Rabbinic Judaism codifies its biblical canon, The Tanakh, in the Talmud (B.B 14b).

Karaite Judaism rejects rabbinic tradition. At the same time, it recognizes the very same Tanakh only as its source of Jewish Law and practice.

How did Karaites decide on the contents and closure of the biblical canon? Why don't they include I Maccabbes, for example?

  • It seems to be an especially according to answers given, that Karaites obviously need to believe in some sort of "oral tradition" or mode of interpretation. They simply argue on the one that Chazal as we know them have and what has been accepted. How else would they have a practice. Even if they understand things literally, still they need "explanation". So it makes sense they accepted Torah until the point that Chachamim began to explain it.
    – Yehoshua
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 19:52
  • downvoter, care to elaborate?
    – Baby Seal
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 1:03
  • The Karaites accept the chain of tradition up to Anshei Knesses Hagedolah. Since the canon was closed then, they accept Purim (which was earlier) but not Chanukah (which was later). Note that the rabbi's did not accept I Maccabees as part of the canon either, even though they accepted the celebration of Chanuka. There has to be some explanation which apparently is based on a form of oral teaching. For example, how do the Karaites explain You shall slaughter as I have commanded you Deuteronomy 12:21 Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 0:17

3 Answers 3


According to the appendix of Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding by Fred Astren, they echo the idea of a train of tradition from Moses through to the rabbis. This is their chain

Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets. The prophets transmitted it to the men of the Great Assembly , and the men of the Great Assembly to Simon the Just, and Simeon the Just to Antigonus, and Antigonus to Joseph ben Yohanan, and Joseph ben Yohanan of Jerusalem to Joshua ben Perahiah and Nittai the Arbelite. They transmitted it to Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetah. And in their time Simeon ben Shetah sought to destroy the true written record, but Judah ben Tabbai stood in the breach, and explained the true faith, the faith of the Karaites, may the Creator of the created watch over them. Judah transmitted it to Shemaiah, and Shemaiah to Abtalion and Rav Hillel, and Rav Hillel transmitted to the traditionists as he received it from his master Simeon ben Shetah.

Rav Shammai the Elder, the Honored, the Pious, transmited it to the Karaites, may the Rock of Ages watch over them and come to their aid, and cause their enemies and oppressors to persish, and intend evil for them. Amen. Rav Shammai transmitted it to Rav Kahana [very long chain] to R. Anan the Prince.

So, as SabbaHillel indicated in the comments, they accept the formulation of the cannon on the authority of their alleged tradition which somehow includes the cannon but not other halakha lemoshe misinai. I would venture to guess that, according to the Karaites, Rav Shammai did not wrap tefillin, and they counted the omer differently, and it seems like they're swapping out one oral law for the other (which was a popular antique refutation of karaism), but there you go.


A Karaite website states

we only recognize the Miqra or Tanakh as divinely given.

They define tanach in the same way that we do.

{Basic Tenets of Karaism](http://www.karaiteinsights.com/article/what-is-karaism) states

  1. The Tanach (24 books of the Hebrew Bible) and only the Tanach have canonical status as the words of YHWH.

This article gives their view of "the chain of tradition from Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai through Anshei Knesses Hegedolah and Shimon ben Shetach. They claim that their line of tradition continues through Shamai the Elder.

Karaite Judaism claims that Anan ben David was only organized the various groups into one unified group and lobbied the Caliphate (which ruled then) to accept them as a separate group with its own Raish Galusah (head of the exile). This article also claims that the original split was in the first century BCE (well after the Anshei Kneses Hagedolah).

Since Karaism was established after the Anshei Kneses Hagedolah "closed" Tana'ch (after Purim and before Chanukah) they accepted the definition already established. The articles shown below go into more detail.

The Karaites (according to Wikipedia can be dated back to the gaonic period. Some say that their roots go back to the Sadducees, though that is in dispute. In any case the split occurred after the second temple had been built and the definition of the tanach set by the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah.

Anan Ben David (c. 715 – 795 or 811?) (Hebrew: ענן בן דוד‎) is widely considered to be a major founder of the Karaite movement.

According to Rabbi Avraham ben David, in his Sefer HaQabbalah, the Karaite movement crystallized in Baghdad in the Gaonic period (circa 7th–9th centuries CE), under the Abbasid Caliphate in what is present-day Iraq. This is the view universally accepted among Rabbinic Jews. But, some Arab scholars (see cites) claim that Karaites were already living in Egypt in the first half of the 7th century, based on a legal document that the Karaite community in Egypt had in its possession until the end of the 19th century, in which the first Islamic governor ordered the leaders of the Rabbanite community against interfering with Karaite practices or the way they celebrate their holidays. It was said to have been stamped by the palm of 'Amr ibn al-'As, the first Islamic governor of Egypt, and was reportedly dated 20 AH (641 CE).

The Jewish Encyclopedia states that it was founded by Anan

The Karaites () = "Followers of the Bible") were a Jewish sect, professing, in its religious observances and opinions, to follow the Bible to the exclusion of rabbinical traditions and laws. But Karaism in fact adopted a large part of rabbinical Judaism, either outright or with more or less modification, while at the same time it borrowed from earlier or later Jewish sects—Sadducees, Essenes, 'Isawites, Yudghanites, etc.—as well as from the Mohammedans. The founder of the sect being Anan, his followers were at first called Ananites, but as the doctrines of the sect were more fully developed, and it gradually emancipated itself from Ananism, they took the name of "Karaites," a term first used by Benjamin al-Nahawendi ("Ba'ale Miḳra" at the end of his "Sefer Linim") and in a quotation in "Yefet."

On Anan's death, between 780 and 800, his son Saul, and then his grandson Josiah, succeeded him as head of the sect, but both of them were too insignificant intellectually to leave many traces in Karaism. But between 830 and 890 men of greater mark appeared among the Karaites, who, while differing among themselves and creating various subdivisions in the new sect, agreed in diverging from Anan's doctrines, and even from his methods of teaching.

Thus, they had already accepted the canon from the Anshei Kneses Hagedola which ended after the establishment of Purim (Megilas Esther) and before the Chashmonaim (book of Maccabbes).

A Karaite website states

we only recognize the Miqra or Tanakh as divinely given.

They define tanach in the same way that we do.

  • 1
    I believe the point of the question is, what is the authoritative basis of finding the tanakh as rabbinic jews define it was divinely inspired. Our cannon was set by rabbinic tradition, which they reject. You'd think you'd see something akin to the Christian cannon which is slightly different than ours because they too rejected rabbinic tradition. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 2:57
  • @ShamanSTK The point that I was making was that the split occurred after the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah made closed the tanach (Torah neviim and Kesuvim). Thus the had already accepted the ending of kesubim with megillas Esther and Malachi as the last navi. It was the mishnah and talmud that the Karaites rejected. It has nothing to do with Christianity Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 14:04
  • 1
    I think you still misunderstand. We're all aware of the history. It's what is the theological justification for karaites to accept the rabbinic tradition on this matter notwithstanding the later split. They rejected much of the rabbinic tradition. Why didn't they reject the cannon, who's authority is rabbinic tradition? Why didn't they subtract or add books like the other break away groups that reject rabbinic tradition? Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 23:13
  • @ShamanSTK According to the Karaite web sites and the histories, they did not reject what had already been accepted by the Jewish people up to the time of the second temple. There statement was that they did not accept the Oral Tradition that was "added" in the mishnah and gemoro. Their claim was "only" that they would accept the written works that had been previously accepted and would not add anything else. Maccabees (as an example) would have been adding an extra book. Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 1:20
  • That's not true though. Not even according to your sources. They changed many things that were normative during the first and second temple period before the schism. For example, they changed the counting of the omer and dropped the wrapping of tefillin based on their peshat reading of the Torah. So the question still remains, why accept rabbinic tradition on the content of the canon, but not on other normative practices who's practices date BEFORE the schism? Simply citing the history does not answer that question, nor does it establish the authority the cannon is based on. Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 1:32

The development of the Jewish "canon" predates the emergence of rabbinism/Pharisaism, let alone the development of the mishnah and talmuds. Although texts such as Ben Sirach and Maccabees are not accepted as canonical, they are important documents demonstrating the formation of Second Temple Judaism. 2 Maccabees (ch. 2) writes a tradition that Nehemiah organized a Library and collected books on the Kings, the Prophets and the Psalms of David, in addition to other books, and that later, Judas Maccabi also tried to recover these books that had been lost in war. Although it does not indicate which books and how many, a primitive division already appears in this tradition that, added to the Torah, there are the books of the Prophets and other Writings.

In Ben Sirac, there is also a primitive structure of authorized books where there are almost all the books that make up the current Tanakh/Miqrah, with the exception of Shir, Esther, Ruth and Daniel. However, this can be explained, in part, by their non-existence independently, but inserted in other sets, just as the Twelve form a single book and are not counted individually.

Furthermore, Flavius Josephus and 2 Esdras, texts from the first century c.e., already demonstrate the existence of an established Jewish canon composed of 22 (according to Josephus) or 24 (according to 2 Esdras) authorized books [see 2 Esdras 14].

Thus, the canonicity of the Tanakh as it exists today can be traced to existing as early as the 1st century, before the Yavneh rabbinic debate. Rather than being the product of rabbinic mentality, it is the product of Jewish self-sufficiency in Eretz Israel, beginning its formation with Ezra-Nehemia, and being completed in the Hasmonean period, surviving to this day.

The fact that the rabbis in the Talmud discussed the validity of certain books does not mean that they defined the canon, but rather that there was a dispute between maintaining what already existed or making changes, with the majority being supporters of maintenance.


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