I know the word "tithe" has "tenth" built into it, and so some Christians assume that every usage of the word "tithe" in Scripture is referring to "giving 10% of your gross income to the church." But I also know that "tithes" in the Old Testament did not refer to this at all.

  • They only "tithed" on food (livestock and crops); they had money (i.e. "income"), but the "tithes" did not apply to that.
  • The food went to the Levites, Priests, and needy people - none of whom had land of their own by which they could feed themselves.
  • "Tithes" were not required of everyone - only those who raised livestock or grew crops. For example, carpenters weren't required to tithe, nor were the Priests and needy people.

Clearly these things have application today; I am not challenging the idea of providing for ministers and needy people with cheerfulness and generosity.

My question is: When did the Church begin to understand "tithing" as "giving 10% of your gross income to the Church"? Clearly this is not what it meant in the Old Testament, and I don't see anything in the New Testament to indicate that the term was redefined by Jesus or the Apostles.

To clarify, I am not asking whether this is a good interpretation (or application, for that matter). I am also not looking for unsupported claims about how "it has always been understood this way, even by Jesus and the Apostles." My question is about Church History; please support your claim with references to historical records.

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    +1 Tithing is something that should have gone away. The reason why we don't keep the OT laws anymore is because we received a "New Deal" from Jesus. The only reason why pastors talk about tithing is because they need money to live - and do things with the church. However, if you give your time to the church and bring food to the church (pot luck, etc) then I don't see any reason to tith. With that said, your pastor will probably remind you that it's not your good works alone which get you into heaven... I guess money too? :)
    – user1054
    Oct 9, 2012 at 0:07
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    As humorous as it sounds I recall that those who argue gross versus net refer to 'render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's' - implying you pay gross to the government therefore you should pay gross to God.
    – Mike
    Oct 10, 2012 at 11:03
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    Jesus said "Freely you have received; freely give." We aren't supposed to give out of an obligation. To display we are cheerfully givers, we give freely of our material things to God.
    – Jeremy
    Nov 24, 2013 at 5:46
  • One correction: Priests, who were also Levites, were required to tithe: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: You shall speak to the Levites, saying: When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them for your portion, you shall set apart an offering from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe" (Numbers 18:25–26). Sep 6, 2016 at 17:57

2 Answers 2


The Jewish Historian Alfred Edersheim seems to have done a fair bit of research on this subject. Basically, the subject is far more complex than a simple 10%, and would usually have amounted to more under Old Testament law. In fact, I am not sure I fully understand what Edersheim has explained—but that helps to convey just how complex it really was.

The basic idea of the tithe (i.e 10%) was bound up in the first fruit offerings of the land:

Two of these firstfruit offerings were public and national; viz. the first omer, on the second day of the Passover, and the wave-loaves at Pentecost. The other two kinds of ‘firstfruits’—or Reshith, ‘the first, the beginning’—were offered on the part of each family and of every individual who had possession in Israel, according to the Divine directions in Ex. 22:29; 23:19; 34:26; Numb. 15:20, 21; 18:12, 13; Deut. 18:4; and Deut. 26:2–11, where the ceremonial to be observed in the Sanctuary is also described. Authorities distinguish between the Biccurim (primitiva), or firstfruits offered in their natural state, and the Terumoth (primitae), brought not as raw products, but in a prepared state,—as flour, oil, wine, etc. The distinction is convenient, but not strictly correct, since the Terumoth also included vegetables and garden produce. (The Temple - Its Ministry and Services as they were at the time of Christ, by Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), chap. 19, p. 379)

However, these first fruits and their offerings were complex in the traditional regulations and were largely based on being actually from the Holy Land:

They must be the produce of the Holy Land itself, in which, according to tradition, were included the ancient territories of Og and Sihon, as well as that part of Syria which David had subjugated. On the other hand, both the tithes and the Terumoth were also obligatory on Jews in Egypt, Babylon, Ammon, and Moab. The Biccurim were only presented in the Temple, and belonged to the priesthood there officiating at the time, while the Terumoth might be given to any priest in any part of the land. The Mishnah holds that, as according to Deut. 8:8 only the following seven were to be regarded as the produce of the Holy Land, from them alone Biccurim were due: viz. wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. If the distance of the offerer from Jerusalem was too great, the figs and grapes might be brought in a dried state. . . .

Of course, neither tithes, nor Biccurim, nor Terumoth, were to be given of what already belonged to the Lord, nor of what was not fairly the property of a person. Thus if only the trees, but not the land in which they grew, belonged to a man, he would not give firstfruits. (The Temple - Its Ministry and Services as they were at the time of Christ, by Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), chap. 19, p. 379)

In the end, when all requirements were considered, the actual amount to be given was more than just the tithe, and would have been around 25% of the overall revenue of the community from the harvests that God caused to be enjoyed:

Thus the prescribed religious contributions of every Jewish layman at the time of the second Temple were as follows: Biccurim and Terumoth, say two per cent.; from the ‘first of the fleece,’ at least five shekels’ weight; from the ‘first of the dough,’ say four per cent.; ‘corners of the fields’ for the poor, say two per cent.; the first, or Levitical tithe, ten per cent.; the second, or festival tithe, to be used at the feasts in Jerusalem, and in the third and sixth years to be the ‘poor’s tithe,’ ten per cent.; the firstlings of all animals, either in kind or money-value; five shekels for every first-born son, provided he were the first child of his mother, and free of blemish; and the half-shekel of the Temple-tribute. Together, these amounted to certainly more than the fourth of the return which an agricultural population would have. And it is remarkable, that the Law seems to regard Israel as intended to be only an agricultural people—no contribution being provided for from trade or merchandise. Besides these prescribed, there were, of course, all manner of voluntary offerings, pious works, and, above all, the various sacrifices which each, according to his cirumstances or piety, would bring in the Temple at Jerusalem. (The Temple - Its Ministry and Services as they were at the time of Christ, by Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), chap. 19, p. 379)

Edersheim makes it very clear that the Mosaic Laws did not apply to all income, and assumed an agricultural society, clearly dating some aspects of God's purposes for the Mosaic Law:

And it is remarkable, that the Law seems to regard Israel as intended to be only an agricultural people—no contribution being provided for from trade or merchandise. (The Temple - Its Ministry and Services as they were at the time of Christ, by Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), chap. 19, p. 379)

When we look to the New Testament we can’t draw real parallels from the Old, for the intention was to support a government as well as the church. In a sense this means that under the Old Testament, once taxes and church offerings were paid, 75% of most peoples income was left. Of this, people could still make free will offerings.

As the original society under Moses in the desert would not have necessarily had any currency, most payments for other services were probably made with produce from the land: meats, etc. (although in some cases silver may have been in use). It is therefore somewhat natural that a tradition under the Old Testament of paying a generic 10% for the tithe on 'all that one earned' is understandable (Ref. Luke 18:12; Genesis 14:18-20), though not really arguable directly from scripture.

To answer the question more specifically by date, as it was first established within Christianity under Catholicism, I refer to a Catholic Encyclopedia that established it around 567 AD:

The payment of tithes was adopted from the Old Law, and early writers speak of it as a divine ordinance and an obligation of conscience. The earliest positive legislation on the subject seems to be contained in the letter of the bishops assembled at Tours in 567 and the canons of the Council of Maçon in 585. In course of time, we find the payment of tithes made obligatory by ecclesiastical enactments in all the countries of christendom.

By the "Old Law" the text means Mosaic Law. As far as the concept of gross versus net goes, this seems to be a more modern idea by hyper-fundamentalists, and I have not yet found its origin.

  • Thanks Mike. The reference from the Catholic Encyclopedia was perfect. (Exactly the kind of dated reference I was seeking.)
    – Jas 3.1
    Oct 15, 2012 at 18:27
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    It is not clear to me from reading the Old Testament laws themselves on tithing that tithes were compounded together to add up to more than 10%. Other required sacrifices and taxes would have raised the total figure higher, but not the tithe itself, which was set at 10% Sep 6, 2016 at 18:40

Tithing has its roots in the Levitical law. In Leviticus 27, it states:

30 A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. 31 If a man redeems any of his tithe, he must add a fifth of the value to it. 32 The entire tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. 33 He must not pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If he does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.

As this would have represented the sum total of wealth in those days, it is a fair transition to extend other forms of wealth. The land (Ha'Aretz) is the source of wealth. Anything else is derivative therefrom.

The idea is that 10% must be set apart and given to the Lord, via the priest. (My understanding is that in Jewish Law, ten men can form a synagogue. If each of the 10 fulfills his vow, then the priest has enough to live on as well.)

As the church grew out of a Jewish culture, tithing is simply a carryover from OT law.

In regard to the question, "Do you tithe on your gross or your net?" no less a figure than Larry Burkett (Crown Financial) used to respond by asking, "Do you want God to bless you on your gross or net?" There is not an exact prescription for tithing in Scripture (unlike, say, in Islam). Rather, the principle is derived from Malachi 3:10, in which God says:

"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it."

That such a question still exists shows that there is no formal "ruling" on the matter, and that tithing is as much custom as command.

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    Could you explain your reasons for claiming that food represented "the sum total of wealth in those days"? Farming was not the only occupation or source of income, nor was food the only valuable possession. They did not tithe a 10th of their land, clothes, tools, ... nor did they tithe on the money earned from selling manufactured products... none of that would make sense anyway given that the tithe was to be eaten.
    – Jas 3.1
    Oct 8, 2012 at 20:42
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    The "Land" was God's promise to Israel. It holds a special place in the concept of what it meant to be a Jew. Even if you found some sort of occupation that wasn't directly framing, husbandry, or agricultural, it was still understood to be the base of the promise and prosperity of the people. Even, say, the carpenter, would have understood that his "wealth" was tied to the Land. Oct 8, 2012 at 20:57
  • The Jews were "ha 'am Har 'arêtz". The people of the Land. A tenth of whatever comes from the land was what was due. Anything that was of God and that was of substance was due to "the land," and hence a tenth of any wealth was due to Lord. Oct 8, 2012 at 20:59
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    Interesting interpretation, but can you provide any references to support this? (E.g. that the carpenter would have understood that this applied to his wages?) I was under the impression that the passages which describe the "tithes" explain that they relate specifically to livestock and crops, and that the tithe was to be eaten. It seems unnatural to me to read "livestock and crops" as "everything of substance." In other words, how do I know your claims about "what they would have understood" are accurate (as we discuss this thousands of years later)?
    – Jas 3.1
    Oct 8, 2012 at 21:45
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    I am not sure if every Jew always gave a tithe (i.e. 10%) of all they got, but it does see that at least the Pharisee did trying to excel in external righteousness. 'I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' Luke 18:12. Abraham also gave Melchizedek "tithes of all" the spoil of the battle (Gen 14;18). I am not sure of other details of the tithe but I think Affable has basically answered the question. Of course tithe is not mentioned in the NT showing the importance of the strict 10% rule (plus, or minus).
    – Mike
    Oct 10, 2012 at 11:12

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