Why Does the Bible Forbid Tattoos? Exploring the Scriptural Reasons Behind the Ban
Tattoos have a rich history, dating back thousands of years, with their prevalence spanning the globe from Maori communities in New Zealand to corporate offices in Ohio. However, the Hebrew Bible, originating in the ancient Middle East, contains a clear prohibition against tattooing, as stated in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves.”
Traditionally, scholars have interpreted this prohibition as a cautionary measure against adopting pagan mourning practices. Yet, language expert John Huehnergard and ancient-Israel specialist Harold Liebowitz propose a different perspective, arguing that ancient societies viewed tattooing through a distinct lens.
While the prohibition in Leviticus follows verses associated with mourning, Huehnergard and Liebowitz find no historical references to skin markings as a mourning practice in ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Israel, or Egypt. Furthermore, they point out that other passages in Leviticus and Exodus address multiple issues within a single verse, suggesting a similar possibility here.
In ancient Mesopotamia, tattoos were commonly used to mark enslaved individuals, while in Egypt, they served as decorative elements for women of various social classes. Enslaved individuals were branded with the name of a deity, signifying ownership by priests or the pharaoh. Devotees also bore tattoos representing their chosen god.
Huehnergard and Liebowitz propose that the original intent behind the Torah’s ban on tattooing was to reject it as “the symbol of servitude,” given the central theme of liberation from Egyptian bondage in ancient Jewish law. Remarkably, they note another potential reference to tattoos in the Hebrew Bible in Isaiah 44:5, where tattoos seem permissible as symbols of submission to God rather than human masters.
In antiquity, various interpretations of the prohibition on tattooing emerged in rabbinic debates. Some authorities held that tattoos were only forbidden if they conveyed specific messages, such as the name of God, the phrase “I am the Lord,” or the name of a pagan deity. Talmudic law, established around 200 CE, stipulated that a tattoo was prohibited solely “for the purpose of idolatry” but not if it was intended to indicate a person’s enslaved status. The meaning of the tattoo prohibition may have evolved over time, but it appears that, in ancient times, it may not have been related to mourning practices at all.