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TITHES . In the ancient Near East lie the origins of a sacral offering or payment of a tenth part of stated goods or property to the deity. Often given to the king or to the royal temple, the "tenth" was usually approximate, not exact. The practice is known from Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, Greece, and as far to the west as the Phoenician city of Carthage. Tithing also continued in Christian Europe as a church tithe and as a tax upon Jewish landholdings formerly owned by Christians (or claimed to have been so). Tithes paid in support of parish rectors continued in England into the twentieth century.

Early texts associate the tithe with support of the king and of temples of the royal house (see Am. 4:4, 7:1, 7:13; see also Samuel's forecast of actions to be taken by the king, 1 Sm. 8:15, 8:17). The early biblical references to the tithe in Genesis 14:20 and 28:22 are also related to sites where royal shrines were located, such as Jerusalem and Bethel. It is not certain, however, that the tithe originated as a royal levy in support of temples and their personnel.

It is difficult to be sure whether or not the offering of the firstborn of animals and the firstfruits of field and orchard should be treated as a tithe. It seems unlikely, because the two are distinguished in Numbers 18 and in Deuteronomy 12:17. Moreover, the first fruits of grain and nonanimal products represented only a token amount, which would hardly have corresponded to the tenth or tithe. Firstfruits and tithes are closely related, however, in Deuteronomy 26:115 and in Tobit 1:68.

From the time of the monarchy in Israel, and especially from the eighth century forward, the Levites more and more were recognized as the beneficiaries of the tithe. They were not to share in the allotment of land along with the other tribes but were set apart to the service of the Lord (Nm. 18, Dt. 18:18, Jos. 21). The Levite cities seem to have been the store cities in which the tithes collected by the Levites were stored (see Neh. 10:38), just as the tithes in Mesopotamia were collected by temple personnel and stored in the temples or in their vicinity.

The tithe became the means of livelihood for the Levites during the middle and later periods of the monarchy. Once the city of Jerusalem had been designated by Josiah's reform as the central sanctuary for Israelite worship (622/1 bce; see 2 Kgs. 2223), the need for the tithe to support the Levites at the many local sanctuaries would have disappeared. Accordingly, the law in Deuteronomy 14 specifies a quite different character and purpose for the tithe (Dt. 14:2229). The tithe was to be taken to Jerusalem and eaten there before the Lord with rejoicing. It could be converted to money, if need be. And every third year the tithe was to be set aside for meeting the needs of the Levite, the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow. Scholars are divided over the issue of whether or not the text in Deuteronomy 14 can be reconciled with those in Numbers 18 and Leviticus 27.

If the legislation in Numbers 18 is later than that in Deuteronomy 14, however, the tithe was originally an offering associated with the king and with royal sanctuaries, It was then democratized to become the basis for a celebrative meal before the Lord at the places of worship. After that the priests and Levites claimed the tenth for themselves, with the firstfruits in particular going to the priests and the tithes going to the Levites (Nm. 18). Many scholars assign the priestly literary deposit to a period later than that of the Deuteronomic legislation. All acknowledge, however, that the priestly materials contain elements older than Deuteronomy; it seems probable that, in this case, the materials found in Numbers 18 are the older.

According to Leviticus 27:3033, a distinction is made between those tithes that were redeemablethat is, convertible into silverand those that were not. Animals were not redeemable, but grain, wine, and oil were. Items that were placed under the ban (Hebrew cherem ) were never redeemable, and tithed animals, if suitable for offering, also were not redeemable. When a tithe was redeemed, one-fifth of the value was added (Lv. 27:31; see also Lv. 5:1416).

With regard to tithes in other parts of the ancient world, Egyptian sources are not informative. There is no indication that the vast temple complexes in ancient Egypt were supported by a tithe. In Greece the situation is different. Numerous references to tithes of the annual harvest and to tithes of spoil taken in battle are known. Delphi, Delos, and Athens are mentioned as recipients of tithe offerings made to the gods. The offering of firstfruits and of tithes seems to have been quite closely associated.

As a part of the Jewish legislation, the tithe becomes fixed and indeed extends beyond the original prescription. The tractates Terumot and Ma ʾaserot, along with other talmudic collections, give particulars on postbiblical understandings. The Book of Tobit (second century bce) offers important testimony of the changes in the understanding of the tithe. Tobit reports that when he was a young man, prior to his having been taken captive by the Assyrians and transported to Nineveh, he brought firstfruits, tithes of the produce, and first shearings to Jerusalem. He also gave three tithes: he presented the first tenth to the Levites (as required by Nm. 18), offered the second tenth in Jerusalem (as required by Dt. 14), and gave the third tenth to the needy (as specified in Dt. 14 as well).

In the early church, tithing became a means of securing a livelihood for church leadership, although in the earliest days of the Christian movement tithing seems to have been abandoned entirely in many Christian circles as a practice not in harmony with the Christian divergence from Jewish observances. The tithe remained of great importance for the church as a means of securing a stable institution, providing for ecclesiastical establishments, and offering resources for the care of the poor and the needy. In Judaism the tithe helped the community meet human needs, although complaints were voiced that a "second tithe," amounting to 20 percent (as apparently demanded by the different specifications in Nm. 18 and Dt. 14), was too heavy a burden on the community. Christian understanding of the tithe has had to combat both an overzealous application of the law of tithing (as some communities have understood it) and the supposition that to provide a tenth of one's goods to the church or to charitable purposes meant that the remainder of one's goods could be used in complete disregard of the claims of Christian stewardship.

See Also

Israelite Law, article on Property Law; Levites.


Eissfeldt, Otto. Erstlinge und Zehnte im Alten Testament. Göttingen, 1916. The classic work, a benchmark in the study of the subject.

Guthrie, Harvey H., Jr. "Tithe." In Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4. New York, 1962; reprint, Nashville, Tenn., 1976.

Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus = Vayikra: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia, Pa., New York, Jerusalem, 1988. See especially pp. 199200.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 120: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 4A. New York, 1993.

Milgrom, Jacob, Leviticus 2327: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 3B. New York, 2001. See especially his study of Leviticus 27 and the extended comments at the end of the volume.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. Deuteronomy = Devarim: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia, Pa., New York, Jerusalem, 1996.

Vaux, Roland de. Les institutions de l'Ancien Testament. 2 vols. Paris, 19581960. Translated by John McHugh as Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. 2d ed. New York, 1961; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1997. See especially pp. 140141, 380382, and 403405.

Vischer, Lukas. "Die Zehntforderung in der Alten Kirche." Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 70 (1959): 201217. Translated by Robert C. Schultz as Tithing in the Early Church. Philadelphia, Pa., 1966. Particularly good on the theologians of the early church, but sketchy on the biblical evidence.

Weinfield, Moshe. "Tithe." In Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 15. Jerusalem, 1971. A thorough and excellent treatment. See also the accompanying article, "Church Tithes," by Bernhard Blumenkranz.

Walter Harrelson (1987 and 2005)

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