Ananists and Karaites were not the first Jews to reject the Oral Law as divinely inspired. This goes back to a rift 600 years before the Roman conquest. Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean king conquered Judea in , and exported 10,000 of its best educated citizens to his capitol in Babylon, now Basra, Iraq. Those educated Jews completed the Babylonian Talmud, and started the great academies at Sura and Pumbedita, which later became Gaon. The First Temple of the Israelites in Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BCE, and a mass expulsion accompanied it. For the 70 years without a temple, synagogues and midrash – houses of worship and study, not sacrifice – rose in importance.
Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, bringing the Hebrew peoples under his domain. Cyrus granted them permission to return to Judea and rebuild their Temple, but not restore the Judean royalty. This de facto left the priests in charge. But Judaism at that time was co-led by groups of both priests and also scribes and sages. The priests claimed a birthright inheritance, coming from a priestly line, descendants of Zadok the High Priest of King Solomon. The scribes and sages claimed an inheritance from Moses – that his words and teachings had been passed on in a direct chain from one scribe to another.
It was a highly religious and highly contentious time period. The Second Temple was erected by 515 BCE, but under the authority of a foreign government. Was it legitimate, was it prophetic, was it blessed? Without a Jewish monarchy to constrain them, the priests exerted more power and influence over the life of common Jews. A group of sages, the Sanhedrin, codified the scrolls of the Jewish Bible into the Tanakh. On market days a loud reader would publicly recite the Torah, and it would also be read three times a day in synagogues. The Temple was not the only place for Jewish spiritual fulfillment.
In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV of the Syrian-Hellenic Seleucid Empire stormed Judea, raided the Temple, stripped Jews of all their rights to self governance, and imposed Hellenization on them. They did not take it, and this resistance is known as the Maccabean Revolt. For an adorable and mostly accurate summary, I recommend the Rugrats MaccaBabies special. Watch it with your kids so they know some Jewish history too. The Hasmonean priests were basically the heroes of this revolt, leading to a new priestly dynasty.
The Pharisee (“separatist”) party of scribes and sages formed as a response to the growing power of the priests, and their perceived corruption and assimilation. Another, more radical party with many religious beliefs in common with the Pharisees (immortal souls, resurrection of the dead, divinity of Oral Law) was the Zealots. These freedom fighters wanted foreign invaders out at any cost, and killed otherJews who would not join their cause. They also destroyed months worth of food and firewood, forcing the people of Jerusalem to fight in desperation in the First Jewish-Roman War, ultimately leading to the destruction of the Second Temple by Romans forces in 70 CE.