When Pope Francis seeks to castigate his fellow Christians, he frequently refers to the New Testament’s unholy trinity of Jesus’ enemies: Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees. He notes that the Sadducees “made it their religious work to make deals with the powers…. They were men of power” (Vatican Radio). Is this a historically accurate description of the Sadducees, a group from 2,000 years ago?
The Sadducees’ origins are uncertain. A few sources link them to the Jerusalem priest, with some scholars suggesting that the Greek term Sadducee is derived from the Hebrew Zadoq, the name of the high priest at the time of King David (1Kings 1:39). Later sources also link the Sadducees to the priesthood (for example, Acts 4:1).
However, the Sadducees first appear in the historical record not as priests but as a political group. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions them in the context of John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean high priest and ruler of Judah from 135-104 B.C.E. (Antiquities 13.10.5-6). According to Josephus, a guest at a banquet for the Pharisees accused Hyrcanus of being a bastard child, unfit for the high priesthood. In the uproar that ensued, a Sadducee convinced Hyrcanus to abandon the Pharisees for the Sadducees.
Whether true or not, this story might point to the Sadducees’ origin as a political party allied with the Hasmoneans. Josephus tantalizingly mentions that the Sadducees ascribe authority to Scripture, not to the ancestral traditions handed down by the Pharisees:
What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers” (ibid. 6).
Josephus’ comments suggest a tentative reconstruction of the Pharisees and Sadducees as loose political coalitions. The group that Josephus calls "Pharisees" was what was left of the old guard, the status quo. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were a coalition of Hasmonean supporters who sought to challenge Pharisaic power with recourse to Scripture. Raw politics, not abstract claims to authority, were more important in the Hasmonean decision (soon reversed) to align with the Sadducees.
During their first centuries of existence, the Sadducees and Pharisees were probably not tightly bounded groups. They also did not remain static throughout antiquity. At least one of the contingents who settled at Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls shows clear “Sadducean” tendencies (for example, the law in MMT about the purity of streams of liquids is ascribed to Sadducees in m. Yad. 4:7). This does not preclude the possibility that some later called them Essenes. The Sadducees appear to have maintained some power at the Jerusalem Temple through the time of Herod.
In antiquity, there was no neat division between politics and religion, and Josephus and the New Testament also discuss the Sadducees’ theological positions: that fate plays no role in human history, that God is not involved in human actions, and that there is no soul or afterlife (J.W. 2.8.14; Acts 23:6). The Sadducees also rejected the existence of angels (Acts 23:8).
By the time the Gospel accounts were composed, the Sadducees and Pharisees were already fading, probably due to the upheavals following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Pope Francis, then, may have been close to the historical reality of the Sadducees, at least during their early years. Whether it is advisable, however, to use a stereotyped group of ancient Jews as a general slur (as has traditionally been done with the Pharisees) is another question altogether.