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Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls What is This? Explores the history, relevance, and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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were one of the main Jewish currents and parties during the period of the Second Temple. Because no text has come down to us that can be defined with certainty as coming from the Sadducees themselves, our knowledge derives from a variety of sources, each of which is problematic. The authors of the New Testament and the sages of rabbinic literature, for example, consider them as opponents. As well, the sources provide only spotty references to the Sadducees, while each body of literature mentions them only in terms of its own main interests. Thus, Josephus presents the Sadducees as one of the three “Jewish philosophical schools” of the period and in comparison with the other two, the Pharisees and the Essenes, while emphasizing the rivalry between the Pharisees and the Sadducees (The Jewish War 2.119, 162–166; Jewish Antiquities 13.171–173, 297–298; 17.16–17). Likewise, the authors of the New Testament bring up the question of the Sadducees in the context of faith in the resurrection (Lk. 20.27–40 and parallels) and their exchanges with the disciples (Acts 4.1–22; 5.17–40; 22.30–23.10). In the rabbinic sources, the Sadducees almost always appear within a setting of discussion on the halakhah, most often out of context, while there seems to be an underlying intention to show the superiority of the Pharisees over the Sadducees. As for the scrolls from the Judean Desert, they never mention the Sadducees explicitly by that name (see below). We will not discuss the church fathers here, because their writings are later and transmit only secondhand information (but see Black, 1961).

Origin of the Name and Its Meaning.

The name appears as Saddoukaioi in the Greek sources and in the form Tsedduqim in the Hebrew sources. The equivalence of the terms seems to be assured by the Hebrew witness of the Avot de-Rabbi Natan, which describes a group similar to that of the Saddoukaioi of Josephus (Avot de-Rabbi Natan ms. A ch. 5; ms. B ch. 10). This passage traces the foundation of the group to a certain Zadok (Tsadoq), a disciple of Antigonus of Sokho (first half of the second century BCE) or belonging to the third generation of his disciples. This poses a twofold problem, with a philological and historical dimension. Why there is a doubling of the dalet in Hebrew and of the delta in Greek in the forms Tsedduqim and Saddoukaioi, respectively, while the name Zadok does not show this doubling, remains an unsolved mystery. Moreover, it is difficult to accept that the founder of such a well-known group would not be mentioned in any other source. This is why some researchers prefer to maintain the explanation of the church fathers who saw the name Sadducee as being derived from the adjective tsaddiq (righteous). The deformation of tsaddiq into Tsedduqim might involve a pejorative nuance: the Sadducees might be the kind of people who believe themselves to be righteous, but are not. Other researchers, in view of the fact that the name Zadok sometimes appears in Greek in the form Saddouq, accept that it might be the origin of the term Sadducee. However, for them, the name of the group was derived from a different Zadok, the high priest from the time of David and Solomon, whose descendants inherited the office of high priest until the Maccabean crisis. This is the most widely accepted explanation. But this does not allow us to determine whether the name is positive—the Sadducees might represent, at least in part, the descendants of Zadok—or negative—they wrongly claimed this ancestry.

The term Sadducee appears in the sources only in the context of the period in the history of Judea that runs from the Hasmoneans to the destruction of the Temple. In our view, it is not a substitute for the traditional biblical expression benei Tsadoq (sons of Zadok), which was still used in the scrolls from the Judean Desert. Rather, each of these expressions designates a different reality. The name benei Tsadoq refers to the socially defined group of priestly families, while the term “Sadducees” designates a political and religious party, which took part as such in public affairs. The party may have drawn its name from the fact that some of the bene Tsadoq were its founders and/or its most influential members. However, this would not warrant the conclusion that all the bene Tsadoq became Sadducees, or that all the Sadducees were descendants of Zadok.

History of the Sadducees.

The sources point to the existence of the Sadducees only in occasional references, which makes it impossible to construct a continuous history of the group. The most ancient mention (with respect to the sources) of the Sadducees comes to us from Josephus who, in Jewish Antiquities (13.171–173), places a summary of his observations regarding the three “Jewish philosophical schools” toward the end of his account of the rule of Jonathan (153–143 bce). This summary is artificially inserted into the account of the events copied from 1 Maccabees and has no connection with the context. Josephus does not give any explanation about the origin of the groups. Indeed, he refers us back to his observation in book two of The Jewish War, which is placed in a completely different chronological context (in 6 ce). Consequently, the piece of information that suggests that the “Jewish philosophical schools” already existed during the rule of Jonathan seems itself to be the result of a notion that Josephus himself conceived, without any source whatsoever to corroborate his assertions.

The second mention of the Sadducees by Josephus places them under John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean high priest (134–104 bce). Josephus describes the break between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees on the occasion of a banquet (Jewish Antiquities 13.288–298). The high priest, influenced by someone close to him, may have then gone over to the side of the Sadducees. However a baraita (B.T., Qid. 66a) places the same events under the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 bce), who was the son of John Hyrcanus, and served as high priest and king. That reference suggests that, toward the end of the second century or the beginning of the first century BCE, the two groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, had formed as competing parties, one which supported the Hasmoneans in power and the other which opposed them.

The reign of Jannaeus was marked by a six-year civil war, which broke out after an initial incident at the Temple, during the feast of Tabernacles (Jewish Antiquities 13.372–373 and 376). Jannaeus's opponents took advantage of his difficulties with the Nabateans to appeal to the Seleucid king, Demetrius III Eukerus (95–88 bce). Demetrius III then invaded Judea and defeated Jannaeus (Jewish Antiquities 13.377–378), but immediately left for Syria. Jannaeus exploited this fact to exact revenge on his enemies: after taking them prisoner, he had eight hundred of them crucified in Jerusalem (Jewish Antiquities 13.379–383). Josephus did not characterize either the supporters of Jannaeus or his opponents. However, according to the Pesher Nahum (4Q169), it was the doreshe ḥalaqot, also called “Ephraim,” who appealed to Demetrius III. Most scholars understand this as a reference to the Pharisees, while “Manasseh,” the opposing camp, referred to the Sadducees. During her reign, the widow of Jannaeus, Shelamzion Alexandra (76–67 bce), relied on the party of the Pharisees. They, in turn, exploited this to take revenge against the supporters of Jannaeus. In the end, Aristobulus II asked the queen, his mother, to grant guarantees and safeguards for them, while his brother, Hyrcanus II, who had been appointed high priest, seems to have accommodated himself with the Pharisee government. Upon the death of Shelamzion Alexandra, the situation reverted to civil war. The intervention of Rome was to impose a solution on the Near East. However, it was not two parties, but three parties, who appeared before the Roman commander Pompey in Damascus in 63 bce to ask him to arbitrate their conflict. Aristobulus II seems to have been supported all along by the Sadducees. The Idumean, Antipater (father of Herod), with the support of his Arab allies, seems to have convinced Hyrcanus II to continue the struggle against his brother. The third group is not identified; they are “Jews” who denied both brothers the right to exercise the twofold function of high priest and king (Diodorus, Bibliotheca Historica 40.2; Stern, 1974). This group may have represented some of those Pharisees who had formerly leveled the same criticism against Jannaeus, and who had adopted the same strategy of getting a foreigner to intervene against the Hasmonean dynasty. In this, they may have differed from the supporters of Hyrcanus II. In any case, Aristobulus II, who was probably supported by the Sadducees, was defeated and taken prisoner by the Romans (and was assassinated in 49 bce), while Hyrcanus II was confirmed in his office as high priest.

The Parthians put an end to the pontificate of Hyrcanus II after invading Judea in 40 bce. In his place, they set up the nephew of Hyrcanus, the son of Aristobulus II, a high priest and king from 40 to 37 bce. At the same time, in response to the intervention of their Parthian enemies, the Romans appointed Herod the Idumean as king (in 40 bce). He was forced to conquer his kingdom by the sword. In 37 bce, the Pharisees Pollion and Samaias convinced the people of Jerusalem to open the gates of the city to Herod. However, Herod seems to have also sought to appease the supporters of the Hasmonean dynasty. Thus he appointed Aristobulus III, the grandson of Hyrcanus II, as high priest. Very shortly thereafter, Herod, who was feeling threatened by the popularity of the young high priest, had him assassinated, thus bringing the Hasmonean dynasty to a final end in 35 bce. Herod's coming to power—he was to reign until 4 bce—introduced some radical changes. From this time on, Rome was to govern Judea, either indirectly through Herod and his descendants, or directly. The Idumean origin of the king furthermore imposed a de facto separation of political and priestly powers. The high priests were appointed and removed at the pleasure of the rulers. However, the result was the rise in power of four new families who were to provide twenty-two of the twenty-six high priests of that period (from 35 bce to 70 ce). These were the families of Phiabi, Boethus, Anan the elder, and Kamith.

Given these conditions, had the Sadducees been nothing more than a pro-Hasmonean party, they should have disappeared, having lost all hope, after the death of the last representative of the family. However, the sources that tell us the most about the Sadducees, relatively speaking, date from the first century CE. Furthermore, Josephus asserts that Anan, the high priest, son of Anan the Elder, was a Sadducee (Jewish Antiquities 20.199), which leads us to believe that the rest of the family may have been Sadducees as well. This same family produced eight of the high priests from that period. One of the members of this family, Caiaphas, held the office of high priest for the longest time. According to the Gospel of John (Jn. 18.13), Caiaphas (18–37 ce) was the son-in-law of Anan the Elder. Moreover, for most scholars, the group of the Boethusians, whom Avot de-Rabbi Natan (see above) describes as being close to the Sadducees, may have been none other than the family group of Boethus and his followers. In other words, the Boethusians may have been little more than a family clan, a subgroup of the Sadducee party. [See Boethusians.]

The connection between the Sadducees and the Temple is confirmed by the New Testament and rabbinic sources. The Book of Acts also asserts that the Sadducees comprised the inner circle of the high priest (Acts 5.17, cf. Acts 4.6) and that they sat on the Sanhedrin (Acts 23.6, cf. Megillat Ta῾anit, scholium on 28 Tevet). The fact that the Temple was both the source and locus of their power would account for why the Sadducees as a group disappeared during the turmoil of the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 ce), as a result of the destruction of the Temple.

The members of the high priestly families did in fact take an active part in the First Jewish Revolt. The initiative to end the daily sacrifices in honor of the emperor is said to have come from Eleazar, son of Anan the Elder (The Jewish War 2.409 ff.). His brother, Anan the Younger, received the command of Jerusalem, which had risen up in revolt, alongside Joseph ben Gorion (The Jewish War 2.563), but he was assassinated by the Idumeans (The Jewish War 4.314–318). Matthias, the son of Boethus, was in turn assassinated by Simon bar Giora, although Matthias had opened up the gates of Jerusalem to him (The Jewish War 5.527–531). It seems that other members of the priestly families and the lay aristocracy were considered as insurgents by the Romans because the Romans placed them under house arrest at Gophna when they surrendered (The Jewish War 6.114–115). The sources no longer mention the Sadducees as a group after the end of the First Jewish Revolt.

Some scholars have thought that the Sadducees did not appear as a group until the Herodian and Roman period, but it no longer seems possible to cast doubt on the witness of the sources pointing to their existence during the Hasmonean period, even if their party must have undergone a certain evolution. On the other hand, the permanence of the group throughout that period could be explained by the fact that its inner circle may have been made up of the Temple staff, who may have supported the existing (Jewish) government for generations. They would then be characterized by their commitment to the independence, or at least the political autonomy of Judea, as the best means to defend the Torah against the pagan world.

In contrast, the ability of the Pharisees to survive the catastrophe perhaps comes from the political principle they espoused for centuries: it is better to have a tolerant foreign ruler who respected the particular way of life of the Pharisees than an independent Jewish state that held both political and religious powers.

Ideology and Practice.

While Josephus points out the resemblance between the position of the Pharisees and that of the Stoics (Life 12) on the one hand, and between the way of life of the Essenes and the Pythagoreans on the other (Jewish Antiquities 15.371), he absolutely avoids comparing the “philosophical school” of the Sadducees with any Greek group whatsoever. His manner of describing the Sadducees would have forced him to find hints of Epicureanism in their “philosophy.” This is probably the reason why Josephus avoids the comparison; the Epicureans had a very bad reputation in antiquity and were considered to be “atheists,” dangerous people who denied divinity. This criticism can probably not be leveled against the Sadducees. Nonetheless, for twenty centuries they were the object of criticism, sometimes harsh, from both Jewish and Christian authors, to such an extent that even today the term “Sadducee” has been used among Jews as an insult to designate an unbeliever, an atheist. Both Jewish and Christian authors often describe them as libertarians, as people interested only in preserving their privileges and well-being, having little zeal for the Law, if not ignoring it altogether.

In fact, their ideas could be ascribed to strictly biblical teaching. It would be incorrect to assert that they denied the doctrine of retribution, but, just as in a great many passages of the Bible, it seems that the Sadducees considered that the wages for one's acts are given in this life: “If you obey the commandments of YHWH your God…then you shall live and become numerous.…But if your heart turns away…you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land” (Dt. 30.16–18). This teaching, if it is taken in its strict sense, implies the idea of retribution in this world. Also, they seem to have inferred from the commandment of levirate marriage (Dt. 25.5–10) that the only life after death promised to humanity by the Torah was survival through one's posterity. The objection to the belief in the resurrection of the dead is based on this commandment (Lk. 20.27–38).

Josephus, it seems, was unable to present the doctrines of the Pharisees and Sadducees, except in relation to one another and in a context of rivalry and opposition. Thus, in contrast to the Pharisees, the Sadducees denied “destiny” (heimarmene in Greek, fatum in Latin). A denial of this kind is certainly in keeping with the idea that a person alone is responsible for the good and the evil that happens to him or her. In this respect, the Sadducees were also consistent with biblical thought. This denial of “destiny” was perhaps also a categorical rejection of Greek philosophical ideas, particularly Stoicism, which if taken to their logical conclusion, threatened to end up denying human responsibility. On the other hand, it is more difficult to understand this assertion if it is to be interpreted as a denial of divine providence. As for the affirmation that God is so far from all evil that he cannot even see it (The Jewish War 2.164), this might be similar to the insistence on human responsibility by the refusal to attribute to God the evil that happens to people.

Another subject of contention between the Sadducees and the Pharisees concerns the “traditions of the Fathers,” which the Pharisees considered as having authority almost on par with that of the written Torah, but which the Sadducees rejected (Jewish Antiquities 13.297). But the main subject of the debates regarding Jewish law between the two groups dealt with ritual purity. There again, the Sadducean position appears to be grounded on scrupulous respect for the rules of the levitical purity as defined by the Bible, and with regard to the Temple and the priests, while the Pharisaic position tended to want to extend those rules to “all of Israel,” even if it meant adapting them to make them accessible to all.

Even though he refers to a Sadducee high priest (see Anan the Younger, above), Josephus never explicitly says that the Sadducees were priests. For him it was enough to assert: “They are but few men to whom this doctrine has been made known, but these are men of the highest standing” (Jewish Antiquities 18.16, trans. by Feldman). Their attitude and the instances of their interactions with society in the first century CE are what earned them their bad reputation. Josephus alludes to the levies the high priests exacted by sending out their slaves to steal the tithe that was due to the priests (Jewish Antiquities 20.181), and rabbinic sources also record abuses of power (B.T., Pes. 57a; B.T., Men. 13.21). Similarly, the Gospels and Acts bear witness to the fact that the high priestly families, along with their supporters, formed a group that had a stranglehold on the Temple. There the Sadducees appear as exerting particular control over what went on within the Temple and as a kind of police power (Acts 4.1–3; 5.17–18).

The Sadducees and Qumran.

The question of the link between the Sadducees and the members of the “the Jewish sect of the New Covenant in the countryside of Damascus” (Lagrange, 1912) has been posed ever since the appearance in 1910 of manuscripts A and B of the Damascus Document, discovered in the Cairo Genizah and published under the title Fragments of a Zadokite Work by Solomon Schechter. On the one hand, the Zadokite origin of the group, attested by the reference to the benei Tsadoq (sons of Zadok), appeared beyond question, suggesting a connection with the Sadducees described by Josephus. On the other hand, the clearly sectarian character of the text called for marking the difference between its writers and the representatives of the Jerusalem aristocracy. A number of hypotheses were raised to characterize the sect: most often it was accepted that the group professed a form of Sadduceeism, although most likely of a different kind, or else of a period other than that of the Sadducees described by Josephus. In any case, the publication of this document stimulated renewed interest in the study of the Sadducees in general until the discovery of the scrolls from the Judean Desert and the excavations at Khirbet Qumran.

The identification of the Qumran site as the Essene establishment described by Pliny the Elder (Natural History 5.73; Stern, 1974, p. 470) undermined the Sadducean hypothesis as to the origin of the group for several decades. In addition, the publishing of the pesharim and the interpretation of the name “Manasseh” as designating the Sadducees reinforced the idea that the people of Qumran, far from being Sadducees, were instead enemies of the Sadducees.

However, beginning in 1980, Joseph Baumgarten made the connection between certain legal rulings in the Temple Scroll (11Q19 and 11Q20) and the halakhah attributed as Sadducean in the rabbinic sources. A similar connection seems to be warranted between these rulings and those described in Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah (4Q394–4Q399), fragments of a letter addressed to a high-ranking person in Jerusalem to whom the author points out several cases where the recipient's halakhah differs from his own. Even before the official publication of Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah (1994), several scholars were proposing an identification of the Tsadduqim of the rabbinic sources with the benei Tsadoq of Qumran; some even spoke of the “Sadducees of Jerusalem” (those described by Josephus and the New Testament) and the “Sadducees of Qumran.” This hypothesis did not convince the majority of scholars: some objected that the resemblance between Sadducean halakhah and Qumran halakhah may have stemmed from a priestly origin common to both groups, rather than a shared identity. Others again pointed to the doctrinal and sociological differences between the Sadducees of the Greek sources and the members of the sect of the Judean Desert. Finally, the hypothesis that certain benei Tsadoq may have been the originators of the sect was itself cast in doubt: the fragments of the Rule of the Community discovered in Cave 4 (4Q256 and 4Q258) may represent an earlier stage of the text without any mention of the benei Tsadoq.

All in all, the identification of the sect of the scrolls from the Judean Desert with the Essenes of the Greek sources does not seem to be decisively called into question. Nonetheless, after moving the study of the Sadducees into the background, the discovery and publication of the Qumran scrolls revived the debate over the origin and character of the Sadducees. They were demarcated from the other groups of the time not by any one criterion, but by a whole set of inseparable criteria: social (the lay and priestly aristocracy), doctrinal (founded on the written Torah and rejecting the oral Torah developed by the Pharisees), halakhic (rejecting the Pharisaic innovations), economic (by the management of the Temple and the tithes), and political (by the support for the Jewish government in place).


  • Black, M. “The Patristic Accounts of Jewish Sects.” In The Scrolls and Christian Origins, pp. 48–74. London, 1961.
  • Lagrange, M. J. “La secte juive de la nouvelle alliance au pays de Damas.” Revue biblique 9 (1912), 321–360.
  • LeMoyne, J. Les Sadducéens. Etudes bibliques. Paris, 1972.
  • Stern, M. Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, vol. 1. Jerusalem, 1974.

Emanuelle Main

Translated from French by Daphna Krupp

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