Tattoos: History and Biblical Teachings

by COGwriter

Tattoos have been around for thousands of year.  In Western societies, they seem to be getting more popular. 

Would you like to know more about the history of tattoos, social concerns about tattoos, health risks of tattoos, and what the Bible teaches about them? Those are questions that this this article provides answers to. (Here is a link to a related YouTube video: Should Christians Get a Tattoo?)

What is a Tattoo and What Does the Bible Teach About Them?

What is a tattoo?

A tattoo is a form of body modification, made by inserting indelible ink into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment...Historically, a decline in traditional tribal tattooing in Europe occurred with the spread of Christianity...The majority of Christians do not take issue with the practice, while a minority uphold the Hebrew view against tattoos (see below) based on Leviticus. (Tattoo.  Wikipedia, viewed 05/08/13)

The Bible itself is very clear. It opposes people getting tattoos.

Although the Church of Rome does not discourage tattoos, and some Protestants seem to believe that displaying certain ones (normally with symbols such as crosses or scriptural verses) gives a public testimony to Christ. Yet, Jesus never had a tattoo.

Actually, His word condemned them:

28 You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord. 29 'Do not prostitute your daughter, to cause her to be a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry, and the land become full of wickedness. (Leviticus 19:28-29)

The fact that the admonition against prostitution comes right after the admonition to not have tattoos reminds me of the view that certain tattoos are signs of a fornicator (condemned in Ephesians 5:5) or prostitute (condemned in 1 Corinthians 16:16-18), and that probably partially explains the modern term "tramp stamp."

Notice what the Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary says about Leviticus 19:28:

Leviticus 19:28

Ye shall not make any cuttings ... The practice of making deep gashes on the face and arms and legs, in time of bereavement, was universal among the pagan, and it was deemed a becoming mark of respect for the dead, as well as a sort of propitiatory offering to the deities who presided over death and the grave. The Jews learned this custom in Egypt; and, though weaned from it, relapsed in a later and degenerate age into this old superstition (Deuteronomy 14:1; Isaiah 15:2; Jeremiah 16:6; 41:5; 47:5), which, as Palgrave informs us, still prevails among the Djowf people in Arabia.

Nor print any marks upon you - by tatooing; imprinting figures of flowers, leaves, stars, and other fanciful devices on various parts of their person. The impression was made sometimes by means of a hot iron, sometimes by ink or paint, as is done by the Arab females of the present day (D'Arvieux and Burckhardt's 'Travels among the Bedouins;' Lane's 'Manners and Customs of Modern Egypt,' pp. 25-35), and the different castes of the Hindus. It is probable, from the association of Leviticus 19:29, that a strong propensity to adopt such marks in honour of some idol gave occasion to the prohibition in this verse; and they were wisely forbidden, for they were signs of apostasy, and, when once made, were insuperable obstacles to a return. (from Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1997, 2003, 2005, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

More on the Bible and tattoos will be covered later.

Tattoo Regrets?

In the 21st century, it seems that in certain Western societies tattoos are getting more popular. 

But not everyone is happy about getting them. 

In the Spring of 2013, the news reported:

Why Nicole Richie is on a mission to remove her teen 'tramp stamp'

HER husband Joel Madden might be a big fan of tattoos, but Nicole Richie says she's ready to remove her "tramp stamp".

The reality TV star turned fashion designer is eager to get rid of the "butt-crack cross" tattoo she got as a teenager.

"I have a tramp stamp. I was 16 and an idiot and didn't want my parents to see. You know? I'm not that girl," the 31-year-old fashionista revealed to a nurse in the webisode of hernew #Candidly Nicole internet series.

"I think the main one I want to get rid of is a cross, going down the crack… Do they come off, come off? Or do they come off white?"

Although she thought her inking was a good idea aged 16, now, 15 years later she now wants it gone.  http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/entertainment/why-nicole-richie-is-on-a-mission-to-remove-her-teen-tramp-stamp/story-e6fredpu-1226633013911

As it turns out, when she was told it would take multiple treatments and about one year for it to be removed, she decided against getting it removed now, but stated that she would likely do it some time in the future.

Lower-back tattoos are also perceived as an indication of promiscuity by some, and so that is likely how the term "tramp stamp" developed.  When one considers that the tattoo is not in a place that the woman getting it can see without mirrors or some other aid, this is also consistent with the view it is there to be seen by someone looking at her nude/nearly nude body (or fairly low cut slacks while wearing a short top/blouse).

Since the Bible says to not "prostitute one's daughter" (Leviticus 19:29), women should not try to look like one. The Bible teaches that women should dress modestly (1 Timothy 2:9) and that no one should get tattoos (Leviticus 19:28).

Whether related to increased promiscuity or not, more and more seem to have tattoos.  When I grew up, it seemed it was mainly bikers and men who had been in the military.

The Smithsonian reported:

Humans have marked their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years. These permanent designs—sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate, always personal—have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of punishment...

What is the earliest evidence of tattoos?

In terms of tattoos on actual bodies, the earliest known examples were for a long time Egyptian and were present on several female mummies dated to c. 2000 B.C. But following the more recent discovery of the Iceman from the area of the Italian-Austrian border in 1991 and his tattoo patterns, this date has been pushed back a further thousand years when he was carbon-dated at around 5,200 years old...

What is the evidence that ancient Egyptians had tattoos?

There's certainly evidence that women had tattoos on their bodies and limbs from figurines c. 4000-3500 B.C. to occasional female figures represented in tomb scenes c. 1200 B.C. and in figurine form c. 1300 B.C., all with tattoos on their thighs. Also small bronze implements identified as tattooing tools were discovered at the town site of Gurob in northern Egypt and dated to c. 1450 B.C. And then, of course, there are the mummies with tattoos, from the three women already mentioned and dated to c. 2000 B.C. to several later examples of female mummies with these forms of permanent marks found in Greco-Roman burials at Akhmim.

What function did these tattoos serve? Who got them and why?

Because this seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of "dubious status," described in some cases as "dancing girls."...it has long been assumed that such tattoos were the mark of prostitutes or were meant to protect the women against sexually transmitted diseases...

What did these tattoos look like?

Most examples on mummies are largely dotted patterns of lines and diamond patterns, while figurines sometimes feature more naturalistic images. The tattoos occasionally found in tomb scenes and on small female figurines which form part of cosmetic items also have small figures of the dwarf god Bes on the thigh area...

Can you describe the tattoos used in other ancient cultures and how they differ?

Among the numerous ancient cultures who appear to have used tattooing as a permanent form of body adornment, the Nubians to the south of Egypt are known to have used tattoos...

Yet amongst the Greeks and Romans, the use of tattoos or "stigmata" as they were then called, seems to have been largely used as a means to mark someone as "belonging" either to a religious sect or to an owner in the case of slaves or even as a punitive measure to mark them as criminals. It is therefore quite intriguing that during Ptolemaic times when a dynasty of Macedonian Greek monarchs ruled Egypt, the pharaoh himself, Ptolemy IV (221-205 B.C.), was said to have been tattooed with ivy leaves to symbolize his devotion to Dionysus, Greek god of wine and the patron deity of the royal house at that time...

We have also examined tattoos on mummified remains of some of the ancient pre-Columbian cultures of Peru and Chile, which often replicate the same highly ornate images of stylized animals and a wide variety of symbols found in their textile and pottery designs. One stunning female figurine of the Naszca culture has what appears to be a huge tattoo right around her lower torso, stretching across her abdomen and extending down to her genitalia...

Evidence for tattooing is also found amongst some of the ancient mummies found in China's Taklamakan Desert c. 1200 B.C., although during the later Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), it seems that only criminals were tattooed.

Japanese men began adorning their bodies with elaborate tattoos in the late A.D. 3rd century.

The elaborate tattoos of the Polynesian cultures are thought to have developed over millennia, featuring highly elaborate geometric designs, which in many cases can cover the whole body. Following James Cook's British expedition to Tahiti in 1769, the islanders' term "tatatau" or "tattau," meaning to hit or strike, gave the west our modern term "tattoo."...

What do Maori facial designs represent?

In the Maori culture of New Zealand, the head was considered the most important part of the body, with the face embellished by incredibly elaborate tattoos or ‘moko,’ which were regarded as marks of high status...With the tattoos of warriors given at various stages in their lives as a kind of rite of passage, the decorations were regarded as enhancing their features and making them more attractive to the opposite sex. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/tattoo.html#ixzz2V0jwwKuj

In old and modern times, some have multiple tattoos on their bodies.

Some of these markings are obviously meant to be provocative, since only part of the markings show on a bare midriff or the lower back while the remainder is concealed by clothing. A slang name for this kind tattoo is calling it a “tramp stamp.”  And that is what Nichole Richie wanted gone.

BBC reported the following in 2014:

[S]ays Nina Jablonski, professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University and author of Skin: A Natural History.

"Tattooing is a subject of fascination because it was, for all intents and purposes, forbidden for centuries," she says. "Added to the weight of the apparent biblical injunction against tattooing was the Victorian attitude that associated tattooing with the under-classes.

"So now tattooing still titillates because celebrities, sorority girls and accountants are now engaging in something that was previously forbidden and the province of gangsters and prostitutes." http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25330947 viewed 02/04/14

Notice the admitted connection to criminals and prostitutes related to tattoos.

Notice the Connection to Egypt

The Smithsonian report mentioned Egypt and the dwarf god Bes. Here is some information about him:

Bes (Bisu, Aha) was an ancient Egyptian dwarf god. He was a complex being who was both a deity and a demonic fighter. He was a god of war, yet he was also a patron of childbirth and the home, and was associated with sexuality, humour, music and dancing. Although he began as a protector of the pharaoh, he became very popular with every day Egyptian people because he protected women and children above all others. He had no temples and there were no priests ordained in his name. However, he was one of the most popular gods of ancient Egypt and was often depicted on household items such as furniture, mirrors and cosmetics containers and applicators as well as magical wands and knives...It is also thought that sacred prostitutes may have had a tattoo of Bes placed near their pubic area in order to prevent venereal diseases, but it is also possible that the tattoos related to fertility. (Gods of Ancient Egypt: Bes. Copyright J Hill 2010. http://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/bes.html)

Thus, tattoos provided a religious connection with this Egyptian deity. Throughout the Bible, God's people are warned to come out of Egypt and not have pictures of idols. Here is one example:

1And God spoke all these words:

2“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

3“You shall have no other gods before me.

4“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:1-6, NIV)

Since Bes was supposed to be a protector and fighter against demons, this may well be why prostitutes had tattoos--apparently some were mistakenly led to believe that the tattoo would protect them from sexually-transmitted diseases and other problems. God did not want His people to follow such practices.

Notice also the following:

58 "If you do not carefully observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, THE LORD YOUR GOD, 59 then the Lord will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues — great and prolonged plagues — and serious and prolonged sicknesses. 60 Moreover He will bring back on you all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you. (Deuteronomy 28:58-60)

So, diseases of Egypt were something that following God's laws and statutes would protect from. And while some consider that simply something from the Old Testament, the New Testament warns about being part of spiritual Egypt (cf. Revelation 11:8)--and even in the 21st century there are health risks associated with tattoos.

Tattoos Pose Real Health Risks

What are the physical health risks associated with tattoos?

Here is information from an article titled The Deadly Dangers of Body Tattoos:

Tattoo parlors are governed by state and local laws to do so. But, these laws aren't always strictly enforced. So, no matter if you have your neighbor give you a tattoo in his basement, or you visit a legitimate tattoo parlor, your new body marking can be a deadly danger.

While some tattoo parlors do pay strict attention to sanitation, they are in the minority...

One of the most common health problems with body tattoos is allergic reactions to the ink. Body tattoos can also cause skin infections and chronic skin ailments. Examples of recurring skin ailments include psoriasis and dermatitis. Body tattoos can also cause tumors which may be benign, or even malignant.

If these deadly dangers don't make you think twice about getting a tattoo, then consider the fact that getting a body tattoo puts you at the risk of contracting tetanus, HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis B and C, and even Syphilis. Hepatitis C alone claims more than 10,000 lives every year!

The results of research performed by Dr. Bob Haley and Dr. Paul Fischer of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School shows that getting body tattoos at parlors may well be the "number one distributor of Hepatitis C." The doctors found that getting tattoos at an establishment "accounted for more than twice as many Hepatitis C infections as injection-drug use." The research also shows that people who get a body tattoo in a parlor are "nine times more likely to get Hepatitis C" because of infected needles and unsanitary conditions. This is the reason that people who get a body tattoo aren't allowed to donate blood to the American Red Cross for an entire year. Medical experts recommend that anyone who gets a tattoo get tested for Hepatitis shortly afterwards.

And finally, if you still aren't convinced about the deadly dangers of body tattoos, think about this: the ink that's injected in your skin contains metal filaments. If you need to have an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), these bits of metal can cause you to feel a burning pain during the test. Some hospitals and testing locations refuse to do an MRI on people who have body tattoos. That means, if you have a tattoo, and your doctor recommends an MRI, you may not be able to have this life-saving test performed.  http://voices.yahoo.com/the-deadly-dangers-body-tattoos-191423.html?cat=5

Notice also the following:

June 2, 2017

(CNN) It all started simply enough: A 31-year-old man went to get a tattoo on his right leg. Beneath an illustration of a cross and hands in prayer, the words "Jesus is my life" were written in cursive.

As tattoo artists will tell you, there are some critically important rules to follow in the hours and days after getting inked. Most important: keeping your new body art clean and covered while the skin has a heightened susceptibility to bacterial infection.

Every time a tattoo gun pierces your skin, the needle is opening a wound -- and another pathway by which germs can enter your body. The larger the tattoo, the more you increase your risk of possible infection.

Five days after getting his tattoo, the man decided to go for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico. Just three days after that, he was admitted to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas with severe pain in both of his legs and feet. His symptoms included a fever, chills and redness around his tattoo and elsewhere on his legs.

"A lot of our patients, when they come to our institution, come in sick -- and he was certainly among the sicker of the patients that we've had come in," said Dr. Nicholas Hendren, an internal medicine resident at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and lead author of the report. "He said he had a lot of pain in [his right leg]. That, of course, drew our attention right away.

"Within a few hours, things had progressed pretty quickly," he said. "There's darkening skin changes, more bruising, more discoloration, what we call bullae -- or mounds of fluid that were starting to collect in his legs -- which, of course, is very alarming to anyone, as it was to us.

"He was already in the early stages of septic shock, and his kidneys had already had some injury," Hendren said. "Very quickly, his septic shock progressed from ... early stages to severe stages very rapidly, within 12 hours or so, which is typical for this type of infection."

For the next few weeks, the man was kept largely sedated. After initial pessimism about the man's prognosis, Hendren and his colleagues became cautiously optimistic. The patient was removed from the breathing machine 18 days after being admitted to the hospital and began "aggressive rehabilitation."

Over the next month, however, the man's condition slowly began to worsen. About two months after he was first admitted to the hospital, he died of septic shock. http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/02/health/tattoo-infected-sepsis-death-vibrio-study/index.html

Mayo Medical Laboratories reports:

Tattoos breach the skin, which means that skin infections and other complications are possible. Specific risks include:

Thus there are real health risks associated with tattoos.

Tattoos Increasing Popularity

There is an increase in popularity of tattoos, at least in the USA:

Cora C. Breuner, David A. Levine, THE COMMITTEE ON ADOLESCENCE. From the American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report Adolescent and Young Adult Tattooing, Piercing, and Scarification, Pediatrics, September 2017

Tattoos, piercings, and scarification, also known as “body modifications,” are commonly obtained by adolescents and young adults. Previous reports on those who obtain tattoos, piercings, and scarification have focused mainly on high-risk populations, including at-risk adolescents. Tattooing and piercing of various body parts no longer is a high-risk–population phenomenon, as evidenced by growing numbers of adults and adolescents not considered at risk who have tattoos and multiple ear and body piercings. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2010, 38% of 18 to 29 year olds had at least 1 tattoo, and 23% had piercings in locations other than an earlobe. Of those with tattoos, 72% were covered and not visible.2 Scarification is the practice of intentionally irritating the skin to cause a permanent pattern of scar tissue; data are not currently available on the prevalence of scarification in the United States.

Although body modifications have become a mainstream trend, they still may be associated with medical complications and, among adolescents, may also co-occur with high-risk behaviors. ...

Harris Poll data from 2016 found that 3 in 10 US adults had at least 1 tattoo, up from 20% in 2012 ...

Infections are a potentially more serious complication of tattooing. Tattooing can lead to infection caused by contaminated tattoo ink or needles; inadequate disinfection of the skin to be tattooed, resulting in resident bacterial contamination during the tattooing process; and, secondarily, during the healing process, when injured tissue causes pruritus.Unfortunately, the real frequency of local infections after tattooing is unknown. Infections may be superficial pyogenic infections, deep or severe pyogenic infections, atypical mycobacterial infections, systemic or cutaneous viral infections, or (rarely) cutaneous fungal infections. Systemic viral infections from bloodborne pathogens include hepatitis C, hepatitis B, and HIV. Superficial pyogenic infections are usually related to Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes, with common patterns of pustules or papulopustules along the tattoo lines. Infections are typically present 4 to 22 days after tattooing. Infections range from cellulitis and small pustules to larger abscesses that require surgical incision and drainage. Management is similar to other skin pyogenic infections. More severe pyogenic infections remain rare, but there are case reports of endocarditis, spinal abscess, erysipelas, gangrene, and amputations.

There are many case reports of patients who have acquired nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) infections after receiving tattoos. The infection usually is caused by contamination of the ink or equipment with nonsterile water.36 Infections with Mycobacterium chelonae and Mycobacterium abscessus, which are rapidly growing bacteria, have occurred from the contamination of either inks or diluents. NTM infections range from mild inflammation with lesional rash, papules, or nodules to severe abscesses requiring extensive and multiple surgical débridements. NTM infections may require a minimum of 4 weeks of treatment with 2 or more antibiotic agents.Examples of antibiotic agents that have been used, with variable success and sensitivities, are amikacin, ciprofloxacin and moxifloxacin, clarithromycin, minocycline, tigecycline, cefoxitin, imipenem, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, and linezolid. Antibiotic sensitivity is important in designing a treatment plan. Consultation with an infectious disease expert for suspected NTM infection in a tattoo is warranted.

Another case report described Herpes compuncturum that developed 3 days after tattooing; it was concluded that this was a secondary infection in a patient in whom S aureus also was detected. Antibiotic therapy, antiviral therapy, and pain management resolved the rash.

Bloodborne pathogens may occur after tattooing. Tattooing is associated with hepatitis B transmission, especially in teenagers with other high-risk behaviors. Tattooing also is associated with higher rates of hepatitis C transmission. HIV transmission associated with sharing tattoo needles or reusing tattoo inks has been reported. If tattoos are placed in licensed parlors, infections are less likely to occur after tattooing than if they are placed by unlicensed individuals. There have been case reports of neoplasms associated with or after tattoo placement. Keratoacanthoma, squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and leiomyosarcoma have been described occurring in areas of the skin with tattoo pigmentation. It is not known whether this is a coincidence or a causal effect. Tattoos placed over melanocytic nevi can make it difficult to monitor to ensure there is no malignant transformation, and both nevi and melanoma have been reported in previously tattooed skin. ...

The current increasing popularity of tattoos in the United States has concomitantly spurred an increased interest in tattoo removal ... Adolescents may overestimate the effectiveness of tattoo removal when having one placed and should be instructed that tattoo placement is permanent, and it is expensive and sometimes difficult to remove them. ...

  1. Adolescents and their families should be informed that tattoos are permanent and that removal is difficult, expensive, and only partially effective;
  2. Pediatricians should advise adolescents with a history of keloid formation to avoid body modifications that puncture the skin. The outcome is uncertain whenever there is trauma to the skin resulting in scar;
  3. Pediatricians should advise their adolescent patients to assess the sanitary and hygienic practices of the tattoo parlors and tattoo artists.

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2017/09/14/peds.2017-1962 accessed 09/18/17

Tattoos are not good, but more Americans are getting them.

Other Biblical Considerations

While the biblical passage that specifically prohibits the acquring of tattoos was in the Hebrew scriptures (Leviticus 19:28), the New Testament seems to condemn them as well:

19 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Corinthians 6:19)

Since tattoos tend to contain toxins and are not something that adds to health, this should give Christians pause to realize that they should not get them.  There are health risks associated with tattoos.

Of course, if you have one or more tattoos this does not mean that you are doomed or that you have to rush out and try to get it removed.  But certainly, you should not get more of them.  Nor should anyone who claims to believe the Bible actually go out and get them.

13 But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived (2 Timothy 3:13, KJV)

The growing acceptance of tattoos in Western societies is consistent with the above.

Christians should not get tattoos. Tattoos are prohibited by the Bible, often have social stigmas, and pose health risks.

(Here is a link to a related YouTube video: Should Christians Get a Tattoo?)

Thiel B. Tattoos: History and Biblical Teachings. http://www.cogwriter.com/tattoos-and-the-bible.htm COGwriter (c) 2013/2014/2017 0918

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