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Jeusus often encountered these two groups:

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:34-36)

From a Christian perspective, 'Who were they and how did they differ?'

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Good question to ask at the Jewish SE too. judaism.stackexchange.com –  user1054 Jun 25 '12 at 17:51
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2 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots were the four primary religious/political factions of the time.

Pharisees were keepers of the Law and held the entire (what we would call) Hebrew Bible as the word of YHWH. They emerged from the exile as the dominant faction because they (correctly) connected Israel's abandoning of the Law as the reason for the punishment of exile. As such, they created "fences" to attempt to keep people from even coming close to replicating this behavior and casting Israel into exile and further punishment.

Sadducees were more affluent and were also more sympathetic to the Hellenistic movement. They acquiesced quite a bit to the influence of the prevailing powers (Greece, and then Rome) because they realized it was economically and politically advantageous for them to do so. They also only held the Pentateuch as their authoritative Scriptures.

Essenes held themselves to a higher standard of piety - including voluntary poverty, abstinence, and other forms and degrees of asceticism. Additionally, they lived in a tighter community (Jerusalem had an "Essene Quarter") and may have influenced the early Christian community (of Acts 1-11). Some of them took a more radical approach on this communalism and established the community of Qumran.

Zealots were just that. They believed that change could only be affected in the ruling powers through force, and likely had not real religious leader.

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The Sadducees were also the group with the most political power. The Sanhedrin were composed (primarily?) of Sadducees. –  mojo Jun 25 '12 at 17:08
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@mojo yes, that's what I was driving toward but didn't really explicitly state as much. Thanks for the clarification. –  swasheck Jun 25 '12 at 17:09
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@swasheck - +1 accepted. Think you basically captured the answer - make a good quick reference. mojo comment good as well. I think it can be seen that although the Sadducees were more skeptical intellectually and had more influence in government party because of that, the Pharisees were the religious popular with their cool trends of such outward dedication. However I am sure an average Jews living in Galilee, in some small town like Bethlehem, would not have been overly impressed with any of these groups as they all seemed to break away from the simple quite holy life. Cheers –  Mike Jun 26 '12 at 4:54
    
where to the Scribes fall into this categorization, as in "the scribes and pharisees" –  warren Aug 21 '12 at 14:39
    
Scribes were more of a functional group than a religious faction. They were the ones who actually would replicate copies of the law. As such, they were probably more familiar with the actual semantics of the Law than any other group, and could function as teachers, advisers, and "lawyers" in the IT/NT era. They're probably associated closely with the Pharisees given the Pharisees' emphasis on keeping the law. –  swasheck Aug 21 '12 at 15:10
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The answer from swasheck is pretty good, and more than I personally know. But I'll put in 2 cents just for fun and completeness.

The Sadducees denied bodily resurrection. Which is why, as any Catechist will tell you, is why they are "so sad, you see".

As for the Essenes, lots of folks speculate that John the Baptist was one of these folks (although since he was in the desert, who knows how that would affect him) and those same folks would probably say Jesus was too. But since Jesus has a divine intellect, I'm not sure that partisanship would change His way of thinking on anything.

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Bodily Resurrection was outside of the domain of the Pentateuch, so this is correct. Philosophically and doctrinally Jesus was more in line with the Pharisees which is why he's so harsh with them. It's more of a household cleanup than it is outright disagreement. –  swasheck Jun 25 '12 at 16:50
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Resurrection: Acts 23, Matthew 22:23-46 –  mojo Jun 25 '12 at 17:05
    
angels and demons are also beyond the scope of the Sadducee philosophy –  swasheck Jun 25 '12 at 17:05
    
... as @mojo just posted while I was typing –  swasheck Jun 25 '12 at 17:06
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