T

HE

T

ITHE


AND OTHER TAXES
by Jeffrey J. Harrison


  

Five of Jesus' disciples were from the tiny fishing village of Bethsaida, at the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee.* The name of the village (in Hebrew, bet-tsay-DAH), means "house (or place) of provision." This likely refers to the abundant resources of fish in the lake and of wild game in the high, grassy cliffs and slopes near the village.**



* Peter (Kaipha), Andrew, James (Ya‘akov), John (Yokhannan), and Philip. The exact site of Bethsaida is disputed. Recent excavations at et-Tell (labeled "Julias" in the photo above), about a mile (1.5 km) from the Sea of Galilee, have received broad media coverage as the supposed site of the disciples' village. But this site doesn't match the Biblical description in two important respects: (1) Bethsaida is described as a "village" in Mark 8:26. Et-Tell was a city complete with a pagan Roman temple. (2) The disciples' village is called "Bethsaida of Galilee" (John 12:21). Et-Tell was not in Galilee, which lay to the west of the Jordan River, but was rather in Gaulanitis to the east of the Jordan. (The dashed line in the photo above represents the ancient course of the Jordan River.) Et-Tell is probably the ancient Hellenistic-style city of Julias, which was sometimes also called Bethsaida. John, to avoid confusion, identified the disciples' village of Bethsaida as the one in Galilee. The site known as el-Araj, right at the edge of the lake (labeled "Bethsaida" in the photo above), is a better match for the disciples' home town.

** These grassy cliffs and slopes (in the background of the photo above) rise sharply 1800 feet (540 m) to the Golan Heights above. Even today it's not unusual to see boar, gazelle, and rock badgers in the area. Other wildlife, like porcupines, jackals, and foxes can also be found.

In the time of Jesus, much of Galilee, including Bethsaida, was awash with Zealot sympathies. The Zealot movement sought to rid the land of its Roman masters at the point of a sword. These sympathies account, in part, for the area's interest in Jesus as a Messianic king, someone they hoped would lead the war against the Romans (John 6:14,15).* The home base of the Zealots was not far from Bethsaida, clearly visible in one of the canyons above the village, on a high, rounded hill. On closer approach, this hill assumes the appearance of the back of a camel, complete with a hump, giving rise to its ancient name, Gamla ("Camel"; see photo above and below).

* After the feeding of the 5,000, which took place near Bethsaida (Luke 9:10; here the "city of Bethsaida" is a reference to Julias and its territory east of the Jordan), John says the people were planning to make Jesus king--by force! (John 6:15). This contradicts the popular teaching that the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messianic king. In fact, it was he who rejected their understanding of who the Messiah was and what he would accomplish. He escaped instead up into the mountains, in the direction of the Golan Heights above (John 6:15).

One of the complaints against Rome that fueled the Zealot cause was the high level of taxation. This included a 10% crop tax that rose to 20% in the case of wine, fruit, and oil. But this was only one of a whole list of taxes, from taxes on real estate to an annual poll-tax paid to Caesar, at 1% of one's income.* There were taxes on income, customs duties, tolls on roads and bridges, taxes on animals and vehicles, a salt tax, a sales tax, and more.

* This poll-tax is what prompted the famous question to Jesus, "Should we pay a poll-tax to Caesar or not?" (Matt. 22:17). The "punch" behind this question was that the poll-tax (or head tax) was considered to be a tribute, an act of submission to a ruler, and therefore to signal the acceptance of the legitimacy of that ruler's reign. But most Jews felt that Rome had no right to rule their land, and that the Roman conquest of Judea and other Jewish land was in violation of a treaty that Rome signed with the Jews many years earlier (in the time of the Hasmoneans) promising friendship and mutual defense. To accept Caesar as lord over their nation was seen by many, such as the Zealots, to be a denial of God as their true Lord (just as some Christian "zealots" today see the acceptance of modern governments). Jesus' answer defused the tension by recognizing Caesar's right to tax without conceding any of the worship due to God alone: "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God" (Matt. 22:21). Since the money used for the tax had Caesar's picture on it, to pay the tax only meant giving back to Caesar what was already his, nothing more. In the same way, Paul counseled Christians to pay their taxes, including the poll-tax (Rom. 13:6,7).

The Jews particularly felt the pinch of Roman taxation because they were also required to pay all of the Jewish religious taxes--in effect doubling the amount of tax owed by each person. But while the religious taxes might be paid cheerfully, as service to God, the Roman taxes were paid to pagans, idolaters, and sinners.

The Jewish religious taxes had a completely different character and purpose than Roman taxes. Commanded by God, they reveal something of the character and purposes of God himself. Most familiar among these taxes is the tithe (10%), given originally to the Levites, to support those engaged in ministry to God.* This is the tithe on which the idea of Christian tithing is usually based. But this was only one of many additional religious taxes. The largest of these was an additional tithe (the "Second Tithe") that was given to the poor in the 3rd and 6th years out of every 7 (in the 7 year sabbatical cycle; Deut. 14:28,29). In other years, it was used to celebrate in the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, probably at the annual pilgrim festivals (Deut. 14:22-26).** This must be one of the most unusual taxes ever imposed on mankind: a tax to be spent on your own food and drink while celebrating in the presence of God!

* Levites ministered in song, played musical instruments, provided religious instruction, and served as watchmen, in addition to dozens of other minor roles they filled in the maintenance and upkeep of the Temple. Originally, the Levites in turn paid a tithe to the priests (the tithe of the tithe; Num. 18:26-29). But by the time of Jesus, few Levites were engaged in religious service, so much of the tithe was given directly to the priests.

** Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuoth), and Tabernacles (Succoth). While many critical scholars claim that the Second Tithe is a later reformulation of the First Tithe in different historical circumstances, the uniform belief in Judaism, now as in Jesus' day, is that this is a distinct and separate religious tax.

The focus of the Second Tithe, too, was worship of God: "And you will eat [the Second Tithe] before the LORD your God that you may learn to fear the LORD your God all your days" (Deut. 14:23). An increased reverence for God must certainly have been the result of joining hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walking up into the mountains to Jerusalem. One ancient historian says there were as many as 4 million coming up for the feasts. Children would watch with wide-eyed wonder at the mysterious and elaborate rites in the Temple: from the sobering slaughter of the sacrifices to the sublime worship at the offering of the incense. The blessing of the priests, the songs, and the blasting of the trumpets, all served to elevate life above the ordinary and bring them closer to the God that commanded these things to happen.

The meals that followed, on which the Second Tithe was spent, were likewise a communal experience to which all were invited, including the poor and the Levites (Deut. 14:27). In this way, all shared equally in the rejoicing. What a beautiful experience this must have been! A week-long religious holiday (in the case of Passover and Tabernacles) where there was nothing else to do but worship the Lord and enjoy the fellowship, with every need provided for. No wonder the feasts were a time of Messianic expectation! The overflowing abundance of brotherly love, the sense of equality of all before God, these were a beautiful foreshadowing of the days of the Messiah, when every need will be met and all will live together in peace.*

* This generous character can also be seen in other Jewish religious taxes, such as the setting aside of the corners of the field and the gleanings for the poor (Lev. 19:9,10; see Ruth 2). The amount of this particular tax, set at a minimum of 2% by the rabbis, is not specified in Scripture. But the intention of the law is clear: to share generously with those less fortunate than ourselves.

At one such festival, Shavuoth (the Feast of Pentecost), fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the believers in Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit and manifested spiritual gifts, signs of the Messianic kingdom. How did they respond to this "inbreaking" of the kingdom and the conviction it brought that Jesus' Messianic reign had begun? They sold their belongings and gave the proceeds to those among them that were poor: "all things were common property to them" and "there was not a needy person among them" (Acts 4:32,34). They understood the message taught not only in the Biblical feasts, but in the entire system of giving in the Bible: that blessings shared with others are multiplied and yield more than enough for all!

Unfortunately, the popular "Prosperity Gospel" leads many to despise the poor, and blames them for their need (because they "lack faith"). But the Biblical path to prosperity is to share with the poor. "He who gives to the poor will never want" (Pro. 28:27, also Pro. 22:9, 22:16, etc.). The Pharisees were criticized by Jesus for many things, but never for selfishness. Have modern Christians strayed so far from the Messianic ideal of brotherhood and unity in the kingdom of God? Where is mercy? Where is compassion?*

* It's true that the poor need jobs, not just a hand out. But God's love is not just for the most talented, the most educated, and the most successful. It's also for the most unfortunate, the most uneducated, and the least successful. Our responsibility to be generous is to all who are made in the image of God (Matt. 5:42).

When you add them all together, the religious taxes owed by the Jews for the work of God (the Temple, priests, Levites, and rejoicing at the feasts) as well as for the poor, totalled more than 25% of their income. In this context, the debate among Christians about whether or not to give a tithe (10%) ignores much of the Biblical evidence. If we're really going to base our giving on the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), we should talk about giving 25% and more.*

* Jesus said our righteousness should be abundantly greater than the scribes and Pharisees, who were very diligent about their giving (Matt. 5:20).

But in fact, Jesus didn't ask for 10% or even 25%, but rather for 100%! "Any of you that does not give up all his possessions cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33 also 12:33, 18:22; Mark 12:30). That's quite a tax bracket! He wants everything we are and everything we have.

Were it not for the example of the First Covenant (the Old Testament), this would appear a complete impossibility. But the evidence of history is that the more faithfully God's people obey the principles of giving in God's Word, the greater their abundance. Jesus simply took this to its logical conclusion: that complete generosity--giving all for God--leads to an even greater overflowing of abundance. "There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, because of me and because of the gospel, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in this present time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, and in the coming age eternal life" (Mark 10:29-30). Jesus came to confirm and extend God's promise of provision for those who are generous and merciful.

Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as a place of provision where there is enough for everyone, and no need to fear about the future. "Don't be anxious then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?'" (Matt. 6:31). Our hearts can be at peace about the future, so we can confidently share God's love and his blessings with others. If we each do our part, if we pursue our calling with diligence and share the fruit with others, the needs of all will be met (Eph. 4:28).

But if we reject Jesus' vision of the kingdom, cursing the poor that he has blessed ("Blessed are the poor"; Luke 6:20), we are left with a message of sanctified selfishness. This is to reject the very heart of Jesus' teaching, and cut oneself off from the joy he wants us to experience right now in the body of Messiah--a joy that comes from sharing with others. "Working in this way you must help the weak; and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he himself said, 'To give is more blessed than to receive'" (Acts 20:35).

The disciples understood God's vision of the kingdom on that feast of Pentecost, when not only did they pray and see miracles, but they also began to help each other in practical ways. No wonder "abundant grace was on them all" (Acts 4:33). Their generosity toward each other is evidence their lives had been changed by the power of God, and that they had begun living in the kingdom. Isn't that what Jesus meant when he said, "Seek first the kingdom" (Matt. 6:33)? Not our own selfish desires, but the good of the kingdom and those who are in it must be our top priority. When it is, the promise that follows comes into effect: "And all these things will be added to you" (Matt. 6:33).
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Read these Questions and Answers about this article:
Is the Tithe Commanded in the New Covenant?
Do We All Have to be Missionaries?
The Poor Man's Tithe

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Updated 6/08. Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2008 by Jeffrey J. Harrison.  All rights reserved.
Photos and mapwork by the author.  Please do not copy without permission.
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