The Sadducees and Resurrection

This coming Sunday is the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle C. The gospel addresses questions on Resurrection through a dialogue between Jesus and some Sadducees “those who deny that there is a resurrection.” (Luke 20:27). In yesterday’s post we considered the many Lucan passages that lay between the encounter with Zacchaeus (31st Sunday) and our gospel for the 32nd Sunday. Today’s post introduces the Sadducees and that they did not believe in the resurrection. Both of these ideas need some background.

The Sadducees are mentioned here only in this Gospel. None of the Sadducee writings has survived so our information about them is fragmentary and we see the sect only through the eyes of its opponents. The name appears to be derived from Zadok (cf. 1 Kgs 1:8; 2:35), so that they were ‘Zadokites’. They were the conservative, aristocratic, high-priestly party, worldly-minded and very ready to cooperate with the Romans, which, of course, enabled them to maintain their privileged position. Patriotic nationalists and pious people alike opposed them. They are often said to have acknowledged as sacred Scripture only the Pentateuch, but no evidence is cited for this. The Septuagint (LXX) is evidence that before New Testament times the canon of the Old Testament was practically fixed and there seems no reason why any major Jewish party should have rejected most of it. What is attested is that the Sadducees rejected the oral tradition that meant so much to the Pharisees; they accepted only written Scripture (Josephus, Antiquities xiii.297). They denied the whole doctrine of the afterlife and of rewards and punishments beyond the grave (Josephus, Antiquities xviii.16; Jewish War, ii.165; cf. Acts 23:8).

Why would the Sadducess have rejected the concept of the Resurrection? Scholarly speculation goes as follows: there is little explicit mention of “resurrection” in the OT but the idea was clearly a Persian concept. The speculation extends that possibly the Sadducees believed it was a foregin concept brought into Judaism after the return from Exile to Jerusalem.

The idea of resurrecting does appear in texts that are deemed to be post-Exilic but even then the meaning in imprecise. On the whole, resurrection—which could simply express Israel’s restoration—concerns the dead in only one or two passages, and only Dan 12:2–3, within the apocalyptic context of the 2d century B.C., clearly proclaims that the dead will be snatched from death to experience either “eternal life” or “eternal damnation.”

Robert Martin-Achard (Anchor Bible Dictionary) shows that upon examination, the extent of the contribution from outside Israel, without being denied, needs to be qualified, and one could say that, when some Jews declared that the dead (of their God) would revive, they did so by basing their arguments on biblical principles. It is in the tradition itself that are to be found the roots of faith in the resurrection: the OT proclaimed YHWH’s power, one which no force could hold in check; God masters death as God masters life (1 Sam 2:6; Deut 32:39; cf. Isa 25:8a). God has created and thus can re-create (2 Maccabees 7). God’s justice, affirmed everywhere in the OT, sooner or later had to become manifest, and the resurrection allowed this very thing to happen, as we have seen. Finally, the victory over death, that in the first instance concerned the faithful Israelites, gave Israel’s God an occasion to demonstrate his ḥesed, “faithfulness, loyalty, solidarity,” toward his own and, in this way, to answer the question already raised by the psalmists about the definitive future of those bonds which actually united God to his ḥāsı̂d (Psalms 6; 16; 22; etc.). Thus, belief in the resurrection of the dead is based on God’s power, on his justice, and on his love, as these have been revealed in the course of the history of Israel; in the 2d century b.c.e., at the high point of the Maccabean crisis, the ḥăsı̂dı̂m drew out the ultimate consequences from the experiences that Israel had lived through over centuries.

The Canaanite or Near Eastern world could have furnished themes and a language. Much later on, Persian teachings may have served as stimulants to the Jewish visions of the afterlife, but in the end, resurrection is seen as always been indicated in the OT Scripture, but only fully understood later in Israel’s history.

What is clear is that first century Jews believed in the resurrection of the dead, while the Sadducees were the exception to that belief.

Image Credit: James Tissot: The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus, Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain

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