Men of Little Faith
Pp Mark 8:13-21
The Doctrine of the Sadducees
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees
Before we deal with this passage, there are certain facts which we should at least try and determine and which, although not vitally necessary to the general reader or to the main meaning of the passage, are issues which need to be resolved.
For instance, Mtw 16:5 gives the reader the impression that the incident took place once the group had arrived safely on the other side of the lake for it begins by recording that it was
‘When the disciples reached the other side...’
that they realised that they’d forgotten to bring any bread with them, going on to record the discussion that Jesus and the disciples subsequently had. Mark, however, states firstly that they’d forgotten to bring any bread though the statement is qualified by noting that there was one solitary loaf in the boat with them (Mark 8:14) before immediately recording the conversation, implying that it took place while they were still on the Lake.
The problem, therefore, seems to be that each Gospel writer thinks of the incident as happening in a different situation.
However, neither Matthew nor Mark state that the incident took place either in the boat or on dry land and it’s only as we read the structure of their writing that we conjure up in our minds where it must have occurred.
Mark 8:14 simply states the fact that they’d only taken one loaf with them as they travelled in the boat and that it had totally slipped their minds to make adequate provision for the group before they departed - perhaps there was some immediacy in the withdrawal of Jesus from Galilee that had caused them to be more concerned with getting the boat out onto the Lake than with buying what they thought they’d need for a meal once they arrived on the western side.
This verse doesn’t state, therefore, that the discussion took place within the boat as they journeyed eastwards, even though Marklane comments that
‘Jesus chose this opportunity to caution His disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees because He wanted them to hear His warning while the impact of the encounter reported in Mark 8:11ff was fresh’
and it would appear that it’s more likely that it was after they’d landed on the other side that Jesus began to teach them about the evil teaching of the religious leaders which was able to permeate its way throughout Israelite society, even into their own lives.
While Mark doesn’t appear to demand the incident being set on board the boat, it’s difficult to interpret Mtw 16:5 as allowing for the discourse to have taken place before their arrival because it speaks of the realisation of the disciples that they’d forgotten to buy sufficient quantities of bread when they’d reached the other side and this incident relies upon them being aware of their failure to do just that.
If we follow Matthew’s statement here, therefore, it seems to have suddenly hit them that they had nothing to eat once they’d come ashore and it was this realisation which then caused them to misinterpret Jesus’ words in a way which showed that they also lacked spiritual perception! Mathag interprets the journey differently to what is normal when he comments (my italics) that
‘According to Matthew, the disciples apparently join Jesus who has already come...to the other side of the lake’
but this isn’t demanded by the text. It seems that the mention of the ‘boat’ rather than ‘boats’ is designed to make us realise that it was a small band of men who were journeying eastwards and that Jesus and the disciples were together in the one boat which came ashore near Bethsaida. So Mark 8:22’s statement that
‘...they came to Bethsaida...’
is best understood as a subsequent arrival following a journey from where they’d brought their boat ashore rather than the destination to which they’d come. This is, therefore, my justification for labelling this web page as being an incident which occurred ‘near Bethsaida’, though just how near it might have been is impossible to say. But, if Jesus was attempting to flee the attentions of the religious leaders, it may be wise to presume that they landed somewhere south of the city, not only to avoid what had happened the time when the crowds ran to meet them (Mark 6:33) but to prevent the religious leaders from coming after Him for fear of contracting ceremonial defilement in the Gentile land of the Decapolis or on the shores of a land that had a mixed population.
Finally, there’s an interesting difference in the declaration of Jesus as recorded in both parallel passages where Mtw 16:6 reads that Jesus warned the disciples to
‘...beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees’
while Mark 8:15 to
‘...beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of [the] Herod[ians]’
I have used the marginal reading here instead of the RSV’s ‘Herod’ for it appears to be more in keeping with the situation out of which Jesus has just withdrawn Himself. It may be that the original wording referred to Herod but, in this context, it’s difficult to see what sort of ‘teaching’ Herod had which was in danger of infiltrating the ranks of the disciples and so deflect them from following after the things of God in Him (Mtw 16:12). It seems more likely that Mark meant to record Jesus as referring to the Sadducees by the different title of ‘Herodians’ in order to emphasise their associations with the Roman Empire even though Marklane adds a footnote that
‘Predominantly Caesarean texts refer to the leaven of the Herodians, a correction influenced by Mark 3:6, 12:13’
an argument which could be turned on its head to insist that the reason why Herod appears is because of the influence of Mark 6:14-29, a passage much closer in proximity to Mark 3:6 and one which would have influenced a chronological copying of the manuscript more than the following Mark 12:13. The argument is somewhat weak here, therefore, even though ‘Herod’ may be correct.
Matmor cites Lenski who observes that Mariamne, one of Herod the Great’s wives, was a daughter of the high priest and that, because of this union, the Sadducees should be regarded also as ‘Herodians’. The logic is a little bit strained here, however, but it’s certainly true that it was the Sadducean religious group who would have been the more likely to court the favour of Rome than would the Pharisees.
Markcole refers to the Sadducees as being the
‘...shrewd, wealthy, priestly aristocracy with a leavening influence at least as dangerous as that of the hard religious formalism of the Pharisees’
and we should take note that, ultimately, it was these who handed Jesus over to the Roman authorities seeing as it was from their ranks that the Romans chose the High Priest. We should take it as an indication also that the reason for their allegiance in the previous passage in demanding a sign (Mtw 16:1-4) was for the sole purpose of trying to gather accusations which could be used directly against Him should the need arise to have Him formally tried before the governing authorities (as they appear to have been doing when the Pharisees and Herodians appear together once more in Mtw 22:15-16).
It would be difficult to see how this could have been achieved, however, unless Jesus removed Himself from Galilee and arrived in Jerusalem where Herod Antipas held no authority and where Pontius Pilate was the end of all rule. There may have been, then, even at that stage, a deliberate plot being formed to do something about Jesus when He visited Jerusalem for one of the three compulsory festivals laid upon all Israelite men.
Men of Little Faith
The problem with the Scriptures (I write that ‘tongue in cheek’!) is that they don’t always conform themselves to the concepts that we’ve applied to them over the centuries and we can end up accepting our own contrived interpretation of passages based upon either denominational preferences or wrong understandings of what was actually said or recorded.
This seems to have happened with our understanding of the phrase ‘men of little faith’ which occurs just five times in the NT (Mtw 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, Luke 12:28), four of which instances are here in Matthew and three of which we have previously either dealt with or considered within passages even if not commented upon.
If we take the normal interpretation of the phrase as an observation by Jesus that the people to whom this phrase was addressed lacked a measure of belief in the working and power of God to be able to believe Him for a miracle, then we can quickly and easily find a suitable interpretation coming to us in most of these occurrences.
For instance, Mtw 6:30 (paralleled in Luke 12:28) records Jesus as saying that
‘...if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?’
where the disciples are being upbraided for the inclination they have of not being able to believe that God will be concerned to materially equip them with everything needful for doing His will. In this case, their lack of faith needs to be added to that they may not doubt the Father’s provision.
In the incident when Jesus falls asleep in the stern of the boat as they crossed the Sea of Galilee, after rebuking the wind and waves and bringing calm back to the situation, Jesus turns to those with Him and asks them (Mtw 8:26)
‘Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?’
where the parallel passages record Him as saying, in Mark 4:40
‘Have you no faith?’
and, in Luke 8:25
‘Where is your faith?’
perhaps demonstrably more likely to be referring to their lack of a belief in God’s care of the Messiah than anything else.
In a similar stormy situation when Jesus commands Peter to come to Him on the water (a situation which only Matthew records), Mtw 14:31 notes Jesus as speaking to Peter as He rose him from sinking beneath the waves and saying
‘O man of little faith, why did you doubt?’
Again, the passage, in our way of ascribing meaning to the phrase, has to be taken as a mild rebuke that Peter had shown less than absolute confidence in the word of Jesus when he looked around himself and began to regard the wind and the waves that seemed to be threatening his safety.
So, we can be confident, it would appear, that the phrase ‘men of little faith’ must have to do with the quality of belief that a person has in either the Person or the Word of Jesus Christ. However, we seem to be confronted with a more difficult passage when we approach Mtw 16:8 as we try to apply our interpretation from elsewhere into this passage.
For, here, Jesus is responding to the disciples’ lack of perception in spiritual matters after He’s told them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees and they begin to discuss amongst themselves His statement, clearly misunderstanding what it was that Jesus meant. So, Jesus turns to them and says
‘O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?’
a statement which can’t be interpreted in the light of our present interpretation of the phrase where it’s occurred for Jesus isn’t gently rebuking them because they don’t have it within themselves to believe a Word or believe Him but because they lack a spiritual perception which would make them understand the true meaning of His Words. Therefore Jesus continues with the question (Mtw 16:9)
‘Do you not yet perceive?’
Mark 8:17-18 gives us a different interpretation as to the intention of Jesus’ words to them seeing as he omits the words about being men of little faith and expands upon the theme of their lack of perception where Matthew moves on to the statement concerning the multiplication of the loaves (and this a point where Mark’s record of the event is much more substantial than Matthew’s) for there the author records Him as asking them
‘Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?...’
Mark makes it plain to the reader that what Jesus observes in His disciples is their lack of spiritual insight not their lack of belief (as Matthew will include in His record of Jesus’ words in Mtw 16:11) and it’s this which appears to be at the heart of the phrase ‘men of little faith’ which can be equally applied to the previous uses of the phrase.
Therefore, Mtw 6:30, instead of a word which encourages the disciples to believe God will provide for them, becomes an exhortation for them to perceive from the observation that God provides for Creation that He won’t leave His followers without what is necessary. Mtw 8:26 also roots the phrase in perception - this time that the disciples have failed to perceive that the Father will take care both of themselves and of Him when danger approaches or else they wouldn’t be panicking so much and be able to find at least some rest within the storm which is all about them.
Mtw 14:31, the declaration to Peter that he was a man of little faith because he ‘doubted’ and sank into the water, is also rooted in the disciple’s lack of perception that Jesus’ word of command was an absolute statement that wasn’t dependent on there being favourable meteorological conditions around him.
In each of these circumstances - as well as the one now under consideration - perception is the best interpretation that fits each and every circumstance and it is possibly true to say that the phrase ‘men of little faith’ was used not to observe that a group of people lacked belief in the promise, word or power of God but that they failed to perceive correctly the things of God as they were being revealed to them.
We should also be wary, therefore, should we take the mention of ‘faith’ in other passages in the Gospels on the lips of Jesus and instantly think that Jesus must be referring to the quality of belief when it could be equally true that what Jesus is speaking about is spiritual perception.
‘Faith’ is not a term which has only the one meaning conveyed by its use and, though I have accepted the traditional view in the previous three occurrences of this word in Matthew’s Gospel, we need to observe that this may not be the true and correct interpretation of the matter.
When I first thought about this passage many years ago, I wrote that
‘It is certainly incorrect to say that with regard to this passage there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters, but wading through the five commentaries I have on these verses has brought to light five different interpretations’
Having now been compelled to return and rethink this position, it appears to me that the main reason why there are so many conflicting ideas is that each commentator tends to add a fact here and there which don’t appear in the Gospel texts and which tend to lead to an interpretation which isn’t necessarily justified rather than to allow the Scriptures to stand on their own.
The overall incident is simply one where Jesus warns the disciples about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mtw 16:6) but the disciples misunderstand His words (Mtw 16:7) so that He first answers their misunderstanding (Mtw 16:8-10) before proceeding to rewarn them (Mtw 16:11). This second time, they understand (Mtw 16:12).
Before we go on to put a little flesh on these bare bones, we need to first consider some of the additions which have been imposed on the passage. To begin with, then, we read a fairly strange assertion by Mattask who writes that
‘It is possible, as has been suggested [by Levertoff] that “they imagined that He was annoyed with them for not taking with them the bread in the seven baskets because they thought it was ‘defiled’ since it had been handled by Gentiles”’
This seems hardly possible, however, for the seven baskets which would have been gathered on the east side of Sea of Galilee (Mtw 15:37) would have to be assumed to have been transported across the Lake into Magadan (Mtw 15:39) and then left behind in that place as they hastened to sail eastwards after the request for a sign (Mtw 16:1-4). Why would the disciples or Jesus have been bothered about keeping the seven baskets full of bread, storing them on board and taking them back across the Sea when the broken fragments would very quickly have gone rock solid in the warm Galilean climate?
Mathen’s statement is close although not exactly identical when he writes that
‘They thought that the Lord was very displeased with them for having forgotten to buy bread; at least, they were worried about their lack of bread-cakes’
and Marklane also follows this line when he writes that
‘...the disciples interpreted Jesus’ words as an indirect reproach for their failure to bring provisions and began quarrelling concerning whose responsibility it was to procure bread...’
But, again, if their perception of the situation had caused them to think this, why didn’t they react differently by reasoning with one another with words to the effect
‘But we have one loaf! Doesn’t he know?!’
‘There wasn’t time in all the rush to be gone away from Galilee! How could we have got bread?’
which would have far better reflected their misunderstanding. It would appear, then, that this wasn’t what they perceived Jesus to be meaning when He observed that they should be wary of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matfran (my italics), on the other hand, observes that
‘It is not clear whether Jesus deliberately used their concern with literal bread to introduce His warning on metaphorical leaven or whether the two subjects were quite unconnected, and confused only because of the disciples’ preoccupation with their physical need’
There’s no indication, however, that the disciples were worrying about getting something to eat at all. The observations by both Gospel writers stop short of saying this and only state that they realised their forgetfulness upon arriving at their destination, not that they were hungry and were rebuking themselves for their stupidity.
Closely similar to this interpretation is Matmor’s statement about the disciples’ perception of Jesus saying that
‘...they felt that it had something to do with their failure to remember the bread...’
but, again, this seems not to be implied by the text. It’s the ‘make’ of the bread that their minds are drawn to consider, not the lack of it. After all, had they brought with them a whole bakery’s contents, baked fresh that morning, they would still have begun wondering whether Jesus knew something about the baker’s source of leaven which they didn’t.
More logical is Markcole’s reasoning that the disciples
‘...expected to be blamed for their culpable lack of foresight and so they saw reproof where none seems to have been intended’
where he continues to speak of psychological similarities where guilt can force a misunderstanding of another’s words to a point where self-defence occurs. But their reaction appears to be defensive simply because they think Jesus believes that they’ve brought provision with themselves - not that they’ve brought nothing - and that the loaves they have are made from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. It’s not that they felt guilty of not taking time to stock the boat with loaves but they’re on the defensive because they think Jesus is telling them that what they’ve brought isn’t good enough for them to eat.
Their statement that they’d brought ‘no bread’, incidentally, means that they’d brought ‘insufficient bread’ because, as Mark 8:14 notes, they did have the one loaf with them (though why they had that is anyone’s guess). Mathag also follows this avenue of interpretation and sees Jesus’ rebuke as urging the disciples not to
‘...expect another miraculous provision of food but rather they should not have allowed themselves to become so distraught over something so relatively minor that it controlled their very thinking...’
Although a relevant point to a believer, this isn’t the meaning of the passage and it’s unlikely that their confession that they have no bread should be seen as a parallel to either Mtw 14:17 or 15:33 where the disciples confess their lack of provision to be able to feed the multitudes gathered about them. They aren’t appealing to Jesus to perform another miracle because they were discussing the problem ‘among themselves’ (Mtw 16:7, Mark 8:16) and it’s only that Jesus becomes aware of it (Mtw 16:8, Mark 8:17) rather than they approach Him and tell Him their lack of sufficient resources that He returns to what He’s just said to make them understand.
Moving on from these interpretations, we should start our dealing with the passage along the lines of Matmor’s statement which reads that
‘...the minds of the disciples were running on their recent discovery that they had no bread’
and this seems to have come about when they put ashore on the east bank of the Sea of Galilee and realised that they only had the one loaf in the boat. It’s from this realisation that their response is made to Jesus when He begins to speak to them about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees in language which seems to be associating itself with their present realisation.
While Mathen’s statement that the disciples
‘...interpreted “yeast” literally and thought that Jesus was warning them against accepting any bread from Pharisees and Sadducees’
is close to the truth, it’s probably better to say that they anticipated Jesus’ rebuke to be directed at the provision that He’d thought they’d brought when, in fact, they’d brought nothing. They understand Jesus to be telling them that they should have taken steps to ensure that the quantity of bread they currently had didn’t contain the leaven which was used by the religious leaders but, of course, knowing that they hadn’t actually brought any with them, they respond with a puzzled ‘But we brought no bread!’ probably wondering how Jesus could have been so wrong as to think that they had a resource.
Jesus, however, as Matmor observes is
‘...warning His hearers to be on their guard against the insidious and pervasive influence that the Pharisees and Sadducees represent...’
Their minds are still drawn to natural bread so Jesus begins to explain to them why He wasn’t in the least concerned about natural bread, reminding them that He’s able to multiply resources beyond measure just as He had done on two previous occasions. In effect, Jesus is saying
‘Am I really bothered about natural bread when I can multiply what you have [or don’t have] to feed us all? Understand that my concern isn’t for what you forgot to bring but for teaching you spiritual truths that you need to know’
Therefore, they realise that, far from commenting on the bread that He’d thought they’d brought, Jesus is, in fact, speaking to them about the teaching of both religious parties.
The Doctrine of the Sadducees
We discussed at some length the ‘tradition of the elders’ and the relationship it had to the Pharisees who elevated their own interpretations over and above the teaching and authority of the OT as it developed, finally being embodied in the pages of the Mishnah around the close of the second century AD.
The Pharisaic doctrine is incredibly well documented here and it would have been beneficial to the commentator if some similar sort of documentation had existed in the case of the Sadducees to outline not just their fundamental beliefs (which can be deceptive in teaching us how they lived their lives) but the thoughts they had and how they felt that they could justify themselves before their God.
Unfortunately, the only major sources for learning about this religious sect are in three places and these are insufficient to give us a full picture. Josephus, the Jewish historian, records numerous facts about the Sadducees but we have to beware in case we accept his testimony as being an absolute statement which shouldn’t go uninterpreted for he records in his Autobiography that, when he was sixteen, he began a study of the three sects of the Jews - the Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees - in order that he might determine which was the correct one and so follow after it, concluding in Autobiography 3 with the statement that
‘...when I had accomplished my desires, I returned back to the city, being now nineteen years old, and began to conduct myself according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees, which is of kin to the sect of the Stoics, as the Greeks call them’
We’re therefore being presented facts about the Sadducees through the pen of a member of the Pharisees who wouldn’t necessarily be all that concerned to demonstrate any righteousness within their ranks even if he should have known of any, seeing as both sects were antagonistic towards one another. Edersheim calls his testimony
‘...the exaggerated representations of a partisan who wishes to place his party in the best light’
and his assertions that the Pharisaic practice
‘...was under the guidance of reason...is one of those bold misstatements with which he has too often to be credited’
The same can be levelled against the Mishnah, the second witness and compiled by the descendants of the Pharisaical sect. This work is more concerned to discuss ceremonial regulations and to lay down an authoritative interpretation of the OT Law which the Sadducees would have opposed. It can’t be truthful to say, therefore, that the Mishnah won’t have it’s own agenda in how it both deals with and portrays the sect which stood opposed to them.
Finally, the NT on occasions speaks concerning those things which were characteristic of the Sadducees where it’s conducive to the meaning of the text and where it helps the reader to understand the background to the story being presented. As such, it will only be very limited in the information which may be gleaned from its pages and most of the observations will be in the form of one line ‘facts’ and comparisons rather than of detailed explanations of what it was they both did and taught.
However, it’s good that we at least try to come to terms with what these ancient writings tell us about the Sadducees, to try and give ourselves some sort of background to this sect which seemed to virtually disappear from the pages of history when the destruction of Jerusalem occurred in 70AD.
The Mishnah is the least important of the sources available to us simply because it isn’t written to describe the beliefs of the Sadducees in any great detail and, what we do find here, is normally portrayed in a negative light. It does, however, show us that Josephus’ testimony who was also a Pharisee may have seen severely influenced by the relationships which existed between both sects.
So, for example, Erubin 6:2 gives us the recounting of an incident where a Pharisaic family made sure that they were first to have their vessels put out into the street on a sabbath before the Sadducean family did so that they might not be restricted by the other. I don’t fully understand how this was possible and can’t seem to grasp what tradition underlies this but the record at least shows us the war which seemed to rage between them.
Similarly, we find a dissension recorded in Makkoth 1:6 concerning the correct interpretation and application in judgment of the Scripture Deut 19:21, in Hagigah 2:4 of the way they safeguarded their belief in when the Day of Pentecost fell which was opposed to the Sadducean interpretation of Scripture (which, I hasten to add, was probably the correct one) and, in Parah 3:3,7 of the way they wrote certain things into the sacrifice and burning of the red heifer so that they wouldn’t cause the Sadducean party to level the justified accusation that it wasn’t being done in the correct manner.
Both Berakoth 9:5 and Yadaim 4:8 (there’s also a record of disputes in the two verses which immediately precede this) are also interesting because of the variant readings which are possible in the texts of the Mishnah. In the former, the phrase ‘the heretics’ has a variant reading of ‘the Sadducees’ and, in the latter, ‘a Galilean heretic’ is rendered in modern editions of the text as ‘a Sadducee’.
If this was truly the mindset of the Pharisee, then there seems to have been no love lost between them and, even worse, that the two sects appear to have been in a state of all out war! Although the reader may think that this is simply a presumption, Niddah 4:2 should be proof enough where we read that
‘The daughters of the Sadducees, if they follow after the ways of their fathers are deemed like to the women of the Samaritans...’
and, in Niddah 4:1, a Samaritan woman is
‘...[deemed unclean as] menstruants from their cradle...’
a sure proof that Sadducees were considered to be much less than a real Jew and, therefore, perhaps not even part of the Lord God’s chosen people because they sat opposed to the Pharisaic doctrines and beliefs. Their objections may have been more than this and we may note that, while the Sadducees were predominantly composed of the aristocratic Jews, the Pharisees were comprised mostly of the middle and lower classes and a class war may have been what prompted a lot of their animosity for each other, justified by religious shadows.
However, as a source which would tell us what the Pharisees believed, the Mishnah is very limited in detail. But, coming to Josephus’ testimony, we must be careful how we read his comments because, as we’ve previously noted, he was a Pharisee and would necessarily have been influenced by this sort of feeling towards them.
Josephus has quite a high regard for the Essenes (he deals with their sect in a long passage which runs in the Jewish War from 2.8.2-13 while the Sadducees get only a part of a verse!) and will naturally support his own sect of the Pharisees with positive phrases but, for the Sadducees, he’s concerned to convey to the reader something of the hatred that appears, from the Mishnah’s pages, to have been commonly observable, and dismisses both their beliefs and lifestyle with a disdainful brevity.
This refusal to deal with the Sadducees in a good light is seen even in the short passages where he slips in a comment just as much as it is when he deals with them in a comparison with both the other two sects. So, in Antiquities 13.10.6, he states that
‘...the sect of the Sadducees [have] notions [which] are quite contrary to those of the Pharisees...’
and, when describing a man named Ananus in Antiquities 20.9.1, he can’t seem to describe his character without an association with the sect of the Sadducees to which he belonged and which appears, according to him, to have been a true reflection of the entire group. He notes that Ananus
‘...was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed’
Again, in a comparison of the Pharisees and Sadducees, he notes (War 2.8.14) that
‘...the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord, and regard for the public; but the behaviour of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them’
It’s out of this background, therefore, that Josephus will bear testimony to their beliefs, contrasting the theology of both Pharisee and Sadducee but throwing the latter into such a poor light that he undermines their religious standpoint at the same time! However, he does have some interesting statements, some of which are substantiated by the record of the NT Scriptures.
To begin with, the Sadducees appear to have been a group of people who consigned nearly everything to the outworking of man’s own freewill. Therefore, Josephus states in War 2.8.14 that they
‘...take away fate [predestination] 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’
which he further comments on in Antiquities 13.5.9 where he notes that they
‘...take away fate [predestination], and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly’
Zondervans summarises the three sects by noting that
‘...whereas the Pharisees tried to synthesise the two [freewill and predestination], the Essenes were at the one extreme of attributing all to Fate [predestination] while the Sadducees were at the other extreme of attributing all to freewill’
This concept of freewill must have seriously hindered their concept of the Sovereignty of God, therefore, and it may be that they viewed Him as One who intervened in history solely to provide mankind with the opportunity to get Himself right by obedience to Law. However, we should note that the threefold position within the religious sects of Jesus’ day is almost a perfect picture of that which exists within the present day - and historical - Church! If we took the labels, we could place them on various denominations and so divide the Body of Christ into three hygienically separate groups.
But Jesus doesn’t oppose either group (He seems not to have come into contact with the Essenes for they were often - though not exclusively - in places which were away from towns and villages) on the grounds that they have a wrong perception of either freewill or predestination (or a harmony of both) but that fundamentally they’re flawed in their position regardless of lines of doctrine.
To the Pharisees, He says that they’ve made void the Law of God (Mtw 15:6) while, to the Sadducees, He declares that they know neither the Scriptures nor God’s power (Mtw 22:29).
This last comment by Jesus comes out of their question regarding a scenario set around the resurrection from the dead which they also repudiated and observed as one of their beliefs through the Scriptures (Mtw 22:23). This is a belief which the NT writers will return to in Acts 4:1-2 where Luke observes that the Sadducees came and arrested Peter and John in the Temple because
‘...they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead’
and, in Acts 23:6-9, Paul perceives that the crowds which were before him were predominantly made up of both Pharisees and Sadducees and so deflected their united opposition against himself by announcing that he was on trial because of his belief in the resurrection of the dead, something which the Pharisees would have to support unless they were to undermine their opposition towards the Sadducees.
This appears to have been an outworking of the belief (rather than a fundamental doctrine) observed by Josephus (War 2.8.14) that
‘They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades’
and, in Antiquities 18.1.4, that they believe
‘...that souls die with the bodies...’
It was this failure to believe in the immortality of the soul which caused them to realise that it was impossible that a resurrection of the dead could take place. After all, if once you’re dead it’s all over and no consciousness remains, what’s the point of new incorruptible bodies? Berakoth 9:5 (my italics) confirms this belief as being attributable to the Sadducees and reads
‘At the close of every Benediction in the Temple they used to say “For everlasting”; but after the heretics [‘the Sadducees’ is the variant reading as noted above] had taught corruptly and said that there is but one world, it was ordained that they should say “From everlasting to everlasting”’
Edersheim sees the assertion that the Sadducees believed in no reward after death as an addition imputed to them by their theological enemies which he substantiates with some justification by an appeal to a record where a teacher is misunderstood to believe the same simply because he urges upon his followers the necessity of living their life before God as if there was no reward after death. This is quite possible, of course, and Edersheim may well be correct even though it’s impossible to be absolutely certain.
For the Sadducee, there was no need for a resurrection because they believed in no afterlife, not the other way round. It was, therefore, a consequence of their own belief structure rather than a foundational belief upon which others were based.
While this would obviously be repudiated by christian believers, it should be noted that, contrary to the Pharisees, they refused to accept the interpretations known as the ‘tradition of the elders’ or ‘Oral Law’ and insisted, rather, on accepting solely the OT Law as being both authoritative and binding.
Therefore, Josephus notes (Antiquities 18.1.4) that they don’t regard
‘...the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent’
and the Mishnah condemns people who do just such a thing when it notes (Aboth 5:8)
‘The sword comes upon the world because of...them that teach the Law not according to the Halakah [an accepted decision in Rabbinic Law which was sometimes, but not always, derived from a consideration of Scripture and which almost totally summates the pages of the Mishnah]’
It must come as a surprise to us, however, that the Sadducees were people who relied wholly on the Law and yet were still a fair bit out in their interpretations of certain things. Jesus’ statement in Mtw 22:29 must have come as quite some rebuke to the sect seeing as He told them that they didn’t know the Scriptures - something which, if levelled at the Pharisees, wouldn’t have been quite so bad than to be associated with people who relied totally upon it for direction!
Lastly, a point made by the NT which goes unrecorded by Josephus is that (Acts 23:8)
‘...the Sadducees say that there is no...angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all’
a belief which seems to go back to an association with their belief in absolute freewill which undermined their acceptance of the Sovereignty of God (see above) for, denying the need for workers from Heaven on behalf of mankind, they were able to place man’s plight firmly into man’s hands and so remove God’s direct intervention in human affairs for His people’s spiritual salvation.
In general, the Sadducee was in a difficult position in the eyes of the people for they generally regarded the Pharisee as being God’s chosen person and these people repudiated the Sadducean position. Therefore, Josephus observes (Antiquities 18.1.4)
‘...they are able to do almost nothing of themselves; for when they become magistrates, as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be, they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitude would not otherwise bear them’
an observation which shows the Sadducees almost total dependence upon the decisions of the Pharisees to get anything done. This may be an exaggeration of Josephus, seeing as he also was of the sect of the Pharisees, but it isn’t too impossible a scenario that, although the Sadducees were the ruling aristocracy of the Jews, they were unable to get their will done in the land in religious matters and judicial rulings unless they had the backing of the party which was accepted by the nation itself.
It seems that their belief system, therefore, was held mainly by themselves, that they were rejected by the people as being a group who weren’t representatives of God and that they found it impossible to achieve anything within the nation without the support of the Pharisees.
If anything, they were the most to be pitied - but their influence amongst the Roman authorities was something which the Pharisees didn’t possess and it seems an ironic turn round of events that, had the Pharisees not turned to the Sadducees in the form of the High Priest, it would have been the more difficult to have got the conviction which they required.
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees
Before we finish the teaching on this passage, we need to consider briefly what Jesus meant by the phrase ‘the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ (Mtw 16:6,11) which the disciples came to realise meant to be taken as meaning their teaching (Mtw 16:12).
Some of the commentators point out that the construction of Jesus’ initial label (Mtw 16:6) is unusual and isn’t what the reader might necessarily expect at this point for, as Mathen writes
‘...one definite article preceding “Pharisees and Sadducees”...’
would indicate not that Jesus was thinking in terms of an individual leaven - an individual teaching - that belonged to each of the two religious sects but that they shared a common teaching that the disciples should be singularly warned against.
As the reader has, no doubt, observed above in the previous section (which is why it’s been placed here rather than at a point later in the Gospels where we again come across the Sadducean sect), the doctrines and beliefs of the two groups sharply conflicted at major points and it would, perhaps, not be too great a generalisation if we summed up the Pharisees as relying more upon their interpretation of the Law while the Sadducees relied on the Law itself (though how the latter ever managed to get some of their beliefs from the Mosaic Law is difficult to understand).
Mattask, who seems to miss the singular use of the description, contrasts both sects’ teaching as
‘...the rigid legalism and the casuistical sophistry of the Pharisees and the political opportunism and the worldly materialism of the Sadducees’
Clearly, these two totally different approaches to a belief system is difficult to accept as being considered to be unified and, if both approaches of the sects were in effect so different, how was it possible for Jesus to lump them together as one teaching?
Mathen sees the common ground as being one of the attainment of salvation, where both groups pursued it as if it was to be earnt. Therefore, he upholds the unity as declared by Jesus and writes that they found a harmony
‘...in the basic principle that governed their lives as shown in their effort to attain salvation or security by their own efforts. Religion in both cases was outward conformity to a certain standard’
However, there appears to be no inkling that this is what Jesus has in mind and, if it’s really the common ground that existed between them, it’s surprising that there’s no indication here - not even so much as a hint.
Seeing as the warning comes about directly out of the request for a sign from Heaven (Mtw 16:1), we should really understand their unity to be displayed in what both parties had singularly asked Jesus to do. Therefore, Matfran summates the one ‘teaching’ as being
‘...their attitude of hostility to Jesus’ claims and their failure to perceive God’s working in His ministry’
where I would rather read not of the religious leaders’ ‘failure’ but their ‘refusal’ to perceive what was plainly and openly being done in their midst. He sees the demand for a sign as being an outworking of their common opposition to Jesus and the movement that He appears to be inaugurating through His ministry. However, although there is indeed opposition to Jesus in Mtw 16:1-4 it hardly seems to be able to be summed up as a ‘teaching’ which was an all-pervading influence about which the disciples needed warning - this was a specific and demonstrable opposition which was already beginning to boil over in actions which were set to stumble Jesus if at all possible.
Trying to determine a specific teaching to which both sects agreed, Mathag suggests that the common belief
‘...could be found in a preconception of the nature of the Messiah and Messianic fulfilment - a fulfilment that of necessity would include a national-political dimension...It disqualified Jesus from any claim to being the agent of Messianic fulfilment. This “teaching” was indeed like leaven in that it affected all else and would indeed ultimately bring Jesus to His death’
However, although this appears to be attractive, it’s unlikely that the Sadducees’ concept of a Messiah was one which was very much similar to that of the Pharisees - even if they did believe that One was to be sent to the nation from God. As we saw in the last section, the Sadducees relied upon the OT Law and undermined the moving of God into Israelite society by their dogged insistence on the all-sufficiency of the concept of man’s freewill.
Although we don’t have any definite reference to base the following conclusion upon, some writers believe that their acceptance of the prophetic writings was negligible and that they were more concerned with keeping the status quo within society than they were with desiring some sort of political uprising at the head of which was a self-proclaimed Messiah who would destroy the riches, power and influence that they had under the Roman government.
Therefore, Mathag’s supposition - although being superficially possible - is unlikely to be correct.
Matmor is much closer to the truth, I feel, when he writes that both religious sects
‘...were linked by their inability to see that Jesus was the Messiah, by their hatred of Him, and by their determination to overthrow His teaching if they could’
This was certainly a common goal as can be seen by the record in Mtw 16:1 that they’d come to ask for a sign with the sole purpose of testing Him. However, we should go one step further than this and see in Jesus’ warning a reference to their demonisation of the move of God in their midst.
Their refusal to accept what was plain and obvious and to insist rather on deciding themselves whether they would accept or reject a move of God based upon their own interpretations (Mtw 12:24, for instance) seems to be what’s intended.
Their direct rejection of the work of God which was clearly perceivable in their midst caused them to seek a sign from Heaven through Jesus for the sole purpose of testing Him and, as they chose, of condemning Him - not because what would have been shown them wouldn’t have been from God but because they were unwilling to accept what could have been granted them. They had a stubborn will which had been set to reject anything which might prove Jesus was moving in the power and under the anointing of God.
It was this ‘insidious and pervasive influence’ (as Matmor) which was set to not only destroy the reception of the will of God for themselves but which would influence those who looked to them for spiritual guidance and wisdom, and for a definitive statement concerning whether this new Teacher, Jesus, was sent by God.
It’s not without significance that the disciples bring to Jesus’ attention that the Pharisees were offended at the utterance of a previous teaching (Mtw 15:12) because their pronouncements would have gone a long way to determining how the Kingdom of God might progress through the nation.
It’s this commitment, therefore, to reject whatever undermines their own position that seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ warning - something which could eat into the minds of the disciples if they paid it too much heed. After all, which of us hasn’t heard pronouncements about certain christian preachers from time to time and have found it difficult to accept what they subsequently are heard to say because our hearing is influenced by the shared prejudices?
Although there are a great many other possibilities, it’s this which, I feel, lies at the heart of Jesus’ warning.
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