Are tattoos OK for Jews and Christians? What does the Bible say?


Christians and Jews -- Is it OK for them to get tattoos?


Quick summary: Many if not most Jews say no (as do Muslims). With Christians, it’s complicated.

There are obvious pros and cons with getting a tattoo because it’s a social signifier and permanently so, unlike hair styles, attire, and other expressions of individuality. But as a religious matter the issue is whether to observe the Bible’s commandment in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead, or tattoo any marks upon you. I am the LORD” (New Revised Standard Version).

The Hebrew verb here is ambiguous but New York University’s Baruch Levine says it’s “clear in context” that it means tattooing.

Indeed, as Charles Erdman of Princeton Theological Seminary observed, tattooing was common “among all the nations of antiquity” so the ban clearly set apart worshipers of the Bible’s one God against surrounding “pagans.” Note the adjacent biblical laws against flesh-gashing rituals, witchcraft, wizards, and mediums seeking contact with the dead.

Such practices rarely tempt modern Jews, yet the ban remains a sign of religious or ethnic solidarity, as with avoidance of pork even among many non-observant or secularized Jews. However, present-day rabbis reject contentions that a tattooed person cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Experts Wilfrid Hambly and Victor Turner depicted the history of tattooing and similar designs cut into flesh (“scarification”) among darker-skinned peoples. There are deep roots in the polytheistic cultures of pre-literate South America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific islands, as well as biblical Canaan, with use  for fertility rites, rites of passage or magical benefits. Tattoos have marked a person’s social status or vocation as with clans, slaves, India’s “untouchable” caste or prostitutes. Such identifications continue in the 21st Century West, e.g. with seamen or criminal and prison gangs.

These historians said tattooing was widely abandoned as western civilization spread, due to the opposition by Judaism and Christianity, though “nominal adherents” of those faiths still got tattoos. But tattooing was fashionable in the 1970s among some celebrities and “counterculture” denizens, especially in locales like California, and became more widespread than formerly around North America.

Which Old Testament commandments should Christians continue to observe in the 21st Century? Consider the varied divine laws in that Leviticus chapter.

Continue reading "Are tattoos OK for Jews and Christians? What does the Bible say?" by Richard Ostling.

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