Did the Sadducees have a limited canon?

I’ve been on a canon kick, lately (see this and this). Here, I find another occasion to examine an Old Testament (OT) canon claim: the limited canon of the Sadducees.[2]It should be acknowledged that the term “canon” is anachronistic to the 1st century. It is used throughout this post for simplicity.

Christian tradition holds that the Sadducees we see in the New Testament (NT) only accept the first five books of the OT (the Torah/Pentateuch, or the books/Law of Moses) and reject all others, notably those of the Prophets. Some scholars question the traditional understanding and in reviewing the arguments and researching the history, I’m convinced the traditional view is erroneous.

Herein, I lay out my case based on a comprehensive review of all the information I can locate. We’ll look at inherent weaknesses in typical arguments, the patristic sources that are the origin of the tradition, historical context, and key passages of Scripture. On the latter, I’ll show: 1) that a prominent early church father misread a key passage and; 2) at least one Biblical passage contradicts the claim, thus providing positive evidence the Sadducees did, in fact accept the books of the Prophets, at minimum. In addition to positive Scriptural evidence, the most reliable sources of information on the 1st century Sadducees, including Josephus (whom the fathers may have also misread), and later Rabbinic literature are consistent. Each affirm a common Biblical canon, recognized by the NT Jewish sects.

In the NT era, the Samaritans (who generally weren’t considered Jews) are almost certainly the only group that recognizes a different canon. They also have a different temple and their separation from Israel long predates the NT era. The 1st century Jewish attitude towards Samaritans makes influence on the Sadducees unlikely, particularly considering the higher likelihood of Sadducees controlling the Temple in Jerusalem. Regarding Jewish sects of the Jerusalem Temple cult, I’ll demonstrate that the key differences between Pharisees and Sadducees are in their interpretation of Scripture, and the Sadducee rejection of the Oral Torah (Pharisaic traditions), not their rejection of written Scriptures.

Some of this analysis will draw from Lee M. McDonald’s The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, as a basis for discussing the traditional view. McDonald, helpfully, addresses this view relative to some scholarly dissent. This provides a useful framework for parts of the discussion. McDonald retains the traditional view but his argument relies on incorrect assumptions and doesn’t account for other, more decisive evidence.


1”File:Brooklyn Museum – The Pharisees Question Jesus (Les pharisiens questionnent Jésus) – James Tissot.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. 3 Jan 2022, 00:46 UTC. 1 Jun 2023, 19:49 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_Question_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_questionnent_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg&oldid=618722304.
2It should be acknowledged that the term “canon” is anachronistic to the 1st century. It is used throughout this post for simplicity.

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