The Sadducees are a topic of much debate and conjecture. Many different beliefs are ascribed to them, and all of the accepted sources are those hostile to the Sadducees. Imagine reading the history of the Republican Party as written by the Democrats or vice versa.
Dr. Jona Lendering, a Dutch historian, wrote an article about the Sadducees that is very complete, although it makes a couple of assumptions. I do appreciate Dr. Lendering’s flexibility as she explores Sadducee beliefs and history, however, there are two major errors I want to point out in the article: The article follows the assumption (based entirely on their name) that the Sadducees were associated with the high priesthood. As she herself accurately points out the word Tzadukim can mean many things. As it means “righteous men,” it could be a counter to Chasidim (“pious men”), one of the names of the Pharisees.
The second assumption is that the Sadducees disappear after the destruction of the Temple. However no evidence exists to support this opinion. The accepted assumption that the Sadducees were associated primarily with the high priesthood and that they disappeared after the destruction of the Temple (for this reason) is based solely in scholarly conjecture. No historical evidence supports this opinion. From 70 CE until the 500s, there is little solid written evidence concerning Judaism. Many Christian movements were considered part of Judaism for much of this time, and the schism was by no means formal or exact. It is possible that during this time a small number of congregations remained loyal to the Sadducee interpretation of Judaism.
Saadia Gaon (~890-942 CE), a Rabbinic scholar, said the early Karaites were made up of the followers of Tzadok and Boethus. The Karaite scholar Jacob Al-Qirqisani (around 937) wrote that the Sadducees came into being as an opposition party to the Pharisees, which seems to validate the Tsadokim/Chasidim theory as to the origin of their name and may offer insights as to the nature of their beliefs. First, as they were opposed to the Pharisees, they would have disagreed with Pharisaical innovations in Jewish practice. They certainly would have rejected the Oral Law as a legitimate source of belief and practice. This would seem to corroborate what we learn of the Sadducees from both Josephus and the Talmud. In that they were formed in opposition to the Pharisees, and saw themselves as defending the literal interpretation of the Torah (and ancient Jewish practices and beliefs by extension), they would have opposed the acculturation of Judaism with Babylonian and Persian beliefs, first among these Zoroastrianism. Part of the Pharisee agenda seems to have been the acculturation of Judaism with Zoroastrianism and the Greek mystery cults.
Josephus describes the Sadducees as denying the existence of an afterlife and the ultimate resurrection of the dead. Some did not believe in Angels, as supernatural beings, accepting them only as they appear in the Torah (that is as men who acted on behalf of YHVH). The Sadducees also believed that humans had the power to choose between good and evil behavior and that “fate” or G-d did not intervene to force us in either direction. Each of these doctrinal points is in keeping with a literal reading of the Torah, and of the the Neviim, and the Ketuvim (Hebrew Bible) as works that explain the Torah and offer a historical narrative. Sadducee Judaism was thus a valid interpretation and approach to the practice of Judaism, as it observed the Torah and the remaining Hebrew writings according to their plain meaning.
Although scholars assume that the Sadducees were linked to the temple priests, it is a matter of historical fact that the Pharisees also served among the priesthood and even as high priests. If the Sadducees carried the religious authority of a bloodline that was connected with Tsadok, and by extension with Aharon himself, they would have had an authoritative edge over the Pharisees that would have provided them the greater portion of political power. Given the obsession in the 1st century CE with finding a legitimate descendent of King David, we can understand that if any family had been able to claim such a priestly lineage that was largely accepted to be valid, they would have had no difficulty retaining power.
It is more likely that, like the Pharisees, the Sadducees represented a complete cross-section of the Jewish population, ranging from the priesthood to common farmers. That most of the larger Jewish population, while in part leaning toward one or the other ideology, considered themselves beholden to neither, is a safe assumption; which would explain the ongoing power struggles between the two parties. The struggles between the Pharisees and Sadducees at times became violent, especially during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) and his successor, Queen Alexandra Salome.
As is the case when any two political parties stand in opposition to each other for a long enough time, eventually these two parties became more interested in opposing and defeating the other than in garnering the support, and addressing the needs, of the greater populous. This would only have been exacerbated by the presence of the Romans from 63 BCE. The Romans supported the Pharisee claimant to the high priesthood John Hyrcanus II over Aristabolus and the Sadducees who at that time controlled Jerusalem. Josephus tells us that when Pompeii’s forces conquered the Temple that the priests did not interrupt their service even as the Romans slaughtered them.
While the Romans clearly favored the Pharisees they would also have kept the Sadducees around in order to provide a convenient alternative party should the Pharisees ever find themselves challenging the Romans. Indeed, during the Jewish Revolt against Rome from 66 to 73 CE, the Pharisees collaborated with the Romans, even as the Romans burned the Temple, dug it up to its foundation stones, and filled the space with dung and rubble.
The struggles between these two parties and the corruption of the Romans would have distanced them from the greater Jewish Population opening the door for more politically radical and religiously pragmatic movements to arise. The “Fourth Way” or Zealots, for example, led for a time by Yeshua Bar Yoseph (Jesus). The years that followed the destruction of the Temple saw the weakening of both political movements in favor of secularism on the part of more Romanized Jews and asceticism on the part of others. The Pharisees did manage to organize a revolt in 135, the Bar Kochba Revolt, which led to the destruction of their leadership and political power. When Christianity was formalized at Nicaea the schism between the two faiths became official.
Judaism now found itself under the rule of foreign faiths (Christianity in the West and Zoroastrianism to the East). It was during this time that the Talmud was written and Judaism was revived into what we recognize now as Rabbinic or Talmudic Judaism. Those congregations that held a more Sadducee leaning rejected the Talmud and eventually coalesced into a new religious movement centuries later called the Karaites or people who read the scriptures.
To recap, I agree with al-Qirqisani’s opinion that the Sadducees formed in opposition to the Pharisees; that like the Pharisees they represented a complete cross-section of the Jewish population, not just a small elite; and that they rejected the belief in an oral law that empowered scholars to change or add to Jewish practice and belief. The Sadducees opposed the acculturation of Judaism with foreign religious practices and beliefs. They believed in a strict and literal reading of the Hebrew scriptures. Eventually, they become embroiled in a political struggle that led to corruption. Having lost their popular following both the Sadducees and the Pharisees floundered after the destruction of the Temple and eventually formed into new religious movements approximating the originals.