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Sadducees vs. Jesus

Jimmy Akin

Best known for trying to catch Jesus in logical traps, the Sadducees had some strange beliefs for first century Jews. Why do they seem so tricky in their dealings with Jesus? And what can his interactions with them teach an apologist?


Who is this mysterious group who challenges Jesus on the resurrection, but believes in God? We’ll tackle the Sadducees next with Jimmy Aiken. Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and we’re in the midst of three conversations with Jimmy Akin on some of the movements in the Jewish world of Jesus’s time. Last time, we talked about the Pharisees. If you haven’t gotten that one, wherever you get your podcasts you can go back and listen to our conversation about the Pharisees. Next time we’ll talk about the Essenes; this time, the Sadducees.

Cy Kellett:
There’s a certain way in which as a kid reading the Gospels or having the Gospels read at Mass or whatnot, you could easily kind of group the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees and go these are the … who are these people? They all seem like they’re the same opponents of Jesus. There’s not a, you don’t make a clear distinction.

Jimmy Akin:
Well, the Gospel authors make a clear distinction. That’s why they used three different terms for them. So the Gospel authors were aware of the distinctions between these groups; it’s us who are not.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, right I guess.

Jimmy Akin:
So we’re reading along and it’s like okay, these people seem to be opposing Jesus much of the time; not always but much of the time, so we kind of lump them together because we’re not really familiar with who these movements are, and that’s why we’re doing this series.

Cy Kellett:
So the Sadducees then, what makes them distinctive? Who are they?

Jimmy Akin:
Well, so like the Pharisees they’re a group that seems to have come into existence fairly recently, which is why we don’t read about them under that, at least under that name in the Old Testament. Now actually, their movement may go back aways but it seems to have evolved over time, to have changed. Scholars debate where the term Sadducee comes from. Now before we started recording this episode, the staff here in the radio department and video department was asking me about a joke that I’d never heard before, but apparently is wildly popular among priests. This is I guess like the priest equivalent of a dad joke.

Cy Kellett:
Uh oh, yeah. A priest joke. That should be a thing, too. Yeah, it’s like a dad joke. Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah, yeah. The joke goes that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, so they were sad, you see? Which is instantly cringe worthy.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah it is, but it does help you remember an interesting fact about them.

Jimmy Akin:
Well it is, and that actually will become relevant. We should talk about their views on that. But one of the proposals for where their name comes from is it may be based on the name of one of Solomon’s high priests who was named Zadok.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
And so a descendant of Zadok would be a Zadoki, and you can here how Sadduki or Saddukim for the plural could lead to Sadducees. So it may mean they’re descended from the line of Zadok, to give his English name. On the other hand, it may mean something else because tsaddiq in Hebrew means righteous.

Cy Kellett:
Oh, so …

Jimmy Akin:
So it could also mean they viewed themselves as the righteous ones. However that may be, we know they existed by about the time of the Maccabees. In our episode on the Pharisees, I mentioned how initially the high priest and ruler, Johnathan Maccabee, initially favored the Pharisees. And then one of the Pharisees suggested that he might want to not be high priest anymore because his mom had been a captive in wartime and he could be an illegitimate son of a foreigner and not of true high priestly stock, which didn’t go down so well with him. But Johnathan had a friend who was a Sadducee, who then used that as an opportunity to say it’s not just that one Pharisee who said that, who thinks that; they all think that. And that led Johnathan to start favoring the Sadducees.

Now you will hear it frequently said that the Sadducees were like the priestly aristocracy at the time of Jesus. The evidence does not fully support that. What the evidence does support is that they were a kind of elite. They had lots of wealthy friends, so the upper crusties in Jewish society like the Sadducees. The popular people more liked the Pharisees, but the elite liked the Sadducees. And we do find some Sadducee high priests, but not all priests and not all high priests were Sadducees. They were also Pharisees. So these two groups kind of, you would find at the time of Jesus the Jewish nation in terms of its … I mean, it was ruled by the Romans but the local government was a council known as the Sanhedrin, and they met at a place on the Temple Mount called the Hall of Hewn Stones, because it had these polished stones. And both Pharisees and Sadducees were on that council, so they both as groups had enough social clout that they both got places in the ruling council.

And like I said, we do find some high priests that are Sadducees. One of them is a guy who served very briefly around A.D. 62. His name was, the Latin version is Ananias or the English Latin version is Ananias, son of Ananias, but his Aramaic name would be more like [Hanania bar Hanania 00:06:12]. And he’s the high priest that had James, the brother of Jesus, the so-called brother put to death. He was the one that did that and we know he was a Sadducee. And Josephus brings that up in connection with, when he talks about Jesus’s so-called brother, James, and how he died. He mentions that Ananias was a Sadducee, and he kind of makes a point about that because one of the things he uses as an illustration because one of the things that Josephus says is the Sadducees when it came to applying the law, were the strictest of the groups, meaning they were the most merciless. So if they put you on trial, they were going to show you less mercy than anybody else.

Cy Kellett:
Right, okay.

Jimmy Akin:
And even though James the Just was very popular with the people and had a reputation for being pious, that’s why he was called James the Just; he was a tsaddiq himself. He was not a Sadducee, but he was righteous. He had this reputation for righteousness. In fact, according to some early accounts, his knees were like camel knees because he spent so much time down on them praying. So he had a reputation for great righteousness, but merciless Sadducee high priest is going to put him to death when he has the opportunity.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
Now there are other interesting things about the Sadducees. We mentioned that they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, and they also didn’t believe in angels or human souls. They thought that when you died, that’s it.

Cy Kellett:
Wow.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah. So no afterlife. That’s very unusual in terms of religions. Most religions, all religions have some kind of opinion about the divine and the afterlife. And the Sadducees did believe in God, but they did not believe in an afterlife. So they thought any benefit you’re going to get from worshiping God is going to be in this life, so they had a very worldly …

Cy Kellett:
Very worldly, yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
… perspective in that way. So they thought you should worship God and things will go better for you as a result of worshiping God, but just in this life. They also did not believe … they had some other interesting related views. One of them is they wanted to … So there was a debate at the time about predestination and free will. Fortunately today, that’s completely settled, right? I mean [crosstalk 00:08:49]

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, we never talk about that. You never see a Calvinist and a Catholic getting into any conversations about that.

Jimmy Akin:
Well this was a live debate back in their time, and some people; and this is not just in Jewish society, I mean Greeks debated the same thing; but some people would say everything is fated and they understood that to mean there’s something in the universe like God or the fates who chooses everything that’s going to happen and nobody really has free will. The other position says no, we’ve totally got free will and there’s nothing predestining anything. It’s just the Wild West in terms of what people choose to do. And the Pharisees, as we mentioned, wanted to hold both of these ideas in tension so there’s a sense in which God does predestine things, or at least certain things, but He also allows a role for free will. Well the Sadducees didn’t go that way. They thought that if God predestines anything that’s going to make Him complicit in evil.

Cy Kellett:
Oh.

Jimmy Akin:
And therefore …

Cy Kellett:
Oh, so they didn’t …

Jimmy Akin:
… therefore, they didn’t see this; they themselves did not see a way to harmonize these things. There are ways to harmonize them but they didn’t see it, so they said we’ve got to protect God from any accusation of evil, so there’s no predestination at all; everything is free will.

Cy Kellett:
Wow, okay. Okay, so they take … Okay, so not seeing a way to harmonize free will and the goodness of God, they just say there can’t be free will.

Jimmy Akin:
Right. So we know God is good, so there can’t be anything but free will.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
So that was one of their positions. They also would reject the Pharisees’ oral traditions. Now sometimes you will hear it presented as if, well the Pharisees believed in tradition and the Sadducees didn’t. That is clearly false. The Sadducees clearly had their own traditions. What they rejected was the Pharisee traditions that the Pharisees claim to come from Moses. But if you look at the actual positions that the Sadducees had on stuff, they clearly were going beyond what’s written in Scripture, so they clearly had tradition. To give an example of that, and like in our previous episode we mentioned that the big debates at the time were not so much theological as in terms of ritual practice.

Cy Kellett:
Yes.

Jimmy Akin:
Well, here’s an example. You know how in the Old Testament we have these purity laws about if this happens, it makes you impure for so much time and you need to go take a bath and then you’ll be unclean until evening, and then you’ll be clean again. And this is a kind of ritual cleanliness, not physical cleanliness.

Well, the laws get pretty detailed in the Old Testament about what stuff will make what impure, but they don’t cover every option and so there came to be debates about particular things. Here’s one of the debates. Supposed you’re pouring a liquid from one container into another container. Could be any liquid; it’s going to be a clean liquid, but let’s say it’s water. You’re pouring water from one container into another. The container that the water is in that you’re pouring it out of is a ritually pure container.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
Okay? But as you’re pouring it you realize the container you’re pouring it into has become unclean for some reason.

Cy Kellett:
Okay, all right.

Jimmy Akin:
What implications does that have for the upper container?

Cy Kellett:
I see.

Jimmy Akin:
Well, according to the Pharisees it has no implications because the liquid is coming out of a clean container, so the upper container is clean. The fact that it’s falling into an unclean container doesn’t mean anything. According to the Sadducees, the uncleanness of the lower container will infect the liquid in the lower container and travel up the stream and impurify the upper container as well because it’s all one moisture connecting the two containers according to them.

Cy Kellett:
Right. Whew.

Jimmy Akin:
So this is the kind of thing they like to argue about. They didn’t have the internet after all. But you can see-

Cy Kellett:
At the root of that, you can see there’s a desire to be really, really faithful.

Jimmy Akin:
You can, yeah.

Cy Kellett:
But it becomes so exaggerated that the questions themselves … like that adds a certain air of ridiculousness to us, that whole thing.

Jimmy Akin:
To us, it certainly does. To them, this was like a vividly, blazing hot issue. But it shows us that the Pharisees, because this is not stated anywhere in the Old Testament.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, that doesn’t come up.

Jimmy Akin:
So this is clearly extra-Biblical tradition that the Sadducees had, so one can’t really say they didn’t have tradition. They did, they just didn’t like the Pharisee tradition.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. It’s not really possible to have a religious movement without tradition. You can’t have, you couldn’t have everything written down. Okay, so I sometimes have heard that people expressed it this way; that the Sadducees only accepted the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but that the Pharisees also accepted the psalms and the prophets and the history books as well. Is there …

Jimmy Akin:
Most of the Christian Old Testament, yeah.

Cy Kellett:
Is that true?

Jimmy Akin:
Well, there’s a little bit of a debate about that among scholars.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
So there are church fathers who very clearly say that the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis through Deuteronomy, or the Torah or the [inaudible 00:14:54]. There are church fathers who say that, but the thing is those church fathers were living in an age when the Sadducees had already gone into decline.

Cy Kellett:
Yes, so they may [crosstalk 00:15:03]

Jimmy Akin:
And so there’s a question of how much actual knowledge did they have. I think though there is evidence that strongly supports the idea that the Sadducees had a smaller canon than the Pharisees did. Neither one of them, the Pharisees did not have a settled canon. They had a canon but it had fuzzy borders. It actually wouldn’t become finalized until several centuries into the Christian age. But I think we do have good evidence supporting the idea that the Sadducees had a smaller canon than the Pharisees. And the reason I say that is in three of the Gospels in the Synoptics, while Jesus is in Jerusalem in the last days before the crucifixion, all three of these gospels report the Sadducees coming to Jesus and challenging him with a logic problem, and this is based on their disbelief in the resurrection. And the come to him…

Now, one of the things that is found in the Old Testament is the custom that we call Leverite marriage. It’s actually a Latin term; a levere in Latin in brother-in-law. And so the idea is if a brother dies without leaving children, the brother-in-law, the levere, needs to marry his wife to raise children for his dead brother. And this is explicitly endorsed in the Old Testament, and so the Sadducees used this to create a logic problem for Jesus. And the come up to Jesus and they say, “Guess what? There are these brothers. First one marries a woman; he dies without leaving children. Next brother marries her to raise up children, but he dies before that happens. So the brothers all marry her in succession and none of them are able to conceive children, and then the woman dies. At this so-called resurrection of the dead that you believe in, Mr. Jesus, whose wife is she going to be because she was married to all of them?

Cy Kellett:
So essentially what they’re trying to do here first of all, before we get into the origin of this story, they’re trying to reduce his belief in the resurrection to an absurdity.

Jimmy Akin:
Yes, I was going to say. They’re using a strategy and philosophy that’s known as reducio ad absurdum, or reducing an argument to an absurd conclusion because everybody knows in Jewish society you can’t have polyandry; you can’t be married to seven guys at once.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, right. No. Right, okay. But you were using this to talk about the Scripture that they had accepted.

Jimmy Akin:
Right. Jesus in responding, He says two things. He says you know neither the power of God nor the scriptures. And in elaborating how the power of God plays into this, he says we’re going to be like angels, so we’re going to be immortal beings that don’t need to reproduce to keep the species going because we’re immortal. So, that’s how the power of God is going to affect this. But he also said you don’t know the scriptures, and He then appeals to the Book of Exodus where Moses is talking to God, and God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” And Jesus reasons he’s the God of the living, not the dead; therefore, there must be an afterlife and thus a resurrection of the dead for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Now that’s a very interesting argument, but if you have the whole of the Old Testament to draw on, why would you do that argument?

Cy Kellett:
Oh yeah, there’s plenty of other places [crosstalk 00:18:31]

Jimmy Akin:
Like Daniel. You go to Daniel:12, “In the last days, many who were asleep in the dust of the ground will awake, some to everlasting life and others to everlasting contempt.” Right there in Daniel:12, explicit endorsement of the resurrection. There are other passages as well, so why wouldn’t Jesus go to an obvious passage? Why would he make this much easier to deny if I’m a Sadducee argument? Why would he make this much easier to deny argument?

Well, for the same reason that when Catholic apologists talk to Protestant apologists, they don’t tend to appeal to the deuterocononical books of the Old Testament because they know the Protestant doesn’t accept them.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, so that’s the end of the conversation.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah. So the likely reason is because Jesus knows the Sadducees don’t accept Daniel, and that’s why he goes to …

Cy Kellett:
He knows they do accept Exodus.

Jimmy Akin:
They do accept Exodus because it’s in the [inaudible 00:19:25].

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
So that’s evidence that the Sadducees did have a smaller canon than the Pharisees and other Jewish movements, and the church fathers may well be right; they only accepted the Torah. So, that’s quite a possible position. It’s a little harder to prove, but it’s a very possible position that is consistent with the evidence we see in the New Testament.

It also takes the edge a little bit off of another issue, which is Luke mentions that the Sadducees don’t believe in angels. Well, there are lots of angels in the Old Testament, so if they don’t believe in angels that would also suggest maybe they don’t buy some of these other books that have angels appearing on camera doing stuff.

Cy Kellett:
Right, right.

Jimmy Akin:
There are angels in the Pentituc, though, and so there’s a question of what did they make of those? And it’s unclear what they make of those. In some cases … So the word angel in Hebrew, like in Greek and Latin, just means messenger. So the idea was the angels … it doesn’t indicate a kind of creature; it indicates a job. These are the messengers that God has sent and so in come cases it can be ambiguous. You might be able to say, “Oh yeah. It says God sent a messenger, but that doesn’t mean the messenger wasn’t a human.”

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, right.

Jimmy Akin:
Maybe he sent a human to do that.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
Or in other cases, when God himself is delivering a message maybe God himself is his own messenger.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
And there are passages where you have the angel of the Lord or the messenger of the Lord that somehow seems to talk as if he is the Lord.

Cy Kellett:
Right, right.

Jimmy Akin:
And so they may have had ways, at least in the [inaudible 00:21:16], of getting around some of these things. But in other passages, it would be harder; like when David takes a census when he’s not supposed to. And as his punishment, David picks I’ll take the three days of plague, Alex.

Cy Kellett:
Behind door number one or whatever.

Jimmy Akin:
And so you have this angel that’s smiting people with the plague, and then God talks to the angel and says, “Stay your hand now that David’s repented.”

Cy Kellett:
This implies two persons.

Jimmy Akin:
This implies it’s, yeah, that it’s two persons. And since it’s smiting people with plagues, it doesn’t sound like it’s a human in this case.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, right, right. We don’t see a lot of [inaudible 00:21:55]

Jimmy Akin:
Although it could be Typhoid Mary.

Cy Kellett:
But she didn’t smite. It was accidental on her part.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah, it was an accident.

Cy Kellett:
Smiting is always intentional.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah.

Cy Kellett:
Okay, so if the … some of the Pharisees then became believers. Do we have any evidence that any of the Sadducees became believers, or were they holdouts?

Jimmy Akin:
Possibly, but they were coming from a much greater conceptual distance because they didn’t believe in the resurrection, and that’s kind of a big doctrine in Christianity. I mean, it’s like right there with the founder.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, right.

Jimmy Akin:
That’s not to say that some of them didn’t come to believe in Jesus’s resurrection, but probably not as many of them. Also, they were a smaller movement. They were kind of an elite movement and they were not as popular. So they were probably, I don’t recall an exact number but it’s probably in the hundreds or low thousands [crosstalk 00:22:50].

Cy Kellett:
Oh really? Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah. Also one thing, they seem to have had … I mentioned they’d undergone development. In our next episode when we talk about the Essenes, there’s a little bit of evidence that this whole disbelief in the resurrection thing may be new; that the disbelief in the resurrection may have been a recent thing among the Sadducees.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. The primary conflict then between the Sadducees and Jesus, is it over resurrection? Is it over the strict observance of the law? Is it just a general ‘we don’t believe this guy’?

Jimmy Akin:
The way the Gospels present it, the Sadducees are an elite group that is hostile to Jesus in part because they think he’s going to be a political messiah that’s going to start a war that they don’t want, because the Sadducees of all the groups were the most collaborative with the Romans. The Pharisees also somewhat collaborated with the Romans, but also didn’t fully like them. But they were scared that Jesus was going to cause a war that they were going to lose, and they also had theological disagreements with him. And in particular as we’ve seen, they tried to trap him with a logic bomb concerning the resurrection, which he then adroitly snipped the wires on.

Cy Kellett:
Right, yeah. Something he knew that he …

Jimmy Akin:
[inaudible 00:24:19] was dead.

Cy Kellett:
You would have, too, Jimmy. I know that you are very good at defusing bombs. I’m just referring to that video we made that one time.

Jimmy Akin:
Oh, okay.

Cy Kellett:
Do you remember the one where you’re …

Jimmy Akin:
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Cy Kellett:
What was that called? Life at Catholic Answers.

Jimmy Akin:
Life at Catholic Answers, yeah.

Cy Kellett:
All right. So unlike the Pharisees then, the Sadducees don’t seem to in the decades following Jesus to play an important role, or really in the sense of the Pharisees, the central role in establishing post-temple Judaism.

Jimmy Akin:
Right. What we do see, I mean some people have said and these are … some people will say it’s because they were the priestly aristocracy. So when the temple dies, they lose all their position. That’s not really true. They weren’t strictly identified with the temple aristocracy, and just because you’re of a priestly family doesn’t mean you lose your authority. There are people today who in Judaism who are named Cohen, which is the word for priest.

Cy Kellett:
Oh right, and they still are …

Jimmy Akin:
They’re still … it’s like okay, this guy gets to do special things in the synagogue that other people don’t get to do.

Cy Kellett:
And might get some money when somebody has a baby.

Jimmy Akin:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think that’s one of the first redemption price for the first born sons. But they did nevertheless, they were a smaller group and they did lose authority afterwards, and they kind of merged with some other groups it seems ideologically, but eventually became diluted afterwards.

Cy Kellett:
All right, so the next group we’re going to discuss then is the Essenes.

Jimmy Akin:
Oh yes. One other thing, though, their memory did live on. I mentioned in our discussion of how rabbinic Judaism grew out of Phariseeism, so you have the Mishna and the Talmud that are commentaries that attempt to preserve traditions from this period. Well in all their debates on different positions, they tell us the positions of the Sadducees. So like the rabbis are saying, “Well, the Sadducees said this, but we say this.”

Cy Kellett:
Oh, so they’re a nice foil.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah.

Cy Kellett:
They kind of go forward as a foil. All right. The Essenes, they’re the hippies of … No, I’m just kidding. [crosstalk 00:26:28]

Jimmy Akin:
Ultra-strict, crazy religious commune hippies, yeah.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, that’s what I was going to get at. All right. So we’ll tackle the Essenes next time. Thanks so much for joining us for Catholic Answers Focus. First of all, thank you, Jimmy.

Jimmy Akin:
My pleasure.

Cy Kellett:
I appreciate it every time you do this with us. And when you get your podcast probably from Apple, would you give us those five stars? It really, really does help to grow us. And share what we’re doing here. Maybe refer people to where you get your podcasts, or refer them to catholicanswersfocus.com. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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