Tattoos are more popular than ever before. Did you know that as many as 145 million Americans (44%) have a tattoo? According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of people getting tattoos are increasing 7.7% annually.
Since this practice affects most of the culture, it’s important to ask: What does the Bible say about tattoos? Does the Bible forbid tattoos for the Christian? I will do my best to answer these crucial questions.
What Does Leviticus 19:28 Really Say?
First, the passage many refer to is Leviticus 19:28. It states: “And a cutting for the dead you will not make in your flesh; and writing marks you will not make on you; I am the Lord.”
Some modern-day versions have inserted the word tattoo in this verse. It’s important to note that the word did not come into the English language until the 18th century. While there is no specific mention of tattoo throughout the Bible, the idea was known. For instance, the Hebrew word for “imprint” כְּתֹבֶת, can also mean tattoo or incision.
Debate Is Divided Among Scholars
The debate seems to be divided amongst commentators. For example, the writers of the Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary believe the statement forbidding tattoos is in reference to pagan customs for the dead and are no longer applicable to Christians today. Thus, they conclude tattooing is not sinful as long as they are not associated with heathen rituals like engraving one’s body for the dead.
On the other hand, The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament states that the prohibition of tattooing had no reference to idolatrous usages, but was intended to inculcate upon the Israelites a proper reverence for God’s creation. The Jewish understanding of this command is that, “the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent, should be maintained.”
Which Position Is More Biblical?
Which position is more biblical? For more clarity, let’s take a deeper dive into what a tattoo or imprint entailed in the Ancient Near East and how that compares with today’s notion of tattooing. In Canaan, there is archaeological evidence that confirms more extreme measures were taken by pagans when marking their bodies.
For instance, branding, slashing, or even gashing the skin were used for ritualistic purposes (1 Kings 18:28) to mourn the dead and honor their gods. Based on this evidence, it would seem God was forbidding scarification or extreme forms of self-infliction more than the type of tattooing we are familiar with today.
Nevertheless, modern-day tattoos also carry health risks associated with scarification. For example, scar tissues or keloids can result from getting permanent ink under the skin. Moreover, tattoos can cause allergic reactions, granulomas, bacterial infections, and blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis, tetanus, and HIV.
As a Christian, this concerns me. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 declares that our body is not our own, but rather God’s temple. If tattoos can cause adverse reactions or poor health to our bodies, is it really worth getting ink under the skin? In addition, God created us in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:27-28). When we decide to modify or alter the skin, are we honoring the vessel He gave to us? Could this mean people who get tattoos are not content with their unmarked bodies?
Our Creator tells us: “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 20:7).” This idea of consecrate means to be purified and set apart from the world. While tattoos have become more popular within Christian circles today, it has a very long history among the pagan cultures of the world.
God has called us to be different. In Romans 12:2, the Apostle Paul warns us not to conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind. So then, is it wise for Christians to associate themselves with a predominantly pagan practice?
Let me start here. I am acquainted with godly Christians who have tattoos. In fact, one pastor I know uses his tattoos to share the gospel. He has a compass that points to the direction of heaven and faith in Jesus. He has engraved his body with the intent to evangelize to the lost and bring hope and restoration to a broken world. I can empathize with his convictions and believe He truly loves the Lord.
That being said, Christians are also identifiable without ink on their skin. Philippians 4:5 states, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” In Galatians 5:22-23, the Apostle Paul declares the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, forbearance, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Lastly, the Lord told Samuel He does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Thus, whether you get a tattoo or not—I think all of us can agree that being kind to others is the best way to prove your faith in God.
Old Testament Law vs New Testament Grace
Another common argument that theologians bring up in favor of tattoos is how the Old Testament laws are no longer binding on Christians today. Since Leviticus 19:28 applied specifically to the Israelites, believers today are free. They are no longer under the dispensation of the law, but under the new covenant in Christ by grace (Romans 6:14). Galatians 5:18 declares the same concept: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
It is true we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9) and that our righteousness is found exclusively in the atoning work of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). It is a fact that no one will be declared righteous by the works of the law (Romans 3:20).
However, the Lord also stressed that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Furthermore, Jesus told his disciples, “If you truly love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).” Finally, the Psalmist declared that God’s entire word is truth, and every one of His righteous judgments endures forever (Psalm 119:160). For these reasons, I don’t believe the statement, “Old Testament Laws are no longer binding,” is a sufficient enough reason to promote tattooing the body.
If tattoos have normally been associated with pagan traditions, have the potential to cause significant health risks, and is condemned in Leviticus 19:28, I don’t personally think it is wise to get a tattoo. That being said, I also don’t believe there is adequate evidence to outright condemn this practice as a sin.
First, tattoos were often associated with worshipping idols and false gods. Today, people get tattoos for several reasons that are not religious in nature. Second, tattoos in the Ancient Near East were much more dangerous and self-inflicting than they are today. Third, tattoos can be used as a work of art to share the gospel and lead others to saving faith in Christ. 1 Corinthians 9:22 captures this idea beautifully: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Whether or not a person decides to get a tattoo evades the real issue. The real issue is a matter of the heart. The best way to prove your devotion to God is not by your outward appearance but your obedience to God’s two greatest commandments in Scripture: Honor the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). May the Lord give us wisdom, grace, and courage to represent Him faithfully in this broken world. Blessings to you!
Article written by Chad A. Damitz (M.Div)