The Sadducees on the Old Testament Canon

A popular misconception that is commonly taught in the church today is that the Sadducees only believed that the first five books of the Bible are canonical while the Pharisees accepted all 39 books of the Old Testament. But the truth is that both groups believed that all of the Old Testament is canonical. This misunderstanding comes from the early church father Origen who taught that the Sadducees only accepted the Pentateuch. This belief is also claimed to be supported by the Jewish historian Josephus who says concerning the Sadducees:

“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” (Antiquities 13.10.6).

This testimony, their denial the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:8) even though Daniel 12:2 clearly teaches this, and the fact that Jesus only cited from the Pentateuch in his debate with them over the resurrection in Matthew 22:31-32 has led many historians to conclude that the Sadducees only believed that the first five books of the Bible are canonical.

But this reasoning is incorrect for several reasons. Concerning the testimony of Josephus, he does not say that they rejected the rest of the Old Testament, but simply that they did not follow the Pharisees’ traditions concerning the law because they were not taught in Scripture. The traditions of the Pharisees are not taught in the other Old Testament Scriptures either. With regard to their denial of the resurrection of the dead, it must also be kept in mind that they denied the existence of angels and spirits as well according to Acts 23:8. But the Pentateuch teaches the existence of angels in several places (Gen 32:1). If they rejected the Book of Daniel because it teaches the resurrection of the dead, then by the same logic they must have rejected the Pentateuch as well because it teaches the existence of angels. The Sadducees denied these things because they were the theological liberals of the first century. And in response to the last argument, Jesus cites from the Pentateuch rather than Daniel because, for the Jews, the first five books of the Bible were considered to be the most important for establishing doctrine because they were written first and came from Moses. The argument of the Sadducees was also drawn from the Pentateuch so Jesus chooses a verse from Moses as well in response.

The first line of evidence in favor of the Sadducees believing that all 39 books of the Old Testament are canonical is the testimony of Josephus that all Jews esteem the books of the Hebrew canon after giving a full listing of the canonical books:

“But it is become natural to all Jews, immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain divine doctrines; and to persist in them: and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them” (Against Apion 1.8).

Since the Sadducees are Jews, they likewise “esteem these books to contain divine doctrines.” Second, one of the arguments of the Sadducees against the resurrection was drawn from Job 7:9 (Tanhuma C). Third, Micah 5:2 is cited by the chief priests and scribes in Matthew 2:4-6 and the priests would have been Sadducees. Fourth, Jesus applies Daniel 7:13 to himself in Matthew 26:64-65 in front of the high priest who was a Sadducee. Why would Caiaphas get so angry about a verse he does not believe is canonical? And why would Caiaphas ask Jesus if he was the Christ when the expectation for a future king from the line of David is not taught until after the time of Moses? And lastly, the Scriptures laid up in the temple over which the Sadducees had control included more than the Pentateuch (Antiquities 5.1.17).

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