Life after death, as the Sadducees saw it.November 8, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Commenter mikespeir has a question about my claim that the Sadducees already believed in life after death.
Why do you say that? I realize we don’t have a lot to go on, but I thought it was pretty well established that the Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death.
I was only able to give a cursory reply in the comments, and indeed my early research did more to raise my own doubts than to confirm my initial statement (hence the edit to my original post). Now that I’ve looked into it a bit more, though, I’m a bit more confident in my initial assessment, and so I thought I’d take some time to share my findings.
One of the first sources I found online (for easier sharing) was the book Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society, by Anthony Saldarini. Saldarini says,
The testimony of all the sources that the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, afterlife and judgment fits the other things we know about them and is historically reliable and convincing. The Sadducees’ belief is the traditional Biblical view; ideas of resurrection, immortality and afterlife entered Judaism in the second century B. C. E. and only gradually dominated Judaism over the next four or five centuries. [footnote: See George W. E. Nicklesburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism (HThSt 26; Cambridge: HUP, 1972). Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, from about 200 C. E. still has a stricture against those who deny resurrection of the dead; later talmudic comments on this passage speak not of those who deny resurrection of the dead, but who deny that it can be proved from Scripture.]
This is clearly not fundamentalist Christian propaganda, since it alludes to new doctrines being introduced into Judaism in the second century BC (and used the secular “BCE” instead of the Christian “BC”). If this is the case, and “the testimony of all the sources” says that the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife, then it certainly sounds like my initial claim was wrong. But let’s keep digging.
One site I visited brought up an important point about our sources of information regarding the Sadducees.
The most reliable information about the Sadducees is found in three bodies of ancient literature: the writings of Flavius Josephus…; the NT, particularly the Synoptic Gospels and Acts…; and the rabbinic compilations… Two observations about these sources should be made. First, with the possible exception of Josephus’ War, all these sources are decidedly hostile towards the Sadducees. Second, many of the rabbinic references, especially those found in the Talmud and later works, are of doubtful historical reliability. Thus, our knowledge of the Sadducees is perforce severely limited and one-sided.
In other words, all of the reports we have today about Sadducean beliefs were written by people who wanted to discredit those beliefs. A similar example from modern culture might be the way the pro-life movement habitually refers to their opponents, not as “pro-choice”, but as “pro-abortion.” Or if you prefer, you could use the example of pro-choice supporters referring to pro-lifers as “anti-abortion,” though of course that’s a bit less of a distortion.
The point is, belief in life after death is one of the most ancient and pervasive beliefs that the human species (and possibly some near-human species) have ever possessed. If the Pharisees could plausibly accuse the Sadducees of denying one of the most fundamental and widespread of human religious beliefs, it would create a significant popular prejudice against them. Considering that the Pharisees settled their theological debate with Jesus by having him put to death, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that they might indulge in a little old-fashioned politicking as a means to achieving their ends. But could they get away with it?
In fact, it’s not all that difficult. All you need to do is create a definition of “afterlife” that’s different from what the Sadducees believe, get them to agree that they don’t accept that definition, and hey-ho, you can now claim that they don’t believe in the afterlife. If they say, “Yes we do, we believe in X,” you can reply, “Well, X is not the real afterlife, so you still don’t believe in the real afterlife.”
That’s my hypothesis anyway. Let’s check the evidence and if it’s consistent. Here’s a quote from the book Christian Beliefs and Teachings, by John C. Meyer.
[The Sadducees] did not believe in the resurrection of the dead nor the existence of angels. They embraced the traditional Jewish idea of Sheol for those who had died. Sheol was the gloomy and shadowy underworld for departed spirits.
Notice, the Sadducees did believe in an afterlife: they believed that when you died, your spirit departed into a place called Sheol, where it remained forever in the gloom and darkness. Next, from the book Body, Soul and Life Everlasting, by John W. Cooper, we have these observations.
The Israelites believed that identifiable though truncated human persons continue to exist after death. True to their holism, they thought of the dead as ethereal bodily beings who remain in Sheol. Whether they are in any sense conscious and active is unclear. Though Sheol is the gathering place of all human dead, there are hints that the lot of the faithful and the wicked is not the same. Hope is expressed that the Lord will rescue his beloved from death itself. At least two texts refer to bodily resurrection. But the predominant picture is of the rephaim in Sheol…
Consider first the most austere view, that even the believing dead remain forever in the silence of Sheol. Like the Psalmist and the Preacher, Sirach laments: “Who will sing praises to the Most High in Hades, as do those who are alive and give thanks? From the dead, as from one who does not exist, thanksgiving has ceased…” (Sir. 17:27-28a, RSV). Even if a strict nonexistence is not what is envisioned here, those who inhabit Sheol are so cut off from life and from God that they might as well be extinct.
This is most likely also the position of the Sadducees, whom we meet in the New Testament. There they are best known for their denial of the resurrection. But they are also supposed to have affirmed annihilation or ontological nothingness after death. This interpretation is confirmed by Josephus, who likens the Sadducees to Epicurean materialists in denying existence after death. The claim that they adopted materialist Greek philosophy is certainly consistent with their reputation as promoters of Greco-Roman political and cultural values. But Russell considers them to be faithful adherents of the Old Testament conception of Sheol, which does not include annihilation, strictly speaking. Perhaps there were Sadducees of both sorts, Hebrew and Greek, or a synthesis of traditions.
Interestingly, C. S. Lewis also presents the Sadducees as believing in a rather diminished existence in Sheol after death. That’s sufficiently different from the Pharisaic view of afterlife, in which the good go to Abraham’s bosom and the evil (and wealthy) go to a place of torment, awaiting resurrection and God’s final judgment (as in the story of Lazarus). Sure, the dead go to Sheol, but you call that an afterlife? That’s not the kind of afterlife the Pharisees preached, and therefore you could say that they “did not believe in the afterlife [in the Pharisaic sense].” Just leave the parenthetical remark as a silent implication, and you have the report that the Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife, period.
Another interesting point I found in my reading was that those who say the Sadducees denied the afterlife claim that they did so because it was not written in the Torah (i.e. the Law, the first 5 books of the Old Testament). Here’s blogger James Prather:
The Sadducees only held that the Torah was inspired, and rejected the prophets and the writings as God-breathed inspired scripture (the Pharisees held that it was all inspired, as do Christians today. And yes, I know that’s an oversimplification, but there’s no need to get into the canonical debate of the first century in this post). Furthermore the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection or life after death because it’s not explicitly stated in the Torah. And so in order to discuss topics such as the afterlife with the Sadducees, the Pharisees tried to prove the concept from the Torah itself.
This, of course, would explain why Jesus skipped over more explicit references to resurrection in the Prophets, and tried to prove the resurrection of the dead to the Sadducees using Exodus 3:6. But notice what we’re saying here. We’re saying that not only did the original Hebrew religion lack any kind of doctrine of bodily resurrection, but it even failed to mention what the Pharisees called “afterlife!” It’s not just the Sadducees who lacked any teaching of the afterlife, it’s Moses as well!
And yet, belief in Sheol is even older than Moses, and is mentioned explicitly in the Torah seven times. Thus, even if the Sadducees did reject what the Pharisees called “afterlife,” on the grounds that it was not explicitly taught by the Torah, the same cannot be said for their belief in the older, more traditional view of Sheol as the abode of the spirits of the dead.
At this point, I’m prepared to stand by my original claim that the Sadducees in general did indeed believe that at death, the soul continues to exist, and departs to an afterlife (of sorts) in Sheol, despite Pharisaic attempts to portray them as annihilationists, and despite the possibility that individual Sadducees may indeed have absorbed Greek philosophical materialism into their personal religion. I’d discount the latter group, because if you’re going to become a Greek materialist, you’ve got no particular interest in books of laws supposedly dictated by immaterial gods, and therefore you’re not really part of the debate between Jesus and the Sadducees. What we’ve got in Matthew 22 are a bunch of Sadducees who already believed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were in Sheol, and in that context, the only way Jesus’ answer even remotely makes sense is if they also believed that Sheol was ruled over by a different god than Yahweh.