There were four primary groups of Jews during much of the Second Temple Era: Pharisees, Sadducees, Amei Haaretz, and Essenes. The Pharisees, known as Perushim, or Chaverim, consisted of the sages and the vast majority of the Jewish people who were loyal to the Torah and followed the sages. This group was called Perushim, which means separate, because they were careful not to come in contact with people who may not have been ritually pure.

The Sadducees, or Tzadokim (for followers of the apostate Tzadok), were a wealthy and very powerful minority who wielded great political influence out of proportion to their numbers. Clearly and overtly demonstrating their disbelief in the rabbinic interpretations of the Oral Law, they deliberately perverted Torah practice. For example, Sadducee Kohanim Gedolim offered the incense of Yom Kippur by first placing it on the coals of a pan outside the Kodesh HaKodoshim and then bringing it inside, thereby flouting Torah law that specifies the reverse. By so doing, the Kohen Gadol would invariably die. Nevertheless, the Sadducees were so set on proving Torah wrong that they persisted in their incorrect practices. In fact, the Talmud states that more than 300 Kohanim Gedolim served during the Second Temple, in contrast to only 18 for the First Temple, although each sanctuary lasted for approximately the same amount of time.

On Sukkos, Sadducee Kohanim would refuse to pour sacrificial water on the Altar, because this particular service was part of the oral tradition not explicitly mentioned in the written Torah.[i] In addition, Sadducee-controlled courts interpreted the verse (Exodus 21:24) "An eye for an eye" literally, instead of its traditional meaning that damages require monetary payment.

On Pesach, specifically on the second day of the holiday, the Torah requires a grain sacrifice called the omer to be offered. The Torah uses the term "The day following the Sabbath" (Leviticus 23:15) in referring to the omer, which the Oral Law interprets as the day following the first day of Pesach, regardless of what day of the week that is. However, the Sadducees followed the literal meaning of the verse and brought the omer on a Sunday.

In addition, and clearly most heinous, the Sadducees were not merely a heretical group. Instead, they seized every opportunity to persecute the sages.

Amei Haaretz (singular, Am Haaretz), literally people of the earth, were observant Jews who were not educated in the intricate laws of ritual purity and separating tithes (maaser). As a result, Jews who scrupulously kept these laws could not come into physical contact with the Amei Haaretz or eat their food. This social ostracism, necessary as it was, caused great resentment between the Pharisees and Amei Haaretz. Despite such ill feelings, however, the Amei Haaretz generally followed the sages.

By contrast, the Essenes were a small splinter group that lived in isolated desert caves and practiced extreme asceticism in ways that had no basis in Jewish law. Some historians speculate that Yeshu (Jesus) may have been a member of this group. In 1947, scrolls were found in caves at Qumran containing apocalyptic visions that may have had Essene origins.