The religious world of Jesus’ day was much more diverse than we often realize. Even within Judaism itself (what we call Second Temple Judaism), the Jewish people had many differing philosophies and were split into various factions. Those of us who regularly read the New Testament are familiar with some of these factions, which included the prominent Sadducees and Pharisees. For a greater understanding of Jesus’s message, it’s crucial that we know a bit about the beliefs of those he preached to and what they expected from the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. We’ll begin with the Sadducees.
In Judaism, both ancient and modern, the Law of Moses stands paramount to any other teachings. Central to the Law were the ritual sacrifices performed by the Levitical priesthood in the Tabernacle and Temple, particularly those performed by the High Priest descended from Aaron, Moses’ older brother. It was these rituals and sacrifices that kept the people of Israel holy and in covenant with God, insuring that he would bless them and bring them peace. To the Sadducees, keeping to the Covenant and performing their civil and religious duties were all that truly mattered.
Politics and the Priesthood
In the period between the Testaments, Israel was caught between the warring Greek generals of Alexander the Great and the empires of their successors. In time, they came under the power of a particularly intolerant ruler named Antiochus IV, who ruled the empire based in Syria (he would eventually be called Antiochus Epiphanes because he believed he was Zeus Incarnate). Antiochus would go on to outlaw Jewish practices and desecrate the Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig. A rebellion ensued, led by a faction of the deposed Priesthood, and the Jews eventually expelled their oppressors and regained the land (you can read all about this in the books of Maccabees, which can be found in the Catholic Bible). When it was all over, the leaders set themselves up as the new high priest-kings of Israel that we call the Hasmonean dynasty. Unfortunately, not all of the Jews were happy about this new development. The Hasmoneans were not legitimate high priests of Aaron’s bloodline. Decades of civil war followed as the Hasmoneans bickered with each other over the throne and the unrest of the people continued to grow. Eventually, the Hasmoneans called on their ally, Rome, to come and settle the dispute. The soon-to-be-empire settled the matter by annexing Judea and taking away their hard-won autonomy. In the end, though, the Hasmoneans kept the high priesthood, which had essentially become a political appointment from Rome. In Jesus’s day, the faction of the Sadducees (who took their name from Zadok, the high priest in King David’s day) were primarily made up of this political priesthood, their families, and other Hasmonean descendants. Included in this group are the two high priests mentioned in the Gospels, Annas and Caiaphas. As Rome’s political allies, the Sadducees enjoyed all of the benefits of the upper classes and viewed the Empire with favor. When the Herodians came to power the two families began intermarrying, creating a very powerful Judean aristocracy.
The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the latter 1st century AD, gives a nice summery of Sadducee philosophies in comparison to other groups (Ant 13.5.9; Wars 2.8.13). According to him, the Sadducees did not believe in Fate (and in God’s direct influence on humanity) and believed that human actions had no religious consequences whatsoever, going so far as to deny an afterlife altogether—a nice worldview to have if your life is particularly prosperous.
For many Jews in the first century, the concepts of the land of Israel and the Kingdom of God were intertwined. The books of the Prophets spoke of a glorious future in which God’s Messiah would come, throw off the chains of the oppressors, and establish the Eternal Kingdom.The Sadducees, however, believed that only the Five Books of Moses were the Word of God, and put little to no stock whatsoever in the words of the Prophets. For them, common beliefs such as a coming Messiah, the Resurrection of the Dead at the End of Days, and even conflicts between angels and demons, were just fables and wishful thinking. As long as they kept to the Law of Moses and performed their civic and religious duties, they believed God would bless Israel and continue to let them prosper. Who actually ruled the land, and the people, mattered very little to them. In fact, the Sadducees viewed anyone who wanted to rebel against Rome (the government that gave them their positions of authority) as foolish dissidents that needed to be dealt with harshly. Because of their differing political and religious philosophies, the Sadducees and Pharisees were often in conflict with each other—which, being a Pharisee himself, the Apostle Paul used to his advantage in order to escape a trial in Acts 23.
In 66 AD the Sadducees’ greatest fear became a reality and Judea openly revolted against the Roman Empire. With the destruction of the Second Temple four years later, the institution by which they held their power and authority was destroyed, and without it, the Sadducees gradually disappeared from history.
In the end, they were quite sad, you see. (Sorry! I couldn’t help it)