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Sunday, November 10, 2013

They Were Not the Liberals

I frequently hear the Sadducees of the New Testament described as the “liberals of Jesus’ day.”  Maybe it’s because conservatives grow tired of being compared to the “legalistic” Pharisees, and want a way to strike back.  Jesus had harsh words for the Sadducees too, and if they can get a jab in at the liberal/progressive/socialists, it’s all well and good.   Here are two descriptions of the Sadducees that I pulled from a very quick search on the internet, illustrative of the kind of attitude many today have toward the Sadducees described in the New Testament.

The Sadducees were the liberals of Jesus' day. Most of the priests were Sadducees. They were of the elite class of the day. They often applied Hellenism to their lives. Sadducees didn't believe in an afterlife, didn't believe in a resurrection, and didn't believe in the existence of angels.  

The Sadducees were the secular branch of Judaism.  They did not believe in a resurrection or an afterlife; they were the closest things to secular humanists or atheists in their day.  And thanks to the Romans the Sadducees largely controlled the lucrative Temple and the money and political clout that went along with it.
Or maybe you’ve heard the children’s song, “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep”[i] which includes the verse:

Don't wanna be a Sadducee
Don't wanna be a Sadducee
'Cause they're so sad you see
Don't wanna be a Sadducee

But it’s not a very accurate comparison.  It is true that they rejected a belief in the afterlife and in angels and demons – but they didn’t reject these because they were “liberals.”  In fact, we might be more accurate in saying that they were the more conservative[ii] of the leading Jewish parties – as they opposed the relatively recent theological innovations and additions of the Pharisees.  They drew their faith from the Torah, the books of Moses, and rejected the ‘oral law’ additions created by the pharisaical rabbis.  The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that they also rejected a fatalistic attitude, and believed that humans have free will to do good or to do evil.  They weren’t necessarily more (or less) Hellenistic (influenced by Greek culture) than other Jewish groups.  And it’s certainly not at all true to say that they were the “secular branch of Judaism.” 

We know relatively little about the historical Sadducees – and the bulk of that comes from the writings of people who disliked and opposed them, so we have to read it with a cautious eye.  The Sadducees came into existence as a political / theological force during the time of the Maccabees -about the same time as the Pharisees.  But where the Pharisees were largely from low and middle class (terms that don’t necessarily mean the same today as they meant then…) and from rural areas, the Sadducees were aristocratic, wealthy land owners, and associated with the priests and Temple in Jerusalem.  They seem to have dropped out of existence with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

If you’ll look back through the book of Luke, you’ll see that we’ve only just now encountered the Sadducees – after Jesus has entered Jerusalem.  Thus far he’s spent most of his time in Galilee – where he would have encountered the Pharisees, and thus far his major opponents have been the Pharisees.  But now that he’s finally reached Jerusalem (after a 10 chapter journey – Luke 9: 51 – 19: 41) and now that he’s intruded into the territory of the Sadducees (his clearing out of the Temple would certainly have attracted their notice and their ire) we will begin seeing the Sadducees more frequently and the Pharisees less so… (Though, this is working from the assumption that the phrase “teachers of the law and chief priests” is meant to indicate the Sadducees.  If that’s not the case then we only see them only this one time in Luke 20: 27 - 38.)[iii]

[i] Words and Music – Brian M. Howard -
[ii] Keeping in mind, of course, the words “conservative” and “liberal” are relative…
[iii] Matthew has the Pharisees and Sadducees linked much closer and appearing together throughout his gospel.  Mark has them only in this one story as well, and they do not appear at all in John’s gospel.

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