What Does the Bible Say About Tattoos?

Taboo tattoos

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2016.—Ed.


Torah Scroll. What is said about tattoos in the Bible? Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible, prohibits them without giving an explicit reason. Why does the Bible prohibit tattoos? Photo: “Open Torah and Pointer” by Lawrie Cate is licensed under CC-by-SA-2.0.

What does the Bible say about tattoos?

Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” Although this passage clearly prohibits tattoos, it does not give an explicit reason why. This begs the question: Why does the Bible prohibit tattoos?

In his Biblical Views column “Unholy Ink: What Does the Bible Say about Tattoos?” Mark W. Chavalas, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, examines the taboo on tattoos in the Bible. Not only does he analyze traditional explanations for this prohibition, but he also investigates what tattoos signified to ancient Near Eastern peoples, including the ancient Israelites, which suggests the real reason why tattoos were taboo.

Leviticus 19 denounces idolatry and several pagan mourning practices. Some have thought that because of the proximity of the taboo on tattoos to the prohibition of other pagan mourning practices in Leviticus, tattooing must have been a pagan mourning practice. However, we find no evidence of this in ancient texts from the Levant, Mesopotamia or Egypt. As far as we can tell, tattooing was not an ancient mourning practice in these cultures.

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This is not to give the impression that tattooing never appears in ancient Near Eastern texts; it does—just not as a mourning practice. In the ancient Near East, tattoos were used to mark slaves. Often the name of a slave’s owner would be tattooed or branded on his hand or forehead. If then the slave were to run away, he could be easily returned to his master. Thus, tattooing was seen as a sign of ownership.

Chavalas thinks that this might be behind the taboo on tattoos in the Bible:

“Tattooing, an insignia of ownership, was perhaps condemned in Leviticus because it reminded them [the Israelites] of their past. After all, they had just spent the last four centuries as slaves in Egypt, where tattooing was also used as a sign of slavery. No longer considered slaves, the Israelites now were prohibited to mark their bodies with permanent signs of servitude to former masters. This did not have to be explicitly articled to them; no one need ask prison inmates why they shed their orange jumpsuits when they are no longer incarcerated.”

Chavalas also notes that there might be a positive reference to tattoos in the Bible. Isaiah 44:5 reads:

This one will say, “I am the LORD’s,”
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, “The LORD’s,”
and adopt the name of Israel.

By writing God’s name on his hand, the Israelite in Isaiah 44:5 “was willingly proposing to become a servant of God.” At least in this case, it seems that tattooing was acceptable because the person was marking himself as belonging to the God of Israel.

To learn more about tattoos in the Bible, read Mark Chavalas’s full column “Unholy Ink: What Does the Bible Say about Tattoos?” in the November/December 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read the full Biblical Views column “Unholy Ink: What Does the Bible Say about Tattoos?” by Mark Chavalas in the November/December 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 31, 2016.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone? by Richard Elliott Friedman

Book of Leviticus Verses Recovered from Burnt Hebrew Bible Scroll

The Exodus: Fact or Fiction?


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26 Responses

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  1. Norman says

    Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” Although this passage clearly prohibits tattoos, it does not give an explicit reason why. This begs the question: Why does the Bible prohibit tattoos?

    First of all the Lord is very clear on this matter for good reason. Tattoos is a pagan practice and those who wear tattoos unknowingly open a doorway to demonic influence. It is for your spiritual protection that you should not have any tattoos on your body regardless of its size. I really wish you Bible scholars quit rationalizing the word of God thinking you know everything because in reality you don’t know what you really need to know. If you truly want o understand God’s Word all you have to do is humble yourself and call on Him and He will impart understanding to you if you open your ears and listen. The Bible is in truth plainly written but you have to humble yourself and lean not to your own understanding.

  2. Moshe Natan says

    The Chabad Torah site has much on this subject

  3. GREGORY says

    A Biblical commentator, living in the time when ancient paganism was still being practiced, stated: “What does it mean … neither should you make tattoos upon yourselves? [Lev 18:28] … People even tattooed certain parts of the body with needles, and injected therein ink, out of reverence for the demons. Therefore, the divine law forbids these things” (“Questions about Leviticus” by Theodoret §28 in Patrologia Graeca vol. 80, col. 338; translation ours).

    His opinion finds sufficient backing in ancient literature and in an apocryphal book of the Bible. Whether the bodily marking was achieved by ink or by branding, a symbol having religious significance was imprinted upon the body permanently:

    “Egypt … in that mouth of the Nile … there stood upon the shore a temple, which still exists, dedicated to Hercules. If a slave runs away from his master, and taking sanctuary at this shrine gives himself up to the god, and receives certain sacred marks upon his person, whosoever his master may be, he cannot lay hand on him” (Herodotus 2, 113; 5th C. BCE). “The tattooed marks were the sign that the worshipper belonged to the god; thus at the temple of Heracles at the Canobic mouth of the Nile, the fugitive slave who had been marked with the sacred stigmata could not be reclaimed by his master” (Lectures on the Relgion of the Semites by W. Robertson Smith 9, p. 334, ftn. 1, London, Adam and Charles Black, 1894).

    “[Ptolemy IV Philopator] proposed to inflict public disgrace upon the Jewish community, and he set up a stone on the tower in the courtyard with this inscription: ‘None of those who do not sacrifice shall enter their sanctuaries, and all Jews shall be subjected to a registration involving poll tax and to the status of slaves. Those who object to this are to be taken by force and put to death; those who are registered are also to be branded on their bodies by fire with the ivy-leaf symbol of Dionysus, and they shall also be reduced to their former limited status.’ In order that he might not appear to be an enemy to all, he inscribed below: ‘But if any of them prefer to join those who have been initiated into the mysteries, they shall have equal citizenship with the Alexandrians’ ” (3Maccabees 2:27-30; Revised Standard translation; 2nd C. BCE).

    “Some men … hasten onwards to the slavery and service of images made by hands, confessing it in distinct characters … branding the characters deep on their persons with a burning iron, in order that they may remain ineffacebly, for these things are not dimmed or weakened by time” (“The Special Laws“ 1, 10, 58 in Philo Judaeus; 1st C. CE).

  4. GREGORY says

    The rabbinic writings prohibit tattooing as a part of false worship, but allow it for marking slaves: “If a man wrote [on his skin] pricked-in writing [he is culpable] … but only if he writes it or pricks it in with ink or eye-paint or aught that leaves a lasting mark … R. Simeon b. Judah says in the name of R. Simeon: He is not culpable unless he writes there the name [of a god]” (Mishnah, Makkoth 3, 6). The Tosefta explains this passage of the Mishnah: “But not liable unless he makes the tattoo with ink or eye paint … for an idol … And he who makes a mark on his slave so that he will not run away, is exempt [so far as the prohibition of tattooing is concerned]” (Tosefta, Makkot 4, 15G-H, J).

  5. heather says

    I don’t believe that this article was meant to sway one’s opinion on the right or wrong of tattooing the body; but mainly to give a different perspective. How do you study and show yourself approved if you aren’t willing to hear the other side of the argument? We Christians are so quick to shut bible scholars down because they desire knowledge and wisdom, and at times it conflicts with what we know or believe. Who are we to say that bible scholars think they know everything? In fact, maybe they just want to know more. I find more honor and Godliness in that than just sticking to one book and condemning those who are searching for more. And I won’t even mention that we are no longer under the old law found in books such as Leviticus. We are under the new law (New Testament), which means regardless of a person tattooing their body or not, that person is still loved and can be forgiven of all sins. Otherwise, what did Jesus die for?

  6. D.C. says

    Many of the prescriptions and proscriptions in Leviticus have a public health benefit.

  7. david says

    I must say at the outset, I deplore tattoos as hideous and senseless. However, there appears to be little evidence Leviticus 19:28 has to do with tattoos as with the modern practice. The word cut has various interpretations, as a word search will show, while the word mark is unique to this verse. One should be careful not to take one brief reference to support their personal theory. The words print and mark in verse 28 probably have the meaning of cutting. (Taken literally one would need to be careful if visiting a hospital for a procedure.) There is another reference to cutting in Scripture, although a different word but probably infers the same practice, and found in 1Kings 18:28 where Elijah faces the prophets of Baal. When Baal did not answer their cries Elijah tell them to cut themselves with knives and lances. The practice appears to evoke a response by self harm and frenzy, and it was possibly that practice that God warned Israel about. (There is a similar principle mentioned by Jesus in the parable of the poor widow and the unjust judge, Luke 18. The Lord does not respond to continual and bothersome prayers but simple faith.) All this is not to say tattoos designed to represent a person’s ‘god’ is not wrong, any more or less than our way of life openly displays our faith and our God.

  8. James says

    I thought this was part of the Mosaic Law . Jesus said that it was the old law ,and he was the new law ??

  9. Elaine says

    God has tattoos. In both the old testament and the new it tells us that God has my (and your) name on the palm of His hand and His name on His thigh. Having a tattoo is not the issue. The reason why one has a tattoo is.

  10. Alice says

    The prohibition seems to be on people marking themselves, but not on God marking us. Might the mark on Cain be a tattoo?

  11. RevK says

    “4 “On that day every prophet will be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies. He will not put on a hairy cloak in order to deceive, 5 but he will say, ‘I am no prophet, I am a worker of the soil, for a man sold me in my youth.’ 6 And if one asks him, ‘What are these wounds on your back?’ he will say, ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’” – Zechariah 13

  12. Alex says

    Thank you Heather, for your response. I totally agree. People like Norman who choose to add on to the bible when it suits them and chastise scholars who dare to actually ask questions are really missing the bigger picture. Most people like that don’t want to be bothered by new discoveries and insights. They just want to stay in their own little judgemental ignorant world.

  13. Dean says

    It’s clear, at least to me, that it was because of false idol worship. They didn’t want them on people’s bodies.

  14. David says

    It’s fairly obvious to me that tattooing was a practice of pagans for whatever reason, and the Israelites were forbidden to emulate them.
    So it occurs to me that perhaps the adult male Israelites, having been slaves, were tattooed, and that this was a subtext for them all dying in the desert, so that no one with a slave tattoo would enter the promised land…

  15. Alfredo says

    What do you think about allowing graffiti on the White House, the Capitol or any of those precious buildings? (Precious at men’s eyes…)

    What do you think about putting graffiti on the temple of the Holy Spirit? (Precious at God’s eyes…)

    1 Corinthians 6:19-20New International Version (NIV)
    19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;

  16. Pamela says

    This seems more of a customary law and not a moral law that Jesus said in Matthew 5:19-48. Jesus never said we are to keep the customary laws or right standing laws as he fulfilled it on the cross. The Jewish customs during their century does not apply in this century.

  17. Harry says

    The prohibition on tattoos is related to the prohibition on desecrating the body. Two examples: 1. One cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if their body contains a tattoo; 2. A Jewish body is never embalmed nor cremated as these two acts also desecrate the body.

  18. Gary says

    I would think that the core of the prohibitions against decorative scarification, tattooing, piercings, and cutting the hair, even makeup, is due to man insisting that he can do better than Hashem, as to how man appears to the eye.

    In the Eyes of Hashem, each one of us was fashioned exactly as He chooses to make us. And he has made each one of us with the potential to be perfect, albeit in His eyes. No man can possibly improve upon the Hand of Hashem; it is arrogance and conceit, two grave errors, to think it even possible. .

  19. Rob says

    We ostracize yet today. Ever visit someplace and view a tattooed person, especially a lady (girl?), and have the thought run across one’s mind: “Oh, there goes a person of a lower class than I am.”

  20. David says

    This one will say, “I am the LORD’s,”
    another will be called by the name of Jacob,
    yet another will write on the hand, “The LORD’s,”
    and adopt the name of Israel.

    ‘ By writing God’s name on his hand, the Israelite in Isaiah 44:5 “was willingly proposing to become a servant of God.” At least in this case, it seems that tattooing was acceptable because the person was marking himself as belonging to the God of Israel.’

    I don’t buy this theory at all. It doesn’t make sense that the Bible would say to never mark up your skin in one passage and then completely contradict itself in another.

    Therefore, the ‘writing’ is referring to something else other than a tattoo.

    Here’s a complete different opinion on the subject of whether or not Christians can have a tattoo:

  21. Jesse says

    The passage from Isaiah 44:5, read literally, simply means that a person has inscribed WITH, not ON, their hand that they belong to Yah. It doesn’t use the same language as when referring to a tattoo. And the mention in Revelation 19:16 about a name being on Jesus’ thigh has only in our contemporary culture been thought of as a tattoo. Most commentators understood and explained that the name was written on either clothing or a sword on the thigh of Jesus, not his bare skin.

    I do agree with the writer, however, that the tattoo makes more sense when viewed as a branding of ownership rather than simply a mourning ritual. However, God doesn’t need tattoos to brand his servants. Several other signs were in place to make that distinction: circumcision, tallit, and in the case of literal servants, piercing a person’s ear with an awl, to name a few. Overall, the entirety of Torah was meant to distinguish who was God’s and who wasn’t.

  22. Richard says

    I have a suggestion, why don’t we quit trying to be like the nations and just do what He says? He is who we are supposed to please, correct? Not the other way around. How would you like it if someone said, ” You’re putting too many restrictions upon me, I know what I want and what’s the best for my life, hey I give You maybe an hour each weekend!” He said what behavior, what time He has set aside for us to meet with Him, how to distinguish ourselves from the nations so that they can say ” what an awesome God you serve”. Wake up and smell the coffee, older, newer He doesn’t change, He’s the same yesterday today and guess what, tomorrow.
    Be obedient not to what you feel but what is written

  23. Sandy says

    What about if you’ve already had tats and didn’t know about this. Bit late to do anything? Having them removed isn’t a financial option unfortunately. If God will accept murderers etc who have converted to being christians, why not people with tats?

  24. K says

    The mark of the beast will be on the right hand or forehead.

  25. Benny says

    Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
    Matthew 5:17


  26. MARLENE says

    To sandy: i dont believe you will be beld accountable if you didnt know. It is for someone who feels in their heart it could be wrong and study the bible and dont feel good about getting a tattoo and still go ahead with it. If have a tattoo and now feel the need to repent then you can be forgiven.

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