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Why Side with the Sadducees?

A Question for “Full” or “Consistent” Preterists

by Mark Horne

There is no reason to believe that Matthew 24, Mark 13, or Luke 21 records Jesus prophesying about what is now known in Christian theology as “the Second Coming.”

In my opinion, the fact that most modern conservative Christian scholars and pastors are not yet willing to acknowledge that the Second Coming was not a concern of Jesus, and in many cases are not even willing to investigate the possibility, is doing harm in Evangelical circles. The most obvious damage done is the whole “last days madness” phenomenon–the ridiculous hysteria and ludicrous speculation which result from trying to project first-century symbolism and scenarios into the newspaper reports of the next millennium. Fundamentalists continually try to re-imagine ways in which a first-century Roman Empire could invade a first-century Judea and Jerusalem and destroy a first-century temple where first-century sacrifices are being offered. After watching an episode of the Fox TV show, Millennium, I channel-surfed over to a local Christian station broadcasting Jack Van Impe furiously proclaiming how the latest world events are the culmination of Biblical prophecy. It was amazing to me how much this televangelist’s ranting was like the occultic science fiction show. It was as if I had never changed programs.


But there is even more at stake. Conservatives claim that liberals make Jesus into merely a great moral teacher. Instead of being the savior of the human race, He is portrayed as simply the proclaimer of timeless ethical principles. But ironically, it is we conservative Evangelicals who taught the liberals their trade. It is we who make the first-century Palestinian prophet into a roving systematic theologian, always ready to expound various points in the ordo salutis (I have especially in mind the common Evangelical interpretation of John 3.1ff). As N. T. Wright has pointed out, except for the last week of Jesus’ ministry, everything in the Gospel accounts is simply interpreted as a morality play. “Jesus becomes a composite figure, a cross between Socrates defeating the sophists and Luther standing up against the papists” (Jesus and the Victory of God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996, p. 14).

This dehistoricized Jesus, this teacher of timeless truths, takes away our moral high ground in “the battle for the Bible.” Sure, we claim that we believe that God has acted in history. Sure, we claim that we believe that the Bible records these events infallibly and is the very Word of God. Sure we claim that we must use responsible methods of interpretation taking the language and historical context of the Bible seriously. But in actual fact, Jesus is all too often simply a dummy with some theologian’s hand up the back of his shirt desperately trying to keep his lips from moving while he manipulates the wooden idol’s jaws. I have been as guilty of this practice as anyone; so let my repentance be noted here.

This issue is laid bare in the debate over “preterism”–the belief that most of Jesus’ prophecies of impending doom were fulfilled in the coming of that doom on Jerusalem in AD 70. There are plenty of fine (and not so fine) web sites defending this view in various aspects and it is beyond the scope of this essay to argue for it here. I simply want to point out the importance of the issue. Critics of preterism often act as if it is some sort of a priori interpretive grid laid over the Scriptures in order to bring about a preconceived conclusion. But the truth is exactly the opposite. It is the presumption that Jesus possessed our concerns about the end of the physical universe which constitutes an arbitrary assumption distorting the data to fit the desired outcome. If we interpret Jesus words in light of the concerns of the time and in light of the literary background of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is obvious that Jesus was predicting judgment on Jerusalem and vindication for his followers as the true Israel.

While there are many people who argue for the preterist position, including Jay Adams, David Chilton, Gary DeMar, Ken Gentry, and James B. Jordan, it is especially notable that N. T. Wright also argues for preterism. Wright is notable because he is not primarily a theologian but is an apologist defending the historicity of Jesus in secular academic circles. In doing so, he does much to vindicate the historical Jesus not only from liberals, but from orthodox conservatives as well. He must show how it is credible to believe that a first-century Palestinian Jew did and said what the gospels assert that He did and said.

In carrying out this agenda, Wright invades territory that has been common ground between liberals and fundamentalists: Jesus’ alleged teaching that the world–that is, the physical universe–was about to come to an end. For liberals, this means that Jesus was mistaken, and that the Church came into existence when it turned out that the end of the world was not as near as Jesus had taught. For fundamentalists, what Jesus taught was somehow true even though it was not true. Jesus taught his disciples should expect the end of the world to happen soon and this means, using rules of logic not reproducible in any other area of life, that we who live two thousand years later should expect the end of the world to happen soon. While this commonality is used by Chilton, DeMar and others to question why fundamentalists are aiding and abetting liberals, for Wright the situation poses a serious question for liberals: Why are scholars imposing twentieth-century fundamentalist literalism on first-century Palestine? How can such facile assumptions go unchallenged among serious historians?

As I said above, the actual case for preterism is made quite eloquently elsewhere on the web, and in many books. I will not spend time arguing for the position here. I simply wish to reiterate one of the important principles at stake: Do we really believe that God truly entered the human race as a Jew in ancient Palestine? If we really believe this, we will take seriously the historical context of Jesus’ life, death, and new life. Also, we will interpret his words in light of their Hebrew background. Granted, Jesus was quite different from his contemporaries in many important ways. But if there had not been some basic “common property” between them, no one would have ever bothered to go hear him speak. Discovering this common property is an all-important step in determining the message of the Gospels.


There were many people in first century Palestine who believed in the resurrection. Others disbelieved in the resurrection. The Pharisees were a group who believed and the Sadducees were a group who disbelieved, according to the Gospels. While there were many differences between Sadducees and Pharisees, there was a common property shared between them which made communication possible–even if only to express their disagreements with one another: They both knew what it meant to be raised from the dead.

The resurrection believed in and hoped upon, or disbelieved and regarded as misleading, was a bodily resurrection. It was “literal.” Granted, it involved far more than the resuscitation of a corpse, but it involved no less than that.

An example of this belief can easily be demonstrated from 2 Maccabees 7 (RSV). In this chapter, seven brothers and their mother are tortured to death because they refuse to eat swine flesh. While the first brother is mutilated and then fried to death in a big pan, his mother and brothers “encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, ‘The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces when he said, “And he will have compassion on his servants”‘” (vv 5b-6).

How did these martyrs expect God’s compassion to be manifested? The answer is revealed quite clearly. The second martyr says as he dies: “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (v. 9). The third unflinchingly holds out his hands and tongue to be cut off, saying “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again” (v. 11). The fourth also expresses hope in the resurrection. The next two content themselves with predicting punishment on their torturers. Though their mother is forced to watch these gruesome murders of her children, she encourages them, saying,

I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws (vv 23-24).

Instead of killing the last brother right away, the king offered him life and wealth and power if he would eat pork. He ordered the victim’s mother to persuade her son to accept his offer. Instead the woman said to her son in Hebrew,

My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers (v. 27b-29).

It is noteworthy that the narrator explains the mother’s courage as being caused by “her hope in the Lord” (v.20). Likewise, when the seventh son willingly went to his death, it was the result of “putting his whole trust in the Lord” (v. 39). But that faith in God meant trusting Him to act in a concrete way: He would raise them from the dead, restoring their mutilated and burned bodies. Believe it or disbelieve it, but that is the obvious claim being made in this story.

Of course, 2 Maccabees is not Scripture. I am not claiming that we must believe in the resurrection simply because of what is found in that document. But I am pointing to it as one of many overwhelming lines of evidence that the resurrection believed in by the Pharisees and discounted by the Sadducees was a bodily resurrection. It was not a metaphor. It was not some sort of “spiritual truth” or non-material occurrence. It means that people who had their hands chopped off will get their hands back. It may mean more than this, but it can mean no less. If the belief in the resurrection had not entailed belief in the reconstitution and resuscitation of a corpse (along with a transfiguration and glorification) then there would have been no conflict between the Sadducees and Pharisees about that doctrine.


Jesus had enemies and allies during his ministry. In many cases these were the same people! His disciples were obviously supposed to be his allies, but Jesus, at one point, identified Peter with Satan. I think this incident gives us a way to accurately understanding how Jesus’ contemporaries responded to Him. Jesus came preaching that the Kingdom was close at hand, indeed, that at least the beginning of it had already arrived. How would people respond to such a message? Obviously it would depend on whether they were for or against “the Kingdom.” Those who were for it would be for Jesus, if he made a remotely credible case for his claims. The fact that many false messiahs were able to gain a following both before and after Jesus demonstrates that it did not take much for someone to lead the Jewish populace. They wanted the Kingdom, so Jesus’ message was indeed “good news” to them.

But Jesus may have taught something (and in fact did so) about the nature of the Kingdom, or the nature of how one might enter the Kingdom or bring the Kingdom about, which was radically at odds with popular expectations. Thus, Peter rebukes Jesus when Jesus predicts his death on the cross. If Jesus would have this sort of conflict with Peter, his chief disciple and confidant (along with James and John), how much more with others? Obviously, all Jesus’ allies in the Gospels can and arguably do shade over into the “enemy” category from time to time. They want the Kingdom, and they initially trust Jesus’ promise to give them the Kingdom, but Jesus’ different interpretation of the kingdom and how one finds it, causes them to distrust Him in varying degrees. Some betray Jesus to others with a different view of the Kingdom (Judas). Others simply abandon his cause as suicidal (Peter and the rest). Some cease to follow Him when He refuses to lead them as a king. Some have fellowship with him until he does something that violates their own notions about the nature of the Kingdom (i.e. Simon the Pharisee, Luke ; cf Luke 14.1ff).

On the other hand, there were those who rejected Jesus’ message from the outset as a dangerous delusion. Herod the Great saw the infant Jesus as simply a threat to his own dynasty. His successor killed John the Baptist because of John’s criticism of him. The Herods were unambiguously on the enemies list from beginning to end. So were the Sadducees. This may not be obvious at first glance because the Gospels spend more time recalling Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees. But it is a misreading of the text to think that Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees mean that they were the greater enemy. On the contrary, Jesus had more conflicts with them precisely because the Pharisees were initially allies.

Of course, the Pharisees ultimately end up on the enemies side of the list. But during the time of Jesus’ ministry they are presented in the Gospels in an ambiguous light. Sometimes they warn Jesus about Herod (Luke 13.31); other times they conspire with Herod (Mark 3.6). Some sneak away at night to visit Jesus (John 3.1-2); others react so strongly to the practice of Jesus of baptizing that He has to flee the area (John 4.1-3). And even though they ultimately join with the Sadducean priesthood to have Jesus killed, they still appreciate Jesus’ refutation of the Sadducees and proof of the resurrection (Luke 20.39).

Obviously, the Pharisees’ belief in the future resurrection of the dead was a point of commonality between themselves and Jesus. It was also a belief shared between the Pharisees and Jesus’ followers. When asked about her dead brother Lazarus, Martha gave the standard confession of faith: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11.24). Of course, what Martha did not expect was a resuscitation of Lazarus ahead of time, as a token of the Day to come. Nor did she or the disciples expect a singular resurrection which would constitute one man as “the firstborn of the dead” (Col 2.18; Rev 1.5). Being confronted by the risen, glorified Son of Man was a revelation that God had fulfilled all his eschatological promises in Jesus:

For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the Fathers.

For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.

And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus.

So, having obtained help from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place; that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the people and to the nations.

Romans 15.8; 2 Corinthians 1.20; Acts 13.32-33a; 26.22-23

The fact is that Pharisees as Pharisees became Christians and members of the Church in good standing (Acts 15.5). While they did eventually come into conflict with the Apostles, the issue debated was never the nature of the resurrection. On the contrary, the resurrection was always affirmed as a point of commonality between Christians and Pharisees. As the Apostle Paul cried out, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23.6b).

Of course, one can, if one wishes to deny a future bodily resurrection, claim that the bodily resurrection in which Paul believed was in that of Jesus and in no one else. But this openly contradicts Paul’s statements:

But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the ancestral God, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets; having a hope in God, which these men [the Pharisees] cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.

This is a classic statement of the Pharisaical (and genuinely Hebrew) faith. God will raise both the righteous and the wicked (Dan 12.2; John 5.28f). Paul’s belief in the resurrection of Jesus did not overturn his belief in the final resurrection and judgment, but supported it. This relationship between “the firstborn from the dead” and those who are to become His younger brothers and sisters by the resurrection is all set forth in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul simply call’s this relationship “the gospel which I preached to you” (v. 1).


There are almost endless ways to toy with the text of scripture in order to deny a “literal” bodily resurrection. After all, the bodily is sometimes a metaphor for other, lesser restorations (e.g. Ezekiel 37 [1]). These assertions are easily exposed as rationalizations and have been by others.

Sadly, many seem stubbornly resistant to reason on this issue. They have more or less encircled themselves with a special system of meaning. No matter what the Bible states about the resurrection it is assumed that it is using metaphorical language. I am attempting an additional argument to break through this literary citadel.

The Bible is unique, but it is not a citadel. Jesus really lived and spoke and worked and died and rose again in first century Palestine. He spoke words and acted in a society with a common history and language. The Bible is not a giant code to be puzzled out; it is a record of our salvation in history. That society in which Jesus served, at that time, commonly spoke about, hoping in or scorning, the resurrection of the dead. Jesus’ own resurrection did alter that hope and redraw the future which the Pharisees projected, but there is not the slightest hint that Jesus or the Apostles sought to deny the resurrection.

To propose that they did not mean to teach about the same sort of resurrection as their contemporaries is to make the Bible into an ahistorical gnostic riddle. It promotes a “resurrection” that leaves secular history safely untouched by God. Christianity becomes a domesticized and safely-marginalized “personal belief-system.” Herod, and Pilate, and the Sadducees would have nothing to fear from such a “resurrection.” Their system of power is left untouched by God’s judgment according to such a “resurrection.”

Why side with the Sadducees?


1. Even in the case of Ezekiel’s metaphor, of course, the deniers of the bodily resurrection are building a castle in the air. In Ezekiel’s vision, resurrection means restoration to God’s presence in His land and reconciliation between the tribes of Israel. This metaphor is not randomly chosen. God promised Adam and Eve that “dying you shall die” in the very same day that they ate the forbidden fruit. What death did Adam and Eve suffer? They were exiled from God’s sanctuary and alienated from Him and from each other. This was their first death. The final result was experience nine centuries later when Adam died. Thus, it is especially appropriate to portray restoration from exile as resurrection from the dead. But unless there is a real resurrection to hope for, then the restoration from exile is simply a false promise, a token of a salvation from God’s curse which will never take place. Even Job knew, early though he was in revelation history, that God must overcome death by the resurrection if He was truly to be a savior to His people (19.25-27). To deny the bodily resurrection is to either deny salvation from sin or to deny that human death is a curse for sin. This is gnosticism, not Christianity.

1 Comment »

  1. can you give some information about what the Sadducees did? Thanks

    Comment by cubba cubba — July 3, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

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