Tattoos and the Bible

Online articles related to tattoos and religion have something in common. Each topic is capable of creating heated, angered debates in the reader comments. What happens when you combine the two topics is just pure chaos. Case in point, an article titled ‘Inking for Jesus: Dozens of church members take Lenten tattoo challenge‘ recently appeared on CNN’s belief blog. The resulting 900+ comments were exactly what I expected them to be. On one side there are the usual group of people who just plain hate tattoos. But on top of that you now add in the religious crowd who thinks tattoos are an abomination and go against the word of god. It is only a matter of time before the Leviticus quotes begin flowing. Christians just love to use Leviticus to prove without a doubt that tattoos are forbidden by god. The most often quoted passage is Leviticus 19:28.

Interpreting Leviticus

At first glance, the argument seems pretty clear cut, but hand-picking a single line out of an entire passage doesn’t tell the whole story. If you take the time to read the Leviticus passage in it’s full context, you would see that these laws are referring directly to pagan rituals. There is an excellent article on the Sacred Ink website,, which explains this in great detail.

Here is an excerpt where he speaks about Leviticus 19:26-31:

In this passage God is speaking to his covenant people Israel. He is specifically telling them to stay far from the religious practices of the surrounding people groups. The prohibited religious practices in these verses include eating bloody meat, fortune telling, certain hair cuts related to the priests of false cults, cutting or marking the body for dead relatives, cultic prostitution and consulting psychics. All these practices would lead God’s beloved people away from Him and toward false gods that were not Gods at all. In the midst of this context we find the word translated “tattoo marks” in verse 28. It is important to note here that the context of this passage is not one of body décor but one of marking one’s self in connection with cultic religious worship. Bible commentaries tell us much about the eastern religious practices that God was warning His people to shun.

Taken in context, it becomes very clear that it is not about modern day tattoos at all unless the tattoo is being used as part of a religious ceremony. This is why it’s acceptable for people to trim their beards and cut their hair today even though it is forbidden in Leviticus.


1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
2. An act or instance of such falseness.

Leviticus has also been used by Christians to condemn homosexuality. Just like the tattoo argument, they choose to single out this law while ignoring such a large portion of the remaining verses of Leviticus. It must be nice to have the freedom to decide which laws must be followed, and which can be ignored completely.

This clip from The West Wing does a pretty good job of illustrating that point.

Some of the commonly ignored laws of Leviticus are:

  • Any person who curseth his mother or father, must be killed.
  • If a man cheats on his wife, or vise versa, both the man and the woman must die.
  • If a man has sex with a woman on her period, they are both to be “cut off from their people”
  • People who have flat noses, or is blind or lame, cannot go to an altar of God
  • Anyone who curses or blasphemes God, should be stoned to death by the community.

For a more detailed look at these laws, head over to the Bible Babble website and take a look at this article:

Can anyone honestly read all of these obscure laws and say that they are still applicable in the 21st century? It is generally accepted that we are no longer allowed to go around stoning people to death for cursing their mother or father. These laws are antiquated and many of them are completely irrelevant to our lives today.

For many people, this is no longer about obeying the word of God, but about using the bible to support their point of view. Claiming that “I wasn’t the one who said it, it’s in the bible”, is just a lame excuse that they feel gets them off the hook. But I rarely see anyone respond to the questions posed above regarding the laws which essentially encourage genocide. One of the excuses I recently heard was this:

We can’t stone people because it is against our law.

So, in certain circumstances, the laws of god can be overridden by modern law and you are willing to accept that. But other laws are deemed to be the word of god and nobody dare challenge them. There is no logic in this argument.

Other Pagan Rituals

Since the idea of prohibiting Pagan practices is at the crux of the tattoo argument, let’s examine that argument in a little more detail.

Lev. 19:26-28 is a condemnation of assorted pagan, witchcraft and heathen practices, of which tattooing is clearly one of them. Every commentary written on Lev. 19:28 says that tattooing comes from pagan origins.

The amusing part about this argument is that so many of the modern Christian holidays, symbols and practices were adapted directly from the pagans. We are not talking about obscure practices, but major holidays such as Christmas, and Easter. Practicing these holidays should be considered one of the worst offenses when trying to avoid pagan rituals. The details are far to lengthy and the topic for another post altogether, but those who are interested can read more here: NON-BIBLICAL HOLIDAYS


There was another extensively researched paper, ‘UNDER THE NEEDLE: AN ETHICAL EVALUATION OF TATTOOS AND BODY PIERCINGS‘, which was published in the Christian Research Journal in 2005. The author dives deep into the subject of tattoos, piercings and the bible and reaches the following conclusion:

If the tattoo or body piercing (1) will not violate your conscience or the conscience of others, (2) will not cause permanent harm or disease to your physical body, (3) will not harm your interpersonal relationships, and (4) is symbolic of a spiritual truth that will benefit your relationship with Christ and your witness to the world, then I believe that it will not desecrate the image of God and you as a Christian are free in Christ to go under the needle.

So, while there are a few caveats, tattoos were found to be an acceptable practice for Christians. Those people who want to pluck a single sentence from the bible and use it to condemn all tattoos, need to do a little more research on the subject before jumping to conclusions. Before condemning others for going against the word of god, take a close look at your own life and think about how many violations you are guilty of yourself. Stop being hypocrites and making excuses for ignoring certain laws while trying to uphold others.

If you think that tattoos go against your beliefs, then do not get any tattoos, but for the love of god, stop trying to force those beliefs onto those who do not feel the same way.


  1. Sher says

    When one quotes Torah, one needs to take the words back to the language Torah is written in… and that would be Hebrew. Leviticus 19:28 does not reference the dead, King James got this one all wrong in translation… the word that is translated “for the dead” is the word “Nephesh” Look it up! It is the word for “soul” and should read “for your soul do not cut your flesh or make any marks upon you”.

    Now, when you go to Duet 14:1 you will find the scripture that speaks of the dead. The hebrew word for dead is “muwth” …“You are the children of the YHVH your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave the front of your head for the dead… notice the reference for the dead is in shaving the front of the head. The Pagans of Elijah’s day cut themselves during their pagan practice, read 1 Kings 18:20-38… Makes NO mention of the dead… pagan ritual period!

    • says

      Every single English translation of the bible refers to the dead in Lev 19:28. I looked Nephesh and found a ton of information. Yes, one of the many meanings is “soul”, but it has over 40 different meanings depending on the context. I found nearly universal agreement that in Lev 19:28, Nephesh is referring to the dead.

      I also have to disagree with your assessment that “for the dead” as used in Duet 14:1 is only talking about shaving the front of your head. It would be redundant to say “you shall not cut yourselves for the dead nor shave the front of your head for the dead”, so the sentence was simply shortened and “for the dead” was only spoken once, but it still refers to both the cutting and shaving.

      That being said, it doesn’t matter which of our interpretations is correct. The fact is the intent of these passages was to stop people from performing pagan rituals. So, unless a person gets their tattoo as part of one these rituals, I don’t see the problem.

      • SHER says

        Paul, you are “dead” wrong when you said quote: “every single translation of the bible refers to the dead in Leviticus 19:28″… You did not look at Young’s Literal Translation, this translation is considered one of the most accurate Bibles ever translated, if not the most accurate. And yes, Robert Young correctly translates Nephesh as “Soul” . The whole point of His Story (history) was to teach His people not to do the things that the pagan nations do, period. We can set aside the “for the dead” part. People choose to do things for whatever reason and they choose to justify the things done and in this world EGO (the false self) plays a big role in all decisions if you let it.

        • says

          I should have qualified my statement by saying “every translation that I have encountered”. Biblehub shows 21 translations side-by-side and 20 out of 21 use the word “dead”. I didn’t literally mean that I checked every single version of the bible. I am not a bible scholar and admittedly had not even heard of Young’s Literal Translation until this conversation. But regardless of whether the word soul or dead was used in the literal translation, it is commonly agreed that it is referring to the dead.

          The whole point of His Story (history) was to teach His people not to do the things that the pagan nations do, period.

          This is exactly the point I made in my post and why I feel that these levitical laws are not relevant in modern society.

  2. Eric says


    You ask a great question: “If you can so clearly explain why certain ancient laws and their punishments are no longer applicable in modern times, why should others still stand?”

    First some context:

    The Old Testament (Genesis-Malachi) was written for the Jews. No one was pressured to follow their traditions, celebrations, or rules if they weren’t Jews, unless they converted to Judaism. The Old Testament shares the history of God’s dealings with the Jews, including the laws He gave to them that were intended to protect them, preserve them as a nation (rather than being absorbed by more dominant cultures), and show them the importance of holiness and purity. Much of what goes on in the OT points to the coming Messiah (Jesus Christ). For example, look at Isaiah 53 online which was written centuries before Christ was born. One important point that is missed by many, is that one of the purposes of the many OT laws was to show it was impossible to please God without faith (see Hebrews 11).

    When Jesus Christ came, he didn’t call for people to start following a bunch of rules and laws. He called on them to repent (turn to God) and believe in Him as their Savior who would forgive their sins (the Gospel). The whole point of the Bible is the Gospel. It’s not a list of rules to follow and beat others over the head with. That’s Bible-abuse! If you read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) you’ll see Jesus confronting the most outwardly religious and hypocritical people with harsh words (look up Matthew 23 online – it’s awesome), but showing love, grace and protection to a prostitute and calling her to repentance. He was known as “the friend of sinners,” not because He agreed with or liked their sin, but because they were not hypocrites and they responded to his calls of repentance and belief – they knew they needed Him. At the same time, He wasn’t a wuss. He has strong words for those that reject Him as well.

    Finally, your answer. The teachings of Jesus are what stand, but they only make sense to those that believe in Him.

    Human nature hasn’t changed, and if you read one of the gospels you’ll see His words apply perfectly today (He is God after all). Interestingly, nine of the “ten commandments” are emphasized by Jesus, and even raised to a higher standard to include our hearts and thoughts, not just actions. True Christianity changes a persons heart. The only commandment not declared again by Jesus was to keep the Sabbath.

    I’m afraid that many people encounter “cultural Christians” that are more interested in controlling others appearance and behavior than allowing their own hearts to be changed and sharing the Gospel and truly caring about others. If that’s the case, I’m sorry and I hope you bump into some real ones.

    From Matthew 22:

    Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

    Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    I think I’ve crossed the line from Engineer to preacher, so I’ll stop. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

  3. Eric says

    I visited this site to learn about why people get tattoos. I’m also an Engineer and a Christian. If it matters (I don’t think it does), I don’t have any tattoos. I did learn some things – thanks.

    I have to say that I agree 100% that verses are taken out of context to condemn tattoos. This passage is clearly related to pagan rituals. Every Christian I know would agree that this is the case. We have members of our church that have tattoos. No issues. No questions.

    I think though, that you are doing the same thing by pulling verses out of context (and it’s really not necessary to support your point).

    For example, when you quote, “People who have flat noses, or are blind or lame, cannot go to an altar of God,” you are taking a verse out of the context which applied only to priests, and only to priests that served at altar. This was an incredibly narrow slice of Israeli people, and a very exclusive job. God was very particular about the altar and sacrifices made for the forgiveness of sin, and required animals without blemish and people without blemish to sacrifice them (only the priest could do this, everyday people could not). It communicated that God was all about perfection and it pointed to the sacrifice of His perfect Son, Jesus Christ, who was without sin. God didn’t and doesn’t have anything against people with blemishes, nor animals with blemishes. To the contrary, if you read the whole Bible, you’ll see he cherishes people with blemishes. Something very unique about the Bible is that God used ordinary, blemished and broken people to accomplish His will. He cherishes people with and without tattoos too.

    Likewise, I think many people miss the point with verses that call for deadly or other severe punishment. Again, God was communicating to Israel that perfection was the standard, and in some cases the survival of the Israeli people was at stake. Reviewing the remaining items on your list:

    Any person who curseth his mother or father…
    If a man cheats on his wife…
    If a man has sex with a woman on her period…
    Anyone who curses or blasphemes God…

    Many people of all faiths and no faith would agree that the first two prohibitions are morally wrong. Most people of faith would agree that the last item is also wrong (It is completely irrelevant to those without faith). We can take issue with the punishments that were prescribed only for a certain people at a certain time, but we can’t deny the fact that God took (and still takes) these things very, very, seriously.

    The third item (blood) is more complicated, but relates to the different types of law: Moral, ceremonial, judicial/civil, and health. This is not a moral law and it simply doesn’t apply today. Again, it was used to communicate purity and relates to the importance of blood. Not enough time to go into that!

    Today, Christians are concerned with moral laws, because the other laws served the purpose of keeping Israel separate and focused on perfection and cleanliness and pointed them to the coming Messiah (Jesus Christ) that fulfilled the Law. If you read the entirety of local, county, state and federal laws of any country today (the equivalent of the first five books of the Old Testament for Israel), you would find all kinds of things that seemed ridiculous, unnecessary, and outdated. That wouldn’t lead you to say that laws about stealing, murder, cheating and so on don’t apply today, would it?

    Finally, and most importantly, God is not interested in getting everyone in the world to behave a certain way. He loves us and wants to forgive and save people through repentance and personal faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Only then, does He want to change us from the inside out, not by applying rules from the outside in. Hate is an overused word, but God agrees with you and He hates hypocrisy. The only way to avoid hypocrisy is to change from the inside out.

    People with tattoos don’t want to be judged by others based on stereotypes or bad experiences. Authentic Christians want the same thing.

    • says

      Thank you for the excellent comment, Eric.

      I understand that the quotes that I chose were taken out of context, and your explanations of those quotes only further strengthens the point I am trying to make here. The reason it is necessary to point out these quotes is that people who are not as familiar with the bible as you are may not have been aware of these particular passages.

      Pointing out some of the more absurd ancient laws that are ignored by an overwhelming majority of christians while they quote scripture to condemn those of us with tattoos is my way of pointing out the hypocrisy that so many are guilty of.

      If you can so clearly explain why certain ancient laws and their punishments are no longer applicable in modern times, why should others still stand? I’m not talking about murder, cheating and stealing because I don’t need laws to know that those things are wrong. I’m talking about condemning tattoos, birth control, gay marriage…

      Times have changed since the bible was written and I think most people would agree that many of the laws that sound ridiculous today may have had their merits in ancient times. My main issue is those people who pick and choose from the bible, using a single quote to support their point of view, while completely ignoring the context.

      You clearly have a better understanding of the bible than the average christian and my post was not directed at people like you who actually take the time to understand what they are reading.

  4. branwyn says

    I’ve always wanted to see a ‘leviticus 19′ tatt. you made a dream come true for me today, though I have always interpreted that passage as a warning against one-up-manship, i.e don’t cut yourself to prove your grief is greater than anothers grief, sort of a keeping up with the jones’.

    I am pagan, I am a gypsy and all of my tattoos were/are ritualistic and represent my pagan beliefs, various dietys (for my god is a horny/horned god) nature spirits and spirit animals, evolution, and the re-emergance of animistic and nature based religions despite the genocidal attempts by the early ‘missionaries and armies of christ or whoever’ to wipe out nature worship, in favour of the homosapian-centric views of the main organised religions.

    Today, as the natural world and all it’s inhabitants suffer because of human ‘superiority’ and God-given dominion over the animals and environment, many people are looking towards the practises and lifestyle of those peoples, extinct or otherwise who were/are able to live as part of nature and treat their environment with reverance and respect.

    Many neo-pagan people sport body art that reflects their love of nature and their animistic beliefs, chosen path and accomplishments achieved such as visionary experiences, shamanic totems or the completion of a ceremony, for example.

    These tattoos also symbolise belonging, as tattoos have since tattooing began, and are healing the spirituality of green spirited people who identify with the suffering of mother nature.

    To me, this type of adornment is the very essence of the spirit of tattooing and being tattooed, and it is beautiful that tattoo, an art that has in european eyes variously been the mark of kings, savages, criminals, outlaws, prisoners and rockstars has come full circle and is again the mark of the pagan, ritualistic mystical, mysterious and to those who need quote the bible and decry tattoos, hopefully alarming, as it may signal a shift back towards the aboriginal, natural state of being, where man is not controlled by greed or ancient books but will eventually be able to live at one with the natural world once more

  5. brewcityboi says

    What a great read!!! Im pretty covered in tattoos and many of them represent different aspects of my faith, spirituality, and my history. I appreciate how all aspects were discussed and respected equally. Wow. Just awesome. :)

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