from the Syrian Greeks (the “Seleucid Empire”) in 167BC. His dad had become the first head priest after the temple was restored, and since he was functionally the head of state, he was also recognized as Judea’s king. The Hasmoneans ruled Judea till the Romans deposed them in 41BC and gave the throne to Herod bar Antipater.

John’s also known as John Hyrcanus. He got his nickname Hurqanós/“from Hyrkania” after defeating the Syrian general Cendebeus, and since it’s probably an inside joke which was never recorded, we don’t know why he was called that. He’s known as a great general who doubled the size of Judea to include Samaria and Idumea. He’s also known as the king who forced the Idumeans (i.e. Edomites) to become Jews and be circumcised. And Pharisees remember him ’cause he quit the Pharisees and become Sadducee.

Y’see, when there’s no such thing as a separation of church and state, religion and politics are the same thing. Most Judeans were Pharisee. So were the priests. So was their senate. Sadducees, in comparison, were just this little tiny sect of Jews with some rather faithless beliefs:

Acts 22.8 KWL
For Sadducees say there’s no resurrection, nor angels, nor Holy Spirit,
and Pharisees profess them all.

We don’t know how much, or even whether, Hyrcanus believed as Sadducees did. He didn’t join them for religious reasons. He joined ’em because Pharisees had pissed him off.

Two prominent Pharisees, Eleazar bar Pokhera and Judah bar Gedidim, had publicly declared (right in front of him, according to one story), “If Hyrcanus is really a righteous man, he oughta resign the head priesthood, because we heard his mother had been a captive in Modin under the Syrians”—implying one of those Syrians had fathered him instead of Simon Maccabee, thus making Hyrcanus unqualified to be hereditary head priest. Hyrcanus ordered the claim to be investigated. Once proven untrue, he demanded his false witnesses be thrown out of the senate, just as they wanted him thrown out of office. Dt 19.18-19 But Pharisees in the senate ignored the Law and only had them whipped. So in his ire, Hyrcanus quit the Pharisees.

And to really stick it to ’em, he joined the group Pharisees considered their mortal enemies, the Sadducees. And ever since, he and the head priests who succeeded him—all the way up to Annas and Joseph Caiaphas in Jesus’s day, all the way to the last head priest, Fannias bar Samuel, in 70CE—were Sadduccee. Ac 5.17

Sadducee beliefs.

The Sadducees left behind no writings. Some scholars suggest two books of the apocrypha, specifically 1 Maccabees and Jesus ben Sirach, were written by Sadducees—’cause they don’t discuss angels, the supernatural, and Messiah. That’s debatable. It’s fair to say from their own pens, we don’t know what Sadducees taught. Everything we have came from Pharisees or Christians—who were of course biased.

Flavius Josephus figured their name came from the Hebrew word chadáq/“morally right.” Or the proper names Chadóq/“Zadok” or Chidqíya/“Zedekiah.” The writers of the Talmud assumed the founder of the Sadducees was somebody named Zadok, and some Christians manage to mix that Zadok up with David’s head priest Zadok ben Akhitóv 2Sa 8.17 even though he lived eight centuries too early.

Once the Hasmonean family, and the other priests in leadership, became Sadducee, no doubt the sect’s beliefs changed significantly. Political power will do that. So while Sadducees didn’t believe in supernatural power, they most definitely believed—and held—secular power.

As priests, they were especially interested in their priestly duties, and stressed the Law’s rituals—namely the ones they followed. So much so, Christians have claimed the Sadducees’ bible consisted only of Genesis through Deuteronomy—only the Law, same as the Samaritans—and they ignored the rest. Thing is, Pharisees never wrote any such thing about Sadducees, and you’d think they would. (They never missed an opportunity to bash the other things they considered Sadducee flaws.) I would remind you the head priests mocked Jesus with a quote from Psalms, Mt 27.41-43, Ps 21.8 so they respected that as scripture… which implies their scriptures weren’t limited to the Law alone.

But obviously Sadducees picked and chose which parts of the Law they’d accept. Even though there are direct references to the Holy Spirit in these books, Ge 1.2, 6.3, Ex 31.3, 35.31, Nu 24.2, 27.18 as well as other spirits and angels, the Sadducees decided to skip those bits. Supernatural acts aplenty—10 whole plagues against Egypt, remember?—but the Sadducees insisted miracles don’t happen. True, resurrection doesn’t come up till later in the bible, but if Sadducees knew the psalms, they had to have known where David mentioned God wouldn’t abandon his soul to the grave Ps 16.10 —meaning at some point we come out of the grave.

Some scholars speculate Sadducees were materialists. Possibly the influence of Greek philosophy, like Epicurism. Epíkuros of Samos (341–270BC) was a materialist who denied the gods interfered with the material world, and insisted it was best we focus on peace, freedom from fear and pain, and a self-sufficient life. Josephus claimed Sadducees likewise neither believed in divine intervention, nor predestination. So, prophecies? Don’t happen. Declarations about Messiah? Pharisee hype. The End Times? There are no End Times—the universe doesn’t end, but goes on forever, so long that Sadducees in power were clever enough to keep the Romans from knocking down their temple.

Meh; maybe there was a lot of Epicurism in the Sadducees. Then again, maybe they reached such conclusions on their own. Epíkuros wasn’t the only one to imagine a cosmos with an absentee God.

It’s just it’s weird to imagine priests with such beliefs. Their whole life was ministering God to people… yet they didn’t believe God cared enough to stick around? Something’s not right.

Hence people wonder how truly religious Sadducees were. Caiaphas clearly had no qualms about killing Jesus out of political expediency. Jn 11.49-50 These are hardly the ethics of someone who took “Don’t murder” seriously. Ex 20.13 So how devout were Sadducees? According to most historians of the day (and Pharisees, naturally), not very. If they were more political than religious—if they were civic idolaters, whose beliefs about God could be easily set aside when inconvenient—they were hypocrites. As hypocrites it wouldn’t matter what their religious beliefs were; they were all dispensable.


The Sadducees were a small denomination before Hyrcanus joined them, and remained a small denomination even so. The nation might’ve officially been whatever the ruler was, but the bulk of Judeans were Pharisee. Sheer numbers were the only way Pharisees retained their influence, and uneasily shared power with the Sadducees—even despite Hyrcanus’s son Alexander Yannai (103–76BC) crucifying 800 Pharisee rebels after the Judean Civil War.

Their small numbers are likely why they didn’t survive the Roman-Jewish War. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, the Sadducees ceased to exist.

Wiped out? Well, that’s what most Christians assume. But it doesn’t fit Sadducee character. Their “We’re on our own; God’s not bailing us out” mentality more likely meant when they saw the Romans coming, they either ran or capitulated. When the Romans defeated Josephus, he figured if he couldn’t beat ’em, he may as well join ’em. The Sadducees were likely just as pragmatic.

So once their temple was destroyed, their priesthood abolished, and their power gone, the Sadducee sect no longer had a reason to continue. If their only purpose is secular power, but there is no secular power, why bother? And so the Sadducees passed away.

Their descendants became… well, everything else. Pharisees, Christians, Gnostics, pagans, whatever.

We see reminders of Sadducee thinking whenever we see civic idolatry. Whenever politicians feign religion to get votes, or embrace materialism, or bend their values to accommodate power, it’s the very same sort of behavior we see of the Sadducees in the New Testament. They knew neither the scriptures nor God’s power, just as Jesus said; Mk 12.24 same with such people today.

Pray they learn ’em both.