He was born at Leiden. He was educated at Amsterdam, first studying at the Athenaeum Illustre, as the communal high school of the capital was then named, and afterwards at the seminary of the Remonstrant Brotherhood.
He was destined for the pastorate in his own brotherhood. After steadily declining for a considerable period, this had increased its influence in the second half of the 19th century by widening the tenets of the Dutch Methodists, which had caused many of the liberal clergy among the Lutherans and Calvinists to go over to the Remonstrants. Tiele had liberal religious views himself, which he early enunciated from the pulpit, as Remonstrant pastor of Moordrecht (1853) and at Rotterdam (1856).
Upon the removal of the seminary of the brotherhood from Amsterdam to Leiden in 1873, Tiele was appointed one of its leading professors. In 1877 followed his appointment at the University of Leiden as professor of the history of religions, a chair specially created for him.
With Abraham Kuenen and J. H. Scholten, amongst others, he founded the "Leiden School" of modern theology. From 1867 he assisted Kuenen, A. D. Loman and L. W. Rauwenhoff editing the Theologisch Tijdschrift.
He died in January 1902. In 1901 he had resigned his professorship at Leiden University.
Tiele's zeal and power for work were as extraordinary as his vast knowledge of ancient languages, peoples and religions, upon which his researches, according to F. Max Müller, shed a new and vivid light.
Of his many learned works, the Vergelijkende geschiedenis van de egyptische en mesopotamische Godsdiensten (1872), and the Geschiedenis van den Godsdienst (1876; new ed. 1891), have been translated into English, the former by James Ballingall (1878-1882), the latter by Joseph Estlin Carpenter (1877) under the title Outlines of the History of Religion (French translation, 1885; German translation, 1895). A French translation of the Comparative History was published in 1882.
Other works by Tiele are:
He was also the writer of the article "Religions" in the 9th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Tiele was best known to English students by his Outlines and the Gifford Lectures On the Elements of the Science of Religion, delivered in 1896–1898 at Edinburgh University. They appeared simultaneously in Dutch at Amsterdam, in English in London and Edinburgh (1897-1899, 2 vols).
Edinburgh University in 1900 conferred upon Tiele the degree of D.D. honoris causa, an honor bestowed upon him previously by the universities of Dublin and Bologna. He was also a fellow of at least fifteen learned societies in Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and the United States.
---- His brother Pieter Anton Tiele (1834-1888) acted for many years as the librarian of Utrecht University, and distinguished himself by his bibliographical studies, more especially by his several works on the history of colonization in Asia. Among these the most noteworthy are: De Opkomst van het nederlandsch Gezag in Oost-Indie (1886); De Vestiging der Portugeezen, in Indie (1873), and other books on the early Portuguese colonization in the Malay Archipelago.