Bibliography: C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks, 1936, pp. 59-62; M. Weber, Ancient Judaism, ET 1952, pp. 255-67; R. Bultmann, TDNT, 1964, 2:485-87.——CEC

Almsgiving constituted standard OT righteousness (Deut. 15:7-11; Prov. 25:21f.; 28:27; Isa. 58:7-11), emphasized dominical precept (Matt. 5:42; Luke 12:33), and was a familiar apostolic virtue (2 Cor. 9:5-7; Heb. 13:16). The Hebrew term for “righteousness” had acquired by Mishnaic times (c.a.d. 200) the secondary meaning “almsgiving.” The Talmud constantly advocates charity: impoverished, even aid-receiving, persons thus acquire virtue. Didache XV, 4, the earliest postcanonical Christian document emphasizing almsgiving, claims dominical authority. Generosity is never the root of justification, but merely the fruit of redeemed life (Rom. 5:1; cf. James 2:14-17). Good pagans practiced almsgiving, as is demonstrated by Egyptian tomb inscriptions about 2400 b.c., and by Confucianism and Buddhism nearly 2,000 years later. The good Buddhist seeking the “Noble Eightfold Path” of holy living also cultivates Dana (generosity, renunciation). Islam (c.a.d. 650 onward) requires legal and recommends voluntary almsgiving.

True poverty pleads for kindly benevolence; human hearts are naturally warm. Dangers exist, however: ostentatious pride in the benefactor (Matt. 6:1-4), habitual parasitism on the part of the recipient. The Mishnah pungently states that he who takes yet does not need will come to real hardship; he who needs yet does not take will live to endow others.

ALMS, ALMSGIVING (ἐλεημοσύνη, G1797, pity, relief of the poor). Our Eng. word “alms” is derived, by abbreviation, from the Gr. word ἐλεημοσύνη, G1797, and means benevolent giving; money or gifts for relief of the poor.

In the OT.

Although almsgiving is not explicitly mentioned, the duty of compassionate aid to the poor is strongly emphasized in all parts of the OT. It is difficult to make a sharp distinction between general benevolence and almsgiving.

The motives for such generosity to the poor were religious: obedience to God’s command, remembrance of His mercies in the Exodus, and the hope of reward (Deut 15:2-5; 24:19-22). It was recognized that there would always be the poor in their midst (Deut 15:11), but poverty was the exception rather than the rule when the law was obeyed (Deut 15:3-6). Since Israel was largely an agricultural people, poverty was generally the result of indolence (Prov 20:4; 24:30-34). Beggary was a punishment pronounced upon the house of Eli (1 Sam 2:36) and the curse invoked upon the children of the persecutor (Ps 109:10).

Job was famed for his generosity to the poor (Job 29:12-17; 31:16-23). Proverbs pictures kindness to the poor as an index of character (14:21; 19:17). The prophets condemned heartless oppression of the poor and cited it as a cause for impending judgment (Isa 3:14; 10:2, 3; Amos 8:4-8).

In the intertestamental period.

Following the Exile, greater emphasis began to be placed on the value of almsgiving. Poverty was widespread, and it was regarded as pious to meet the needs of the poor. Begging became a profession.

This view of almsgiving as righteousness prevailed among the Jews in Jesus’ day, and spread among the Christians, accounting for the change from “righteousness” to “alms” in Matthew 6:1, cf. ASV, KJV. The attempt to equate almsgiving with righteousness is scarcely justified from either the Heb. OT or the true text of the NT.

In support of this view, appeal is made to Proverbs 11:4 where “righteousness” is taken to mean “alms.” The same term occurs also in 11:5, 6, where it cannot mean alms. Support of the view that alms have saving merit is sometimes claimed from Daniel 4:27, when Daniel urged Nebuchadnezzar to “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed.” He is commanded to cease his sinful practices and to practice justice, not that his sins will be thereby forgiven, but that the humiliating judgment which will teach him wisdom will be delayed. (Cf. E. J. Young in loc.) In Psalm 112:9 (quoted by Paul in 2 Cor 9:9) “alms” are equated with “righteousness,” not as justifying a man, but as an outward expression in right conduct, having lasting spiritual values.

There is almost complete silence concerning almsgiving in the DSS. Apparently this was due to the communal manner of life. The silence need not mean that the Qumran community did not believe in or practice almsgiving.

In the NT.

The teaching of Jesus concerning alms must be viewed in the light of contemporary Pharisaic views and practices. His words in Matthew 6:2-4 assume that His followers will practice almsgiving. Jesus and His disciples did so (John 13:29). He did not condemn aiding the poor openly, but rebuked ostentatious charity for the purpose of gaining praise. “Sound no trumpet before you” (Matt 6:2 RSV) is not to be taken literally, for which practice there is no evidence, but fig. as prohibiting self-advertisement (cf. the expression, “blow your own horn”). The warning has parallels in Jewish writings.

Jesus commended liberal giving (Matt 5:42; Luke 6:38). He prized not the costliness of the gift, but the love and proportional self-denial which prompted it (Mark 12:42-44). His followers were urged to give with spiritual motives (Luke 11:41; 12:33), for giving has value for breaking the strangle hold of materialism (Matt 19:21). He also taught the blessedness of giving (Acts 20:35).

Caring for the poor received due attention in the Early Church. The needs of the poor were voluntarily supplied (Acts 4:32-35). Its first officers were elected for almsgiving (Acts 6:1-6).

The writer of Hebrews describes such deeds of charity as sacrifices well-pleasing to God (Heb 13:16). Both James and John insist that such a willingness to share with the needy has spiritual significance. It proves that such a one has a living faith (James 2:14-17), and it is a test of the reality of Christian profession (1 John 3:16-18).


G. Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, Eng. tr. (1883); SBK, “Die altjüdische Liebeswerke,” IV (1928), 559-610; SBK, “Die altjüdische Privatwohltätigkeit,” IV (1928), 536-558; C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (1936), 59-62; M. Weber, Ancient Judaism, Eng. tr. (1952), 255-267; R. Bultmann, ἐλεημοσύνη, G1797, TDNT, II (1964), 485-487.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

ams, ams-giv’-ing:

The English word "alms" is an abridged form of the Greek word, eleemosune (compare "eleemosynary"), appearing in gradually reduced forms in German Almosen, Wyclif’s Almesse, Scotch Aw’mons, and our alms.

The later Jews often used "righteousness" tsedhaqah as meaning alms, that being in their view the foremost righteousness. (Compare our modern use of "charity" to denote almsgiving.) This use is seen in the Talmud and in the frequent translations of the Hebrew word for "righteousness" (tsedhaqah) by "alms" (eleemosune) in the Septuagint, though nothing warranting this is found in the Hebrew Old Testament, or in the true text of the New Testament. This notion of righteousness as alms being well-nigh universal among Jews in Jesus’ day, and spreading even among Christians, accounts for "alms" in Mt 6:1, where the true text has "righteousness": "Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them" (the Revised Version (British and American) with Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Bezae, the Latin versions, etc.). The oriental versions which generally read "alms" may be accounted for on the supposition that "alms" was first written on the margin as explaining the supposed meaning of "righteousness," and then, as according with this accepted oriental idea, was substituted for it in the text by the copyists.

Dikaiosune and eleemosune are both used in the Septuagint to translate chesedh, "kindness," and are also both used to translate tsedhaqah, "justice." Almsgiving was regarded not merely as a plain evidence of righteousness in general but also as an act of justice, a just debt owing to the needy. "No one refuses directly," Mackie says, hence, possibly, Christ’s teaching in Lu 11:41, "Let your righteousness (charity) be from within," "Give your hearts to almsgiving."

In the course of time the impulse and command to give alms in a true human way, out of pity, such as is found expressed in De 15:11 the King James Version, "Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land," gave place to a formal, meritorious" practice, possessing, like sacrifice, as men came to think, the power of atoning for man’s sins, and redeeming him from calamity and death. For instance, Pr 11:4 (compare Pr 16:6, 21:3) was expounded: "Water will quench blazing fire; so doth almsgiving make atonement for sins" (Ecclesiasticus 3:30). "Lay up alms in thy storehouse; it shall deliver thee from affliction" (Ecclesiasticus 29:12). The story of Tobit is especially in point: it is simply a lesson on almsgiving and its redeeming powers: "Alms delivers from death and will purge away all sin" (Tobit 1:3,16; 2:14; 4:7-11; 12:8,9. Compare Sirach 29:11 ff). Kindred teaching abounds in the Talmud: "Alms-giving is more excellent than all offerings," is "equal to the whole law," will "deliver from the condemnation of hell," will "make one perfectly righteous," etc. According to Rabbi Assi, "Almsgiving is a powerful paraclete between the Israelites and their Father in heaven, it brings the time of redemption nigh (Babha’ Bathra’ Talmud 10a).

The Roman Catholics, holding the books of Tobit and Sirach to be canonical, find in them proof-texts for their doctrine of almsgiving, and likewise attach great value to the gifts to the poor as atoning for sins. Protestants, by a natural reaction, have failed to hold always at its true value what was and is an important Christian duty (see Lu 12:33 the King James Version, and, compare Mt 6:19-24: "Sell that ye have and give alms," etc.). It seems to have been so regarded and kept up in the Christian communities until the beginning of the 4th century (Apos Const II 36; Cyprian, De Opera and Eleemos. xiv).

The teaching of Jesus on the subject is important, first, as bearing upon Jewish ideas and practices, and second, as bearing upon present-day Christian ideas and practices.

This teaching appears most conspicuously in the Sermon on the Mount. While showing what is required of the subjects of the Messianic reign, He avowedly sets forth a higher and more spiritual morality than that which was taught and practiced by the scribes and Pharisees: "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:20). There, too, He lays down the general principle embodied in the words of Mt 6:1: "Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them," and illustrates it by applying it to the three exercises most valued among the Jews (commended together in Tobit 12:8), namely, almsgiving (Mt 6:2,4), prayer (Mt 6:5-15), and fasting (Mt 6:16-18). Jewish writers claim that these are "the three cardinal disciplines which the synagogue transmitted to the Christian church and the Mohammedan mosque" (compare Koran, Sura 2 40, 104; 9 54).

Clearly what Jesus here forbids in general is not publicity in performing good deeds, which is often necessary and proper, but ostentatious publicity, for the purpose of attracting attention. (The Greek conveys distinctly this idea of purpose, and the verb for "to be seen" is the one from which comes our word "theater.")

Jewish writers, as also Greek and Roman philosophers, have many notable maxims upon the beauty and importance of being unostentatious in virtue, especially in deeds of benevolence. The Essenes had their treasury in a chamber of their own in the temple that both the giving and the taking should be unobserved (Mishnah, Sheq., v.6). Rabbi Eleazer said, "Alms-giving should be done in secret and not before men, for he who gives before men is a sinner, and God shall bring also the good deed before his judgment" (B.B. 9a; compare Ec 12:14).

In applying this principle to almsgiving Jesus teaches His disciple: "When ... thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do" (Mt 6:2). The conjecture of Calvin, followed by Stier and others, and mentioned as early as Euthymius, that it was a practice among Jews for an ostentatious almsgiver literally to sound a trumpet, or cause a trumpet to be sounded before him, in public places to summon the needy is without foundation (Lightfoot); as is also the notion, made current by the rabbis and accepted by Edersheim (The Temple, etc., 26), that by "sounding a trumpet" Jesus was alluding to the trumpet-like receptacles of brass in the temple treasury.

There is no proof that these were found "in the synagogues," or "in the streets." "Sound a trumpet," according to the Greek commentators, and the best modern authorities, is merely a figurative expression common to many languages, for self-parade--efforts to attract notice and win applause (compare our vulgar English saying about "blowing your own horn"). The contrast with the common practice instituted by Jesus is the significant thing: "But when thou doest alms"--"thou" is emphatic by position in the Greek--"let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth," etc., i.e. "So far from trumpeting your almsgiving before the public, do not even let it be known to yourself." Jesus here, Calvin well says, "silently glances at a kind of folly which prevails everywhere among men, that they think they have lost their pares if there have not been many spectators of their virtues." (The traditional saying of Mohammed, "In almsgiving, the left hand should not know what the right has given," is evidently borrowed from this saying of Jesus.) It is worthy of note that, despite popular practice, to give alms with right motives, and only to those who were worthy to receive, was a matter of special solicitude and instruction with the best among Jews as well as among Christians. The words of the Psalmist, "Blessed is he that considereth the poor," are construed to be an admonition to "take personal interest in him and not simply give him alms" (Lev. R. xxxiv). "When thou wilt do good, know to whom thou doest it. Give unto the good and help not the sinner" (Ecclesiasticus 12:1-6; compare Didache 1:5,6). "He that gives a free offering should give with a well-meaning eye" (Yer. B.D. 4 11). Jesus’ words concerning the "single" and the "evil" eye (compare Lu 11:34-36), and Paul’s teaching, "God loveth a cheerful giver" (2Co 9:7-9) have their counterparts in Jewish teaching. Rabbi Eleazer, referring to Ho 10:12, taught this high doctrine. "The kindness displayed in the giving of alms decides the final reward" (Suk. 49b). Other kindred teaching in a way anticipated Jesus’ supreme lesson, "that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee" (Mt 6:4).

LITERATURE. Commentaries at the place Rabbinical literature in point. D. Cassel, Die Armenverwaltung des alten Israel, 1887.

George B. Eager