What does the Bible say about tattoos?
A single verse addresses the subject, biblical scholars told The Christian Chronicle. Leviticus 19:28
says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.”
However, most commentators regard that Scripture as part of a longer passage concerning the worship of foreign gods, said Timothy M. Willis, a professor of religion at Pepperdine University
in Malibu, Calif.
Read our profile of Harry J. Ake, a New Jersey tattoo artist and member of the Pitman Road Church of Christ in Sewell, N.J.
“The usual thinking is that, unless the tattoo is intended to communicate the support of other gods or sinful behavior, it need not be forbidden,” Willis said. “Ultimately, it is a matter of personal conscience.”
Scholars have an imprecise understanding of the term translated as “tattoo” because it’s used only once, said Lance Hawley, a doctoral candidate in Hebrew Bible at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“It might intend to prohibit writing by incision or branding,” said Hawley, a member of the Mandrake Road Church of Christ in Madison. “Almost certainly, it is not addressing the decorative body art conveyed by ‘tattoo’ in our culture.”
At one time, tattoos carried a stereotype as belonging to the likes of sailors, gang members and ex-convicts, said Scott Adair, an associate professor of Bible and ministry at Harding University
in Searcy, Ark. But in recent years, tattoos have gained acceptance in mainstream culture.
“There is a generation gap regarding views on tattoos in the Churches of Christ,” Adair said. “Baby Boomers and older tend to view them as unprofessional, unwise and perhaps tacky, but they do not tend to view them as sinful.”
Holly Holladay is a member of the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ in Allen, Texas.
As part of his doctoral studies, Adair explored the reasons some Harding students chose to put “permanent ink” on their bodies. His research found students’ tattoos “laden with meaning.”
“More than half of the HU students that have tattoos say that they did so primarily for spiritual or religious reasons,” said Adair, who conducted his research in 2008.
Shortly before she turned 40, Holladay chose a tattoo for the back of her neck that reads “Faith” in one direction and “Hope” in the other.
“Tattoos aren’t for everyone, but for some people, they have special meaning,” she said. “I think the decision to have a tattoo is a personal one and doesn’t detract from nor elevate one’s standing as a Christian.”