By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: The Bible


What does the Bible say about tattoos?


One might think this would be a relatively straightforward question. After all, what could the Bible possibly say about tattoos?

Well, it turns out there is one Old Testament verse that is often translated into English in a way which speaks directly about tattoos. There is also one verse in the New Testament that is often interpreted to prohibit tattoos.

A little context and background on tattoos is helpful. During Bible times, tattoos were common in pagan culture and among pagan priests. Today, tattoos are often considered a matter of self-expression or part of accepted cultural practices. There is usually no connection with rituals or false religions today. Tattoos do not automatically connect someone with a particular worship practice, as they did in Bible times.

The English word "tattoo" comes from a Polynesian word that first appeared in writing after Captain Cook returned from Tahiti in the 18th century.

Old Testament –Leviticus 19:28
The Old Testament contains what appears to be a very specific prohibition against tattoos. In Leviticus 19:28 various English Bibles (New International Version, New King James, Revised Standard Version, The Message, etc.) translate a Hebrew word "tattoo." According to the NIV this verse reads, "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD."

This translation seems pretty straightforward, however careful Bible readers know things are not always as they seem. In this case, the word "tattoo" might not the best translation of the original Hebrew word. In fact scholars aren't exactly sure what the Hebrew word means since it is only used in this one verse in the Bible.

A more accurate Hebrew rendering would be: "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD." (See American Standard Version, King James Version, New Revised Standard, etc.)

As is usually the case with Old Testament verses, the context of this particular verse is valuable. In this case, v. 28 is part of a larger section (vv. 26-31) where God is speaking to the people of Israel. At issue is their behavior in relation to other pagan cults. God doesn't want His people to eat bloody meat (26), practice divination (26), cut their hair like the cultic priests (27), cut their bodies for the dead (28), mark their bodies (28), participate in cultic prostitution (29), or to consult psychics (31). Verse 30 is a reminder to keep the Sabbath holy.

All of these practices would lead the people away from the true God and lead them toward false gods. Most scholars, therefore, think the point of "marking the body" is in relation to cultic religious worship. It's clear, however, that the Israelites shouldn't do it.

Thus for many Jews tattooing is prohibited from an Old Testament point of view. It is additionally problematic due to the modern-day association with the tattoos done in Nazi concentration camps.

Christians generally don't cite this verse when opposing tattoos, since Christians don't follow most of the religious laws in the Old Testament. This is most likely due to St. Paul's understanding of the law in the Old Testament. He stated clearly in Romans 6:14, "You are not under the law, but under grace." This freed Christians from the requirements of the Hebrew religious laws – including the dietary laws and circumcision.

New Testament – I Corinthians 6:19-20
The New Testament contains a verse that is commonly used to by Christian opponents of tattoos – I Corinthians 6:19-20. The New International Version translates these two verses as, "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies." Opponents of tattoos argue that any mark on the body defiles God's creation in some ways.

Context Matters
There will always be people who take a Bible verse out of context and use it as a proof text for one viewpoint or another. (A quick Google search of "tattoo" and "bible" will reveal a lot of vociferous comments.) But context matters and, ultimately, whether or not the Bible has any authority on this subject is a matter of conscience.

There are still modern cultural issues to consider, as well as motivation. Is the tattoo a form of expression or rebellion? Will it still have been a good idea ten years from now? One is reminded of a common saying: "Unlike love, a tattoo really is forever."

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