In the New Testament, when we follow the life of Jesus and the history of the early church, we discover the existence of a wide variety of religious and political groups. In his monumental work Antiquities (history) of the Jews, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37 to 100 A.D.) lists at least four main sects extant in the first century A.D. that existed in Judea and Jerusalem: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and a sect founded by Judas the Galilean (the Zealots):
"At this time there were three sects among the Jews, who had different opinions concerning human actions; the one was called the sect of the Pharisees, another the sect of the Sadducees, and the other the sect of the Essens (Essenes)." (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, Chapter 5)
"The Jews had for a great while had three sects of philosophy peculiar to themselves; the sect of the Essenes, and the sect of the Sadducees, and the third sort of opinions was that of those called Pharisees . . ." (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1)
"But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author." (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1)
The New Testament mentions the sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees, refers to the Sanhedrin and Zealots, but does not mention the Essenes. It also mentions groups such as the disciples of John the Baptist, the elders, the Herodians, the scribes, and the High Priest (with other priests). Each group claimed a monopoly on the truth (either religious or political) and argued with one another over the correctness of their respective views.
The most important divisions among Jewish religious groups had to do with debates over three primary areas of God's law: Marriage, Sabbath and Religious Festivals, and the Temple and Purity.
It may seem, by reading the New Testament that a great number of people belonged or associated with a particular party or group. At no time, however, did any group or sect constitute a majority.
The religious and political groups discussed in this section include: