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.

An Overview of the traditional view of the Sadducees and their limited canon

The belief that the Sadducees of the NT reject all but the five books of Moses, lies primarily in an (mis)interpretation of Matthew 22:22-33 found in a text by Jerome. This interpretation might stem from a misunderstanding of earlier heresiologies and commentaries that mention the Sadducees (discussed in detail below). Whether that’s the case, none of the presentations I’ve seen review a comprehensive corpora of the fathers or adequately address textual and historical context in the patristic, much less Rabbinic sources.

Most authors (usually apologists) are quick to draw conclusions from a surface-level read of the church fathers and Scripture demonstrating their higher allegiance to tradition. Since it is clear from Acts 23:7-9 that Sadducees reject resurrection doctrine, the convenient view of Matthew 22:22-33, with an established tradition, suggests that Jesus, in quoting Exodus 3:6 in Matthew 22:32, deliberately chooses a verse from the Torah that is accepted by the Sadducees. In doing so, as the argument goes, He forgoes passages that more clearly speak to resurrection in the Prophets. The implication is that Sadducees reject resurrection doctrine because (important link) they reject writings of the Prophets.

The passage of Scripture is below, followed by a chronological list of relevant texts from the early church. The four patristic sources highlighted are ones I often see mentioned in discussions about the limited canon of Sadducees. Others that aren’t highlighted are additional texts I’ve located that are relevant to this discussion.

The key passage of Scripture

In Matthew 22, Jesus has an exchange with the Sadducees. In formulating a response to a question they posed, He demonstrates they “know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Of course, not knowing (or understanding) the Scriptures isn’t the same as rejecting them but we’ll get there. Note the phrases that are in bold here, they will be important later in this discussion.

The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”

But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

Matthew 22:23-32 (ESV)

Patristic sources

Origen (185-253 AD) and Jerome (354-430 AD) specifically comment on the above passage. Each of them also mention the limited canon claim at least one other time. There are also two earlier heresiologies that make a similar claim. The authorship of one of these is disputed, while the other is pseudepigraphal. Jerome is the only one to articulate the fully-developed traditional claim. It is important to note that neither Jerome, nor Origen mention a Jewish source for their information. Collectively, these texts (the highlighted ones) are the root of the long-standing tradition. Below are the relevant portions, along with the other important texts. The dating of a couple is approximate and some key phrases are in bold:

Pseudo-Tertullian – (no earlier than ~200 AD)

“For of Judaism’s heretics I am silent—Dositheus the Samaritan, I mean, who was the first who had the hardihood to repudiate the prophets, on the ground that they had not spoken under inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Of the Sadducees I am silent, who, springing from the root of this error, had the hardihood to adjoin to this heresy the denial likewise of the resurrection of the flesh.”[3]Pseudo-Tertullian, “Against All Heresies,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwell, vol. 3, The … Continue reading

Against all Heresies, 1.1

Hippolytus of Rome? – (~210-235 AD)

“This sect [of the Sadducees] had its stronghold especially in the region around Samaria. And these also adhere to the customs of the law, saying that one ought so to live, that he may conduct himself virtuously, and leave children behind him on earth. They do not, however, devote attention to prophets, but neither do they to any other sages, except to the law of Moses only, in regard of which, however, they frame no interpretations.”[4]Hippolytus of Rome, “The Refutation of All Heresies,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, … Continue reading

The Refutation of All Heresies, 24.1

Origen (236-238 AD)

The Sadducees’ whole error arose from their reading the prophetic books, which they did not understand. Among them is this passage in Isaiah: “My chosen ones will not have children who are cursed.” And in Deuteronomy, among the blessings, “Blessed are the sons of your womb.” And they think that these prophecies are going to be fulfilled “in the resurrection,” since they do not understand that it is spiritual blessings that have been prophesied.”[5]Origen, “Homilies on Luke and Fragments on Luke,” ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Joseph T. Lienhard, vol. 94, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America … Continue reading

Homily 39 on Luke 20:21–40

Origen (244 AD)

‌”But someone might inquire if [passage], ‘You are in error, not knowing the Scriptures,’ which is said to the Sadducees who did not recognize any other Scripture than the Law, has reference to other Scriptures than the Law of Moses. This person, therefore, might say in respect of this same passage that the Sadducees are so called because in not recognizing the Scriptures which come after the Law they are in error since they do not know them. Another person might say: it is sufficient for the Sadducees to be reproved of error for not understanding the Scriptures according to Moses such that they apprehend the divine meaning in them. To be sure, however, he claims that the Sadducees do not know two things: one, the Scriptures, and the other, the power of God, which is the power by which those of the resurrection and the new life in it comes to be.”[6]Gohl, Justin. “Origen of Alexandria’s Commentary on Matthew, Book 17 — an English Translation.” Academia.edu, … Continue reading

Commentary on Matthew

Origen (248 AD)

“But although the Samaritans and Sadducees, who receive the books of Moses alone, would say that there were contained in them predictions regarding Christ, yet certainly not in Jerusalem, which is not even mentioned in the times of Moses, was the prophecy uttered.”[7]Origen, “Origen against Celsus,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James … Continue reading

Against Celsus

Jerome (379 AD)

“I say nothing of the Jewish heretics who before the coming of Christ destroyed the law delivered to them: of[8]Per Philip Schaff: “Jerome here reproduces almost exactly the remark of Pseudo-Tertullian. The Dositheans were probably a Jewish or Samaritan ascetic sect, something akin to the Essenes.” Dositheus, the leader of the Samaritans who rejected the prophets: of the Sadducees who sprang from his root and denied even the resurrection of the flesh…”[9]Jerome, “The Dialogue against the Luciferians,” in St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, vol. 6, A Select … Continue reading

The Dialogue Against the Luciferians

Jerome (393 AD)

Josephus in the second book of the history of the Jewish captivity, and in the eighteenth book of the Antiquities, and the two treatises against Apion, describes three sects of the Jews, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.”[10]Jerome, “Against Jovinianus,” in St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, vol. 6, A Select Library of the … Continue reading

Against Jovinianus

Jerome (398 AD)

He could have used other far clearer examples to prove the truth of the resurrection. For example…[Isaiah 26:19, Daniel 12:2]…people ask why the Lord wanted to bring forth this testimony for himself: “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” This passage seems ambiguous and not sufficiently to the point about the truth of the resurrection…Above we said that the Sadducees, who confessed neither angel nor spirit nor the resurrection of bodies, also preached the destruction of souls. They received only the five books of Moses and rejected the predictions of the prophets.[11]The text cited includes the following footnote: “Jerome is developing Origen’s explanation concerning the books accepted by the Sadducees. Cf. Origen, In Matth. 17.36” It would have been foolish, then, to bring forth testimonies [from the prophets], whose authority the Sadducees did not follow. Further, in order to prove the eternity of souls from the writings of Moses, he offers the citation: “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” [Exodus 3:6] Then he immediately adds: “He is the God not of the dead but of the living.” Thus, when he proved that souls continue after death—for were they not subsisting at all, it could not be the case that God would be their God—the resurrection of bodies was introduced by way of logical inference…”[12]Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Thomas P. Scheck, vol. 117, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 255–256.

Commentary on Matthew

Historically, the majority view is that the highlighted texts constitute strong evidence for the accuracy of the tradition. Dr. Edmon Gallagher, one of today’s top canon scholars has voiced his suspicion about the claim, while also acknowledging: “It’s not just a few ignorant Fathers…” It seems there is at least a significant minority of scholars[13]Emil Schürer (whom Dr. Gallagher mentions), says in his book: “The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ: Volume 2,” (T&T Clark LTD, Edinburgh, 1979, pg. 408): … Continue reading who sense the fathers are wrong on this, including F. F. Bruce, who McDonald cites. As far as I can tell however, nobody has tried to put the historical puzzle together.

Analysis of patristic sources

Before addressing the weaknesses in the traditional view and assembling this puzzle, observations and comments on the church fathers and their writings are in order. This should at least help us organize our puzzle pieces…

Pseudo-Tertullian, Against all Heresies

The date of this text is uncertain but it must be written a century or more after the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD. This is obvious as some of the heretics he mentions weren’t alive and active in earlier times. An interesting detail is the mention of “Dositheus the Samaritan.” Dositheus is an obscure figure. The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity and other modern sources place him in the 1st century. Beyond that, knowledge of him is “confused, contradictory, and in some cases manifestly legendary.”[14]Claudio Gianotto, “Dositheus of Samaria,” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, ed. Angelo Di Berardino and James Hoover, trans. Joseph T. Papa, Erik A. Koenke, and Eric E. Hewett (Downers … Continue reading For our purposes, this is enough to start organizing our puzzle pieces.

In most sources Dositheus has Gnostic associations that place him well after the time of Christ. If he is truly the first to “repudiate the prophets” (deny their canonicity) and the Sadducees truly “sprang” from this heresy, then the Sadducees of the NT period (before 70 AD) cannot have held such views. We see Dositheus is Samaritan, a group who certainly repudiated the prophets long before Gnostics were around so there is indeed reason to think Pseudo-Tertullian is confused on some level. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the historical record to indicate a connection between the Sadducees and the Samaritans in the 1st century. If Sadducees join the Samaritans after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, their views on many things might change. Regardless, we’re dealing with a Christian writer, geographically removed from Palestine and 1.5 centuries removed from the time of Christ. Either there is extensive confusion or this author is testifying to events that occurred well after the time of Christ, or both.

Pseudo-Tertullian also mentions Sadducee denial of resurrection doctrine but says they “…adjoin to…[the denial of the prophets] the denial likewise of the resurrection…” According to this, one exists before the other. If this is accurate, denial of resurrection wasn’t the reason for denial of the Prophets but something tacked on to it. As we can see, our earliest witness does not align neatly with the popular tradition and does not provide strong support for it. The historical timing is off with Sadducee denial of the Prophets, as is the key connection between rejection the prophets and denying resurrection doctrine. Is this evidence of a corner piece in our puzzle, though? Does Pseudo-Tertullian get misread or embellished by others who later read his work?

Hippolytus of Rome, The Refutation of all Heresies

This text is commonly attributed to Hippolytus but authorship is uncertain and the subject of debate. One of the candidates for authorship is Origen[15]Cosentino, Augusto. “The Authorship of the Refutatio omnium haeresium” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum / Journal of Ancient Christianity, vol. 22, no. 2, 2018, pp. 218-237. … Continue reading as attribution to him is found in the manuscripts, but there are reasons to consider Origen an unlikely author. Regardless, there is also significant evidence that Origen may have influenced or been influenced by Hippolytus, a Greek contemporary, and this work in particular. That could explain misattribution in manuscripts. Hippolytus and Origen may even have spent time together in Rome, around the year 212. According to Jerome, Hippolytus gave an exhortation in the presence of Origen. At some point, Origen was commissioned by a wealthy “Taskmaster” (his own lament) to write commentaries “in emulation of Hyppolytus.”[16]Jerome, “Lives of Illustrious Men,” in Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historial Writings, Etc., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Ernest Cushing Richardson, vol. 3, A Select … Continue reading We’ll discuss the potential Hippolytus-Origen connection more but it’s important to take note of it now.

The content of Hippolytus’ heresiology is very similar to that of Pseudo-Tertullian. We might wonder if one is the original source of the other. This work certainly draws from other literature circulating at the time, including that of Irenaeus (a late 2nd century heresiologist), and the apocryphal Acts of Peter. This could indicate Pseudo-Tertullian was also a source of information. A key difference between Hippolytus and Pseudo-Tertullian is that resurrection doctrine is not mentioned. Similarities include a Samaritan connection, rejection of the Prophets, and an affinity for the Pentateuch. It’s more plausible that Hippolytus repeats Pseudo-Tertullian, dropping a detail, rather than Pseudo-Tertullian doing likewise and adding to.

The statement that the Sadducees had their “stronghold…in the region around Samaria” is interesting. The author possibly confuses the Samaritans in Samaria with Sadducees, thinking they occupied Samaria. In the eight extant books of this heresiology, “Samaritans” (plural) are never mentioned and only Simon Magus is mentioned as a “Samaritan.” Even if this is accurate, it’s difficult to consider it as a reference to the NT era. Nothing in the NT indicates even a remote possibility that Sadducees mingled with Samaritans. If they do, it’s after the NT era and can only plausibly be after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Reinforcing this post-Temple idea are apparent present-tense statements: “And these also…” and “They do not adhere to the customs of the law…” when he discusses their rejection of the Prophets. Might this indicate a late-2nd or early-3rd century presence of a Sadducee remnant in Samaria? It’s a reasonable conclusion but most importantly, nothing is here to suggest the Sadducees of the NT era are in view or that they had a limited canon in the 1st century.

The term “sages” is more commonly associated with the Rabbinic period, which followed the destruction of the Second Temple. Use of this term in: “They do not…devote attention to…any other sages”, may also indicate Hippolytus is speaking of a Sadducee remnant that exists in his time.

Origen of Alexandria (and Rome, and Caesarea)

With Origen, other factors including the timeline and his potential for having Jewish sources are important considerations. As we’ll see, there are other complexities associated with his life and writing, and the transmission and translation of the texts. All of these are just as important for assembling our puzzle as the specific content of Origen’s writings.

We have already established Origen’s potential interaction with one or both of the prior texts and their authors. In addition to visiting Rome around the year 212, Origen is also known to have visited Caesarea in Palestine just a few years later (around 216). These are important way points in Origen’s journeys that we’re wise to consider but just as important are the two major divisions in his life. Prior to 233, Origen’s home was Alexandria, Egypt. Due mostly to ecclesiastical turmoil, from about 233 on, Origen lives in Caesarea. The reasons behind his move are not important here but knowing that he potentially spent the former part of his life in proximity to Hellenistic Jews and the later part of his life in proximity to Palestinian Jews is important. As we endeavor to assemble Origen’s section of the puzzle, I will primarily draw on information that is nicely summarized by Nicholas de Lange in Origen and the Jews: Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-Century Palestine.[17]“Origen and the Jews: Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-Century Palestine, Foreward.” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) His paper is well-suited to our present discussion.

Origen had massive influence in the ancient Christian world but some of his unorthodox ideas led to his condemnation by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, nearly three centuries after his death. As a result only a fraction of his writings survive. Of those that do, it’s often difficult to decipher exactly what he said or meant as the text is often not in original form. Many writings come to us as translations (some admittedly redacted) by way of Rufinus and Jerome, two men who live more than a century after Origen. Origen’s Commentary on Matthew, which factors in here, is translated into Latin even later, not surviving at all in his native Greek. Various quotations and fragments aid scholars in reconstructing texts but it’s nevertheless a significant problem with regard to precision. Modern English readers are often working with translations of translations, centuries removed from Origen’s culture and context. Against Celsus, another text discussed here, is extant in Greek but the oldest manuscript dates to the 13th century and we have little means of determining accuracy with any precision.

As de Lange notes, examination of any passage in Origen must account for occasion and audience. Depending on genre, circumstance, and tone (e.g. Scriptural exegesis/commentary vs. apologetic polemics), Origen’s representation of Jews is plagued with a degree of inconsistency and contradiction (even if only apparent). This is an extremely important consideration in the texts we are examining. With regard to Origen’s statements on the Sadducees, we are dealing with three works (in the order they were written):

  • a somewhat “off the cuff” homily on a synoptic passage, specifically about the Sadducees;
  • a more thoughtful commentary on our key Scriptural passage;
  • a very brief statement embedded in a broader polemic, from an apologetic work that is certainly not concerned with accurately representing Jewish history or explaining Scripture

All of these are written after Origen’s move to Palestine. There may be a temptation to think his knowledge of Jewish history improves with his move to Caesarea and over time. However, Origen’s motivations for interacting with and understanding Jews were primarily related to his focus on Scriptural exegesis. A lesser motivation evident in his works is understanding Jewish language, culture, and customs, but only really as they pertain to understanding Scripture. It is also tempting to lump Jewish history into this but there is no strong evidence that: a) Origen prioritized understanding Jewish history or; b) even if he did, that a defunct sect like the Sadducees would have been resident in the memory of Jews of his day. With a firmly established Rabbinic culture (end of the Tannaitic period) rooted more in the Pharisaic tradition, it seems more likely there would have been a tendency to paint the history of the Sadducees in unfavorable terms. One might even conclude this would entail promoting a folk narrative about a limited canon of the Sadducee. As we’ll see though, Rabbinic literature, in which Jewish history and customs were just being recorded in Origen’s day, paints quite another picture.

The earliest indicator of Origen’s view on the Sadducees is in his homily on Luke 20:21–40. In it, he says their error comes from “reading the prophetic books, which they did not understand” (citing Isaiah). This implies they do accept the books (Isaiah as much as Deuteronomy) but misinterpret them. Confusingly, he also says of prophesies: they “think…prophecies are going to be fulfilled ‘in the resurrection.” This suggests the Sadducees did believe in resurrection, which contradicts the common understanding. Rather than attempt to reconcile this, I’ll point readers to this summary of N.T. Wright’s work on resurrection doctrine, which discusses second temple Jewish eschatology. The subject is more nuanced than most realize and a superficial read of Scripture may inhibit understanding. This isn’t to say Origen is right or wrong. It’s possible he has a more nuanced understanding of the Sadducee belief, especially considering impacts of Hellenism on his thought and potentially, that of the Sadducees. This is too much to explore here. It’s sufficient for us to notice the strong implication that Sadducees did accept the books of the Prophets and that Origen does not connect their resurrection doctrine (whatever it is) to their canon.

The next revealing statement in Origen’s works is in his Commentary on Matthew. This might be viewed as the most thoughtful of the three references I cite. It’s reasonable to think this offers the most accurate picture of Origen’s understanding of Sadducee beliefs. His discussion that beings with: “…someone might inquire if…’You are in error, not knowing the Scriptures’ [Jesus’ words]…” Origen then describes possible interpretations. It seems Origen has heard that Sadducees “did not recognize any other Scripture than the Law” but is unclear about what this means. He offers two possibilities: 1) “they do not know them” and; 2) they don’t understand Scriptures according to Moses “such that they apprehend the divine meaning.” All that Origen seems to be sure of is that Jesus says the Sadducees: “do not know two things: one, the Scriptures, and the other, the power of God which is the power…of the resurrection.” Nothing in his interpretation, no matter how it’s read, suggests he believes the Sadducees reject books because they deny resurrection.

Concerning any denial of written books at all, Origen’s statement: “who did not recognize any other Scripture than the Law might very well be a misread of Josephus, who we’ll examine later. Origen may confuse rejection of the Oral Torah with rejection with of other books. This might explain the apparent confusion and reason for posing the question: “If…has reference to other Scriptures than the Law of Moses”. Another possibility is transposition of terms. Maybe a scribal error, problem in translation, or other artifact of the manuscript tradition offers an explanation. The original might have been: “who did not recognize any other Law than the Scripture.” (note I have transposed Scripture and Law). This is a convenient way to reconcile things and would seem to make Origen’s comments make more sense, though I’m not sure of the plausibility.

The last mention in Origen’s works is the one most commonly cited. While it’s probably written 4-5 years later than his Commentary on Matthew, his remark here seems to be an “aside,” polemically shoehorned into his apologetic. Origen clearly says: “the Samaritans and Sadducees, who receive the books of Moses alone” but never mentions “resurrection.” In fact, resurrection isn’t mentioned in all of Book I of Against Celsus. The first use of that term is in Book 2, Chapter 10. It’s possible he has this in mind with the statement: “predictions regarding Christ” but it seems unlikely. Resurrection is a topic Origen handles elsewhere. The term appears in seven of eight books of Against Celsus. The lone exception is the only book that mentions Sadducees.

Just before the statement quoted from this work, Origen says: “no one who was acquainted with the statements of the Christians, that many prophets foretold the advent of the Saviour, would have ascribed to a Jew sentiments which it would have better befitted a Samaritan or a Sadducee to utter…” This provides context to the “predictions” he speaks of, namely those of the advent of Christ. The way he combines Sadducees with Samaritans and suggests they weren’t Jews, seems to suggest his statements are crafted to discredit Celsus, not accurately expound Jewish history.

Jerome of Stridon (and Rome, Constantinople, and Bethlehem)

Jerome was born around 347 in Stridon (modern Croatia) and is thought to have been converted to Christianity and baptized during his student days in Rome, likely as a young adult. The earliest text we have to examine here is from 379. Strikingly, it is almost a verbatim quote of the key statements in our Pseudo-Tertullian text. There is no doubt it was used as a source in his The Dialogue Against the Luciferians. Pseudo-Tertullian and the NT probably represent the extent of Jerome’s knowledge of the Sadducees, at this time. He goes to Palestine in 386, where he learns Hebrew, but based on remarks in his Against Jovinianus, (a small portion is included above), it seems probable that by 393, Jerome’s knowledge of ancient Jewish sects was probably limited to what he learned from reading the works of Josephus, sometime between 386 and 393.[18]Jerome, “Against Jovinianus,” in St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, vol. 6, A Select Library of the … Continue reading

We will look at Josephus as a Jewish source later but for now we can observe that Jerome has clearly been exposed to and influenced by Pseudo-Tertullian and Josephus with no indication that his time in Palestine influenced him on this matter. Also, to this point (at least by 393), nobody on record has fully articulated the idea that Sadducees rejected OT books outside of the Pentateuch because of their denial of resurrection doctrine. Both claims have been made as independent assertions by some (not all) but nobody has put forth denial of resurrection as a reason for the Sadducees rejecting books. We’ve also seen one author (Origen) imply that Sadducees did accept books of the Prophets or at least read them. This is 360 years into the church and the puzzle is coming into view.

Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew is written in 398 from Bethlehem. At this point, Jerome knows Hebrew and clearly has access to Jewish sources. Even still, it seems unlikely that knowledge of the history of the Sadducees, who are certainly defunct (even if a remnant persisted through the 2nd century) by the year 398, is resident in Jewish memory. When Jerome pens his commentary in 398, we finally see the suggestion that Jesus quotes from Exodus on resurrection doctrine in Matthew 22, because the Sadducees reject the prophets. It’s not stated explicitly but with language like: “it would have been foolish, then, to bring forth testimonies [from the prophets],” Jerome is bringing to bear his vast knowledge of Scripture and strongly implying a connection. So, at this point, we know Jerome is familiar with Pseudo-Tertullian and Josephus but what about Hippolytus and Origen?

Thomas Scheck, the translator of Jerome’s commentary does a far better job of summarizing the key points to know about this work, in his thorough introduction. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote a few key statements, which are more than enough to put this work in perspective (and indeed complete the patristic portion of our puzzle):

“From Antioch Jerome went to Constantinople [around 380], where he became a pupil of Gregory Nazianzus, who encouraged Jerome to study Origen’s scriptural exegesis. Jerome…would draw upon and indeed appropriate Origen’s exegesis for the rest of his life.[19]Jerome, “Commentary on Matthew,” ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Thomas P. Scheck, vol. 117, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 8.

Jerome dictated his Commentary on Matthew over the course of two weeks. The work shows signs of hasty composition, such as, at times, extreme brevity and numerous inaccurate citations from the Bible and Josephus.[20]Ibid. pg. 16

In his explanation of Matthew’s text, Jerome occasionally relies on Josephus, Origen, or Eusebius for information about geographical or historical details, but he also shows evidence of a personal knowledge of the biblical sources, of the topography of Palestine, and of current traditions, both Jewish and Christian.”[21]Ibid. pg. 17

“In the Preface, Jerome cites the works he has read and from which he has excerpted…Origen, Theophilus of Antioch, Hippolytus, Theodore of Heraclea, Apollinaris of Laodicea, and Didymus of Alexandria…It appears that Jerome’s most important source was Origen.”[22]Ibid. pp. 19-20

Jerome, Commentary on Matthew

As we can see, Jerome’s commentary on Matthew was hardly a well thought out, original composition. As the first to articulate the details of our church tradition, it’s reasonable to conclude he merely pieced together elements from prior writings he was familiar with. In doing so, he probably does not introduce historical details learned from Jewish sources, but rather, incorporates his vast knowledge of Scripture. Jerome is the first to conclude that avoiding more clear prophetic passages lies behind Jesus’ choice to quote from Exodus. Combining Scriptures and confusing historical descriptions from the other authors we’ve examined, all of whom are identified as sources, is likely how Jerome draws his conclusion. As a hasty compilation, dictated and recorded in two weeks, we can safely question the historical accuracy of his writing and thus, the long-standing tradition.

Observations on the early witnesses to a limited Sadducee canon

Both Origen and Jerome are prominent authors and very influential in the early church. With such witnesses, it’s easy to see how the traditional view of a limited Sadducee canon gets cemented in church memory. Until the Origenist controversies of the late 4th-6th centuries, Origen was well respected by many and his writings would have circulated widely. Jerome served as a bridge to the West of many eastern ideas, including those of Origen. Both men are well known for their language skills and work translating Scripture.

With these witnesses and a fuller picture of all the patristic sources on Matthew 22:23-32 as background, we’ll briefly look at McDonald’s response to the dissenting scholars on the Sadducee canon that he engages in his book. Afterwards, we’ll take a closer look at what opponents of the traditional view say. Then, we’ll wrap things up by working through positive evidence for a larger (complete) Sadducee canon. First however, I want to review some specific observations about the texts cited above:

  • Neither Origen, nor Jerome state they received information on the Sadducees from a Jewish source
  • In his commentary on Matthew, Origen is quite speculative, offering alternative interpretations. Specifically, he says the account in Matthew 22 may suggest the Sadducees:
    1. don’t “recognize” Scriptures which come after the Law since they “do not know them” – this is not the same as rejecting the books
    2. don’t understand the Scriptures according to Moses such that they apprehend the divine meaning in them – again, this is not the same as rejecting the books (later, I will discuss my own agreement with this interpretation as I believe it demonstrates an accurate understanding of a Mosaic theme in Matthew 22-23)
  • In Against Celsus, Origen is much more direct and seems to have arrived at a preferred interpretation. This indicates, perhaps, that he wrote this after his commentary on Matthew. The parallel he draws with the Samaritans, who undoubtedly only accept the five books of Moses, leaves little to wonder. Nevertheless, Origen does not say Sadducees reject the prophets because they reject resurrection doctrine. Further, Against Celsus must be viewed in light of it’s genre, objective, and audience. More than likely Origen is using the statement as an “aside” in his polemic treatise to discredit Celsus, not accurately relay historical details he probably doesn’t know. His knowledge on the Sadducees may or may not be linked to the prior heresiologies but we do know he had contact with Hippolytus.
  • Jerome expands on the ideas we see expressed in Origen. In fact, it is Jerome who first suggests the link with “far clearer” passages of Scripture. But again, the question is whether Jerome develops this thinking from interaction with a Jewish source. The answer to that seems to be an emphatic ‘no’ with there being much greater likelihood that Jerome hastily “works out” an interpretation of Matthew 22 by combining prior authors (all of whom he’s familiar with) with his knowledge of Scripture. An evolution of thinking, with gradual accretions, seems very evident.

Problems with McDonald’s case for the traditional view

As previously mentioned, Lee M. McDonald is a prominent canon scholar who provides a good summary of the historical tenants of the Sadducee limited canon tradition and offers a basic analysis with understandable conclusions.[23]McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. United States, Baker Publishing Group, 2006. The main problem with McDonald’s handling isn’t the logic he employs. Rather, he makes assumptions without questioning their validity (e.g. that denial of resurrection = denial of prophets), and lacks enough historical information to warrant the inferences he makes. We can see his perspective clearly in the four statements below. A brief response to the strength of each relative to our deeper analysis of the patristic texts follows each statement.

  1. “…it is difficult to argue that the Sadducees could affirm the scriptural status of passages like Isa 25:7; 26:19–21; Ezek 37:1–14; and Dan 12:2, which speak clearly about the resurrection of the dead, and then deny this doctrine.”
    • This is an innovation introduced by Jerome. Three patristic authors that allude to a limited canon of the Sadducees before Jerome do not make this claim. It likely results from Jerome’s extensive knowledge of Scripture and “off the cuff” commentary.
    • The logic here is not as sound as might be assumed. There are at least two alternative explanations of the verses cited: 1) the Sadducees may view prophecies as having been fulfilled in the past (indeed one of the later Rabbinic writings we’ll review suggests this) and; 2) the Sadducees may not view these passages as clearly speaking to resurrection doctrine. Isaiah 25: 7 can be viewed as speaking to restoration of Israel or release from Roman rule. If the Sadducees did combine with Samaritans following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, it’s conceivable they originally accept the prophets (in the NT era) but later reject the them when Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 are fulfilled.
  2. “Origen and Jerome, who lived in the land of Israel and had access to Jewish thought in their day, also conclude that the Sadducees limited their scriptural collection to the Pentateuch.”
    • Our review of Origen shows he made conflicting statements (assuming transmission and translation integrity) and that his clearest statement affirming a limited Sadducee canon can be considered suspect in it’s polemic context.
    • Both Origen and Jerome clearly have exposure to other authors and writings (the earlier heresiologies), from which these these ideas may germinate. In each case, it is before their time around prominent Jewish communities. Origen may have earlier influence from Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria but it may not be appropriate to expect a robust knowledge of the Judean sects of the Jerusalem temple cult to exist there.
    • It is probable that neither Origen, nor Jerome derived their knowledge of the 1st century Sadducees from Jewish sources.
  3. “Both writers had independent access to informed Jews in their own respective communities.”
    • As already stated, it is likely that neither Origen, nor Jerome obtained their information from Jewish sources
    • Jerome cannot be reasonably viewed as an independent witness as Origen was the primary source for his commentary on the book of Matthew, the first place where the fully developed theory appears.
  4. “…given what we read about them in the NT and the early church fathers, this leads us to conclude that their Scriptures were different from those adopted by the Pharisees or the Essenes.”
    • This is where McDonald seems to assume rejection of resurrection doctrine = rejection of the prophets. As we’ll see in outlining the positive case for an alternative view, there is NT evidence McDonald doesn’t appear to consider.
    • A more extensive review of early church fathers has shown their witness isn’t as strong as McDonald concludes.

These statements sum up McDonald’s position. Essentially, he considers Origen and Jerome to be independent witnesses, both with proximity to Jewish sources. It’s worth noting that he quotes Origen (from Against Celsus) but not Jerome. Nor does he mention the Matthew Commentary where Jerome’s remarks appear. McDonald does list two additional (supplementing Jerome) OT passages where he implies a doctrine of resurrection of the dead can be more clearly discerned. In doing so, he follows Jerome’s text more closely than Origen’s (it’s odd that he doesn’t quote it). Once an assumption is made that rejecting resurrection doctrine also entails rejecting books where it’s more clear, concluding the Sadducees have a limited canon is a small step. We’ll now finish up our historical puzzle by examining a positive case for alternative view to the tradition.

The positive case for another view on the Sadducee canon

As we have seen, there is insufficient, confusing, and even conflicting evidence in the tradition from our review of early 8church fathers. Further, nobody fully articulates the traditional claim until Jerome in the year 397. Though a prominent church father and generally reliable witness, it seems clear Jerome did not get his initial information from a Jewish source and appears he combined ideas from or even misread those who came before him. Lastly, Jerome’s witness suffers from the fact that it appears in a hastily compiled commentary, for which he certainly drew from Origen, and others. We have also seen how the conclusions of a prominent scholar defending the tradition are largely based on unwarranted assumptions and a lack of information. Now, it’s time to build a positive case for Sadducee acceptance of the full Hebrew canon…

Our first step is reviewing the historical context to see what we know about the Sadducees and how we know it. N.T. Wright has what is perhaps one of the most thorough discussions of the sect, to include an excellent analysis of their denial of the doctrine of the resurrection. He is a well-respected NT scholar and one might expect as much from a multi-volume set named “The Resurrection of the Son of God,”[24]N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003) that discusses the Jewish eschatological origins of resurrection doctrine, among many other related topics.

“The three best sources for the beliefs, positive and negative, of the Sadducees are the New Testament, Josephus and the rabbis. None of them was neutral in reporting the Sadducees. The New Testament, not surprisingly, sees their rejection of resurrection as their main characteristic. Josephus (who, as an aristocrat, may have been closer to them than he cares to let on) describes them as though they were really a hellenistic philosophical school. The rabbis speak mostly of their attitude to purity. This is all we have to go on. After AD 70 there were no Sadducees left to answer back or put the record straight. But from the sources’ fairly solid agreement on the point it is clear that we are on the right track. Basically, the Sadducees denied resurrection; it seems more than likely that they followed a quite strict interpretation of the Old Testament, and denied any significant future life at all. But, as will become apparent, the contemporary instinct to see the Sadducees as the radicals, because they denied the resurrection, is 180 degrees wide of the mark. They denied it because they were the conservatives”[25]Ibid. pg. 131.

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and subsequent Jewish revolts, Christianity becomes a predominantly Gentile institution. Following the Bar Kokhba revolt in particular (132-135), there seems to be distinct separation, with very few Jewish converts. By the mid-second century, this separation is evident and Justin Martyr in his famous Dialog with Trypho [a Jew] bears witness to this. For brevity, I won’t discuss this in detail, the text is online for readers that are unfamiliar.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Origen is the first known Christian scholar to undertake the study of Hebrew. He had probable acquaintance with a Rabbi who led the school at Caesarea but the encyclopedia also suggests Origen’s knowledge of Hebrew was less than thorough. Further, he was probably unfamiliar with key Jewish concepts such as Midrash. By Origen’s day, it is reasonably certain Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are distinct, with the Jewish roots of the latter long lost.

Josephus: an early Jewish source subject to misinterpretation

The opposing scholars that McDonald addresses cite this. While he doesn’t consider their position strong enough to overturn the longstanding tradition, we’ve already seen that the assumptions made by McDonald undermine his own position. F. F. Bruce, for example, argues that the notion of a limited Sadducee canon comes from a common misunderstanding of Josephus’s references to the Sadducees. Here are the two pertinent passages from Josephus:

Josephus (93 AD)

What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.

Antiquities 13.10.6

But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of anything besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent: but this doctrine is received but by a few, yet by those still of the greatest dignity. But they are able to do almost nothing of themselves; for when they become magistrates, as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be, they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitude would not otherwise bear them.

Antiquities 18.1.4

The passage from book 18 is often understood to mean that only the Law of Moses finds acceptance by the Sadducees and that they exclude other writings. Note that Josephus doesn’t actually refer to the “Law of Moses” in the passage from book 18 but does in the one from book 13. The common understanding is likely due to presuppositions stemming from the tradition of the early church fathers (see the irony?). Bruce claims the passage in book 18 refers only to their rejection of the oral traditions of the Pharisees. When considering these passages together, a plain read favors Bruce. It’s not possible to determine if Origen was familiar with these. It’s possible he was and misinterpreted them, conflated multiple passages, or possibly just tried to reconcile Josephus with the Sadducees doctrinal position. Regardless, we know Origen conflates Josephus, in at least one other instance. We can reasonably assume that Jerome read these passages in Josephus but likewise, can only guess at his interpretation.

Other Jewish sources

Talmudic sources seem to be less explored in a lot of Christian scholarship. Turning our attention there will provide further evidence the Sadducees did in fact, accept OT Scriptures outside of the first five books of Moses. These sources are dated later than our Christian witnesses but the earliest dates are within a generation of Jerome and very likely reflect oral traditions of the Jews that were contemporary to his time. This is further evidence that Jerome’s commentary on Matthew does not rely on Jewish sources but more likely reflects information obtained from Origen’s work and the earlier heresiologies.

One may object to the inclusion of these sources on grounds they represent anti-Christian polemic (such statements are often made by apologists on canon matters) but I can think of no reason why Rabbinic Jews in the 5th or 6th century would find value in interpolating the debates we see here. They are intra-Judaic matters with little significance in the Christian world. With the party of the Sadducees four or more centuries removed, one can imagine many reasons for polemics but not ones intending to suggest the Sadducees accepted books outside of the Torah. Brief comments follow the passages discussing the significance of each.

Horayot 4a:12 (Talmudic Babylon – c.450 – c.550 AD)

“Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says: A court is not liable to bring an offering unless it issues an erroneous ruling concerning a matter with which the Sadducees do not agree. The Sadducees do not accept the Oral Torah, and they interpret the Written Torah literally. The court is liable only for a matter that is not explicitly written in the Torah or that does not clearly stem from that which is written in the Torah.”

This is a clear and significant reference to the Oral Torah (Pharisaic “tradition of our forefathers” mentioned by Josephus). Horayot 4a:12 reinforces the interpretation of Josephus favored by Bruce, namely that the Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah, with no mention of rejecting specific books (or classes of books like the Prophets) of Scripture. We now have a second witnesses to support the position of Bruce, in opposition to McDonald.

Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit 5:2-3 (Talmudic Babylon/Italy/Israel – c.500 – c.800 AD)

The Sadducees denied the existence of the hereafter [this world], saying: As the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away, so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more (Job 7:9). Hence the Holy One, blessed be He, proclaimed: And the mouth of the wicked concealeth violence (Prov. 10:6).”

Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit 5:2-3 speaks to the Sadducees denial of the afterlife and resurrection. In doing so, it claims they used a passage from Job to defend their position. This is evidence they accepted more than the first five books of Moses.

Sukkah 48b:2-12 (Talmudic Babylon – c.450 – c.550 AD)

“Rabbi Yehuda says: The basin for the water libation was not that large; rather, one would pour the water with a vessel that had a capacity of one log on all eight days of the Festival and not only seven. And the appointee says to the one pouring the water into the silver basin: Raise your hand, so that his actions would be visible, as one time a Sadducee priest intentionally poured the water on his feet, as the Sadducees did not accept the oral tradition requiring water libation, and in their rage all the people pelted him with their etrogim.”

Sukkah 48b:2-12 further reinforces the idea that the Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah. This is the third instance supporting this idea, in two independent witnesses (Josephus and the Talmud).

Sanhedrin 90b:8-10 (Talmudic Babylon – c.450 – c.550 AD)

“Heretics [Sadducees][26]N.T. Wright uses another translation of the Talmud that begins: “The Sadducees asked Rabban Gamaliel” (Wright, pg. 135). asked Rabban Gamliel: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, revives the dead? Rabban Gamliel said to them that this matter can be proven from the Torah, from the Prophets, and from Writings, but they did not accept the proofs [which folow] from him. The proof from the Torah is as it is written: “And the Lord said to Moses, behold, you shall lie with your fathers and arise” (Deuteronomy 31:16). The heretics [Sadducees] said to him: But perhaps the verse should be divided in a different manner, and it should be read: “Behold, you shall lie with your fathers, and this people will arise and stray after the foreign gods of the land.” The proof from the Prophets is as it is written: “Your dead shall live, my corpse shall arise. Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust, for your dew is as the dew of vegetation, and the land shall cast out the dead” (Isaiah 26:19). The heretics [Sadducees] said to him: But perhaps the prophecy was fulfilled with the dead that Ezekiel revived. No proof may be cited from that verse with regard to any future resurrection. The proof from Writings is as it is written: “And your palate is like the best wine that glides down smoothly for my beloved, moving gently the lips of those that sleep” (Song of Songs 7:10), indicating that the dead will ultimately rise and speak. The heretics [Sadducees] said to him: But perhaps merely their lips will move, in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yoḥanan, as Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: Anyone in whose name a halakha is stated in this world, his lips move in the grave as if repeating the statement cited in his name, as it is stated: “Moving gently the lips of those that sleep.” No proof may be cited from that verse, as it is unrelated to resurrection.”

Sanhedrin 90b:8-10 is perhaps the most significant passage we find in Talmudic literature to suggest the Sadducees accepted the entire OT canon. In this text, one that recalls a 1st century exchange between a leading Pharisee and the Sadducees, resurrection is the topic. Not only that, but Gamaliel (the Pharisee), defends his view favoring resurrection by referring to ALL three classes of Hebrew Scripture: the Torah, the Prophets (Nevi’im), and the Writings (Ketuvim). Rather than object to the use of books in any of these classes, the Sadducees merely object to the Pharisaic interpretation. For each, the Sadducees offer a differing interpretation of the passage cited.

In addition to serving as evidence that that 1st century Sadducees do accept all the books of the OT, this passage provides further attestation regarding the Prophets. Far from rejecting the Prophets, we actually see the Sadducees use a prophecy from Ezekiel in their objection to Gamaliel’s use of one from Isaiah. They suggest that one prophecy concerning resurrection was already fulfilled by another! Interestingly, these two passages are used by McDonald in his defense of a limited Sadducee canon (one originally by Jerome). Surely Lee McDonald was unaware of this text when he wrote his book.

As the dating of these Talmudic texts is after the time of Origen and Jerome, one can only assume they accurately represent the views of Jews when they lived. Commenting on a portion of the passage above, N.T. Wright says: “The Gamaliel in question is presumably the Gamaliel of Ac. 5:34; the debate in question is therefore roughly contemporary with Jesus and Paul. (The fact that the source may have stylized it does not mean it is not thoroughly credible in exactly that period.)”[27]Ibid. Wright’s statement may well be applied to all of the Talmudic passages above. Any “stylizing” that exists in these Talmudic passages should not lead us to conclude the basic ideas lack credibility.

Positive scriptural evidence

Our first look at the positive evidence in Scripture for a common 1st century Jewish canon, involves re-examining our key passage. In doing so, we can see a Mosaic theme that might explain why Jesus quotes from Exodus 2:6. We sometimes have difficulty seeing beyond the unoriginal chapter and verse breaks in our modern Bibles, which can make continuity difficult to discern but in Matthew 22:23-33, Jesus’ exchange with the Sadducees is part of a series of events that begins in Matthew 21:18 and extends into Matthew 23 (all in the same day).

A simple doctrinal disagreement between Pharisees and Sadducees, rather than a different canon, is a reasonable interpretation. Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus does not criticize the Pharisees for not understanding Scripture in the next passage: Matthew 22:34-40 (paralleled in Mark 12:28-34). Then, later in the discourse Jesus says: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” in Matthew 23:2. In saying this, He seems to affirm the Pharisees understanding of Moses, relative to the resurrection, and the passage the Sadducees challenged Him on. In effect, Jesus is saying: “They (the Scribes and Pharisees, not the Sadducees), have the correct interpretation of Moses. This explains His use of Exodus, rather than passages from the Prophets, which weren’t written by Moses. When He says the Sadducees “do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God,” it may simply be that they don’t understand Moses, whom they invoked. Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees is different. Back in verse 18, Jesus calls out their hypocrisy, something He picks up again in Matthew 23. The implication is that they do know Scripture and do understand the power of God in affirming resurrection.

Another possible (I think less likely) interpretation of our key passage is that Jesus makes a point to locate the doctrine in unexpected place. We see this elsewhere, such as when he points the Pharisees to Genesis 2:24 as the most relevant passage on divorce in Matthew 19. Perhaps it’s too easy for Jesus to cite, for example, Daniel 12:2–3 on the resurrection. In knowing his intent to show the Sadducees “know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God,” we maybe shouldn’t expect an easy passage to be used as an example. Either way, if there’s a Mosaic theme or Jesus chooses a more difficult passage (or both), concluding the Sadducees do not understand, rather than do not accept certain books makes good sense.

Perhaps the most decisive Scriptural evidence the Sadducees accept writings of the Prophets is in Matthew 2:3-6. It is easy to overlook and to my knowledge, no scholars mention this. In the passage there is implicit evidence that contradicts the idea that Sadducees rejected books of the Prophets. Matthew 2:6 quotes Micah 5:2 and if the chief priests were Sadducees, as most scholars agree they were,[28]Sanders, E. P.. Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE. (United Kingdom, Fortress Press, 2016. pg. 318) they implicitly accepted the book of Micah.

If one accepts the inspiration of Scripture, this passage in Matthew 2 should be viewed as very strong evidence that Sadducees of the NT accepted the same books of Scripture as the other Jews of the Jerusalem temple cult. Jesus quotes Scripture often and holds both Pharisees and Sadducees accountable to it as God’s spoken Word. We never see any explicit rejection of a passage he quotes.

Summary

As observed by N.T. Wright, the NT, Josephus, and the Rabbi’s are the best (really only credible) sources we have for understanding the beliefs and practices of the Sadducees. Many church historians, theologians, and apologists have historically neglected these sources in OT canon study. Instead (consciously or otherwise) the witness of texts penned by prominent church fathers, centuries into the church, and long after the Sadducees ceased to exist as a Jewish sect, have forged a lasting but errant tradition.

Closer examination of the three most reliable sources reveals another reality, warranting reevaluation of the traditional understanding. A close analysis of the church fathers shows they do not provide strong evidence that they accurately understood and reported 1st century Jewish history. By the 3rd century, Sadducees were no longer around to defend their views and were a distant memory in the mind of Rabbinic Jews. Nevertheless, early Rabbinic literature probably does provide useful evidence, and it comports with the other positive evidence presented here. This includes the NT as our most reliable source and Josephus, our earliest extra-Biblical witness, who likely intended that the Sadducees only rejected the Oral Torah of the Pharisees, not books outside of the written Torah.

Other resources

The text(s) from N.T. Wright used here are expensive and somewhat hard to obtain. Here is a website that nicely summarizes some of his work on Sadducees and their views on resurrection doctrine.

In the course of researching and writing this, I stumbled on another discussion of the Sadducee canon that draws fewer but similar conclusions. It doesn’t cite sources and appears to examine much less information. Nevertheless, it is a good summary. Apparently, I’m not the first to see the evidence in Matthew 2:6, though this is the only other mention of it I have seen.

This is a good summary of what’s known about Origen’s life.

This is a good, short discussion of what’s known about the Sadducees.

References

References
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.
3Pseudo-Tertullian, “Against All Heresies,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwell, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 649.
4Hippolytus of Rome, “The Refutation of All Heresies,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. J. H. MacMahon, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 137.
5Origen, “Homilies on Luke and Fragments on Luke,” ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Joseph T. Lienhard, vol. 94, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 159–160.
6Gohl, Justin. “Origen of Alexandria’s Commentary on Matthew, Book 17 — an English Translation.” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/40094417/Origen_of_Alexandrias_Commentary_on_Matthew_Book_17_An_English_Translation. Accessed 30 May 2023.
7Origen, “Origen against Celsus,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 418.
8Per Philip Schaff: “Jerome here reproduces almost exactly the remark of Pseudo-Tertullian. The Dositheans were probably a Jewish or Samaritan ascetic sect, something akin to the Essenes.”
9Jerome, “The Dialogue against the Luciferians,” in St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), 332.
10Jerome, “Against Jovinianus,” in St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), 397.
11The text cited includes the following footnote: “Jerome is developing Origen’s explanation concerning the books accepted by the Sadducees. Cf. Origen, In Matth. 17.36”
12Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Thomas P. Scheck, vol. 117, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 255–256.
13Emil Schürer (whom Dr. Gallagher mentions), says in his book: “The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ: Volume 2,” (T&T Clark LTD, Edinburgh, 1979, pg. 408): “The opinion of many of the Church Fathers that the Sadducees acknowledged only the Pentateuch but rejected the Prophets, has no support in Josephus and is therefore regarded as erroneous by most modern scholars.”
14Claudio Gianotto, “Dositheus of Samaria,” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, ed. Angelo Di Berardino and James Hoover, trans. Joseph T. Papa, Erik A. Koenke, and Eric E. Hewett (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic; InterVarsity Press, 2014), 747.
15Cosentino, Augusto. “The Authorship of the Refutatio omnium haeresium” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum / Journal of Ancient Christianity, vol. 22, no. 2, 2018, pp. 218-237. https://doi.org/10.1515/zac-2018-0030.
16Jerome, “Lives of Illustrious Men,” in Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historial Writings, Etc., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Ernest Cushing Richardson, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 375.
17“Origen and the Jews: Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-Century Palestine, Foreward.” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)
18Jerome, “Against Jovinianus,” in St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), 397.
19Jerome, “Commentary on Matthew,” ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Thomas P. Scheck, vol. 117, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 8.
20Ibid. pg. 16
21Ibid. pg. 17
22Ibid. pp. 19-20
23McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. United States, Baker Publishing Group, 2006.
24N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003)
25Ibid. pg. 131.
26N.T. Wright uses another translation of the Talmud that begins: “The Sadducees asked Rabban Gamaliel” (Wright, pg. 135).
27Ibid.
28Sanders, E. P.. Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE. (United Kingdom, Fortress Press, 2016. pg. 318)

5 thoughts on “Did the Sadducees have a limited canon?”

  1. You are misreading the Talmud in Horayot and Sukkah. The words you analyze are in-line commentary by the translator, not the words of the Talmud.
    The proof from Midrash Tanchuma is mistaken. It’s midrashic style to quote lots of appropriate verses, not to imply that an actual Sadducee cited that verse.
    The proof from Sanhedrin is good. “Sadducees” does seem to be the correct text there (rather than “heretics”), supported by all manuscripts I looked at and by a parallel passage (Yalkut 1:941).
    See also Mishnah, Yadayim 4:6.

    1. Thank you for the corrections. I find the Talmud difficult to read. Do you know the dating of the commentary in Horayot and Sukkah? It seems it is at least a witness to the understanding of the commentator.

      Also, thanks for checking on the Sanhedrin passage. Are those manuscripts online? I think that passage offers the best support, anyway. At least there is a strong implication by references to “the Torah, from the Prophets, and from Writings” that they regarded the books referenced equally.

  2. “The belief that the Sadducees of the NT reject all but the five books of Moses, lies primarily in an (mis)interpretation of Matthew 22:22-33 found in a text by Jerome.”

    This is an interesting alternative view that is worthy of more consideration. But, really, what isn’t a misinterpretation by Jerome?

    The Diocese of Egypt didn’t exist until decades after the Council of Nicaea (325). In 398, Jerome cited the Nicaean precedent to argue for Roman primacy, but erred because he didn’t know that the Diocese of Egypt didn’t exist in 325. His error only served to reinforce Roman primacy.

    The doctrine of sacraments—in part used to justify an all-male Roman Catholic priesthood—took hold after Jerome misunderstood Tertullian and conflated the Greek musterion with the Latin sacramentum.

    And of course there are many other errors introduced in the Vulgate, arguably the single largest corruption of scripture ever.

Join the discussion...

Scroll to Top