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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the Old Testament?

Don Stewart :: Did the Sadducees Have a Different Old Testament Canon than the Rest of Judaism?

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Did the Sadducees Have a Different Old Testament Canon than the Rest of Judaism?

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 13

It has been argued that one of the religious groups that Jesus confronted, the Sadducees, were like the Samaritans in that they only accepted the Law of Moses as divinely authoritative. That is, they rejected all other writings including the remainder of the Hebrew Scripture. If this is true, it may show that the canon of the Old Testament was not settled during the time of Christ.

Several observations need to be made about this question. They are as follows:

Arguments for the Sadducees Having a Different Canon

Three reasons are usually given for the Sadducees having a different canon than the rest of the Jews. They are as follows:

1. Statements from Early Church Fathers

To begin with, many of the church Fathers clearly stated that the Sadducees only accepted the Book of Moses as canonical. According to these Christian sources, the Sadducees rejected all other writings as Holy Scripture. The church fathers Origen and Hippolytus, living in the third century, were the first to make such a claim. Therefore, from a number of Christian writers, we have early testimony as to a different canon used by the Sadducees.

2. The Statement of Josephus about the Beliefs of the Sadducees

One of the reasons that the church fathers held this position was a statement found in the writings of first-century Jewish writer Flavius Josephus. Josephus wrote of the Sadducees in the following manner:

[They] admit no observance at all apart from the laws. (Antiquities 18:16)

This led a number of church fathers, including Origen, to say that the Sadducees accepted only the five books of Moses as divinely inspired. Indeed, Josephus’ statement was consistent with the Sadducees whom the Christians were aware of in the third century A.D. They rejected all of the Hebrew Scripture except the Mosaic Law.

3. Statements Found in the New Testament

Finally, there are statements in the New Testament about the beliefs of the Sadducees. Matthew records that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. He wrote:

The same day Sadducees came to him [Jesus], who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question. (Matthew 22:23 ESV)

Here we are told that they did not believe in the resurrection.

In the Book of Acts, Luke also records the fact that the Sadducees differed from the Pharisees on their view of the resurrection of the dead. He wrote:

And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. (Acts 23:7.8 ESV)

Obviously, the Sadducees had different beliefs than the Pharisees. They rejected the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. While the Law of Moses does not specifically teach the resurrection of the dead, other Old Testament books clearly do. For example, the resurrection is found in Daniel. It says:

Michael the great prince who stands watch over your people will rise up. There will be a time of distress such as never has occurred since nations came into being until that time. But at that time all your people who are found written in the book will escape. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and eternal contempt. (Daniel 12:1,2 HCSB)

Other passages also teach the resurrection of the body. Isaiah the prophet wrote:

Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust! For you will be covered with the morning dew, and the earth will bring forth the departed spirits. (Isaiah 26:19 HCSB)

There are a number of passages, outside of the Law of Moses, which teach the same thing. Therefore, it logically follows that the Sadducees must have rejected the remainder of Old Testament Scripture. The fact that the Sadducees denied the resurrection seems to be further evidence that they only accepted the Law of Moses as canonical and rejected the remainder of Scripture.


Though some have held the view that the Sadducees accepted a different canon than the Pharisees and other first-century Jews, the evidence is not there. We can make the following observations:

The Sadducees United with the Samaritans in the Second Century A.D.

While many of the church fathers from the third century onward testified that the Sadducees only accepted the Law of Moses as canonical, this claim only refers to the Sadducees living at that time. Indeed, from the writings of the church father Hippolytus, we find that the Sadducees joined with the Samaritans in the second or third century A.D.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Sadducees, as a group, began to die out. Some of those which remained eventually united themselves with a sect of the Samaritans; the only religious community which accepted the Law of Moses as authoritative and denied the remainder of Scripture.

However, this joining of the Sadducees and the Samaritans occurred at least a century after the time of Jesus. Therefore, the statements of the church fathers indicated the beliefs of the Sadducees at their time in history; not the beliefs they held at the time of Jesus. As we shall see, there is no evidence anywhere that the Sadducees, in the first-century A.D., held to a different canon than other Jews.

There Was a Misunderstanding of the Jewish Writer Josephus

But what about the statement made by Josephus? Didn’t he clearly say the Sadducees only accepted the Law of Moses? The answer is, “No.” This idea comes from a misreading of Josephus.

For example, Origen understood Josephus’ statement to mean that the Sadducees accepted only the Law of Moses as Scripture. However, Josephus was not referring to the Law of Moses as opposed to all the writings which make up the Scripture. Rather he was speaking of the written law, versus the oral law. Another of his statements makes this clear. He wrote:

[The Sadducees] hold that only written laws should be reckoned valid but that those handed down by tradition from the fathers need not be observed. (Antiquities 13:297)

This does not imply the Sadducees’ rejection of the Old Testament canon of Scripture; only that they held the written Scripture to be valid, not the oral law which had been passed down.

Furthermore, nowhere in the writings of Josephus do we find the slightest hint that any of the Jews accepted a different canon of Scripture. While Josephus tells us of the existence of the many different sects of Judaism that existed in the first century, as well as their unique beliefs, he never says the issue of the canon was one of the beliefs which divided these groups. To the contrary, his writings assume that the canon of Scripture was a common heritage for all Jews no matter what their particular beliefs may have been.

Therefore, Josephus’ testimony is that the Sadducees held to the same canon of Scripture as all other groups.

The New Testament Is Consistent with the Other Evidence

The New Testament does say that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. We also know that the resurrection of the dead is not specifically taught in the Books of Moses, but is taught elsewhere in the Old Testament. How can we reconcile this? The answer is that the Sadducees explained the resurrection in a non-literal manner. Therefore, while accepting the Law of Moses, and the rest of the Old Testament as Scripture, the differences were over how the teachings were to be interpreted and understood; their differences with the Pharisees were not over the extent of the canon.

Furthermore, the New Testament also says that the Sadducees did not believe in angels. Yet, there are a number of accounts of the ministry of angels in the Law of Moses which everyone agrees the Sadducees accepted as Scripture. Consequently, if the Sadducees rejected outright the doctrine of angels then they would have had to have rejected the Law of Moses as Scripture. As was true with the doctrine of the resurrection, the Sadducees held a different view from the Pharisees with respect to angels while still accepting the same books as Holy Scripture. Therefore, the differences were over interpretation; not the canon.

The Sadducees Called for the Scripture to Discover Where the Christ Was to Be Born

There is further evidence that the Sadducees accepted the entire Old Testament, or Hebrew Scripture, as canonical. For one thing, when the Magi appeared in Jerusalem looking for the Christ Child, Herod turned to the chief priests to discover where the Christ was to be born. At that time, most of the leading priests were Sadducees. Yet, they told Herod that the Scripture predicted the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. This “Scripture” was not from the Law of Moses but rather from the prophet Micah. This illustrates that they accepted more Scripture than the Law of Moses.

The Sadducees Would Have Been in Charge of the Temple Archives

There is one final thing. Since the late second century B.C., the Sadducees were the group that had jurisdiction over the temple archives. Among other things, the archives housed the Holy Scriptures. The fact that the other writings, apart from the Law of Moses, were kept in the temple archives, shows the Sadducees did not reject these writings as Scripture.

Conclusion: the Sadducees Used the Same Canon

Therefore, when all the evidence is considered, we find that the Sadducees, like all other Jewish sects in the first century, accepted the same writings as Holy Scripture. This was their common heritage. There is no evidence that any group rejected the sacred writings or any part of it. The extent of the Hebrew canon was clear.

Summary – Question 13
Did the Sadducees Have a Different Old Testament Canon than the Rest of Judaism?

No. While it has been argued that the Sadducees had a different Old Testament canon than the rest of Judaism in the first century A.D., the evidence does not bear this out. The Sadducees in the third century after Christ did join the Samaritans in rejecting all of Holy Scripture except for the writings of Moses. However, the evidence shows that in the first century A.D., the Sadducees were united with all Jewish sects in that they received and valued the same writings as Holy Scripture.

The evidence from first-century writer Flavius Josephus, along with the evidence from the New Testament itself, makes this clear. It shows that the Sadducees, while disagreeing with the Pharisees over certain doctrines, such as angels and the resurrection from the dead, did not disagree with them as to the extent of the Old Testament canon.

Therefore, the testimony from the Sadducees reveals that the canon of Scripture was agreed upon by all first-century Jewish groups; no matter what their other differences of belief may have been.

Why Was the Authority of Certain Old Testament Books Questioned? ← Prior Section
What Was the Extent of the Old Testament Canon among the People Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Next Section →
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