Are Tattoos Biblical?

Leviticus 19:28

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
April 2012

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. However, just because something is socially accepted does not necessarily mean that it is biblical. What does Scripture teach about tattoos? 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.

Pro-Tattoo Arguments

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.

MORAL LAW

CEREMONIAL LAW

Permanent

These commands are always wrong and never become obsolete (bestiality, idolatry, murder)

Temporary

These were things that were wrong in the OT but are not wrong today (e.g., eating pork).

Universal

These are laws for everyone in all places at all times.

Not Universal

These are laws just for the Jews and are not binding on Gentiles.

Moral Issues

These are ethical behaviors which are inherently wrong (murder, adultery).

Amoral Issues

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.

Conclusion

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.

15 Responses to Are Tattoos Biblical?

  1. gladys says:

    Well I do not have any tatts but I did put a permant alteration on my body when I got earings, and to be hoenst I want a nose ring as well. It isnt a nesacarry alteration but its not for the dead but I am still on the fence about it. And I would love to get my mom a minni face lift but I dont know if that would go against this law or not.

    I know its kind of a silly question, but I find questions like this that affect almost everyone to be more important than some of the seamingly big questions that many may never encounter.

    Plus when it comes to tatts, I alwayse thought that it was more like an afterthought, liek ‘by the way that includes tattoos’ you know what I mean. That scripture just alwayse seamed to immply that tattoos were under the “For the dead” catagory as well. I guess I could have been reading it wrong. Thoughts?

    • admin says:

      Dear Gladys:

      I answered your argument about tattoos being forbidden only “for the dead” in my post. Take a look at the Pro-Tattoo Section Number Four where I deal with that argument. What Leviticus says is very counter-cultural, even for many Christians. Leviticus does not prohibit your ear ring. Hope this helps.

  2. gladys says:

    It does help though I have to ask how do we determine what is Moral law and what is ceremonial law?

    Cuz I know a lot of christians who will say something from the Old Testament still stands yet they will turn around and say something dosent still hold water today because its in the old testament.
    Its almost like they are picking and choosing what they want to believe and what they dont.

    Im not talking about you, I mean a certain friend I know he just seams to pick when the Old Testament matters and when it dosent. And it really confusses me a lot.

    • admin says:

      I tried to answered this in my tattoo post. One involves a moral issue and one involves an amoral issue (like eating). There is nothing moral about eating pork. It is part of the ceremonial law and is just a dietary issue. Killing someone is part of the moral law. It is always wrong. Did you have a further question about what I said in the post? I will be busy for the next few days but will get back to you if you have a further question.

  3. gladys says:

    Sorry im not catching on like I should. I mean I see the diffrence between Moral and Ceremonial laws, But somethimes the diffrence isnt as big as killing vs eating pork.
    I mean a tattoo isnt hurthing anyone and given the reasons we get them now vs the reason they were gotten then, you would think they would be okay.

    Now dont get me wrong I do not not not want a tattoo, Im only using it as an example of how hard it can be to tell the diffrence between the two.

    Like wearing mixed fabrics, many would say that dosent matter today. others would say that we need to buy special clothes to avoid mixed fabrics, I dont know how to determine if that would be moral or ceramonial
    And dont worry about answering me anytime soon, I am in no hurry.

    Hope you and your famly are doing well :)

    • admin says:

      I am doing well. I just got back from vacation from Chicago. I guess I would say that we know for sure that it is part of the moral law because of the structure of the passage. As I said in my post, “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.” I think that is the way we know from the text that this is part of the moral law and still applies today. Hope this helps a little. Have a great day.

  4. Gladys says:

    Structure of the passage? You mean like grammatical structure?

    Glad you hade a good time! I had a weak off of work. I looked into the Art Institute for film directing, I know I would rather act, but I figured I could be one of those directors who acts in there own movie, at least then I wouldn’t have to worry about having to take clothes off, or sex scene or anything like that, but the question of could I actually be a director and the 77,000 price tag are 2 good reasons to think about it more, I mean I could get a pell and a scholarship but even then I would still have out of pocket expenses, and I do not want a loan, I hate owing money!

    • admin says:

      Wow. I do not know exactly how to advise you. $77,000 is a big debt. Generally, it wouldn’t be wise to go into that much debt unless you are virtually guaranteed a big salary in the end which will pay off the debt. I remember hearing Megyn Kelly from Fox News say that it cost her $100,000 to go to law school. It probably wasn’t hard for her to pay it back with her success. I do not know what the market is like in that field when you get out. It could be a good or bad idea. I wish I could be more help on that one.

  5. Gladys says:

    As an after thought I probably shouldn’t be concerned so much about tats I don’t want one. But I am trying to plan ahead or for other things that might be part of the Moral law.

    For example I have had discussions about weather or not its okay for women to wear jeans, I personally don’t think it goes against the whole women shouldn’t wear what pertains to a man law at all. Cuz they don’t pertain to men anymore, we have our own section at Kohl’s and everything!LOL
    Yet other say women should only wear dresses cuz pants were men’s clothing long before they belonged to women.

    Or the main one that me and my friends cant seam to agree on, is war, Now I don’t like the war but I doubt anyone in it would go to hell for it. I mean there was war in the OT. Yet my friends (one in particular) thinks that the turn the other cheek Jesus mentioned in the NT over rules all forms of violence, war, even defending yourself. So its kind of a NT over rides the OT kind of thing, Yet when we talk about other things he would say that since its in the OT we still have to live by it.

    • admin says:

      Your last post mentioned two topics. Let’s start with the last one. Your friend has completely misunderstood what Jesus meant when He talked about turning the other cheek. It is a common misunderstanding, especially among people who do not know the Bible very well. I refuted this idea in my lesson on the Sixth Commandment (http://www.elonsmallgroup.com/the-sixth-commandment/) under the caption “Did Jesus Prohibit Self Defense?” Check that link for an answer to that viewpoint.

      It is perfectly fine for a woman to wear pants. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake because (among other things) she wore pants. There is no verse that prohibits pants for women. In fact, in Bible days, everyone wore a dress. They all wore robes, the men and the women.

      Having said that, there is a biblical principle that is still valid today. It is part of the moral law. It says that men should not wear women’s clothes and women should not wear men’s clothes (Deuteronomy 22:5). It is a valid biblical principle. How that principle is applied will vary with culture and time period.

  6. gladys says:

    okay this may sound silly but it does apply to that last paragraph. As you said the principle still applys that men should not wear women;s clothing. Now the question is how far do we take that.
    I know it sound weard but and I know god means what he says but I know people take a topic like this and go far beyond what scripture intended.
    So let me give an example, now a lot of people would say this is just another way of telling women and me to dress according to proper gender kind of as another way to telling them to be straight instead of gay, or transgendered if you will, others say that a woman throughing on her husbands t-shirt in the morning is going aginst this scriputre.

    Now this though just accured to me tonight, see I was watching an episode of Diagnosis Murder with dick van dyke, and in this episode he playes other characters one of which is his femail cusin, He had on a dress,wig, makeup,and jewlery, now as dumb as a quesion as this is would you say that van dyke broke this rule by dressing as a femail character for his show?

    And that leads to another quesion of being forgiven without asking for it, I know if we repent we are forgiven, if we genuenly repent that is, but what if you do not repent because you dont think or know you have done anything wrong? Isnt there a scripture about being forgiven if we dont know we did something wrong?

    I know I know dumb question, but the 2 things I alwayse think about is God and acting. Beleieve it or not when I watch a show or movie I love, I cant help but notice things that might be considered sin, and just reading your latest posting not long ago this really jumped out at me so I thought I would ask, even if you think Im silly, the queison might be good for a laugh.

    • admin says:

      You raised several questions. You may not like some of my answers but this is what I would say

      No, it would not be a problem for a woman to wear her husband’s t-shirt. What the Bible specifically prohibits is cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5). It is talking about a man that dresses up like a woman or vice versa. It not only forbids transvestites, it calls that behavior “an abomination”. It is something that God hates. Society may think it is perfectly acceptable but God’s thoughts are different from man’s thoughts.

      Having said that, there are non-gender specific clothes which either sex can wear. Is it wrong for actors? In my own opinion, it would be wrong to do this, even for actors. Deuteronomy does not say that this behavior is wrong and something that God hates unless it is done on TV. I also do not see how the Bible would apply until one steps on the TV set and then it does not apply.

      In terms of your last question, I would say this. Once a person is genuinely saved, they are completely forgiven from all of their sins (past, present and future). Jesus died for all of your sins, not just your past sins. Christ’a atonement covers post-conversion sins. Otherwise, Jesus would have to die a second time to redeem you. All of your sins were future when He died on the cross. You do not have to confess every sin in order to be saved. We sin every day and do not even know all of our sins. That would not be possible.

      Confession for the believer does not affect his standing but his state. Put another way, there are two kinds of forgiveness, one for believers and one for unbelievers. The lost have to accept Christ to be forgiven of their sins. They do this once and it affects their standing before God. Believers who sin need to confess their sin daily (based on I John 1:9).

      That affects their state. To give an example, a child who lives in rebellion to their parents is still their child. He or she is still in the family, even though the child is in rebellion. Their behavior does not affect their membership in the family but it does affect their fellowship, closeness and intimacy in the family. I hope this helps somewhat.

  7. gladys says:

    NO no I understand you answeres, and agree with them, I may not alwayse like the answer but as long as it is honest I wish to hear it. Yes it did help thank you!

    Diagnosis Murder rocked though!

  8. gladys says:

    I try, I try ;)

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