Who were the Sadducees?

Daily life of Israel under Roman occupation was governed by a group of religious and political leaders known as the Sanhedrin. Rome allowed Israel to govern itself in many matters as long as they did not interfere wtih Rome’s laws or foster rebellion against the Empire. Like the American Congress today the Sanhedrin was comprised of men holding allegience with one of two ideological groups. The larger of the two groups was the Pharisees. They held a strict adherence to a broad reaching series of traditional laws that governed every part of daily living. The Pharisees endured the government of Rome but generally did little to cooperate with it.

The other group within the Sanhedrin was known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees were very different from the Pharisees in politics, theology and daily living. Sadducees were mostly wealthy men of the ruling class. They were fewer in number than the Pharisees, but they held the positions of leadership within the Sanhedrin. The Bible tells us that the High Priest in Jesus day was a Sadducee (Acts 5:17) and history indicates that most of the High Priests under the Roman occupation were Sadducees. As a result, the Sadducees were the more powerful of the two groups.

The greatest political disagreement between the groups was over the relationship of the Sanhedrin to civil government. This issue is believed to be one of the primary reasons the Sadducees split away from the Pharisees sometime around 150 BC. The Sadducees desired both political and religious authority, while the Pharisees taught that civil government and religious government should not be invested in the same individual.

Very little first hand information about the theological teachings of the Sadducees is available. History has not preserved any of their writings. What is known about their doctrine comes from a several references in the Bible, the writings of Josephus and a couple other Jewish works. The Sadducees held to the teachings of the Old Testament, particularly the writings of Moses, but rejected the authority of the traditions of the Pharisees. This caused great conflict with the Pharisees who believed the oral traditions to be as authoritative as Scripture. While the Sadducees adherence to Scripture alone appears laudable their rejection of the traditions of the Pharisees seems to have been driven by a refusal to follow the Pharisees rather than by a desire to obey God’s Word.

The Bible says the Sadducees rejected belief in the resurrection (Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8). The believed the soul died with the body and that there was no promise of a future resurrection, either to a kingdom on this earth or to a life in heaven. The Sadducees also denied the existence of a spiritual essence in man and of angelic beings. They appear to have been materialists who were most concerned with maintaining their own power and wealth. Their influence in Israel lasted a little over 200 years. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, so was their power. They fell off the pages of history in 70 AD and have not reappeared since.