The Karaites and Their Quest for Truth
“SEARCH thoroughly in the [Scriptures] and do not rely on my opinion.” Those words were spoken by a leading Karaite of the eighth century C.E. Who were the Karaites? Can we learn anything of value from their example? To answer these questions, we must go back in history to a long-standing controversy that led to the Karaite movement.
How Did the Controversy Begin?
In the final centuries before the Common Era, a new philosophy developed within Judaism. It was the concept that God gave two Laws at Mount Sinai, one written and one oral.* By the first century C.E., there were heated clashes between those who espoused this new teaching and those who rejected it. The Pharisees were the promoters, whereas the Sadducees and the Essenes were among the opposers.
In the middle of this controversial scene, Jesus of Nazareth appeared as the promised Messiah. (Daniel 9:24, 25; Matthew 2:1-6, 22, 23) Jesus faced all those conflicting groups of Jews. In reasoning with them, he spoke against making the word of God invalid because of their tradition. (Matthew 15:3-9) Jesus also taught spiritual truths in a manner possible only for the Messiah. (John 7:45, 46) Moreover, Jesus’ true followers alone gave evidence of divine backing. They became known as Christians.—Acts 11:26.
When Jerusalem’s temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the Pharisees were the only religious sect that survived intact. Now without priesthood, sacrifices, and temple, Pharisaical Judaism could invent substitutes for all of these, allowing tradition and interpretation to supersede written Law. This opened the door for new “sacred books” to be written. First came the Mishnah, with its additions to and interpretations of their oral law. Later, other collections of writings were added and called the Talmud. At the same time, apostate Christians began taking liberties with Jesus’ teachings. Both circles spawned powerful religious systems—rabbinic authority on the one hand and church authority on the other.
Because of Jewish conflicts with pagan Rome and later with “Christian” Rome, the center of Judaism eventually shifted to Babylon. It was there that the writings of the Talmud were edited in their most complete form. Although the rabbis claimed that the Talmud revealed the will of God more completely, many Jews sensed the increasing weight of rabbinic authority and longed for the word of God delivered to them through Moses and the prophets.
In the latter half of the eighth century C.E., Jews in Babylon who opposed rabbinic authority and belief in their oral law responded to a learned leader named Anan ben David. He proclaimed each Jew’s right to unrestricted study of the Hebrew Scriptures as the only source of true religion, without regard for rabbinic interpretation or the Talmud. Anan taught: “Search thoroughly in the Torah [the written law of God] and do not rely on my opinion.” Because of this emphasis on Scripture, Anan’s followers became known as Qa·ra·ʼimʹ, a Hebrew name meaning “readers.”
Karaites and Rabbis Clash
What are some examples of Karaite teachings that caused consternation in rabbinic circles? The rabbis forbade eating meat and milk together. They presented this as the oral law’s explanation of Exodus 23:19, which says: “You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” On the other hand, the Karaites taught that this verse meant just what it said—no more, no less. They argued that the rabbinic restrictions were man’s invention.
According to their interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:8, 9, the rabbis held that Jewish men had to pray wearing tefillin, or phylacteries, and that a mezuzah was to be placed on each doorpost.* The Karaites regarded these verses as having only figurative and symbolic meaning and therefore rejected such rabbinic regulations.
In other matters the Karaites were far more restrictive than the rabbis. For instance, consider their view of Exodus 35:3, which reads: “You must not light a fire in any of your dwelling places on the sabbath day.” The Karaites forbade leaving a lamp or a light burning even if it was lit before the Sabbath.
Particularly after Anan’s death, Karaite leaders frequently disagreed over the degree and nature of certain restrictions, and their message was not always clear. The Karaites lacked unity because they did not recognize any single leader but emphasized personal reading and interpretation of the Scriptures, as opposed to rabbinic-style authority. Despite this, however, the Karaite movement grew in popularity and influence far beyond the Babylonian Jewish community and spread throughout the Middle East. A major Karaite center was even established in Jerusalem.
During the ninth and tenth centuries C.E., Karaite scholars excelled in a renewed study of the Hebrew language and experienced a sort of golden age. They considered the written Hebrew Scripture text, not the oral traditions, to be holy. Some Karaites became careful copyists of the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, it was the Karaite challenge that spurred Masoretic study of the Scriptures among all Jews, ensuring a more accurately preserved Bible text today.
During this period of rapid growth, Karaite Judaism engaged in open missionary work among other Jews. This posed a clear threat to rabbinic Judaism.
How Did the Rabbis Respond?
The rabbinic counterattack was a vehement war of words, with cunning flexibility and repositioning of teaching. During the century following Anan’s attack, rabbinic Judaism adopted a number of the Karaite methods. The rabbis became more proficient in quoting the Scriptures, incorporating Karaite style and method in their rhetoric.
The undisputed leader of this verbal bout with the Karaites was Saʽadia ben Joseph, who became head of the Jewish community in Babylon in the first half of the tenth century C.E. Saʽadia’s major work, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, was translated into English by Samuel Rosenblatt, who said in its introduction: “Even though . . . he was the authority in his day on the Talmud, [Saʽadia] makes comparatively sparing use of this source of Jewish tradition, apparently because it was his desire to defeat with their own weapons the Karaites who accepted only the Written Law as binding.”
Following in Saʽadia’s footsteps, rabbinic Judaism eventually gained the upper hand. It accomplished this by adapting just enough to take dynamic force away from Karaite arguments. The final blow was administered by Moses Maimonides, the noted Talmudic scholar of the 12th century. By his tolerant attitude toward the Karaites with whom he dwelt in Egypt, as well as his convincing scholarly style, he won their admiration and weakened the position of their own leadership.
The Karaite Movement Loses Momentum
Now lacking unity and without a well-orchestrated countermeasure, the Karaite movement lost both momentum and followers. With the passing of time, the Karaites modified their views and principles. Leon Nemoy, an author on the Karaite movement, writes: “While the Talmud remained theoretically outlawed, much talmudic material was quietly incorporated into Karaite practice of law and custom.” In essence, the Karaites lost their original purpose and adopted much of rabbinic Judaism.
There are still about 25,000 Karaites in Israel. A few thousand more can be found in other communities, mostly in Russia and the United States. Having their own oral traditions, however, they differ from the first Karaites.
What can we learn from the history of the Karaites? That it is a serious mistake to ‘make the word of God invalid by tradition.’ (Matthew 15:6) To be set free from burdensome traditions of men requires accurate knowledge of the Scriptures. (John 8:31, 32; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17) Yes, those who seek to know and do God’s will do not rely on men’s traditions. Instead, they diligently search the Bible and apply the beneficial instruction of God’s inspired Word.
For an explanation of the so-called oral law, see pages 8-11 of the brochure Will There Ever Be a World Without War?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
Tefillin are two small square leather boxes containing slips bearing Scriptural passages. These cases were traditionally worn on the left arm and on the head during weekday morning prayers. The mezuzah is a small parchment scroll inscribed with Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and De 11:13-21, placed in a case fixed to the doorpost.
[Picture on page 30]
A group of Karaites
From the book The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1910