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Sadducees: Ancient Humanists

In the gospels, we read of two predominant sects of the Jews: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  These two groups were political parties as much as they were religious sects, and they competed with one another on many issues.  From what we read in the Scriptures, the most substantial issue between them was the matter of the resurrection, for the Pharisees believed in a resurrection whereas the Sadducees did not (Matt. 22:23; Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27; Acts 4:1-2; 23:8).  It is this matter of disbelief in the resurrection that gives us the greatest insight into the Sadducees, their teachings, their beliefs, and their practices.

Relatively little is known about the Sadducees outside of the New Testament.  They did not leave written records of themselves, but their history can be pieced together through other writings, such as the Talmud and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Jewish historian Josephus gives perhaps the best secular source for understanding the Sadducees.  We will notice some of his writings about them below.

For our understanding, we might closely identify the Sadducees with modern humanists in terms of their practices, although they were quite different in their beliefs.  Modern humanists are organized, intellectual atheists.  They do not believe in deities or spirits of any kind, but they have a governing set of principles that guide them (these are presented by the humanist organizations in their humanist manifestos).  The Sadducees believed in God, but they denied the existence of spirits and rejected the idea of a resurrection.  They lived by a strict interpretation of the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), but they did not accept the other books of the Old Testament as the law of God.  They rejected the ideas of a resurrection, a judgment, and an afterlife, which meant that they believed that the life of man was limited to this world only.  Thus, we see how the Sadducees and humanists could have the same practical outlook on life, for both groups believed that there is no accountability or consequence for man’s actions beyond whatever he may receive during his brief time on earth.

In fact, Josephus’ comments about the Sadducees could be said just as truly about humanists.  Consider this passage from Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews:

“The Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men's own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please.  They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades.”

Compare this with the following statement taken from Humanist Manifesto II, which was published in 1973 by the American Humanist Association:

“We can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species.  While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become.  No deity will save us; we must save ourselves…Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful. They distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices. Modern science discredits such historic concepts as the ‘ghost in the machine’ and the ‘separable soul.’ Rather, science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces.”

The similarities of these two positions are obvious, and both stand in opposition to God and His word.

The Sadducees and the humanists have also employed some of the same tactics to prevent dissenting beliefs from being taught.  In New Testament times, the Sadducees had control over the temple in Jerusalem, the priesthood, and the temple guard, and they used their power to arrest and persecute the apostles of Christ when they preached the resurrection at the temple (Acts 4:1-22; 5:12-28).  Today, humanists have great influence over our government, our education system, and our media and information outlets, and they use that influence to spread their ungodly beliefs while deriding and hindering the truth of God.  Of course, the Sadducees failed to defeat the forces of God, and the humanists will fail also.

Jesus said, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6), and we may likewise say, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the humanists.”  When Jesus said this, his disciples came to understand that he spoke of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:12), and we must understand to beware of the teachings of the humanists as well.  Humanistic influence can be well-disguised and subtle, but it is obvious to those who have trained themselves to recognize it (principles of self-determination, so-called “separation of church and state,” the removal of God from all public life, evolution, etc.).  Let us be on guard against their ungodly influence and reject their false teachings lest we are deceived and turned away from the hope of eternal life in Christ Jesus.

Stacey E. Durham




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