Biblical Archaeology Review 42:6, November/December 2016

Biblical Views: Unholy Ink: What Does the Bible Say about Tattoos?

By Mark W. Chavalas

For those of us over 50, any mention of a person with tattoos often brings to mind a rowdy sailor or a motorcycle gang member. Over the past generation, however, the art of tattooing has become part of mainstream culture, part of a larger phenomenon that includes the art of body piercing. It is not just young people who engage in this form of body art; many of those who have tattoos are at the social forefront of society: mothers, business people and sports stars. One cannot view an NBA game without seeing multiple tattoos on some of the players.

The Biblical writers clearly condemned the practice of tattooing. Leviticus 19:28 prohibits cutting or marking the body. No reason is given in this verse, however, which probably means it was obvious to the ancient reader—but not to us. The larger context of the passage is concerned with pagan mourning practices and idolatry. Thus, tattooing has been traditionally deemed “guilty by association” with other pagan rites. This is how it has been interpreted by both Jews and Christians over the centuries. Interestingly, a parallel passage in Leviticus 21:5 mentions mourning prohibitions—but without any reference to tattooing.

Join the BAS Library!

Already a library member? Log in here.

Institution user? Log in with your IP address.