A tithe (from Old English teogotha "tenth") is a one-tenth part of something, paid as a voluntary contribution or as a tax or levy, usually to support a religious organization. Today, tithes (or tithing) are normally voluntary and paid in cash, checks, or stocks, whereas historically tithes could be paid in kind, such as agricultural products. There are still European countries today that allow some churches to assess a mandatory tithe which is enforced by law.



The practice of regular tithes was not established until after Exodus. Tithes were common throughout the ancient Near East, as well as in later Lydia, Arabia, and Carthage.

Tithes were adopted by the early Christian church, being mentioned in councils at Tours in 567 and at Mācon in 585. They were formally recognized under Pope Adrian I in 787. Tithing in Christian churches is controversial as it applies an Old Testament practice to a New Testament organization in the form of the Christian church. No evidence exists in the New Testament for the tithe to be applied to Christian believers, however, it is mentioned twice in the New Testament (Matt 23:23 (http://scriptures.lds.org/matt/23#23) and Luke 18:12 (http://scriptures.lds.org/luke/18#12)) as a practice of the Jews living during Christ's ministry. Indeed, only Jews living in the promised land were required to pay the tithe in the Old Testament, as it was actually a form of income tax used to support not only the temple and the priesthood, but also the government of Old Testament Israel.

As mentioned, the tithe and tithing first appear in the Bible in the Hebrew Old Testament (OT) in the book of Genesis in connection with the figure of Abraham. The origin of tithing is so intimately linked with both Abraham's cultural background and the figure of the Canaanite king and priest Melchizedek that they must all be discussed together. Then the history of the tithe in Europe will be discussed.

Historical origins

In the time of Moses

The tithe is specifically mentioned in the OT book of Numbers in connection with the establishment of the cultus by Moses. Numbers 18:24-28 (http://scriptures.lds.org/num/18#24) concerns the tribe of Levi, and especially the family of Aaron. The Lord denied them a territorial patrimony in the land they would occupy from which they could support themselves. This is because the Lord chose Aaron and his family to maintain the altar of the Lord and its cultus and named the tribe of Levi to assist them in caring for the Tent of the Presence (apart from the alter itself). Since they would, then, have no land with which to support themselves, the Lord made other provisions for them. They would receive from "all Israel" a tithe, and from that they would support themselves, after first setting a tithe of that tithe aside for the Lord.

In the time of Abraham/Abram the Hebrew

The OT proof text for the tithe is Genesis 14:20 (http://scriptures.lds.org/gen/14#20). This is embedded in a unique, ancient, and ultimately foreign, that is to say, non-Hebrew/Jewish, tradition dating most probably to the 18th century BC., according to the translator of and commentator on Genesis for the Anchor Bible Series, the late Professor Ephraim Speiser of the University of Pennsylvania. "Abram the Hebrew," returning from a military sortie which rescued his nephew Lot and Lot's clan from the clutches of a group of foreign marauding kings probably intent upon seizing the copper mines south of the Dead Sea, was hailed by an enigmatic figure, the Canaanite king of the city-state of Salem (Jerusalem) who was also the high priest of the local Canaanite god of that region, El-Elyon.

(Gen 14:18 (http://scriptures.lds.org/gen/14#18)) And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of El-Elyon.
(19) He blessed him [i.e. Abram the Hebrew], saying,
"Blessed be Abram by El-Elyon,
Creator of heaven and earth.
(20) And praised be El-Elyon,
Who has delivered your foes to you."
And he [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything."
[E.A. Speiser, Genesis, Anchor Bible, Vol.1, (1964)]

There is no hint in the passage that Abraham was told by Melchizedek to tithe, and the Mosaic law on tithing was not formulated for another half a millennium or so. Abram is seen to have been grateful to his God for his victory over the marauding kings and wished to show his gratitude. But how? Abraham’s answer was straightforward: When Melchizedek appeared and offered him bread and wine and blessed him in the name of his Canaanite deity, Abram gratefully presented Melchizedek the high priest with a tithe from his booty.

Abraham is seen to have apparently tithed voluntarily, as there is no indication that Melchizedek ordered him to hand over 10% of the plunder. Abraham's motive is said to have been gratitude alone. But how did Abraham know to come to 10% (a tithe) as the appropriate amount?

The tithe was a tax

In Deuteronomy 12:6 & 11 (http://scriptures.lds.org/deut/12#6), Yahweh declares to the wandering tribes of Hebrews following Moses that they will not be worshipping at any of the several Canaanite sanctuaries or altars or high places in the land they will occupy. The Lord instructs the Hebrews to worship only at the place he will select for them. To this place they will bring all the various kinds of offerings, which the text sets out in doublets:

Whole/Burnt-offerings - Sacrifices
Tithes - Contributions/Donations
Votive gifts - Free-will offering
and lastly, the first-born of their herds and flocks.

It seems as though just about every type of offering is covered, except one. Offerings owed as simple taxes seem to be missing. The tithe is set against offerings which are owed but freely given. One could expect to find paired with this a type of offering which was not freely given but was an official levy, in other words, straightforward taxes. These taxes would be levied as a formal legal requirement by either the civil or religious authority. That this is in fact correct will be shown below.

One is still left with the question of how Abraham hit upon 10%, and not 5% or 20%. The 10% is far older than Abraham, a fact not appreciated by many commentators. Abraham, however, was well aware of his sitz im leben (http://www.bible.gen.nz/amos/literary/genre.htm#997630), even if some modern writers are not.

Abraham and his family came from the minority Semitic-speaking pastoral population (not from the Sumerian-speaking inhabitants) around Ur in southern Mesopotamia. They migrated northward and settled for a time in the area of Harran, a small city-state on the Balikh River, a tributary in the Great Bend of the upper Euphrates River, in northern Mesopotamia. They subsequently continued their trek westward with their herds to the land promised them by their God. They were a family of Semitic-speaking Mesopotamians.

Many examples of cultural heritage point to a close relationship between the family and descendants of Abraham and their original Mesopotamian homeland. It is certain that it was not only oral mythological traditions and inheritance laws that Abraham and his family carried with them to their new home as part of the cultural baggage of their Mesopotamian homeland. Abraham also brought his language with him.

The standard Babylonian one-tenth tax

Hebrew was a Semitic language, related to Akkadian the lingua franca of that time. An Akkadian noun that Abraham was intimately familiar with given his Babylonian background was esretu "one-tenth." By the time of Abraham, this was all one had to say to mean the "one-tenth tax," or "tithe." The word "tax" no longer had to be said for everyone to understand that "tithe" was meant. Listed below are some specific instances of the Mesopotamian tithe, taken from The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Vol. 4 "E":

[Referring to a ten per cent tax levied on garments by the local ruler:] "the palace has taken eight garments as your tithe (on 85 garments)"

"...eleven garments as tithe (on 112 garments)"
"...(the sun-god) Shamash demands the tithe..."
"four minas of silver, the tithe of [the gods] Bel, Nabu, and Nergal..."
"...he has paid, in addition to the tithe for Ninurta, the tax of the gardiner"
"...the tithe of the chief accountant, he has delivered it to [the sun-god] Shamash"
"...why do you not pay the tithe to the Lady-of-Uruk?"
"...(a man) owes barley and dates as balance of the tithe of the **years three and four"
"...the tithe of the king on barley of the town..."
"...with regard to the elders of the city whom (the king) has **summoned to (pay) tithe..."
"...the collector of the tithe of the country Sumundar..."
"...(the official Ebabbar in Sippar) who is in charge of the tithe..."

Thus Abraham did not need to make up a new tax (a "tithe"), nor did he have to make up "one-tenth" as the amount of the tax. He did not have to make a "lucky guess," nor depend upon divine revelation to provide him with the tax and amount. Esretu was the standard word for "tax" in his homeland. The tithe, the Babylonian one-tenth tax, was simply part and parcel of the cultural baggage Abraham brought with him from Mesopotamia. He was without any doubt at all completely familiar with the concept of giving up ten-percent of whatever goods as tax.

King Hezekiah's worship reformation

See LMLK seals, which may have been stamped on 10 percent of storage jars produced during Hezekiah's reign (circa 700 BC) to ensure tithing compliance (Grena, 2004, pp. 376-8).

The Apocrypha evidence

The book of Tobit (1:6-8) provides an example of all three classes of tithes practiced during the Babylonian exile:

But I alone went often to Jerusalem at the feasts, as it was ordained unto all the people of Israel by an everlasting decree, having the firstfruits and tenths of increase, with that which was first shorn; and them gave I at the altar to the priests the children of Aaron. The first tenth part of all increase I gave to the sons of Aaron, who ministered at Jerusalem: another tenth part I sold away, and went, and spent it every year at Jerusalem: And the third I gave unto them to whom it was meet, as Debora my father's mother had commanded me...

See also the book of Judith (11:13).

The New Testament evidence

Many Christians support their churches and pastors with monetary contributions of one sort or another. Frequently these monetary contributions are called tithes whether or not they actually represent ten-percent of anything. A biblical reason is normally sought to support this practice. However, as tithing was an ingrained Jewish custom by the time of Jesus, no specific command to tithe per se is found in the New Testament (NT). Apart from the proof text itself and the book of Hebrews, which is a midrashic treatment of Psalm 110 (See article Midrash), the only other reference to the "tithe" in the NT is Luke 18:12 (http://scriptures.lds.org/luke/18#12). The references to tithing in the book of Hebrews are ultimately based on the Old Testament proof text, and are used exclusively to support the author's particular theological view (and written well over 1000 years after the fact) of who Melchizedek was and what he represented. The standard New Testament proof text is Matthew 23:23 (http://scriptures.lds.org/matt/23#23).

Away with you, you pettifogging Pharisee lawyers! You give to God a tenth of herbs, like mint, dill, and cumin, but the important duties of the Law -- judgement, mercy, honesty -- you have neglected. Yet these you ought to have performed, without neglecting the others.
(Albright & Mann, Matthew, Anchor Bible, Vol. 26 (1971))

and its parallel Luke 11:42 (http://scriptures.lds.org/luke/11#42)

Woe to you, Pharisees! You tithe mint and rue and every edible herb but disregard justice and the love of God. These were rather the things one should practice, without neglecting the others.
(Fitzmyer, Luke, Anchor Bible, Vol.l, 28A (1985))

Because of Jesus' specific mention of tithe in this passage, it is often felt that he thereby gave his endorsement to the practice of tithing in general and specifically to tithing herbs like mint, dill and cumin. However, the point is not that Jesus chose to honor this part of the Mosaic Law (and not other parts), but rather that Jesus' reverence for the Law of Moses as a declaration of the will of God was such that he demanded his followers respect those charged with the duty of teaching that Law (Matthew 23:2-3 (http://scriptures.lds.org/matt/23#2) and Matthew 5:17-19 (http://scriptures.lds.org/matt/5#17)).

Jesus and tithing

It is surprising how frequently the Matt. 23:23 passage has been misunderstood, because Jesus' words cannot be construed to be an endorsement of the Pharisee's practice of tithing, not even in the context of spices. In fact, Jesus had no intention of making a statement about the practice of tithing per se at all. Jesus taught in parables, both to his circle of disciples and to the crowds which followed him. Parables cause the hearer to relate the moral derived from some common everyday situation to a specific subject being taught. For example, when Jesus spoke of "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" he certainly did not want to talk about sheep; his ministry was no "agricultural" exercise. When Jesus told the parables of the sower and the seed or that of the mustard seed he was not talking about farming, planting, or any agricultural subject. The parable of the maidens waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom and bride has really nothing to do with either preparations for a wedding celebration or the wise precaution of taking with one oil for one's lamp.

These examples illustrate Jesus' specific mode of moral instruction. He was talking neither about spices nor about tithing in Matt. 23:23. He was using an everyday example to show that the Pharisees were so involved in the minutiae, the nitty-gritty, of the Mosaic Law—and the interpretation and elaboration of it – by legal hair-splitting and chicanery (this is the meaning of 'pettifogging' in the translation of Matthew, above)—that their vision of the grand intent of Moses' Law was completely obscured. Jesus was contrasting minute unimportant detail with the grand sweep of the intent of the Law. The Pharisees tithed like every other good Jew (so probably did Jesus), and Jesus did use the word "tithe" in his example, but Jesus was not making a specific endorsement of tithing nor was he giving any guidelines about tithing spices. In fact, Jesus' comment really had nothing to do with the question of tithing at all.

As the NT has nothing to contribute to the subject of the historical origins of the "tithe," we are left with Abram the Hebrew and the ten-percent tribute he paid to Melchizedek. The tribute was standard and was considered completely normal by both men. It derived ultimately from Mesopotamian law, in which the esretu "one-tenth" had been enshrined for a millennium.

Bibliographical sources

  • Albright, W. F. and Mann, C. S. Matthew, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 26. Garden City, New York, 1971.
  • The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Vol. 4 "E."

Chicago, 1958.

  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke, X-XXIV, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28A. New York, 1985.
  • Speiser, E. A. Genesis, The Anchor Bible, Vol.1. Garden City, New York, 1964.

Governmental collection of religious offerings


The right to receive tithes was granted to the English churches by King Ethelwulf in 855. The Saladin tithe was a royal tax, but assessed using ecclesiastical boundaries, in 1188. Tithes were given legal force by the Statute of Westminster of 1285. Adam Smith criticised the system in The Wealth of Nations (1776), arguing that a fixed rent would encourage peasants to farm more efficiently. The Dissolution of the Monasteries led to the transfer of many tithe rights from the Church to secular landowners, and then in the 1530s to the Crown. The system ended with the Tithe Commutation Act 1836, which replaced tithes with a rent charge decided by a Tithe Commission. The records of land ownership, or Tithe Files, made by the Commission are now a valuable resource for historians.

At first this commutation reduced problems to the ultimate payers by folding tithes in with rents (however it could cause transitional money supply problems by raising the transaction demand for money). Later the decline of large landowners led tenants to become freeholders and again have to pay directly; this also led to renewed objections of principle by non-Anglicans.

The rent charges paid to landowners were converted by the Tithe Act 1936 to annuities paid to the state through the Tithe Redemption Commission. The payments were transferred in 1960 to the Board of Inland Revenue, and finally terminated by the Finance Act 1977.


In France, the tithes were a land tax. Because the upper two classes of clergy and nobles had exemptions from them, the third estate (peasants, bourgeoisie, etc.) which made up about 90% of France was forced to pay them, when most owned no land. This is what led to the separation of the third estate from the Estates-General and the forming of the National Assembly and Tennis Court Oath.


Germany levies a church tax for both the Protestant and Catholic churches of roughly 10% of the income tax.


Tithes were local religious tax-like payments paid in Ireland by members of other faiths as well as its own adherents to maintain and fund the established state church, the anglican Church of Ireland, to which only a small minority of the population belonged. With the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, tithes were abolished.

Tithes in Ireland caused serious objections of principle from adherents of other churches (as a similar system also did in Wales, which had a large proportion of Nonconformists and Dissenters). Henry Thoreau is an example from the USA of an individual with this sort of objection of principle — he risked jail for conscientious refusal to pay a similar imposition (somebody else paid on his behalf).

External links

The links to the Bible in the text above link to the King James Version of the Bible. Other Bible translations may present the text using other words and with different interpretations.

es:Diezmo fr:Dīme is:Tķund pl:Dziesięcina


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