I have really enjoyed this question! As a Southern Baptist all of my life, I’ve sat in the pew many Sundays and heard these groups described and reviewed many, many times! This week has given me a much deeper understanding of them and their place in the early Christian Church. I so wish I had understood all this years ago!
The three most significant groups of the early Christian Church were the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essences. Other groups such as Zealots, Herodians and Scribes were also present but smaller in number and less impactful on society. The characteristics of the three main groups can be easily understood by understanding who was in each group and their practice of obedience to the law (Lea and Black, The New Testament, Its Background and Message, 57).
The largest and most influential group was the Pharisees. These were the blue-collar Jews who believed in both the oral law handed down from Moses as well as the written Torah law (Bard, JewishVirtualLibrary.org/History). They accepted the entire Old Testament canon and believed in a supernatural God, with angels serving him as well as his ability to grant immortality and a live in Heaven after the life on Earth. Most of us today would probably be Pharisees if we were living in those times. Their beliefs in many ways were not far from our beliefs today.
Sadducees were the keepers of the Temple, supporters of whoever was in political power at the time. They were quick to support Roman authority if it served their purposes. They were also accepting of Hellenistic influences on their society. They rejected the traditional oral law and followed only the written Torah law. They accepted the later parts of the Old Testament canon, the Prophets and the Writings but believed them to be less significant than the Torah (Lea and Black, 58). They believed only what was written and could be measured. Sadly, they did not believe in a life after death, since it is not mentioned in the Torah. They believed in nothing supernatural. There was much to disagree on with the Sadducees. As their life centered on the Temple, this group gradually ceased to exist after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were the most powerful of all groups in early Christianity. As the Roman authority like to let local groups govern themselves, these two groups formed the Sanhedrin, the legal body that met daily in the Temple to settle disputes and rule on local issues (Lea and Black, 62). The Sadducees presided over the court and insured that the written law was followed.
A third less influential but fascinating group of early Christianity was the Essences, also known as the Dead Sea Sect (Bard, JewishVirtualLibrary.org/History). They lived in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. In 1947, a shepherd boy there discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls! Was this group connected with these documents? That is unclear. This group is not mentioned in the New Testament but documented by Josephus in his historical writing (Lea and Black, 58). They were isolationists, choosing to leave Jerusalem and get away from all modern society. They did not believe in the Temple or in marriage. They were similar in many ways theologically to the Pharisees but did not believe in angels or supernatural beings. This small group was selective in its membership and lived an isolationist lifestyle. It would be easy to dismiss this group as an odd Jewish sect of that day except for the geographical coincidence of their location in relation to the ultimate location of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Did they serve some great purpose in that connection? This question leads me to read more and learn more about this group.
Who would each of us be if we lived in that day? Pharisee is an easy answer but Sadducee is also possible for many of us. Relying only on written law which is easy to verify and measure could be a comfortable and ordered way of life. And who could not support a group whose life centered on the Temple? And haven’t we all occasionally wanted to run off and live in the desert away from it all like the Essences?
Understanding the personalities, motivations and beliefs of these groups adds color and life to the characters of the early Christian church. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention on Sunday mornings and I might have already learned all of this!