Tattoo: Taboo, or no more than a skin deep issue?

By Guy Brandon 27 Sep 2018

Learning to Love Leviticus #2

‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.’ - Leviticus 19:28 (NIV)

Along with sundry other activities such as wearing polycotton trousers and defrauding your neighbour, Leviticus 19 apparently prohibits the Israelites from the practice of tattooing themselves. The previous study in this series looked at the intent behind the law against mixed fibres and to what extent it is still binding upon Christians. What happens when we apply the same approach to body art?[1]

A sin of the skin

Tattoos, once the preserve of sailors and criminals, have lost much of their stigma and grown in popularity over recent years. Surveys suggest around one in five UK adults has a tattoo. Attitudes towards tattoos are likely to be cultural more than religious, with younger people far more open to the idea.

Christian approaches are varied and tend not to break along denominational lines, with leaders advocating different stances. Historically there has been little official teaching on the practice of cosmetic tattooing, though in 330 AD the Emperor Constantine did ban the practice of tattooing convicts’ faces, ‘since the penalty of his condemnation can be expressed both on his hands and on his calves, and so that his face, which has been fashioned in the likeness of the divine beauty, may not be disgraced.’

Conservative and Orthodox Jews accept the ban on tattooing outright, and there is an aversion in segments off the Jewish community that may be driven by the Nazis’ practice of tattooing those interred in the concentration camps. A Jewish myth (which arose in the mainstream media before Amy Winehouse’s funeral) claims that people with tattoos cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, though this is rarely observed and has little foundation in Jewish law. But tattooing is apparently banned by Leviticus, and similar practices are referred to unsympathetically elsewhere in the Bible. How should we consider it today?

Cutting words

Many translations of the Bible specifically use the word ‘tattoo’, though this may be misleading. ‘Tattoo’ is a Tahitian loanword that came into the English language in the time of Captain Cook, with its own semantic range and cultural significance. (Incidentally, the only other commonly-used Polynesian loanword is the Tongan ‘taboo’.) The Hebrew word in question is qa‘aqa‘, which may – possibly – onomatopoeically reference the same repetitive tapping involved in the process as the Tahitian tatau. There are only so many ways to skin a cat, or indeed to tattoo a cat’s skin (a niche but controversial trend that has gained traction among Russian tattoo enthusiasts who own hairless cats).

 While the mechanics of tattooing may have been the same, the Bible almost certainly refers to a specific cultural practice. This chapter of Leviticus mentions various activities that were associated with pagan worship and funeral rites, including the beard care of 19:27. The first part of verse 28 states ‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead...’, and that wider context can be assumed to remain unchanged for the second part.

Canaanite texts show that – as in some cultures today – it is still the custom for mourners to cut their bodies as an expression of grief (or in the course of pagan worship – as the prophets of Baal famously do when challenged by Elijah). The Bible mentions this repeatedly, alongside selective shaving. ‘You are the children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.’ (Deuteronomy 14:1; see also Leviticus 21:5, 1 Kings 18:28 and Jeremiah 48:37) This cutting may have resulted in or deliberately been combined with permanent marking or tattooing, possibly using the ash that was often placed on the head and face, sometimes even from a funeral pyre. This disservice to the epidermis, which presumably itself occasionally resulted in fatal infection, was supposed to ease the deceased’s passage to the next life or show sincerity to the gods in question.

Everything is permissible...

And so, when referring to this verse to decide whether tattooing is permissible, the phrase ‘...for the dead’ must be at least as important as ‘do not cut your bodies...’ The Bible primarily places tattooing in the context of pagan worship, rather than as an aesthetic act (albeit one that often has broader symbolism for the recipient). When Paul discussed eating food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians, the point that requires nuancing is ‘sacrificed to idols’ - not the fact that members of the Church have been eating in the first place.

In Leviticus and elsewhere in the Bible, then, tattooing and cutting:

  • Have strong religious connotations
  • Are discussed specifically in the context of funeral customs

The Bible does not suggest that tattooing is intrinsically pagan, even if the only references to tattooing it makes are within a pagan context. Either way, it does not have inherently pagan connotations today. A comparable practice would be cutting the side of the beard (something no one complains about today, but that appears alongside tattooing in Leviticus 19).

However, we also have to bear in mind Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians. The body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and there are good arguments around needlessly altering or doing damage to God’s creation and dwelling place. ‘“I have the right to do anything,” you say – but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” – but not everything is constructive.’ (1 Corinthians 10:23) Whilst these are certainly worth considering, this premise also locates tattoos on a spectrum of practices of varying permanence and severity, from dyed hair and pierced ears through microchip implants and cosmetic surgery. Motive is again important.

Mark of the cross

This also raises questions around tattooing in a specifically religious context, and also in the context of death. Some Christians have tattoos of crosses, Bible verses or other designs of significance to their faith; similarly, some people remember loved ones who have died by means of a tattoo – a name, date or other design. Is this sailing a little too close to the wind, a practice that is just too similar to the one banned in Leviticus 19?

Bearing the warnings of 1 Corinthians 8 in mind and remaining aware of other sensitivities, it is once again not the specific act or permanence of tattooing that is the problem, it is the pagan content. In our culture, and most other modern settings, tattoos no longer hold pagan connotations. A tattoo, even ‘for the dead’, is not an act of idolatry; it does not emulate another religion’s practices. In terms of specifically religious tattoos, the key question is the nature of the design. There is no reason to ban tattoos of Christian content (crosses, Bible verses). Obviously, tattoos that feature designs that do have specifically pagan or non-Christian connotations (e.g. pentagrams or Zodiac symbols) should be avoided.

But then, as a Christian, if you’re thinking of permanently marking your body with the symbols of another religion, you probably need to be asking some deeper questions about your faith anyway.


This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of our Engage News Magazine.

Learning to Love Leviticus #1: The Ban on Mixed-Fibre Clothing


[1] This article doesn’t deal with medical tattooing or other forms of medically-necessary body modification.

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