It is a commonly held belief in the orthodox Jewish community that the Sadducees and the Karaites are basically the same thing. The Sadducees, along with other sectarians, challenged the Pharisees and their interpretations of the Written Torah.
However, as I hope to explore a bit in a post sometime soon, they had their own Oral Traditions and methodology. It was a close cousin to the Pharisees and they did not disagree on all that much nor was there a very wide berth separating the groups. There was even some cross-pollination and we will see in that future post.
The Karaites came on the scene 800 years later. The Sadducees were long gone and the only group that was left standing from the tumultuous Second Temple Period were the Pharisees. While in some small ways, one can trace Karaite theology to some aspects of sectarian Second Temple movements, there was likely no continued, unbroken chain connected them to sectarians.
This has been debated in academic circles for a while now and I don’t intend on resolving the debate in this post although I lean toward the side that says that Karaites started from scratch in the 9th century as a response to Islam.
Either way, it has become accepted wisdom in orthodox Judaism that Karaites are very similar to Sadducees and the terms are used interchangebly. I may have found an early source for this confusion. In his commentary on the Mishna in Avos, Maimonides says that Antignos Ish Socho taught that we should not do Mitzvos in anticipation of reward. Maimonides quotes the Avos D’Rabbi Nosson and writes that Tzadok and Bytus took this to mean that there is no reward in the next world and thereby launched their respective sectarian groups of the Sadducees (Tzadokim) and Boethusians (Bytusim). Maimonides continues and says that these groups survived to this very day (12th century) and are now called Karaites.
It seems that Maimonides lumps them together. This might be a mistake or just a clumsy way of grouping similar groups together. In truth, they are not so similar. Karaites would reject the Sadducee interpretations of the Torah as much as they would deny the truth of Pharisee interpretations. It’s imprecise to lump them together in an academic sense. Perhaps it makes sense to lump them together in a religious sense.
I think that this note by Maimonides could be one of the reasons rabbinic orthodox Judaism now fails to distinguish between the two groups. I would prefer precision for the sake of accuracy and truth. But more importantly, there is a lot we can learn about contemporary Judaism by looking at these groups and we can only even begin to do this if we have our terminology correct. Now that we do, I hope to continue exploring the relationship between the Pharisees and Sadducees in my next post on this topic. Hopefully tomorrow.