Many Christians use the Bible verse Leviticus 19:28 “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourself” as proof that getting a tattoo is a sin. However, if you look at the scripture in context you’ll see that the Bible doesn’t really address or say anything about our modern day concept of tattoos.
As tattoos grow in popularity each year, it makes sense that most Christians wonder what the Bible has to say about tattoos. The short answer is that the Bible does not say anything clear and direct about tattoos. Leviticus 19:28 verse literally translates: “And a cutting for the dead you will not make in your flesh; and writing marks you will not make on you; I am the Lord.” The word writing refers to inscribed or engraved symbols/words, and is used only here. The word for marks, also used here alone, has an uncertain root, so we’re not really sure what the word means. Further, the word tattoo did not enter into the English language until the late 1700s. This is probably why the KJV, written in the early 1600s, is closer to the literal translation saying, “ye shall not…print marks upon you.”
The background to this law was that Israel, after being rescued from slavery, was between Egypt and Canaan. Recent archeology indicates that, while Egypt did tattoo, it was limited to women. Evidence suggests that tattooing the body parts of women associated with fertility (breasts, thighs and abdomen) was believed to be a good luck charm to protect the birthing process. In Canaan, evidence indicates that instead of marking the body with ink, more extreme scarification measures, like branding, slashing or gashing the skin were used. Archeology, backed by biblical texts, indicates the Canaanites would customarily slash their bodies for ritualistic purposes (1 Kings 18:28), especially to mourn their dead and honor their gods. Leviticus 19:28 seems to imply this when it says, “you will not make cuttings in your flesh, for the dead, nor print marks on you.”
In light of this information from Egypt and Canaan, it would seem God was forbidding scarification, not tattooing as we know it. With this said, while there may be no clear passage in the Bible addressing tattoos, this is hardly a license for unrestrained tattooing. You still need to think before you ink, especially if you’re a Christian. The following Bible verses should help you make a decision on your tattoo and your walk with Christ.
What does the Bible say about tattoos?
The Bible mentions tattoos just once, at Leviticus 19:28, which says: “You must not put tattoo marking upon yourselves”. God gave this command to the nation of Israel, thus setting them apart from the neighboring peoples who marked their skin with the names or symbols of their gods. (Deuteronomy 14:2) While the Law given to Israel is not binding on Christians, the principle underpinning this law is worth serious consideration.
Should a Christian get a tattoo or body art?
The following Bible verses can help you to reason on the matter:
• “Women should adorn themselves with . . . modesty.” (1 Timothy 2:9, New American Bible) That principle applies to both women and men. We should respect the feelings of others and not draw undue attention to ourselves.
• Some want to establish their identity or independence, while others get a tattoo in order to assert ownership of their body. However, the Bible encourages Christians: “Present your bodies a sacrifice living, holy, acceptable to God, a sacred service with your power of reason.” (Romans 12:1) Use your “power of reason” to analyze why you want a tattoo. If it is because you want to follow a fad or to show membership in a certain group, remember that your feelings may prove to be less permanent than the tattoo. Examining your motives can help you to make a wise decision.—Proverbs 4:7.
• “The plans of the diligent one surely make for advantage, but everyone that is hasty surely heads for want.” (Proverbs 21:5) The decision to get a tattoo is often made in haste, yet it can have a long-term impact on relationships and employment. And tattoos can be costly and painful to remove. Research—as well as the booming business of tattoo removal—shows that a large number of those who get tattoos eventually wish that they hadn’t.