Tattoos were once associated with gang membership or time in prison, but now tattoos are common among suburban moms, goth teens, pop stars, and worship leaders. Nearly half of millennials report having at least one tattoo, according to the Wall Street Journal.
While the church and mainstream culture once strongly condemned tattoos, now it’s almost cliché to see an East Coast pastor with a full sleeve of ink. Where getting a tattoo was once a sign of hardcore rebellion, getting inked now acts as an interesting conversation starter.
But doesn’t the Bible prohibit tattoos?
What does the Old Testament say about tattoos?
Moses enacts around 613 laws in the first five books of the Bible. Many of these laws deal with the sacrificial system and priestly duties, others refer to the lifestyle of the Jewish people, and still others deal with their governmental system.
In Leviticus 19:28, God’s law prohibits tattoos for the Israelite people, as well as “cuts on your body for the dead.” However, just one verse earlier, the law also forbids that they cut their sideburns (Leviticus 19:27). The Jewish law additionally prohibits eating pork and wearing garments made out of mixed materials (Leviticus 11:27; 19:19). Christians nowadays normally don’t follow those rules.
Many laws would continue to be beneficial today, and, of course, all Christians should follow the Ten Commandments. However, there are other commands, like the infamous “You shall not boil a goat in its mother’s milk,” that are entirely contextual to Israel’s situation (Exodus 23:19).
So how do we decide what to keep?
What is a hermeneutic?
As thoughtful Christians, we want to be faithful in our hermeneutics.
Hermeneutic refers to how we interpret and apply the Bible to our lives today. As Dr. Ken Gore, Biblical Studies professor at DBU says, “The Bible is written for us, not to us.” He gleaned that from the indispensable How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. The biblical authors were inspired to write things down so we could know about them centuries and millennia later, but they weren’t writing to us.
This means we must carefully understand the context of God’s word before applying it to our lives today.
For instance, we should not say that Philippians 4:13 means we can do anything at all simply by trying. Of course, God could miraculously give me the ability to beat LeBron James in a one-on-one pick-up game. But if I did play him, I would lose. What’s the deal? Doesn’t God give me the strength to do everything I want? Kelly Edmiston for Christianity Today has a helpful introduction to hermeneutics using Philippians 4:13 as an example.
In Leviticus, God’s people have just been liberated from the oppression of Egypt. As Moses leads Israel, God gives him laws to help instill an identity based on their relationship with him. Some of these Jewish laws purposefully set the Israelites apart from pagan worship practices. Obviously, Christians as God’s people (aside from Messianic Jews) normally do not eat a kosher diet, nor do we avoid mixing fabrics, and we generally shave our sideburns.
So, why do we carry forward some Old Testament laws and not others?
A great deal of debate exists around the applicability of specific laws after the new covenant. Sometimes, the New Testament specifically allows for it, like when Mark writes: “Thus [Jesus] declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). Other times, the Bible says we are free from the old Jewish laws, no longer having to follow the sacrificial system. Yet Jesus still condemns adultery, going even further in saying that lusting is sinful like adultery (Matthew 5:27–29).
That means we will have to ask why God forbids tattoos in that context and determine whether it still applies to us.
The word tattoo is unclear in Hebrew
The NIV, NLT, NASB, and ESV all translate the Hebrew word as “tattoo.” However, the Hebrew word qaʿăqaʿ can also mean incision or imprint. Some scholars translate this word as imprint, as in the KJV, in which case an entirely “literal” application would prevent children’s non-permanent tattoos at the fair, or even scribbling notes on the back of one’s hand.
Nonetheless, most Hebrew scholars seem to affirm that it refers to the act of puncturing the skin to stain it with ink, making permanent markings. At that time, tattooing would have been much more prone to infection and other health risks.
But that probably isn’t the reason why the Old Testament law forbid tattoos.
Why couldn’t Israelites get a tattoo?
As mentioned earlier, many of these laws set apart the Jews from the surrounding cultures and helped them unlearn pagan Egyptian customs.
For many years, commentators believed the ban on tattoos had to do with “proper reverence for God’s creation,” as nineteenth-century Lutheran scholars Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch said. Frederic Gardiner wrote in 1876 that this passage prohibits “profaning the human dignity in the human form.”
Many conservative commentators have said the law forbidding tattoos has to do with its violation of our bodies as God’s good creation. While their position is understandable, we now see that the law was probably given to protect Israelites from associating with pagan worship and being free from their bondage to slavery.
It seems that, historically, two primary practices were tied to tattooing during this period.
- Some tattoos during this period relate to slavery. New scholarship, for example, convincingly argues that tattooing was used to mark slaves in Egypt. Since God had just liberated the Israelites from slavery, they were never to consider themselves under bondage to Egypt.
- Jewish Rabbis later associated tattoos with idolatry and paganism. James E. Smith supports its association with pagan worship practices, while Robert Jamieson and others give support for tattoos being associated with idol worship and as a sign of apostasy.
It seems in this reading, Leviticus doesn’t forbid every kind of tattooing in the modern context, since in our culture it no longer has this association with idolatry or slavery. Consequently, a good hermeneutical interpretation demonstrates that the principle behind this command isn’t violated by modern tattooing.
But before we decide if getting a tattoo is biblical or not, there are some other considerations.
Are there other Bible verses against tattooing?
A few Christians argue that the “mark of the beast” is some kind of tattoo (Revelation 13:16–18). In the next passage over, however, Revelation 14:1 says that the 144,00 “redeemed from the earth” had the “Father’s name written on their foreheads.” So, a literal reading would lead us to also say the righteous will have tattoos—and face tattoos at that!
There are many ways to interpret Revelation, and while it’s possible that some kind of world order would require people to get 666 tattooed on them, it seems unlikely that this was John’s intended meaning. Even if this were true, we could get anything else other than 666 tattooed on us and be fine. (I wouldn’t recommend getting a 666 tattoo anyway for many reasons).
In 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, Paul makes the beautiful point that our “bodies are temples.” He says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
In context, this passage is referring to sexual immorality. We should nonetheless reflect on the principle here.
This principle applies to a great many areas of our lives. Paul is affirming the importance of our bodies, so I think this principle does apply to tattooing. A proper application might be: “We should glorify God with the tattoos we decide to get on our body.” Although, again, I’m not sure if Paul would be thinking of “outward appearance” when he wrote these words. If he were, temples are highly decorated, often with elaborate tapestries and paintings, so the passage still wouldn’t seem to prohibit tattoos.
In Isaiah 49:16, God says, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” This is metaphorical but still demonstrates an openness to tattooing.
Tattoos as cultural markers
An interesting article by Trevin Wax for The Gospel Coalition asks, “Are tattoos worse than adultery?”
This article considers the experience of some Tanzanian missionaries. They were shocked to find that their Christian students unanimously agreed it would be worse for a pastor to get tattoos than to commit adultery. Why? Because tattoos in that culture are associated with “witchcraft and evil spirits,” and, to them, they show that such evil spirits have an influence over the person.
We should take other Christians’ views very seriously. We worship the same God as those Tanzanian brothers and sisters. Indeed, they rightly say that the cultural practice of tattooing in that region would greatly limit their witness and would bring undue shame on the church. That is not to say morality is relative to cultures, but, as Christians, we are called to tend our witness carefully. Different cultural contexts sometimes require different applications of the biblical texts and different applications of the same eternal truths.
Non-sinful cultural and ethnic markers can be kept by Christians. The gospel—“good news”—is for Jews and Gentiles. This inclusion is a massively important theological point for Paul. The letter to the Galatian church is written in large part to address Jewish Christians who added the Jewish law and ethnic markers as part of becoming a Christian. Paul says this is emphatically false: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the [Jewish] law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:1–2).
Later in that chapter, he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
And, he also says in 1 Corinthians 8–9 that many of these issues which are in the gray area (like whether we can eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan gods) should not divide us. At the very least, tattooing should be one of those issues.
Obviously, many issues are outright considered sinful in the Bible, irrespective of culture and regardless of whether it would “hurt our witness.”
Getting a tattoo does not seem to be one of those issues.
Can I get a tattoo if I’m a Christian?
If, as a believer, you decide to get a tattoo, there are certainly some guiding principles in what the Bible says about tattoos.
Drew Dickens wrote about millennials and tattoos in 2015 for Denison Forum. In response to parents asking about their kids who want to get a tattoo, he writes: “Perhaps a better response than an immediate ‘ok’ or ‘not a chance’ is to ask them, ‘Why?’”
Beyond that simple question, here are some other points to keep in mind:
- Get the tattoo with good artisanship that glorifies God (our bodies are temples!)
- Because tattoos are permanent, exercise extreme discretion and wisdom. Over 10 percent of people regret getting their tattoos.
- Consider tying in biblical truth to the tattoo so it can become a ministry opportunity.
- Transforming inappropriate, bigoted, or ungodly tattoos with a new tattoo can be done by skillful tattoo artists.
- Consider whether your occupation might frown upon visible tattoos.
- Be wise in where you get it done. Tattoos still include health risks.
The principle behind not getting tattoos seems to be its association with slavery, idolatry, and paganism. In today’s context, we should make sure that the content of our tattoos does not connect to those issues.
- If we’re getting a tattoo because we idolize something, that would be a reflection of sin.
- If the tattoo refers to something from which God has freed us, don’t get it (Galatians 5:1).
- If it will hurt your witness or cause division, you also should avoid it (especially if you live in a culture that associates any tattoo with paganism; 1 Corinthians 8:13)
- Finally, we shouldn’t get tattoos associated with paganism or anything against Christ’s teaching.
Wisdom, the Holy Spirit, and community should all provide insight into the nuances of each situation.
What does the Bible say about getting a tattoo?
In summary, some Christians may argue that the Levitical laws against tattoos are there because God doesn’t want us to violate our natural bodies. This position has problems and doesn’t account for the context well. Biblical scholarship has shown the Old Testament prohibition against tattoos was likely associated with paganism and slavery, which still should guide those seeking tattoos in which specific tattoo they get.
However, since tattoos in the West are no longer associated with those sins, Christians should be free to get thoughtful, God-honoring tattoos. They are cultural markers and artistic expressions that can be redeemed and enjoyed by Christians under the new covenant.
As Paul says about cultural matters which may divide us: “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12).