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Tattoos, Henna and Christianity: That Tricky Verse in Leviticus

Note to the reader: This blog post deals with Christian theology written from the point of view of a lay person who has done a lot of research on this topic. I welcome comments on the topic at hand, but this is not the place to take potshots at religion or religious people. If you feel the need to do so, you're welcome to start your own blog.

Also, this should go without saying, but the comments below do not imply any practice of religious discrimination on the part of Blue Lotus Mehndi. Blue Lotus Mehndi gladly serves ALL clients without hesitation and has always done so.

This also is long. My apologies, but I can't unpack this topic in 140 characters or less.

“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves; I am the LORD.” – Leviticus 19:28 (English Standard Version)

In my blog post titled Henna: Myth vs. Fact, I correct two very common misunderstandings about henna. First, henna is not necessarily a religious practice, although it has been done for religious occasions, and some people incorporate religious symbols into their henna designs. Second, henna is not a “fake tattoo” (it isn't trying to emulate traditional ink tattooing) and is a completely separate art form.

Having said that, as a henna artist working in a conservative part of the U.S., the question often comes up: Are tattoos (that is, traditional ink tattoos) OK for Christians? And if not, what about henna?

For those Christians who are opposed to tattooing, the verse above from Leviticus is all that needs saying on the topic. End of sentence. Case closed. But let's take a look at where this verse – the only verse in the Bible that addresses tattooing – falls in the Torah and what its purpose was.

The tattoo prohibition is found in Leviticus, namely in the list of Levitical laws. This is a fairly long list of regulations that governed almost every aspect of life for the ancient Hebrews under their covenant with Yahweh.

Within chapter 19 alone, you find laws that are straightforward and hardly controversial: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.” (Lev. 19:15) Others appear completely irrelevant – even incomprehensible – to a 21st-century Westerner: “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free ...” (Lev. 19:20)

There's even a rule that appears to prohibit cotton/polyester T-shirts: “... nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.” (Lev. 19:19b) But most importantly, let's look at the verse immediately preceding the no-tattoo rule: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” (Lev. 19:27) 

Which brings us to this gentleman:

Orthodox Jewish man with beard. Photo by David Shankbone. Source: Wikimedia Commons.He is an Orthodox (probably Chasidic) Jew, a member of a sect of Judaism that believes in absolute and strict adherence to all Levitical regulations. 

Note that he is not a Southern Baptist preacher. 

I don't know of any modern Christian authorities who are arguing that men shouldn't shave their beards nor “round off the hair” of their temples (trim their sideburns). Christians generally hold that the ceremonial laws, cleanliness laws, agricultural and industrial regulations, and many other aspects of Levitical law are not applicable to Christians.

Jesus demonstrates this in the New Testament book of Acts when he appears to the Apostle Peter (a Jew by birth) in a vision and commands him to eat “unclean” animals. (These unclean animals are listed in the 11th chapter of Leviticus.) Throughout the New Testament, the Apostles and other writers continue to stress that the old forms of Levitical law-keeping, which served to divide Jew from Gentile, are no longer in force.

(It should go without saying that the Ten Commandments are still considered valid. Just thought I'd throw that in there.)

So …if we aren't concerned with ancient shaving regulations and eating bacon, I don't see any compelling reason to prohibit tattooing, either. And if tattooing isn't taboo, then it follows that henna – which is not even tattooing in the first place – can be enjoyed by the devout Christian.

And if you still insist on banning tattooing based solely on its mention in Leviticus, then you need to grow a beard, throw out your cotton/polyester blend garments and start raising animals to slaughter for peace offerings. You can't have it both ways.

I'd like to note that Judaism and Islam, which do have traditional bans on tattooing, generally accept henna body art. Sephardic Jews and Muslims of many different nations incorporate henna into their celebrations. So do Armenian Christians! In fact, henna is nearly universal and crosses practically all religious, cultural and national boundaries.

10 Comments to Tattoos, Henna and Christianity: That Tricky Verse in Leviticus:

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Geri Narvaez on Monday, October 17, 2016 10:09 AM
Hello!! I am new to your blog, and I must say I found it to be informative and refreshing!! I have admired the art of henna for many years, although I rarely get it done for myself (mostly due to lack of time or services available in my area... Anytime I find something interesting or beautiful (artistic) I always want to be well informed of it's origin and whether of not it will offend our God. Jesus did so much for me and I never want to intentionally or ignorantly offend Him. That being said, I have never considered henna to be a form of tattooing anyway, so I generally didn't regard it as "marking" my body. I can see how it could be a topic of discussion. But it is appreciated to have some solid scripture to reinforce this view. Thank you for your frankness and your including of scripture. It is very helpful in helping one make an educated biblical decision. Also, I loved that you said you can't have it both ways. Lol. Very true. God bless, Geri
Reply to comment
Amy on Sunday, November 27, 2016 10:48 PM
Thank you, Geri! Appreciate your chiming in.

D Everett on Wednesday, April 19, 2017 1:14 PM
Thanks. This is helpful. I am a pastor's wife considering opening a henna art business, but wanting to be sure I don't step outside of God's will. I became interested after doing henna for my son's new wife, a Christian young woman from India. To me, it is very beautiful. You answered some questions I had.
Reply to comment
Amy on Thursday, April 20, 2017 2:04 PM
Hi, D! Thank you for joining in the conversation. So exciting that you now have someone in the family from a country with a centuries-long henna tradition! It has always been my opinion that the henna plant was put here by the Creator for our enjoyment and well-being. The plant provides perfume, natural dye, natural sunblock and natural anti-microbial, all at once.

Christi on Sunday, March 04, 2018 12:50 PM
Consider the motivation for the prohibition against tattoos. Yahweh's own Spirit lives inside the bodies of those who are committed to His Word. Is a henna tattoo--in direct violation of His Word--an example of obedience? No. It isn't.
Reply to comment
Amy on Saturday, August 11, 2018 11:39 PM
Christi: If you could show me a verse that says henna is a direct violation of the Word, then I'd agree with you. But you can't, because it isn't there. And since Judaism doesn't put henna and ink tattoos in the same category, you can't claim Leviticus prohibits henna. Sorry.

Miss Araebia on Thursday, June 21, 2018 7:28 PM
My daughter and I have been going back and forth about this. We asked several pastors and they just didn't know. But the main part was the "cultural or spiritual" part that we couldn't get a direct response about. You have truly helped and answered all our questions in this blog and we're STOKED to be able to partake in this form of art. #Stoked Thank you so much!!!
Reply to comment
Amy on Saturday, August 11, 2018 11:37 PM
Yay! I am so glad this cleared things up. Enjoy your henna!

louisa on Saturday, August 11, 2018 7:19 AM
well am still confused because i wanted temporary tattoos like a painting or some. Please is that too a sin pls someone help me so i dont go against God in any way
Reply to comment
Amy on Saturday, August 11, 2018 11:35 PM
Hi, Louisa. I'm sorry you're still confused. I'll try to clear a few things up: Number one, henna is NOT a tattoo. Jagua is not a tattoo. Airbrush painting is not tattooing. A tattoo is, specifically, ink surgically implanted into the skin. Judaism specifically prohibits ink tattooing (see Leviticus) but permits henna. It is VERY likely that the ancient Hebrews knew about and used henna, so they probably would have prohibited it as well in the Torah (Old Testament) if they thought it was sinful. In other words, Judaism does not view ink tattoos and henna the same way. As far as Christianity goes, even if you think ink tattooing is sinful or wrong, I still think that henna would be OK because there is no specific rule or law against it. Furthermore, because of what Christ taught about the Levitical law, I think you can even make a case that ink tattooing ALSO is okay for a Christian. Does that help clear things up? Ultimately, the decision is between your conscience and God. Make you make the choice that is right for you.

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