There is no word for “alms” or “almsgiving” in the Hebrew Bible, and there are almost no specific references to the practice of giving alms as such. Generosity to the poor and needy was, however, required and praised (see, e.g., Deut. 15.11; Job 29.11–16). There are many commands to show benevolence to the poor, a group that included Levites, foreigners living among Israelites (See Alien), widows, and orphans, for whom there was also a special tithe (Deut. 14.28–29). Those who gave to the poor were thought to be blessed or happy (see Ps. 41.1; Prov. 14.21, 31; 31.20; cf. CD 6.21; 14.13–15).
The Greek word for alms is eleēmosynē, which comes from the basic verb eleeō, meaning “to pity” or “have mercy on” someone. In the Septuagint eleēmosynē frequently translates the Hebrew words for “loving kindness” (ḥesed) and “righteousness” (⊡ĕdāqâ) (Deut. 6.25; 24.13; Prov. 3.3; 14.22). It is used of both God (Ps. 103.6; Isa. 1.27) and humans (Gen. 47.29; Prov. 20.28) having mercy toward others. Almsgiving came to be regarded as a particular form of righteousness (Tob. 1.3) and could gain merit and forgiveness of sins for the giver (Dan. 4.24; Sir. 3.30; Tob. 12.9).
In the New Testament eleēmosynē is always used in the sense of giving alms. In the Sermon on the Mount piety and almsgiving are synonymous (Matt. 6.1–4). Elsewhere eleēmosynē occurs in the New Testament only in Luke and Acts, where it refers either to the gift or to the process of giving. In Luke 11.41 and 12.33 the expression “give alms” corresponds to the rabbinic “give righteousness” (ʾAbot 5.15; cf. Matt. 19.21; see also Acts 9.36; 10.2, 31). Paul exhorted his communities to make special efforts to remember the poor (1 Cor. 16.1–3; 2 Cor. 8–9; cf. Acts 24.17).
Edwin D. Freed