Coming up with a comprehensive picture of the Sadducees isn’t easy. We have no writings from them. Aside from Scripture, our information about who they were and what they believed comes from outside sources (primarily Josephus and the Mishnah). And there’s a sparseness in these that makes almost everything they say more conjecture than conclusion.
About all we know for certain about the Sadducees is what we find in the biblical witness. During N.T. times, they were a highly influential group that populated the higher ranks of the priesthood, the Sanhedrin and were closely connected to the Temple and its activities (Acts 4:1, 5:17, 23:6). Though they strongly disagreed with the Pharisees about many fundamental matters, they nonetheless formed a coalition with them to get rid of Jesus (Matthew 16:1ff). Jesus warned His disciples to be on guard in regard to the corrupting influence of both groups (16:6).
They were an odd lot anyway you look at it. Luke tells us they didn’t believe in the resurrection, angels or spirits (Acts 23:8). From the resurrection “dilemma” they presented Jesus, it appears they put way too much stock in human reasoning and way too little in the power of the Almighty. They denied angels and spirits even though the Scripture is replete with them.
It’s hard not to think see something of a Thomas Jefferson/Enlightenment mentality (the overly rationalistic aspect) in them. Jefferson produced his own version of the gospels by cutting out different parts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and then combining them into one story. No problem there—many people have produced harmonies of the gospels. The difference with Jefferson’s version was that he was so opposed to the miraculous and transcendent that he didn’t include any passages that talked about the supernatural. In his harmony, there’s no virgin birth or resurrection. Likewise, the Sadducees only believed in what they could see and touch and ignored everything else. They fashioned little riddles like the one they posed to Jesus by which they thought they had debunked the supernatural. In reality, they only thing they exposed was the smallness of their thinking. For some reason no one will ever be able to entirely understand, they seemed to think God was subject to the same limitations they were.
The Sadducees were ignorant and arrogant. That’s a dangerous combination—like gasoline and fire. All of us are ignorant in that there are plenty of things that we don’t know. In fact, education is to some extent, the process of becoming better acquainted with what we don’t know. There’s no shame in being ignorant—it’s part of the human condition. The problem comes in when we forget this and start to put too much stock in the things we do know. It can become a self-destructive cycle: ignorance of our limitations causes arrogance and our arrogance keeps us ignorant.
The danger for us is that we see the Sadducees as caricatures instead of real people. It’s too easy to dismiss them because we believe in the resurrection, angels and spirits. That’s good of course, but it misses the real point of the Sadducee’s failing. While their specific error was denying the resurrection, their larger folly was thinking that they knew exactly what God could or couldn’t do (i.e., putting limits on God). When we look at them this way, it’s less difficult to see ourselves in them.
Abraham believed God could give him and Sarah a wealth of descendants but wasn’t so sure He could protect them in Egypt or the Negev so passed Sarah off as his sister. Peter was stone cold certain that God wouldn’t allow Jesus to die on the cross. (Many disciples today are just as sure God wouldn’t possibly allow them or other loved ones to suffer or have their lives touched by some tragedy). When we “know” the plans we have for ourselves and our loved ones are exactly the same as God’s, we’ve entered into the land of the Sadducees. There’s a reason why James tells his readers to preface their plans with “If it is the Lord’s will . . . “ (4:15).
The good news in all of this is that whether it’s allowing His Son to be crucified (despite what Peter thought), or bringing Him back from the dead (despite what the Sadducees thought) or something that we didn’t think God would do in our lives—He always has the highest purpose in mind and He will always work all things together for good. Our task is let God be God.