Does the Bible say anything about tattoos?
It doesn’t say much. In cultures around the world tattooing has been a common practice for ages. So your question is about an ancient practice that continues to be part of the human experience in many places. Tattoos are usually understood to refer to designs or symbols or art on the body by inserting, through the use of certain instruments, ink or colorants under the epidermis. Human skin is used as a natural canvas. There is also what some call scar tattooing, the result of intentionally searing or scratching the body to create some type of mark or pattern.
I will first discuss the role of tattooing in biblical times, then the biblical text, and finally make some comments on the issue.
1. Tattooing in Biblical Times and Today: In the world of the Bible tattoos indicated social status; e.g., a slave would be inscribed with the name of his owner or of the owner’s god. They could also have religious significance. The name or symbol of the god was tattooed on the person. They could be made for protection, e.g., to shield the person from the attacks of evil powers. These three uses are found almost everywhere in the ancient world, and in many places today. In the Western world tattoos have traditionally been associated with sailors, gangs, and bikers, but this has changed. In the case of gangs, tattoos are basically expressions of rebellion and solidarity among members of the gang. A growing number of evangelicals in North America are using tattoos to express their commitment to Christ. Tattooing is no longer restricted to certain marginalized social groups; it is estimated that at least 24 percent of Americans have a tattoo. It is now perceived to be an act of self-expression, often commemorating an important event in the life of the person, or to have some other symbolic meaning (e.g., talismanic power). The fact that celebrities in sports and movies have tattoos makes the practice popular. Nevertheless, about 25 percent of those who have tattoos will remove them from their bodies.
2. Tattoos in the Bible: The Bible says very little about tattoos. The main text is Leviticus 19:28, which is part of a collection of laws in which pagan practices related to the dead are forbidden. The meaning of the Hebrew word qa‘aqa (“tattoo”) is uncertain, but based on postbiblical Hebrew, it is traditionally rendered “tattoo.” This is confirmed by the second noun, ketobet(“mark”), which is based on the verb “to write.” This is about writing something on the body. The phrase is taken as an idiom meaning “a tattoo” (“Do not put a tattoo on yourselves”). Often the tattooing mentioned is interpreted as referring to a pagan expression of mourning. But this is not clearly indicated in the text. And as far as I can tell, ancient mourning rituals did not include tattooing. The prohibition may refer to religious tattooing.
3. Word of Advice: The passage discussed above does not support tattooing. No specific reason is given for the prohibition, except that Leviticus 19 is a call to holiness. Therefore, the law aims at instructing God’s people on the way of holiness. Holiness expresses itself not only in the spiritual realm but in and through our bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are called to glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19). We can also add that humans, created in the image of God, are to reveal that image through their bodies and the way they treat them. Mutilations and tattoos may fall into this category, and could be seen as damaging God’s creation. We should also keep in mind that the body is not something we own, but who we are. It is a gift from the Lord; it belongs to the Lord. Therefore it would be better for Christians to abstain from tattooing.
But let me end with a word of caution: We should not sit in judgment against those who, for some reason, have decided to have a tattoo. Our churches should be open, willing, and ready to welcome any person who wants to worship with us. What we need is Christian understanding, not condemnation.
Now retired, Angel Manuel Rodríguez has served the church for several decades, most recently as director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.