Thursday, June 5, 2014

What Would Jesus Do (About Henna)? The Place of Henna in Ancient and Modern Christianity

We got a question on our Facebook page from one of our fans which was so interesting that it deserved its own blogpost! (Note for all of you readers, please feel free to do the same! I love researching henna questions so fire away!).

The question:
Can you tell me how relevant henna was in Christ’s time? Some of my Christian friends will not get henna because they believe it is ‘marking’ the body which is spoken of in the Bible. I believe the reference is more toward cutting rather than decorating, which I also think henna was used for, to prepare the body for burial. Can you give me some info that would be positive use of henna during Christ’s time?
A fabulous question, and one that I imagine many henna artists have encountered before! Feel free to forward this post to your relatives, send out to your church listserv, or print out and bring to your festivals!

I really wanted to answer this question just so I could make this
picture! "Sacred Heart" by Charles Bosseron Chambers (1883-1964),
with some added henna (by me).

There are two interrelated questions here
1) Was henna used in Jesus’ time? And 
2) Is henna use consistent with Christian principles, or ‘What Would Jesus Do (About Henna)’? 

I’ll try my best to answer both these questions, even though I should note that I am very far from an expert on Christian history or theology (and in fact I’m not even Christian myself).

A note about terminology — I will refer to the central figure of the New Testament as Jesus, his name, rather than the title Christ (which means ‘messiah’ or ‘anointed one’ — a theological statement which I do not personally believe). While Jesus himself would probably have pronounced his name closer to Yeshua‘, in this post I’ll use the English form for the sake of recognizability.

So, the first question
What evidence is there for the use of henna in Roman Judaea during the time of Jesus and his disciples (roughly the first century of this millennium, 0-100 CE)?

Henna was certainly known and used by ancient Israelites and is mentioned in the Song of Songs, one of the last books of the Hebrew Bible (written sometime in the 6th-4th centuries BCE): the speaker compares their beloved to a cluster of fragrant henna blossoms (more on this later). By the turn of the millennium, henna was known as an agricultural product of the Land of Israel. 

Greek and Roman botanists, including Pliny the Elder (ca. 23-79 CE) and Dioscorides (ca. 40-90 CE), describe it growing near Ascalon (Ashkelon) in Judaea and Canopus (Abu Qir) in Egypt, and recommend it as a medicine, perfume, and hair dye. Josephus, a Jewish historian and near-contemporary of Jesus, also mentions henna as growing in the south of the Land of Israel, around Jericho.

Henna plantation, Upper Egypt, 1930s.

Hellenistic Egyptian papyri from this period also describe henna being used for medicine and perfume. The Mishna, a major compilation of Jewish law and rabbinic exegesis collected shortly after the time of Jesus (ca. 200 CE), includes henna as an agricultural product of the Land of Israel, and thus subject to certain tithes (Shevi‘it 7:6).

So henna was certainly being grown and used in Roman Judaea around the time of Jesus, and was used as a hair dye, as well as for medicine and perfume. Did they do henna art on skin, as we do today? Did Jesus know it? Unfortunately it’s difficult to say for certain, and I have no clear evidence one way or another; the most I can say is that it is possible.

In terms of preparing the body for burial: I have not seen any evidence that henna was used for burial in Roman Judaea, although it appears that henna may have played a part in Egyptian burial customs in Jesus’ time (Smith 2005, pp. 50-51), and henna was used in burial ceremonies in Syria, Ottoman Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries (Bliss 1917, pg. 293; Spoer 1927, pg. 127; Granqvist 1965, pp. 62-63, 228; Nedoroscik 1997, pg. 5). The New Testament records that at Jesus’ burial, his body was anointed with nard, myrrh, and aloe, all spices mentioned with henna in Song of Songs 4:13-14. Was henna among these spices brought to anoint Jesus' body (Matthew 16:1; Luke 23:56; John 19:39)? Again, there is no explicit evidence, but it is certainly possible.

Now, to the second question: 
Should good Christians be doing henna today? Let’s examine some of the issues (and again, with the disclaimer that I am neither a religious authority nor a scholar of Christianity).

First, the question of ‘cutting/marking’ the body: 
The prohibition on tattoos comes from Leviticus 19:28: “An engraving for the dead: do not make one in your flesh, and do not make a tattooed inscription for yourself; I am the L!RD.” In its Biblical context, this commandment is linked with fears around imitating Canaanite mourning practices. Later rabbinic commentary eventually expands the prohibition to include all forms of tattooing, but it is clear that henna does not present any problem on this issue, since it does not puncture the skin and is not a permanent inscription.

What about the general question of adornment, and marking or decorating the body?

An earring from Roman Judaea,
2nd-4th centuries CE, found in
Jerusalem in 2008.
From a Biblical perspective, henna doesn’t seem to present a problem. Jewelry and cosmetics were an expected part of a woman's beautification, especially for brides (Genesis 24:22; II Samuel 1:24; Ruth 3:3; Esther 2:12-13), and the prophets describe the metaphorical relationship between G!d and the people of Israel as a husband providing his wife with rich jewels and adornments (Isaiah 49:18; Ezekiel 16:10-14). 

At the same time, the prophets disapprove of excessively immodest use of adornment and cosmetics, and warn that they can be used for immoral purposes; Israel's continued pursuit of idolatry is compared to a woman adorning herself for her adulterous lovers (Isaiah 3:16-24; Jeremiah 4:30; Ezekiel 23:40). 

Our bodies are significant tools, created in the Divine Image, and deserving of respect; we therefore need to devote them to proper and sacred purposes, not idolatry and profanity. In Isaiah 44:5 we read that in the time of the Messiah, “one [person] shall say: ‘I belong to the L!RD,’ and another shall call themselves by the name of Jacob, and another shall inscribe their arm to the L!RD, and be known by the name of Israel.” 

Isaiah 49:16 even describes the Divine 'Body' as adorned for a sacred purpose, declaring that the walls of Jerusalem are inscribed on G!d’s ‘palms’ (a beautiful thought for henna artists) so that we can never be forgotten.

Similar themes are found in the New Testament. I Corinthians 6:20 tells the readers that their bodies are like temples for G!d, so therefore they must be used to “give honour to G!d in your bodies.” Whatever we do with our bodies, it should be done as a sign of faith, for the glory of G!d (I Corinthians 10:31). Revelations 19:7 declares that “the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his Bride has made herself ready,” which suggests that henna adornment could be a particularly powerful way for Christians to wear their faith on their bodies.

At the same, the New Testament is clear that adornment should be reasonable and not excessive: Timothy writes that “women should adorn themselves properly, modestly, and sensibly,” not with elaborately braided hairdos, and costly gold and pearl jewelry, the luxuriant Roman fashions of the upper class of the time (I Tim 2:9-10). So fingertip-to-elbow henna every day is probably out. And it should be noted that several Church Fathers were opposed to women hennaing their hair, which they saw as immodest and as deceitfully attempting to hide one's age. 

But of course, many Christian communities did use henna as a valued part of their everyday and ritual practice. A 12th century traveller in Sicily noticed that Christian women there hennaed themselves in celebration of Christmas. Christian manuscripts from medieval Spain show Christian men and women with hennaed hair and hands, and some even appear to depict Jesus himself with hennaed fingers!

See — my Jesus-with-henna portrait has a precedent!
Maiestas Domini [The Lord Enthroned], from the Girona Beatus (folio
2r), Spain, ca. 975, showing Jesus with possibly hennaed fingers.

I’ve blogged before about henna traditions among Armenian and Nestorian Christian communities in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Additionally, henna is (or was) used among other Christian communities, including Ethiopian Orthodox Christians; Coptic Christians in Egypt; the various Christian communities of the Levant; and even Orthodox Christian communities in Greece and the Balkans (perhaps topics for future blogposts — leave a comment if you’re interested!).

Christian girls in Pakistan display henna for
Easter, Islamabad, 2010. Photo by Muhammed
Muheisen, for the Associated Press.

One last point that might be important to consider
I mentioned that henna is mentioned in Song of Songs (1:14), “my beloved is a cluster of henna blossoms to me.” In Christian exegesis, this mention of henna actually becomes a symbol of Jesus himself! hymn by Witness Lee proclaims:
Lord, like the pretty henna-flower, 
In vineyards blossoming Thou art; 
Incomp'rable Thy beauty is, 
Admires and loves our heart!

This interpretation actually goes back all the way to early Christian writers like Origen and Jerome (Lawson 1957, pp. 166-168), and even Christian scholars in medieval Europe who were not sure exactly what “a cluster of kopher” was, still understood it as a symbol of Jesus; for example, the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede writes that “the Lord, who had been a bundle of myrrh in his passion, became a grape-cluster of Cyprus at the resurrection” (Holder, 2011, pg. 57).

The 18th century theologian John Gill spends several pages describing the layers of this metaphoric understanding of "a cluster of camphire [henna]" as Jesus (1805, pp. 119-123):
Now Christ is such a cluster that has all moral and spiritual perfections in him; all virtues and every grace are clustered together in him… [The fragrance] may denote the purity of Christ’s nature, and the innocence and holiness of his life… The Hebrew word copher [henna] signifies ‘an atonement or propitiation’ and so may very well be applied to Christ, who is ‘the propiatiation for our sins’ and has made full atonement for them by ‘the blood of his cross.’
T. D. Talmage (1832-1902),
preacher and (unexpected)
henna advocate.
In fact, Thomas DeWitt Talmage, the wildly-popular 19th century American preacher, devoted an entire sermon to explaining the many ways that the “cluster of camphire [henna]” was a symbol of Jesus (1874, pp. 348-355). 

For Talmage, camphire/henna points to Jesus not only because of its fragrance, but because of its colour and use “as a dye for beautifying [women’s] garments or their own persons… a type of my Lord Jesus, who beautifies, adorns, and colors everything He touches” (1874, pg. 351). A strong argument for the appropriateness of henna in a Christian lifestyle!

He continues: “But, mark you, it was a bright color… an orange dye made of this camphire-plant, one of the most brilliant of all the colors: and so the religion of Jesus Christ casts no blackness or gloom upon the soul. It brightens up life, it brightens up everything... Take out the sprig of cypress from your coat and put in a 'cluster of camphire from the vineyards of En-gedi'!” (1874, pg. 352, italics in original). Talmage’s fiery oration clearly confirms that there is deep Christian meaning to be found in henna use.

There are missionaries who use henna as part of their mission work to tell the story of Christianity (see here, here, here, or here), and there is even a Christian group here in Ontario called Henna Blooms Ministries! Leaving my personal feelings about henna and missionaries aside, I think the point is that henna can be both a symbol and a tool of Christian faith.

So, in conclusion, we can say the following:
a) henna was certainly grown and used by Jews and others in Roman Judaea, and surrounding regions, in Jesus’ time;
b) henna use is not forbidden by the Bible, though it should be used in a modest and prudent fashion, according to the aesthetic of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament;
c) henna can serve as a way of wearing one’s (Christian) faith on the body, since it is a potent symbol of preparing the Bride/Church, and a reminder of the qualities of Jesus.

I hope these sources help people who are wondering about how to practice henna art as part of a faithful Christian life. Thoughts, questions, and criticisms are welcome!

And to all our Jewish readers — fear not, our regularly scheduled Jewish henna programming will be back shortly!

Bliss, Frederick. The Religions of Modern Syria and Palestine. New York: Scribner’s, 1917.
Gill, John. An Exposition of the Book of Solomon’s Song, Commonly Called Canticles. Edinburgh: Thomas Turnbull, 1805.
Granqvist, Hilma. Muslim Death and Burial: Arab Customs and Traditions Studied in a Village in Jordan. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1965.
Holder, Arthur. The Venerable Bede: On the Song of Songs and Selected Writings. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2011.
Lawson, R. P. Ancient Christian Writers: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1957.
Nedoroscik, Jeffrey. The City of the Dead: a history of Cairo's cemetery communities. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1997.
Smith, Mark J. Papyrus Harkness. Oxford: Griffith Institute, 2005.
Spoer, Ada [née Goodrich-Freer]. Sickness and Death among the Arabs of Palestine. Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 2, 1927, pp. 115-142.
Talmage, Thomas DeWitt. Fifty Sermons. London: R. D. Dickinson, 1874.


Cricket said...

Fantastic article!!! When folks question henna and its appropriateness with Christianity, I have always pointed them to the references in Song of Solomon. I think I'll point them toward your blog now! :D Seriously, I really appreciate your taking the time to divert from your usual theme and address this topic. Very well written!

Samantha said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to post this! I get asked this a lot!!

Unknown said...

I am a pastor's wife considering beginning a henna business and wanting to be entirely appropriate and obedient to God. Your article is very helpful. Thanks!

Rochelle said...


Unknown said...

Thanks for the post. We need to be clear and your article explains well! As my daughter is getting engaged and wanted to have a henna corner ( in India it is very common at weddings) but being a believer in CHRIST we needed clarification if it was biblically acceptable. Thanks again for taking the time to research and let us know.

Unknown said...

While much is spoken of henna as a plant it does not in anyway confuse it with mendhi art on our bodies to ward off evil spirits or the evil eye as is mostly the purpose of non Christian practices of using Henna in mendhi art.
Secondly never does The lord request us to display our faith on our body. But merely to display our faith by our actions actions. We are not required to paint our bodies in order to declare our faith. I suggest a deep look is needed into the scripture that dreams of how we as woman should dress. Modestly not adorn with gold jewelry in our hair and exposing our bodies to tempt the evil eye. Henna like mist plants in the bible have medicinal properties and should be used in thr correct was.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the help!