were a Jewish sect whose teachings rejected the authority of rabbinic Jewish (Rabbanite) tradition and leadership, and did not acknowledge the concept of oral law and its literature, the Mishnah and Talmud. Karaites recognized only the Hebrew scriptures as a divinely revealed authoritative source of law. Karaism posed a serious challenge for rabbinic leadership from the late ninth through the eleventh centuries, and still exists today, mainly in Israel.

The name Karaite (Qara᾽im or Benei Miqra᾽) is derived from the Hebrew root qara᾽, meaning “to read,” indicating the scripturalist aspect of Karaite ideology. Alternately, it can mean “to call” or “summon,” denoting the missionizing aspect of medieval Karaism, which sought to summon Jews to their movement. The earliest attestation of the name comes from the Karaite Benjamin al-Nahāwendī in the mid-ninth century, although it may have been coined by Rabbanite Jews.

Parallels in ideology, exegetical method, and vocabulary can be identified in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Karaism. In its medieval phase, Karaism, like the ideology of the scrolls, was eschatological and messianic, resulting in constructions of the community and its laws that were predicated upon working toward the imminent end of time. These ideologies were sectarian in that they were formulated in opposition to dominant forms of Judaism by adopting a posture of resistance based upon a critique of the ruling elements of Jewish society. The Karaites believed that the rabbis were responsible for the exile because they perpetuated the evils that brought about the destruction of the Temple and that they benefited from their hegemonic position as leaders of the community.


The origins of Karaism are rooted in the great variety of nonrabbinic Jewish religious activity in the Near East of the early Muslim era. The consolidation of the political and social order of Islam was mirrored by similar developments within Rabbanite Jewry. A rejection of rabbinic hegemony among some Jews resulted from a complex set of social and religious conditions, including class distinctions, forms of Jewish localism that had always had a nonrabbinic character, and messianism. The primary witness to Near Eastern Jewish heterodoxy of the eighth and ninth centuries is the Karaite Ya῾qūb al-Qirqisānī, who in 937 ce described groups that differed widely in regard to law, messianism, revolution, and syncretism. Several of these groups would later contribute to the more fully articulated Karaite movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

One of these movements began with Anan ben David in the middle of the eighth century, according to a narrative that may have originated among Rabbanites but was recorded by the twelfth-century Byzantine Karaite Elijah ben Abraham. Anan, of the Jewish princely family in Iraq, was passed over in the succession to the office of the exilarchate on account of his heterodox ideas. By presenting himself to the Muslim authorities as leader of a religion different from that of the rabbis, and not merely a sectarian group, he was able to secure governmental protection for himself and his followers. The narrative describes these so-called Ananites, who were acknowledged by later Karaites as the first of their movement, as “remnants of the Sadducees and Boethusians.”

By the late ninth century, several heterodox trends came together to constitute Karaism, including antirabbinism, scripturalism, the Ananites, and perhaps remnants of defunct messianic followings. Under the leadership of Daniel al-Qūmisī, an ideology emerged that actively called for Jews to return to the land of Israel, in expectation of messianic times. Known as the “Mourners for Zion” (Avelei Tsiyyon), this group combined a millenarian perspective with ascetic tendencies. By choosing immigration to Palestine, they sought to negate the exile in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries, Jerusalem became a center for Karaite life and scholarly activity. This period is identified by some modern scholars as its “classical period” or “golden age” on account of the literary production in Hebrew and Arabic by a series of eminent scholars, including al-Qūmisī and al-Qirqisānī. These authors wrote works on biblical commentary, Karaite halakhah, philosophy, antirabbinic polemic, and Hebrew language and masoretic studies. This range of works has attracted attention on the part of modern scholars interested in correlations between the Karaites and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Karaite halakhah for the most part is based upon scripturalism, a concentration on authority in scripture to the exclusion of received tradition. In order to develop a comprehensive legal system without making claims to tradition, Karaites used the entire Hebrew scriptures for legal purposes and had recourse to the hermeneutical methods of analogy (heqqesh) and consensus of the community (qibbuts or ῾edah). Nonetheless, scripturalism generated a great deal of individualism in jurisprudence, resulting in wide halakhic variation. It is noted by al-Qirqisānī that one could hardly find two Karaites who agreed. Many Karaites addressed diversity in their halakhah by turning to rationalism in the form of Kalām philosophy, which lent itself to efforts at systematization and provided an intellectually acknowledged methodology that could rival rabbinic traditionalism.

After dissolution of the Jerusalem center in the latter half of the eleventh century, Karaites continued to live in the Islamic Near East, with an important community in Cairo. However, a new intellectual center was established at Constantinople, where Karaism lost some of its millenarian emphasis as the immediacy of messianic belief was tempered by accommodation to the notion of exile. A great literary project translated the Arabic works of previous generations into Hebrew for use in the non-Islamic environment. Balkan and Constantinopolitan Karaites experienced a second period of florescence under the Ottomans (fourteenth through sixteenth centuries), producing important works of biblical commentary, law, and philosophy.

In the early modern period, Karaites were found in the Crimea and Poland-Lithuania, where a few Karaite scholars of distinction were influenced by contacts with Protestant academics in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. In the nineteenth century, eastern European Karaites distanced their group from Judaism, and, as a result of the Holocaust and Soviet policies, have virtually disappeared. In the twentieth century, the majority of Near Eastern Karaites immigrated with other Jews from Arab lands to Israel. Contemporary Israeli Karaites have focused some attention on the Dead Sea Scrolls in an effort to claim Second Temple origins for their community.

Karaism and the Scrolls

. Scholars have suggested connections between the Dead Sea Scrolls and Karaism, but their many theories are weakened by an inherent twofold problem. If, on the one hand, the Karaites are intellectual and/or communal descendants of the Qumran community, then one needs to demonstrate some kind of historical continuity across a little-known period in Jewish history spanning the seven or eight centuries that intervened between the destruction of Qumran (68 ce) and the era to which we traditionally assign Karaite origins. If, on the other hand, the Karaite phenomenon is a medieval movement independent of Second Temple period antecedents, then one must be able to explain striking similarities shared by these two groups.

What is perhaps the most plausible of theories is that medieval Karaites had access to Dead Sea Scroll literature or materials cognate to the scrolls and used them to formulate their own ideology. The Damascus Document was known to medieval Jews, having been found among the documents of the Cairo Genizah, and medieval Karaites claimed to be in possession of Zadokite texts. This theory is supported by a ninth-century letter from the Nestorian Catholicos of Seleucia-Baghdad, Timotheus, who reports that a desert chamber was discovered near Jericho filled with Hebrew manuscripts, which subsequently were declared heretical by local rabbinic authorities. It has been suggested that this was a medieval discovery of Cave 1 or some other known or unknown cave, and that these heretical documents became the bases for later medieval Jewish heterodoxy. Such a view finds further support in reports of other ancient and medieval manuscript finds (by Eusebius, by the Magharians, and in the Khazar correspondence).

A wide range of speculation has generated other theories. Naphtali Wieder suggests in The Judean Scrolls and Karaism that the Dead Sea Scroll community survived into the Islamic period as the Karaites, or as a group that joined and greatly influenced the larger nexus of groups forming the Karaites. In “The Damascus Document Revisited” (Revue biblique 92, 1985), Jerome Murphy-O'Connor states that Karaism is a medieval continuation of the teachings and community of the Essenes, originally an ancient Babylonian movement. It was subsequently imported to Qumran in Palestine in the Second Temple period, but its medieval Babylonian (Iraqi) continuators are understood to be Anan and the earliest Karaites. Another theory associates scripturalist ideologies found in Karaism with the scrolls and with forms of eastern Christianity, especially the writings of the Syrian Father Aphrahat, who died c.345 ce (Jean Ouellete, “Aphraate, Qumrân, et les Qaraïtes,” an appendix in Jacob Neusner, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Purities, Leiden, 1976). An important link in this theory is Dāwūd ibn Marwān al-Muqammiṣ, a ninth-century convert to Christianity who later returned to Judaism and became an important source for al-Qirqisānī. One must also mention the now-discredited theories reviewed by H. Rowley that claim the Dead Sea Scrolls are of medieval origin, either Karaite forgeries fabricated in order to establish an ancient origin for Karaism (Solomon Zeitlin), or documents of the ῾Isawite sect, followers of Abū ῾Īsa al-Isfahānī, the messianic leader of a rebellion against the Muslim Caliphate in eighth-century Iran (P. R. Weiss).

Comparisons of Karaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls often begin with halakhah. Karaite halakhah differs from rabbinic halakhah on many particular points, with the findings of the former often in agreement with the halakhah of the scrolls. The following three examples illustrate this: a marked tendency toward asceticism (compare asceticism in the scrolls to the ninth-century Daniel al-Qūmisī of Leon Nemoy, Karaite Anthology, p. 34ff., or the tenth-century Sahl ben Maṣliah, Karaite Anthology, p. 113f.); the presence of a calendar designed so that some or all holidays fall on a particular day of the week (compare the calendar behind the Temple Scroll [11QT] or Calendrical Document A (4Q320) to Samuel al-Maghribī in Nemoy, Karaite Anthology, p. 222, or the discussion in Zvi Ankori, Karaites in Byzantium, p. 275ff.); and strict notions of consanguinity, including rejection of niece-marriage (compare Damascus Document, CD v.7–11, and 11QTa lxvi.15–17 to Daniel al-Qūmisī in Nemoy, Karaite Anthology, p. 40, or the discussion in Bernard Revel, “The Karaite Halakah,” pp. 66–78).

On the other hand, there are many instances where Karaite and rabbinic rulings correspond but are opposed to those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Furthermore, Karaite halakhah can find both agreement and disagreement with Sadducean legal positions known from rabbinic literature. The wide difference in the results of these comparisons is compounded by the lack of consistency in Karaite halakhah. As a result, it is problematic to postulate a systematic halakhic correspondence between the scrolls and the Karaites.

Karaite literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit similarities in outlook and vocabulary, a correspondence most markedly noted in the writing of Daniel al-Qūmisī, but continued thereafter as part of Karaite literary tradition. Both Karaites and the Qumran community utilized the idea of the perfection of the Torah (Torah temimah) as an ideological foundation and as a critique of their opponents, who were characterized as false interpreters and liars. The Karaites also used this notion of the Torah as the basis for scripturalism, postulating the self-sufficiency of the Torah for human understanding, and thereby denying a need for rabbinic tradition. For both sects, the method by which the knowable or “revealed” Torah became comprehensible was midrash, understood to mean “inquiry,” “study,” or “seeking,” perhaps to be contrasted to the narrower rabbinic definition of “homiletic exposition” (compare CD vi.7; Rule of the Community, 1QS vi.6; viii.11–12, 15–16; Florilegium, 4Q174 i.11 to the discussion in Wieder, The Judean Scrolls, pp. 77–79).

This type of inquiry into scripture was the domain of the maskil, translated as “man of understanding”; or “teacher, enlightener,” whose scriptural exegesis often utilized the pesher method known from the Dead Sea Scrolls (CD xii.21; xiii.22; 1QS iii.13; ix.12; ix.21; War Scroll, 1QM x.10; Hodayota, 1QHa xx.11). Karaite exegetes often employed the term pashar (or its cognate, patar), and even utilized verses and their pesharim as found in the scrolls. For example, a pesher is used in the Damascus Document (CD iv.15–18; v.6), Pesher Psalmsa (4QpPsa, ii.9–12), Pesher Habakkuk (1QpHab, xii.8–9, and several Karaite sources (including al-Qūmisī) to identify sins of the writers' opponents, known as the “nets of Belial.”

Karaites used many other terms also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls to denounce their opponents, particularly in the Damascus Document. These include “changers of boundaries” (CD v.20–vi.2), “builders of the wall” (CD iv.19; viii.12; xix.24–25), “lying and deceiving interpreters” (1QHa x.31; xii.7, 9–10), “shepherds” (“…of the exile,” for Karaites) (CD xix.5–13), and “deflectors from the way” (CD i.13; ii.6; 1QS x.21).

Similarly, other Dead Sea Scroll terminology was used by Karaites to portray themselves, including “perfect in the way” (there are many instances of temimei derekh in the Damascus Document and the Rule of the Community, e.g., 1QS iv.22, as well as 1QM xiv.7, 1QHa x.36, and the Rule of the Blessings 1Q28b v.22), as well as “those who turn from transgression” (CD ii.5; xx.17; 1QS x.20; 1QHa vi.24; x.9; xiv.6), and the idea of “the remnant.”

Both Karaism and the scrolls speak of “returning to the Torah of Moses” to indicate conversion to their brand of Judaism (CD xv.9, 12; xvi.1–2, 4–5; 1QS v.8). Eschatological expectation in both sects included a doctrine of two messiahs (CD xii.23; xiv.19; 1QS ix.11; Wieder, “Doctrine of Two Messiahs”), one of whom would be the Teacher of Righteousness (Moreh Tsedeq) (CD i.11; xx.32; 1QpHab i.13; ii.2; v.10; vii.4; viii.3; ix.9–10; xi.5; 4QpPsa iii.15).

In spite of many shared elements, it must be noted that the Dead Sea Scroll community withdrew from Second Temple society at large to create a separate quasi-monastic society, whereas the Karaites created their subculture in Jerusalem and among the widely dispersed Jewish communities of the medieval Near East. Unlike the Qumran community, the Karaites never established a hierarchy of initiation, and Karaite theology included neither the dualism of light and darkness nor spirits of truth and evil.


  • Ankori, Zvi. Karaites in Byzantium: The Formative Years, 970–1100. New York and Jerusalem, 1959.
    Authoritative study of medieval Karaite history describing the translation of Karaism from the Islamic world to the Byzantine Empire
  • Birnbaum, Philip. Karaite Studies. New York, 1971.
    Collection of important journal articles by various authors
  • Chiesa, Bruno, and Wilfrid Lockwood, eds. Ya῾qūb al-Qirqisānī on Jewish Sects and Christianity. Judentum und Umwelt, 10. Frank furt am Main, 1984.
    Translation and two studies of this significant source on medieval Jewish sects
  • Erder, Yoram. “When Did the Karaites First Encounter Apocryphic Literature Akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls?” Cathedra 42 (1987), 54–68.
    With comments by Haggai Ben-Shammai; other articles by this author should be consulted
  • Gil, Moshe. A History of Palestine, 634–1099. Cambridge and New York, 1992. Excellent up-to-date history of medieval Palestinian Karaism; see pages 777–820.
  • Mann, Jacob. Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature, vol. 2: Karaitica. New York, 1972.
    Authoritative studies on Karaite texts from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century
  • Nemoy, Leon. Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature. New Haven and London, 1952.
    Standard reference and collection of translated texts from the eighth to fifteenth centuries. Journal articles by this author are also important
  • Paul André. Écrits de Qumran et sectes juives aux premiers siècles de l'Islam, Recherches sur l'origine du Qaraïsme. Paris, 1969.
    Theoretical and synthetic treatment that views Karaism as a Judaic reform movement that was influenced in the tenth century by the discovery of Dead Sea Scroll materials
  • Revel, Bernard. “The Karaite Halakah and Its Relation to Sadducean, Samaritan and Philonian Halakah.” In Karaite Studies, edited by Philip Birnbaum, pp. 1–88 [reprint of Jewish Quarterly Review, n.s. 2 (1911–1912) and 3 (1912–1913)].
    Analysis of Karaite halakhah showing agreements and disagreements with Damascus Document as known from the Cairo Genizah. Written before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Rowley, H. H. The Zadokite Fragments and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Oxford, 1952.
    Includes a good review of possible connections between the Damascus Document and Karaites (pp. 21–30), even though it was written before the Damascus Document was known from Qumran Caves 4 and 6
  • Wieder, Naphtali. “The Doctrine of the Two Messiahs among the Karaites.” Journal of Jewish Studies 6 (1955), 14–25.
    Compares Karaite and Dead Sea Scroll notions of dual messiahs
  • Wieder, Naphtali. “The Qumran Sectaries and the Karaites.” Jewish Quarterly Review, n.s. 47 (1956–1957), 97–113, 269–292.
    Analysis of certain terminology found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Karaite literature
  • Wieder, Naphtali. The Judean Scrolls and Karaism. London, 1962.
    Standard work on the subject; suggests that remnants of the Dead Sea Scroll community survived to influence the Karaites

Fred Astren