Tattoos in the Bible: Can Christians Modify Their Bodies?

In general, Christians have usually had a negative view of tattoos, believing tattoos in the Bible are forbidden. But is this true?

Jun 19, 2024By Eben De Jager, PhD New Testament, MTh Christian Spirituality

tattoos bible christians modify bodies

 

Many Christians strongly object to believers getting tattoos. They believe the Bible forbids it and reference Leviticus 19:28 to support their view. On the other hand, some believers point to the very same verse to justify their support for getting tattoos. So, how is it possible that both groups use the same verse to support their perspective when their views are mutually exclusive? Let’s investigate.

 

The Use of Tattoos Around the Globe

Tattoo artist at work, by Isabella Mendes, Source: Pexels

 

The practice of tattooing has been known to many cultures across the globe for thousands of years. Tattooed mummies have been found in North and South America where the practice was prevalent among native tribes. The long tradition of tattooing can be traced from Siberia, through Mongolia to Western China, and as far East as Japan. It is also practiced among many Island nations as well as many African tribes.

 

Among the Greeks and the Romans, it was traditional to tattoo criminals, prisoners of war, and slaves. In many instances, such as in Egypt and Syria, tattoos were part of the faith practice of these cultures. It was primarily Egyptian women who had tattoos, with Amunet, a mummified priestess of Hathor, being a prime example. The author of the book of Leviticus was writing in the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and we should read the reference it makes to tattoos in that context.

 

Leviticus 19:28 (ESV) says: “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.” The word translated as “tattoos” in the Bible is actually two Hebrew words: nâthan kethôbeth, which means “print” and “mark” respectively. The word tattoo only entered the English language to represent the practice of printing a mark on the skin in the 1700s.

Bontoc Warrior with tattoos, 1908, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

Those in favor of tattoos argue that this verse speaks to tattoos that somehow commemorate the dead, perhaps as a way of mourning. They claim that because they do not tattoo for that purpose, the verse does not apply to them.

 

Firstly, there is no evidence of the practice of commemorating or mourning the dead by tattooing in ancient Egyptian culture, or any other Near Eastern culture for that matter. Secondly, several verses in Exodus and Leviticus deal with two different, unrelated issues in one verse (see verse 26 as an example). It is an assumption to claim that this verse speaks of tattooing in direct relation to the dead.

 

Ancient language scholar John Huehnergard and ancient-Israel expert Harold Liebowitz both argue that Leviticus 19:28 deals with two distinct issues: a) cutting your body for the dead and b) tattooing. The cutting of the flesh in this verse has a direct bearing on the dead in this verse. There is evidence of ritualistic scarification in Near Eastern religions (1 Kings 18:28) which may or may not have occurred in the context of mourning. There is no evidence to support ritualistic tattooing to mourn or commemorate the dead in Ancient Near Eastern cultures.

 

Is This Evidence of an Injunction Against Tattoos in the Bible?

Tattooed Man with Bible, by Cottonbro Studio, Source: Pexels

 

No. The principle of tota scriptura, or plenary inspiration, asks us to consider the totality of what the scripture has to say about a subject before reaching a conclusion on what the Bible teaches about any subject. The word “tattoo” appears only once in the ESV and the alternative phrase “print any marks” appears only once in the KJV. Though the exact word or phrase does not appear again, several references to writing on the body appear in both the Old and New Testaments. We must consider all these references to remain true to the tota scriptura principle.

 

Does Revelation Address Tattoos?

Lip Tattoo, by Alex Alexander, Source: Pexels

 

In Revelation 14:1 we read about a group of “144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” This group was faithful through great times of tribulation and was redeemed from the earth, and now appears before the throne of God. They are undoubtedly saints.

 

Revelation 17:5 also references a woman who had the words “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations” written on her forehead. She rides a scarlet beast and is associated with the Antichrist. There can be little doubt that she represents the epitome of evil among mankind.

 

In Revelation 19:16 Christ is seen with the name “King of kings and Lord of lords” written on his thigh. This scene depicts him as the leader of the heavenly host of angels on their way to destroy their enemies: the beast, the false prophet, and their minions.

 

None of the references from Revelation expressly stated that the writing was permanent or a tattoo, though writing on the body is in view. The marks are also not exclusive to the saintly, the satanic, or the Savior. So, how do these references contribute to our search for insight?

 

Due to the nature of the book of Revelation, which is highly symbolic, it would be irresponsible to interpret these references to writing on various body parts as literal writing, whether it refers to tattoos or not. It is better to understand it in the same sense as verses like Jeremiah 17:1, Proverbs 3:3, and Proverbs 3:7 that reference writing on the heart. It serves as a metaphor and does not reflect actual writing. It can, therefore, not cast light on our endeavor.

 

Insight from Isaiah

Walk by faith tattoo, Tattoos can be an expression of faith, by Velroy Fernandes, Source: Pexels

 

Isaiah 44:5 says: “This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.” The phrase “write on” is a translation of the Hebrew word kâthab, which is rendered as epigraphō in Greek, meaning “to write in.” The King James Version incorrectly translates this verse as “and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the LORD.” The original language states that the writing is on/in the hand, not with the hand.

 

What is significant about this verse is that it presents the writing on/in the hand as a positive action, showing that the person belongs to the Lord. It is a similar practice to that of the Egyptians inscribing the names of their gods on slaves to denote ownership. In this instance, it is not done by force but rather as a self-expression of submission to God.

 

A couple of things should be noted here. First, Isaiah 44:5 should not be construed as an instruction or obligation to get tattoos, just like Leviticus 19:28 should not be considered an outright ban. On the contrary, Isaiah 44:5 presents the different ways in which people express their faith with one choosing a different method to the next. In essence, it reflects the “each to his own” principle. Thirdly, this verse shows that there is no taboo on tattoos in the Bible. A tattoo could even serve as a conversation piece that invites discussion and provides the opportunity to act as witnesses of the faith. It could even serve as a witness in and of itself.

 

Reconciling Leviticus 19:28 with Isaiah 44:5

Cross tattoo, by beautifulrecovery, Source: Pixabay

 

So, how do we reconcile Leviticus 19:28 with Isaiah 44:5?

 

The context of Leviticus 19 is Hebrew release from slavery in Egypt, where tattooing was part and parcel of the religious practice of their Egyptian masters and a symbol of their slavery. Egyptians often had the names of their gods or of Pharaoh, who was considered a god, tattooed on the bodies of their slaves. It was a sign of ownership by the master and the gods. In that context, it would make sense to ban tattoos in the Bible because it was a symbol of servitude and because of the dedication to pagan deities.

 

From time to time, verses such as 1 Peter 3:3–4 that address outward adornment, or 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19–20, which speaks to the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit, are employed to argue against tattoos as well. Applying biblical principles should be done consistently. Why would tattoos be considered an outward adornment but make-up, fashionable clothing, wearing jewelry, styling hair, or getting piercings not be?

 

Tattoos in the Bible: In Conclusion

Tattooed man praying, by Ric Rodrigues, Source: Pexels

 

It would be understandable if Christians objected to a tattoo that is offensive to, or violates, Christian teachings or principles, but claims that there is evidence of a ban on tattoos in the Bible cannot be sustained after evaluating the evidence. The source of the animus against tattoos should be considered a prejudice that leads to judgment. Here, again, tota scriptura should be employed. Matthew 7:1-2 comes to mind: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

Author Image

By Eben De JagerPhD New Testament, MTh Christian SpiritualityEben is a theologian, presenter, author, and public speaker with more than a decade of experience in Christian apologetics. His fields of interest are the gift of tongues and eschatology, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. He holds a PhD from North-West University, a MTh (Christian Spirituality) from the University of South Africa, a BA(Hons) in Theology from the University of Johannesburg, and a BA in Theology from the Rand Afrikaans University.