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

Don Stewart

It has been argued that the one of the religious group that Jesus confronted - the Sadducees - were like the Samaritans, in that they only accepted the Law of Moses as divinely authoritative and rejected 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.

There Was A Misunderstanding Of Josephus

However this does not seem to be the case. The problem seemingly arose out of a misunderstanding by the early church father Origen of a statement by first century Jewish author Flavius Josephus. In his commentary on Matthew, Origen said that the Sadducees accepted only the five books of Moses as divinely inspired. He based this on a statement by first century writer Flavius Josephus. Josephus wrote of the Sadducees.

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

Origen took this to mean that they accepted only the Law of Moses as Scripture. However, Josephus was not referring to the Law of Moses against the writing of the prophets. Rather he was speaking of the written law versus the oral law. Another of his statements makes this clear.

[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 rejection of the Old Testament canon of Scripture.

The New Testament Tells Us What They Believed

The New Testament makes certain comments upon the beliefs of the Sadducees. Matthew wrote.

That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question (Matthew 22:23).

Luke stated

When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all) (Acts 23:7.8).

They Did Not Reject These Doctrines In The Absolute Sense

When Matthew wrote the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection, and Luke stated that they disbelieved in angels and the resurrection, they probably did not mean this in the absolute sense. The Sadducees did not reject the belief in angels but they did reject the Pharisees belief in an elaborate system of angelic hierarchy.

Likewise, they did not disbelieve in the resurrection as much as they may have denied some popular views of the resurrection - such as one woman would have seven husbands in the next life. Therefore their denial is not of the resurrection as much as elaborate concepts that arose concerning the resurrection.

They Did Not Deny The Supernatural

Consequently the statements Matthew and Luke should not be understood that the Sadducees denied all things supernatural. The denial of an elaborate system of angels and the resurrection is consistent with what Josephus says about them - they did not give the oral law the same weight as the written Scriptures.

Therefore, the traditional view of the extent of the Old Testament canon is not affected by the Sadducees use of it.


While it is has been common to believe that the Sadducees of the time of Jesus accepted only the Law of Moses as Scripture the evidence does not seem to bear this out. Origen's understanding of a statement by Josephus about the beliefs of the Sadducees is incorrect. They did not reject all of Scripture apart from the Mosaic Law. They rejected the idea that the oral law was just as authoritative as the written Law. Statements that Matthew and Luke make about the beliefs of the Sadducees are consistent with this.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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