What if the Sadducees Had Persisted?

This month’s Twentieth message by New Epicurean tells the counter-history of Hannukah. It mentions the Sadducees in passing, and how the uprising of the Maccabees–which is commemorated during Hanukah–concluded in such a manner, that this lineage of Judaism disappeared, and the rabbinical tradition that we know today derives from the lineage of the Pharisees.

The name of the Sadducees shares semantic roots with the word for righteousness (tsadak), and they shared many of the beliefs of the Epicureans, among them according to Josephus:

  • There is no fate
  • God does not commit evil
  • man has free will
  • the soul is not immortal; there is no afterlife, and
  • there are no rewards or penalties after death

A burgeoning contemporary Jewish sect shares the Epicurean spirit of the Sadducees: Humanistic Judaism has been training rabbis for generations now, its members are atheists and humanists who nonetheless affirm a secular Jewish identity, and among the literature in their wisdom tradition we find Yaakov Malkin’s book Epicurus and Apikorsim. I’m sure that our ideas about Abrahamic religions in general, and Judaism in particular, would today be quite different if this lineage of Judaism hadn’t been rejected for its Hellenizing influences. There would be greater diversity of opinion in Abrahamic religions, more openness to scientific inquiry, and less fundamentalism.

Most Jews today live secular lives, and–as New Epicurean says in its closing remarks–we hope that when they celebrate Hanukah, they remember and pay homage to the Sadducees and other non-rabbinical voices in their tradition.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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