In the Graeco-Roman world charity as the source of material support for the poor and destitute was almost unknown. Gifts of food and money were bestowed by the wealthy on those who could give something (e.g. political support) in return. But among the Hebrews there was an injunction encouraging compassion (Deut. 15: 11) in a concern for the helpless (Ps. 41: 1), especially widows and orphans, and Judaism developed this to the extent that righteousness was almost equated with almsgiving (Tob. 12: 9). The synagogues had an organized system of aid to the poor and in the Temple there were six receptacles for receiving alms: these were in the shape of trumpets (cf. Mark 12: 41–2; Matt. 6: 2). Jesus condemned ostentatious almsgiving—as did some of the teachers among the Pharisees.

The early Church appointed officers to administer charitable gifts (Acts 4: 32; 6: 3) and Paul urged his Churches to establish a proper practice of almsgiving for the impoverished Christians of Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16: 1 ff.). Eternal life may depend on generosity and compassion (Matt. 25: 31–46).