Elon, North Carolina
Tattoos are an accepted practice in our society. People get them for a number of reasons. Society approves of them and even many Christians have them. Many in the church have them. What does Scripture teach about tattoos? Are they biblical? Let’s start with some basic facts about tattoos.
Facts About Tattoos
1) Tattoos are an ancient practice
They are not new. They began over five thousand years ago. Many ancient peoples had them. They existed in ancient Egypt, China, Japan and many other places. Other cultures from the Ancient Near East also practiced tattoos.
2) Tattoos are a pagan practice
The earliest tattoos are found in ancient Egypt during the time of the construction of the great pyramids. The Egyptians are believed to be the first culture to have tattoos. It was part of ancient Egyptian culture. They were a part of ancient pagan culture.
3) Tattoos are an unbiblical practice
They are forbidden by a passage in Leviticus. Does this prohibition in Leviticus apply to Christians today? Many believe that it is not binding on the church today. Six arguments have been used by Christians to justify tattoos today. We will analyze these arguments to see if they are biblical.
1. The prohibition does not apply today because it is from the OT
The only verse which condemns tattoos in Scripture (Leviticus 19:28) does not apply to Christians, because it is in the Law of Moses and Christians are not under the Law of Moses (Romans 6:14; Galatians 3:24-25).
They are not bound by those laws. If they were bound by Leviticus 19, then it would also be wrong today for Christians to wear clothing made of two different materials (19:19) or to trim the edges of their beard (19:27).
The problem with this argument is that Leviticus 19 is full of other commands that certainly still apply today. In fact, most of what is in Leviticus 19 still applies today. Leviticus 19 also tells us to honor our father and our mother (19:3). That still applies. It tells us to not commit idolatry (19:4). That still applies. It tells us not to steal and not to lie (19:11). That still applies. It tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (19:18).
Leviticus 19 tells us not to practice divination and sorcery (19:26). Those commands still apply today. We are not to show partiality today in our judicial system (19:15) or slander people today (19:16). Leviticus 19 also says that we should still respect elderly people today (19:32) and the alien who lives in our land (19:33). So while all of Leviticus 19 may not be binding today, much of it clearly is.
2. The prohibition does not apply today because it is not repeated in the NT
The ban on tattoos is NOT repeated in the NT. Therefore, it is not binding today. The NT does not forbid Christians to get tattoos.
The problem with this logic is that the very next verse says, ‘Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness.” (Leviticus 19:29). This command still applies today but it is NOT repeated in the NT. This is the only place in the Bible that God directly forbids someone to prostitute their daughter.
There are many other things that are clearly wrong today which were forbidden in the OT but not in the NT. For example, the Law of Moses says not to commit child sacrifice. It says not to burn any of your children in a fire to some pagan god (Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10; Leviticus 18:21). The NT does not forbid this practice. Is it still wrong to do today? Yes. The Law of Moses says we are not to have sex with animals (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:23; 20:15-16; Deuteronomy 27:21).
The NT does not prohibit bestiality. Is it still wrong to do today? Yes. The Law of Moses says that cross-dressing is wrong (Deuteronomy 22:5). It calls it “an abomination.” The NT does not say anything about being a transvestite. Is it still wrong to do today? Yes. It is wrong today even though there is only one verse in the entire Bible that condemns it and that verse happens to be in the Law of Moses. The reason these things apply today, even though the Law of Moses is not binding today is that they are part of the moral law. The moral law is eternal.
These commands are always wrong and never become obsolete (bestiality, idolatry, murder)
These were things that were wrong in the OT but are not wrong today (e.g., eating pork).
These are laws for everyone in all places at all times.
These are laws just for the Jews and are not binding on Gentiles.
These are ethical behaviors which are inherently wrong (murder, adultery).
Shaving is not a moral issue, nor is wearing clothes of cotton and polyester, clipping the edges of your beard or wearing clothes made from two different kinds of materials.
These were matters of diet or religious ritual (clean/unclean laws), not ethics. Eating pork is a question of diet, not ethics.
3. The OT ban on tattoos is part of the ceremonial law, not the moral law
Many believe that tattoos are part of the ceremonial law because the verse immediately before it (“Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”) in Leviticus 19:27 deals with a ceremonial matter. This could be one as well. Some of the other things mentioned in Leviticus 19 are clearly ceremonial (e.g., 19:5-8, 19, 20-22) but there are good reasons to see them as part of the moral law.
Tattoos & the Moral Law
The verse immediately after it (“Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness”) in 19:29 is part of the moral law.
Leviticus 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” It contains prohibitions of two pagan customs. The two are not identical but clearly go together. Both deal with the body. We are not to mutilate our body or make permanent marks on our body.
Since the first part of the verse deals with the moral law, the second half of the verse also deals with the moral law. Both would apply today. Is it still wrong to mutilate your body for the dead? Yes. Is it still wrong to get tattoos? Yes.
If the ban on mutilating or disfiguring your body still applies, the ban on tattoos would still apply. The two go together. The structure of the verse argues for the moral law view. While coloring your body is not a moral issue (e.g., makeup), many believe that making permanent changes to a body created in the image of God for non-medical reasons is a moral issue.
4. Tattoos were condemned in the OT because they were a pagan mourning rite.
The prohibition against cutting the flesh and getting a tattoo was forbidden only if it was done for the dead. As long as it is not for the dead, it is not forbidden.
The practice of shaving your head and making deep gashes on the face and arms and legs in time of bereavement was a universal morning rite in the the Ancient Near East but getting permanent tattoos were NOT part of any ancient morning custom.
Jacob Milgrom was the leading expert in the world on Leviticus. He was a Jewish scholar who wrote a three volume commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor Bible that is about three thousand pages long. He passed away in 2010 at the age of 87. Milgrom viewed this as an independent prohibition and not a mourning rite. The verse says “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead.” It does NOT say, “Do not make any tattoo marks on yourselves for the dead.”
5. Tattoos were condemned because they were related to false religious practices
Tattoos today are different. They are for decoration and are a means of self expression. The Bible does not prohibit tattoos for non-religious reasons. The problem is that the prohibition against tattoos in Leviticus 19:28 is very general – “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.”
It does NOT say, “Do not make a tattoo of a false god or an idol.” There is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that tattoos are permissible, as long as they are non-pagan tattoos. Jews have interpreted the prohibition to include ALL tattoos , except the ones that are medically necessary (those made for medical purposes such as to guide a surgeon making an incision).
6. Tattoos are ethical, as long as they are Christian tattoos.
Many Christians think that tattoos that are Christian (e.g. a tattoo of cross or “Jesus Saves”) are not wrong. Some even use them as a witnessing tool to reach people for Christ.
The problem with this argument is that it says in effect, “I know that tattoos are forbidden in Scripture. I know that God says not to get them but I am getting one anyway because I want to witness to people.” There is NEVER a good reason for disobedience to a clear command of Scripture.
To obey is better than to sacrifice. King Saul was told very clearly to kill the Amalekites and everything that belonged to them, including the animals (I Samuel 15:1-3). Saul obeyed some of the command but specifically saved some of the animals for worship (I Samuel 15:20-21). He disobeyed but had a spiritual reason for doing so. Samuel replied, “TO OBEY IS BETTER THAN TO SACRIFICE” (I Samuel 15:22).
Worship and even evangelism is no substitute for obedience. We should never use anything as an excuse for disobedience. Doing what God says is more important than any sacrifices or religious works we can do.
Tattoos are an accepted part of modern culture and many Christians even have them. Tattoos go back thousands of years and historically were a pagan practice. They are mentioned one time in Scripture and are condemned. The prohibition is general and is not limited to pagan or idolatrous tattoos of a false god or an idol. The prohibition does not limit some but all tattoos.
The biblical prohibition comes from the Law of Moses. If the prohibition is part of the ceremonial law, it would not be binding today on Christians. If it is part of the moral law, it would be binding today. Leviticus 19 contains examples of both commands.
However, Leviticus 19:28 contains two prohibitions that go together. Both prohibitions deal with the body. We are not to mutilate our body and we are not to make permanent marks on our body. Since the first part of the verse deals with the moral law, the second half of the verse also deals with the moral law. Both would apply today. If it is still wrong to mutilate your body for the dead today, then it is also still wrong to get tattoos today. The structure of the verse supports the moral law position.