Sticking Up For The Sadducees

Sadducees get a bad rap. If one attended Sunday school, one probably learned that as they didn’t believe in an afterlife, they were “sad you see” (which sounds like Sadducee). We only know about the Sadducees from their critics (or at the very least those who disagreed with them): Josephus is probably the least negative source, then there are the New Testament and Rabbinic literature, both of which are polemical.

It is interesting to note that the Sadducees’ views, as described by Josephus, are similar to those held by the more progressive Christians of our time: a denial of “fate” (i.e. determinism), of supernatural beings such as angels, and the afterlife. It may seem ironic that the most progressive voices today sound like the most conservative from Jesus’ time. But being “progressive” doesn’t mean adopting the newest ideas. If it did, fundamentalism is relatively new, and so we’d all be clamouring to hop on that bandwagon. But in fact, being progressive means being willing to change and listen, even though sometimes that means being willing to return to views one once dismissed out of hand.

Here’s what Josephus tells us:

Sadducees…take away Fate, and say that there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly. [Jewish Antiquities 13.172-173]

They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in the Underworld. [Jewish War 2.162-166]

Josephus also says that Sadducees viewed it as a virtue to dispute with one’s teachers, to question authority, to not simply accept the answers given. Progressive Christians can say “Amen” to that. But do we have the courage to do something akin to what not only Reform but even traditional Rabbinic Judaism has done in arguing with God and with Moses? Do progressive Christians have the courage to point out clearly when they disagree with Jesus?

The Sadducees famously tried to stump Jesus with a question about levirate marriage and the resurrection. If a woman married all of seven brothers, but had no children, whose wife would she be in the resurrection? Although one may agree that the question presupposes a rather crude understanding of resurrection and the afterlife, popular piety has often held such views, and so the question is not an inappropriate one, even if there were surely people in that time who held to more sophisticated, less crassly physicalist sorts of views.

Jesus’ reply is that the Sadducees have made a fundamental mistake in thinking that there will be marriage in the resurrection. Interpreters have long wrestled with this, probably because this answer potentially undermines the whole point of a doctrine of resurrection. The doctrine of resurrection affirms that there is a continuity between our bodily existence in the present and an afterlife. Our relationships make up a substantial part of our identity. If they are going to be essentially ignored, set aside or abolished in an afterlife, then that suggests significant discontinuity between our selves now and that which survives death.

Although the scenario posed by the Sadducees is somewhat farcical, it raises intelligent questions. Jesus’ response cannot be regarded as entirely satisfactory, can it? Surely it simply raises the question of what the point is of this life if it contains so many aspects that will not be worth preserving for eternity, and the question of in what sense an eternally-existing “me” that does not share my relationships with others that I have now will in any sense be “me”.

Jesus concludes his response with a clever reference to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which combined with the fact that God is the God of the living and not the dead (where does that idea come from?) is used to demonstrate from the Pentateuch (which the Sadducees accepted as authoritative) that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still around. But would anyone today find this sort of “exegetical trick” convincing?

I’m quite sure that there are plenty of places where I’d side with Jesus against the Sadducees. But at this particular moment, it doesn’t seem like they received an entirely satisfactory answer to what was (and remains) a valid question. What do you think? Are we committed enough to the sort of self-critical learning and discipleship that Jesus challenged his followers to undertake, that we will even dare to question his statements and even critically analyse his arguments? Or does being a “follower” mean the religious equivalent of mindless nationalism: “My Lord, wrong or right”? Can one be a critical Christian? Why or why not?
Let me get the ball rolling by offering my own provocative answer to my own questions. Today there are only Christians who disagree at points with what Jesus thought and taught. It is inevitable. The only distinction is between Christians who acknowledge that this is the case, and Christians who pretend that it isn’t.

Here’s some of what’s going on elsewhere around the web:

Jesus Creed talks about Scripture and reason. Vision has a video clip of Paula Fredriksen speaking about Paul. April DeConick continues her discussion of the diversity of early Christianity (and Mystical Seeker joins in). Loren Rosson talks about politics in Romans 13. Ken Schenck distills out the issues covered in his New Testament survey class. Scotteriology points out that God’s name isn’t “God”. An und fuer sich has some controversial thoughts about Paul, Judaism and Christianity. Conrad Roth has an interesting post about magic and modernism, silence and speech. IO9 mentions a graphic novel about those left behind fighting back against the rapture and its paramilitary angel harbingers.

Keith Miller discusses whether the academic science community is a hostile environment for faith. Experimental Theology begins a series on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The Panda’s Thumb discusses creationism’s latest mutation. John Pieret discusses Intelligent Design and the “academic freedombills (Science Avenger also covers the latter). ERV points to online Rockerfeller lectures. Undeception talks about limits of science. There are science articles about a fossil of the missing link between salamanders and frogs (a ‘frogamander‘?), whether the sun is fine-tuned for life on Earth, and the recent disappointing statistics about high school biology teachers. Can you believe that Denyse O’Leary is inflicting yet another blog on cyberspace?

Greg Boyd reviews Ehrman’s God’s Problem, while Mystical Seeker also touches on theodicy. Richard Carrier draws attention to a web site connected to his book The Empty Tomb. There’s also a post about Pagan Christianity. De-conversion discusses post-Christian ethics. Jon Birch has some new cartoons:

  • Stephen Douglas

    James,I’d like to recommend this article for your perusal as a possible answer to this question of yours. I could not do it justice here.

  • Tom

    “Are we committed enough to the sort of self-critical learning and discipleship that Jesus challenged his followers to undertake, that we will even dare to question his statements and even critically analyse his arguments? Or does being a “follower” mean the religious equivalent of mindless nationalism: “My Lord, wrong or right”? Can one be a critical Christian? Why or why not?”you’ve set up a bit of a false dichotomy. the answer to that question depends on the answers to a few other questions. first you have to ask who jesus is, and if that is actually what he said. believing that jesus is god and that he really did say that thing, shouldn’t we accept it as is and then seek to figure out how and why he is right? I don’t think that is the same thing as saying “My Lord, right or wrong” to me that seems to be saying “Lord I trust you even thought I don’t quite understand” that is where the challenge is for me. that is the point at which I get to be critical and use my mind. believing what I do about jesus, I’m not comfortable putting my reason up against his in order to evaluate what he has to say, as I might be comfortable doing with a prof. or an author. that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to wrestle with things and be critical of arguments. I trust jesus, I don’t totally trust my ability to understand.

  • Bob MacDonald

    Jesus anticipates the knowledge we have mathematically today of the multi-dimensional aspects of glory. (Why does string theory need so many dimensions?) All times are present to God so Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still present to God – and also – they are still alive in that presence. So – Abraham rejoiced to see my day. And Moses only gets to the promised land in the transfiguration!’After’life is a name with a false property. After has no meaning in glory. But life has meaning now and in ‘that’ world – in the glory that he had before the foundation of ‘this’ world. Think of the cross as a black hole and what happens when you go through such a post modern thing.Not given in marriage – well obviously! How do you marry or get given in marriage when you have already given yourself to the Bridegroom? (All whom the Father has given to me will come to me.)The whole intellectual formation of doctrine is of course insufficient. What is sufficient is to ‘taste and see’ – it’s a bodily thing – that’s why Paul writes the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body. It’s more than a ‘matter’ of thoughts or thinking. It really makes ‘sense’ – if anyone is in Christ – there is a new creation etc…Ideas are not life. I don’t say these things because I made the words up. I have searched for words in and out of the Bible to express my astonishment of the power I have come to know – whether well or poorly I can’t say.The Saduccees had legitimate reason to reject speculative cosmologies without evidence – but they and we have the evidence in the covenant we have been invited into. It is not easy to ‘put across’ in words – because words are sometimes only descriptive.Your fondness for Sci Fi should make these notes easy for you to understand – but understanding is not as good as being ‘drawn after’ that one whose love is extreme. That usage of after – is both image like (redrawing us in his image) and attractive (the reference is to the Song – Draw me after thee. The King has brought me into his chambers…)

  • James F. McGrath

    Tom, what happens if one is willing to entertain the possibility of different answers to both your questions? What if one is persuaded by the evidence in the Gospels that whatever may be meant by referring to Jesus as the Word-made-flesh, it cannot mean that he was an all-knowing divine person dressed up as a human being but not affected by the limitations of a human mind, much less human culture and worldview? What if one is open to the possibility that at least some of what the Gospel authors record is, at least, not exactly what Jesus said and did, without comment/addition/subtration/interpretation? It seems to me that, unless one is going to simply assume the answers to the questions you mention by some irrational “leap of faith”, then the role of being a critical Christian still cannot be avoided.Bob, thanks for bringing the idea of timelessness into the discussion in such an interesting way. I’m tempted to make reference at length to LOST, but perhaps I’d best wait one more week and see what happens on the season finale! :)

  • Tom

    What makes the leap of faith irrational? Couldn’t someone argue that at some point or another, no matter how critical you are, you have to take some things on faith? How does one determine which leap of faith is acceptable and still leaves them in the position of being appropriately critical, and which leap of faith is irrational? Agreeing that we are called to be critical, who decides how critical is critical enough? Isn’t there a need for some give and take between faith and criticism/reason?

  • James F. McGrath

    If one simply chooses to “believe the Bible” and then choses to be selective in what one believes (e.g. the six days are literal in Genesis 1, the dome is not; eating shellfish is no longer an abomination, but homosexuality is), then there is something irrational and/or dishonest about that. On the one hand, there is the selectivity that one is engaging in while pretending one isn’t. On the other hand, there is the choice to ignore the tools available for analysing what the Bible is: textual criticism, historical criticism, etc. Where in the Bible does it call for people to make a “leap of faith” and simply trust what someone else wrote? I have no problem with acknowledging that there is more to life than we can analyse and scrutinize with academic methods, but I object strongly to any attempt to bypass the need for careful investigation by appeal to “faith”..

  • Tom

    so how does one become a christian? is there a fully rational way to do it, or is christian belief irrational?I’m not saying there is any excuse for bypassing careful examination, I just don’t have the same confidence in it as you do. at some point or another, you’re putting your faith in something.

  • Bob MacDonald

    These are old questions that I am seeing in a new way. There is no leap of faith in the Scripture. But there is a recognition that not everything is subject to ‘explanation’ – and God is not confined to the ‘gaps’ in our knowledge. There is no formula for ‘becoming a Christian’ in the Bible. There is an invitation through a long line of witnesses from Abraham at least to Jesus to the disciples and continuing through to today … What is the invitation to?- if I see a chair, I will have confidence – based on observation – that it will take my weight and I may sit on it. – I do not believe without verification of available evidence.- the covenant into which all are invited is the ‘chair’. Some people believe that only a specific group can use the chair – people that ‘believe’ a certain way or with a certain set of presuppositions and dogma. That belief is not ‘faith’ in the chair.- the covenant is with ‘God’ – which God? what kind of a God? reliable? Machiavellian? Predictable? Righteous? Loving? Exclusive? Rule-bound?- the psalms testify to a God that loves, protects, judges, confronts, fails from the human point of view, but ultimately is to be praised by all for being righteous and for bringing many children to that glory – from the uniqueness of the man who loves Torah (psalm 1) to the many ‘mercied’ saints of Psalm 149.- the psalms invite testing of the promises that the Lord God makes – O taste and see that the Lord is good (refrain in Genesis 1 – perhaps a meaning to emphasize from that chapter – ki-tov for it was good)- i.e. no faith = trust/confidence without evidence. This is the foundation of clear scientific thought in all ages. Christianity and Judaism are not superstitions.- but it is not the exclusive club we are invited into. It is the covenant relationship and dialogue with the Most High who rules the nations, the maker of heaven and earth.- the question is not -do I have faith, nor is it -am I in the in group with the right name and right confession. The question is how and when will you respond to your situation? When you have to sit down – where is the chair?

  • Mystical Seeker

    The idea of the afterlife was a relatively late development in the history of Judaism. It probably had only existed for a couple of centuries or so by the time Jesus lived. So it could be said that the Sadducees were, in that sense, more conservative than the Pharisees. But some of what you also say about the Sadducees does raise important questions about how they were given a bum rap. Part of the problem is that they seemed to have disappeared after the Jewish War, while the Pharisaic brand of the faith carried on and evolved the religion away from a centralized temple cult. So there was no one left to come to the defense of the Sadducees.One lesson to learn from all of this is that religions do change and evolve to meet changing circumstances.

  • James F. McGrath

    How does one become a Christian? On the one hand, it presumably in all instances involves a decision to follow Jesus, and that in itself involves the question of what that means, and how a follower knows what Jesus said, and so on. In my own case, the crucial moment was an instinctive prayer of surrender, having witnessed in the worship of a Pentecostal church to which I had been invited a reality of experience of God that I had longed for but knew I lacked. I simply cried out in my heart to God, “I don’t know what your way of living is, but my way isn’t working, so whatever your way is I want to try it”. That absolute unconditional surrender can be life-transforming. If I’d done the same thing in a Buddhist context presumably I’d be a Buddhist today. But as it turns out I’m a Christian, and although once I was a fundamentalist one, years of study of the Bible have persuaded me that that approach simply doesn’t do justice to what the Bible is.Perhaps you could call my heartfelt cry a “leap of faith”. I have no objection to that terminology. But that leap cannot demonstrate that a tomb was found empty nearly 2,000 years ago, or that God is one substance but three persons, or that Jesus spoke the words attributed to him in any given source. To answer those questions, one has to turn to various forms of historical study.If one never turns to historical study, then one is in danger of becoming a follower of the Bible, or the church, or one’s own imagination, rather than of Jesus. And so in a sense, rather than historical criticism being antithetical to Christian faith, it is its absence that is the greatest hindrance to being a follower of the “real Jesus” as opposed to an imagined one.I’m certainly willing to admit the limitations of our reason, and of my own in particular. But that shows the necessity for humility, and not that the writings of other equally limited human beings can somehow enable me to escape my humanness and its limitations.

  • Tom

    correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems as if you don’t consider the bible to be of any more importance than any other text? is the bible special in any way? do you believe it to be inspired? is it authoritative? It seems as if you start with skepticism towards the bible? Is that necessary? Why is that position better than starting with trust in the bible and placing the onus on other sources to prove it wrong? Part of the problem I have is it seems at least anecdotally that the amount of study one does has little to do with their faith. There are plenty of believers and nonbelievers in both the informed and uninformed crowds. Am I wrong in thinking that belief or lack thereof goes far beyond any rational argument? It would seem that if belief were just a matter of studying up enough and coming to the right conclusion, everyone who studies would end up at the same place, and this is obviously not the case. Those who study the most often seem to end up having the most to disagree on. It seems like belief comes first, and then arguments and logic and study are the things people use to justify the position they’re already in, refining it a little as they go. again, I’m not saying there isn’t a real and important role for the mind to play, I’m just saying I don’t find it to be the chief thing. I don’t have any problem accepting that there are people out there with a real and genuine faith in something that is true, despite the fact that they’ve done next to nothing in terms of study beyond going to church and reading their bible. Is your faith more valuable to you than their faith is to them? Isn’t it possible for two people to have faith in essentially the same thing and have gotten there by very different means?Apologies if I’m all over the place with my comments and questions. I’m a bio major surrounded by people who give me little opportunity to discuss any of this stuff. I do appreciate the dialogue. By no means do I consider myself the type of Christian afraid of examining my faith, but I don’t think I’m quite as skeptical as you. Maybe it’s just my ego, but reading some of this I can’t help but feeling like I’m some sort of lower class believer.

  • James F. McGrath

    I don’t think one has to study a lot in order to become a Christian. But if one wants to be a disciple of Jesus’, then it is worth pointing out that disciple is basically an antiquated term for student. And if one wants to make claims about the past, can one bypass the study of history? Is it any more appropriate for a Christian who has never studied history to make claims about what Jesus said and did, than for someone to walk around claiming to know things about medicine and making recommendations about treatments without having studied medicine even in a self-taught, informal way? I did not set out to approach the Bible in a skeptical sort of way. But as I sought to be self-critical and fair, and not ignore problems in the Bible that I would be quick to highlight if I found them in someone else’s scriptures, I found myself convicted of a double standard. I don’t necessarily think that anyone else should be as skeptical as I am (and I’m not sure how skeptical I am compared to most engaged in historical inquiry). What I do think is crucial is to be fair, and to not accept arguments regarding miracles, for instance, in connection with one’s own tradition that one would not find persuasive in connection with another. I presume you won’t object to this principle of fairness! :)Anyway, Tom, I’m delighted at your thoughtful questions and the conversation that you’ve helped sustain. I am sorry if it has made you feel like a “lower class believer”. It would be great to have a discussion about what Christians who’ve never studied the Bible in an in-depth, academic way should and shouldn’t say about it to others. Have you ever noticed that Paul never called on the Christians he wrote to to engage in evangelism, to explain the Scriptures to unbelievers, or anything of that sort? Nowadays the Bible is accessible in translation, and so people can make up their own minds and inform themselves to a greater extent, but I think this also creates new problems, as people read the Bible in plain English and assume they’ve understood. As a Christian who is also an educator, I am still wrestling with this question, of the relationship between faith and education, and welcome further discussion on this topic!

  • Peter Milloy

    [This comment to your May 22 is seriously belated. It comes only because I was directed just yesterday to the Sadducees post by the Biblical Studies Carnival XXX.] Luke’s version at 20:36 has Jesus making a comment that helps us to connect the dots: “Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” It may seem hard at first to tie this comment in with the preceding verses. Sure, faithful Jews will be immortal in the age to come; but what’s that got to do with marriage? My guess is there’s a hidden assumption here which Jesus and the Sadducees share: Marriage is for having kids (and not for any of the other reasons you and I might come up with): a) The purpose of levirate marriage was to raise up children for the dead brother (Deut. 25:5-10). b) 1 Enoch 15:5 says: “For this reason I gave them wives, that they might sow seed in them and that children might be borne by them.” c) 2 Baruch 56:6 points out that sex and childbearing came about due to Adam’s sin. This makes sense if that’s when death came about also. Having children is how an Israelite survived death, and how the covenant people continued to exist. But in the age to come, for those who have survived the judgment and have eternal life, the threat of death is past; moreover, Israelites of previous generations will have been raised from the dead (Luke 13:28-29), no new children will be needed to replace mortal Israelites–so marriage will be obsolete. Addendum: If Jesus believed marriage wouldn’t continue into the age to come, and if he thought that age would arrive soon, no wonder he had no compunction about taking men away from their wives (Luke 14:26; 18:29; cf. Matthew 19:12).

  • Rezfamilies

    A positive (though speculative) case can be made that male-female relationships similar to marital bonds can continue between the redeemed into the next life. This may then also imply a romantic, physical or even sexual aspect in such a relationship. If you’re interested to know more, an in-depth study of this topic (including the marriage pericope of Mt 22, and Old Testament issues) is conducted on the rezfamilies website – google ‘rezfamilies’or go to