Humor me for the moment. I fully realize that some of my dear readers question the historicity of Jesus, the Apostles, or even Moses for that matter, seeing those individuals as perhaps fictional characters in an elaborate anthology of novels produced by the ancient Jews and proto-Catholics. But, even if I have just described your particular viewpoint, the Sadducees would appear to be a most remarkable, and very curious group! They are described in the pages of the Gospels, and in other historical documents, along with other sects of the day, the Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots.
Here is a list of the beliefs of the Sadducees, as enumerated in the Jewish Sects list found in Zondervan’s TNIV Study Bible:
1) They denied that the oral law (Talmud) was authoritative and binding.
2) They interpreted the Mosaic law more literally than did the Pharisees.
3) They were very exacting in Levitical purity.
4) They attributed everything to free will.
5) They argued that there is neither resurrection of the dead, nor a future life.
6) They rejected a belief in angels and demons.
7) They rejected the idea of a spiritual world.
8) They considered only the books of Moses to be canonical Scripture.
What do you make of this? My own take, assuming that this list is accurate, would be that the Sadducees appear to be first century Jewish atheists or agnostics, who simply relied on the code of Moses as the most advanced, logical, and humane system of government known to them. History tells us that this sect had its genesis during the time of the Hasmonean kings (166-63 BC), and ceased to exist shortly following the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
Normally, one would tend to think of Judaism as being YHWH-based. Yet, here we have a sect with numbers and noteworthiness sufficient to merit mention in the New Testament, fully embracing the laws and rituals for which YHWH is credited in the works of Moses, yet apparently totally disassociating these laws from any type of spiritual implications. While that might seem mind-boggling, we would appear to be living in a modern parallel of this in the USA today, which is now well advanced into the post-Christian era. Many non-believers today have a great love for the system of justice and the founding documents which were created by a group of predominantly Christian and Deist forefathers, based on a combination of logic and principles found in the pages of the Holy Bible. Truly the Ecclesiast was accurate in his observation that there is nothing new under the sun!
Despite their non-belief in the spiritual world, or in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees would not have qualified for any more humane treatment from the occupying Romans than would their believer brethren. The Romans considered all peoples who did not believe in the Roman gods, or the godhood of their emperor, to be atheists. Would it be any different today, in the USA, if suddenly we were conquered by Muslim jihadists? No. Our modern day agnostics and atheists who refused to worship Allah, even though their decision would be based totally on logic, would be executed right along with Christians who refused to worship Allah because he or it is a false god.
Some people, upon reading their Bibles, seem to have a black and white concept of the Jews and Israelites of Jesus’ time as being an homogeneous group, with unified beliefs. Not only is this clearly not the case, but it presents an overly simplistic picture of the civilization of ancient Jerusalem and the covenant lands of Israel. Consider the sizable population of Samaritans, the mongrel spawn resulting from the Assyrian and Babylonian occupation, in addition to the Jewish sects. Later, Peter and Paul had even more complex challenges in their ministries to the Roman Empire nations surrounding Israel. There was a sizable Jewish diaspora in these nations, as well as a very diverse Gentile population. Throw in a couple of tax collectors, factor in the balance of power between Jewish leaders and the Roman occupation, and you have a pluralistic society rivaling our own modern civilizations.
It seems obvious that in the time just preceding Jesus, and the times shortly thereafter, that the challenges in building and maintaining relationships were just as great, and just as complex as what we experience in our own era. Though perhaps ignored by most of us in the past, although
they were a part of the Septuagint (the “Bible” of Jesus and His disciples), the books of the Maccabees are quite fascinating as historical documents. In these books are described some very troubled times during which apostate Jews actually assumed the roles of persecutors of their former brethren, often even worse than the gentile peoples who held areas of Israel captive. In our modern vernacular, we’d say that these apostates “ratted out” their neighbors, turning them over to the captors for punishment and torture. Though shocking, this is yet another variant of man’s inhumanity to fellow man, and has not been as uncommon throughout history as one would hope. Knowing this propensity of human nature, and reading the narratives in the Maccabees might serve to help all of us as former guinea pigs of the Armstrong experiment in dealing with certain challenges today. The lesson lies in seeking not to make the same mistakes, and in seeking not to cause or incur the pain which accompanies these mistakes. And, I believe that it is important to include current splinter group members under our umbrella of humanity. I’m sure that many of us still have relatives who are part of these groups, and one of the things which could possibly help influence some of their major decisions in the future would be the love which we feel for them, and can show them.
Since the Apostle Paul was such a pivotal character of the New Testament, the one who presented a well-developed theology, and basic practical applications for the teachings of Jesus Christ, he is somewhat of a lightning rod, a controversial person about whom virtually everyone has some sort of opinion. He is not a person that it would be easy to be neutral about. What is noteworthy from his ministry would be the principles we find him fighting for, in other words, his passions. We find him preaching amazing tolerance amongst the various factions of Jewish and Gentile Christians. In ministering to his Gentile churches, he had to deal with a number of gut wrenching situations, not the least of which were the expulsion from Rome and eventual repatriation of the Jews, including Jewish Christians. He also had to deal with Judaizers from Jerusalem who insisted that Christians first became Jews before they could become followers of Jesus Christ. These carpetbaggers made numerous attempts to co-opt Paul’s ministry. Somehow, he had to manage these situations not only while enjoying personal free
dom, but also from a Roman jail cell, sometimes all but deserted by his students and personal friends. His harshest words were reserved for those causing dissension and contempt amongst the brethren, disrupting relationships, causing elitism, and violating the Golden Rule which encapsulates the New Covenant.
These provide some timeless examples of human behavioral patterns, both good and bad. It so happens that they are described in the versions of scripture native to and used by several different cultures. I’ll leave it up to the individual reader, rather than actually quoting chapter and verse, whether or not to delve more deeply into the books of the Maccabees, or the epistles of Paul. I fully realize that in some cases, and for many reasons, people who were once Armstrongites actually require years or even decades of recovery before they have the stomach to revisit scripture. Whether we find lessons like the above in scripture, or whether we find them in the works of Shakespeare, Freud, Aristotle, Gandhi, or Dr. Martin Luther King, the best and most timeless precepts for human behavior would seem to be rooted in love and tolerance. Knowing that an unusual group, a seemingly anomalous group, such as the Sadducees could exist somewhat harmoniously in the mainstream of first century Judaism, no less during a period of Roman captivity, certainly we who are dealing with the aftermath of Armstrongism can peacefully coexist in the face of diversity of opinion.