What does the Bible say about Tattoos?
01 Mar 2019Many people ask if the Bible forbids one from getting a tattoo. Some teach tattoos are wrong and place legal condemnation upon those that have them. But, what does the Bible actually say on this matter? In this article, we will examine all the related scriptures dealing with tattoos.
Are Tattoos Biblical?As it turns out, there is only one verse in God’s Word dealing with this issue. “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28 NLT). Obviously, this verse is in the Old Testament. The New Testament is silent regarding tattooing. In fact, the word “tattoo” is only found once in the whole Word of God, in Leviticus 19:28. Is God saying, “do not get a tattoo?”
The word tattoo is translated into English from the Hebrew word qaʿaqaʿ which means to make incisions or gashes on one’s skin. The practice of physical self-laceration or self-mutilation was associated as a non-verbal sign of mourning for the dead (cf. Deuteronomy 14:16; Jeremiah 16:6, 41:5, 47:5, 48:37, 49:3), or seeking favor of a deity and was forbidden as a heathen practice. The Hebrew śereṭ and Akkadian šarātu mean to cut or tear to pieces one’s skin. The prohibition of “cuttings in the flesh” (cf. Leviticus 19:28, 21:5; Deuteronomy 14:1) was given as the rejection of pagan (Canaanite) practices and beliefs to provide the lifeblood for the spirit of the dead person rather than to express sorrow. Despite this prohibition, self-inflicted laceration was practiced among the Israelites during the sixth-century b.c. as a sign of grief and mourning (cf. Jeremiah 16:6, 41;5).
Interestingly, the word tattoo did not enter into the English language until the late 1700s. This is significant because every Bible translation before that should not contain the word “tattoo.” In fact, not all Bible versions do use the word “tattoo,” in place they usually state “print any marks.” As an example, the Geneva Bible says, “Ye shal not cut your flesh for the dead, nor make anie printe of a marke upon you: I am the Lord.” The Jewish Tanakh translates it this way, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.”
In ancient Egypt, tattooing was for women only and was believed to promote luck in childbirth. Canaanites would customarily slash or brand their skin for ritualistic purposes, especially to mourn their dead and worship their gods (e.g., 1 Kings 18:28). Baal worshipers “cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them” (1 Kings 18:28 NASB). This verse shows the meaning of qaʿaqaʿ in a biblical context. Notice it says, “cut themselves” and not “poked themselves with a needle and ink.” Self-laceration and bloodletting were Canaanite rituals intended to invoke Baal (a false god) to bring vital rain needed for crops and sustaining life. The profit Hosea condemned the practice of inducing rain for crops (e.g., Hosea 7:14).
So, we see the concept of tattooing in the Old Testament is not the same as in modern times. A tattoo today means placing a permanent design by inserting pigment with a needle into the skin. The ancient practice of self-laceration also had a specific purpose. It was this purpose that the act was forbidden in Leviticus. Modern tattoos are not used in pagan rituals for mourning the dead or invoking rain for crops. Implying that Leviticus 19:28 has anything to do with modern tattooing is quite a stretch and grossly misinterprets scripture.
There is another challenge in proposing that one should live by this command in Leviticus 19:28. Namely, that Jesus fulfilled the law (cf. Matthew 5:17; Romans 10:4). He finished the Old Covenant and established the New Covenant. The apostle Paul clearly teaches a believer in Christ is no longer under the law, “Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were confined [placed under guard] by the law, imprisoned until the coming way of faith was revealed. The law, then, was our guardian until Christ came, so that we could be justified [made right with God] by faith. But since the way of faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [e.g., the law]” (Galatians 3:23-25, mine). In other words, we are not under the Mosaic law now, but under “the law of Christ” (e.g., Galatians 6:2; Matthew 22:40). The Old Testament law is not binding on believers today. If it were, then Jesus’ death on the cross was insufficient (e.g., Galatians 2:16).
Not only are we not bound by the Old Testament laws, but “The person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws” (James 2:10 NLT). Either “all” of it applies, or none of it applies. Therefore, those who try to condemn others today using Leviticus 19:28 should look at the preceding verse, “Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards” (Leviticus 19:27 NLT). The Israelites did not cut their hair or trim their beards (Leviticus 21:5; Isaiah 15:2; Micah 1:16). I wonder if the men in these churches (e.g., teaching tattoos are forbidden) all have beards and none of them shave their face or head (e.g., bald)? If Christians are not supposed to have tattoos according to Leviticus 19:28, then all Christian men should have a beard.
Honoring God with our bodyThose opposed to tattoos use the argument that we should honor God with our bodies. A background verse for this says, “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So, you must honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT). Someone said, “Imagine if I let you borrow my car and you brought it back with scratches all over it.” In other words, your body belongs to God, and He wouldn’t like it all covered with tattoos.
However, this way of thinking ignores the basic rules of hermeneutics (e.g., bible study). You can’t take one or two verses (especially out of context) and make a doctrine out of them. In context, this passage is referring to sexual sins, not tattoos. Look at the previous verse, “Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18 NLT). If one were to take vv. 19-20 to mean we should not defile our body because it is a temple and belongs to God, then we should not eat processed foods either. The Bible clearly teaches that gluttony is a sin (e.g., Proverbs 23:2). Eating in itself is not wrong, but too much of a good thing is a bad thing. So, if overeating is a sin and if we should not defile our body, then eating processed food is a defilement of the body too. Eating a candy bar is a sin by this way of grossly misusing scripture.
Actually, the Bible does tell us how we should think regarding our bodies, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:1-2a ESV). Opponents of tattooing say that getting one is being “conformed to the world.” However, notice what the rest of v. 12 says, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2b ESV). In other words, don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you “think and act,” not the way you look. Then you will learn to know God’s will for yourself, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Being conformed to the world is a spiritual issue, not a physical one.
How is a Christian supposed to look or dress? First of all, “The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7b NLT). Being a Christian is not a cookie-cutter, one-size fits all description. That is someone’s opinion of what a Christian is supposed to look like. God is the potter, and we are the clay (cf. Romans 9:20-21; Isaiah 29:16). God is molding and transforming us into His holy image as we journey through this earthly life. Again, it’s a spiritual issue. God doesn’t say when we start following Him, we can’t wear t-shirts anymore and must wear only collared shirts. Any kind of a Christian “dress code” is denominational teaching of men and does not come from God. Being a Christian is an inward spiritual truth, not a physical appearance requirement. Yet, we should dress modestly not promoting sexual attraction (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:9).
ConclusionWe have learned that Leviticus 19:28 refers to a pagan practice from c. 2000 b.c. and was interpreted at some time by a Bible translator from the Hebrew into English as the word tattoo. God instructed Moses that blood was precious and was to be used for atonement not conjuring a rain god to water crops (cf. Leviticus 17:1-24:9, 25:1-26:46). Superstitious practices of the heathen, rituals of death or rituals directed toward any other god, were prohibited in Leviticus. The ancient world was hampered by superstition, which has absolutely no place in the life of a believer who follows the one and only true God. Today, modern Judaizers preach tattooing is a sin based on a poor translation of the Hebrew word qaʿaqaʿ and taking the Bible out of context not using proper hermeneutics.
It should be noted that one doesn’t go to Hell for having a tattoo as some have insinuated. One does not receive eternal life unless he puts his trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. The issue of heaven or hell does not depend upon a tattoo. Having said that, let’s examine personal motivation. The Bible says, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Everything we do should bring honor and glory to God. If someone wanted to get tattooed with satanic symbols, images of sexual immorality, witchcraft, drunkenness, etc. I would say tattoos like that are promoting a sinful lifestyle and should not be applied. The Bible tells us, “When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things” (Galatians 5:19-23 NLT, Cf. Philippians 4:8). Does that mean one should only get tattoos of Bible verses or Christian symbols? No, but if a picture says a thousand words, then your body is a walking billboard. What does it mean to others about you and your beliefs?