Can Christians get Tattoos according to the Bible? (Are tattoos sin?)

I had a hard time finding a Bible study on tattoos that:

  • Was comprehensive
  • Wasn’t fueled by emotion more than scripture
  • Wasn’t based around a pre-conceived answer the author clearly had before putting the study together

 

I will try to keep the commentary on this study to a minimum while we examine the scripture.

——

What we will cover:

  • The meaning of Leviticus 19:28
  • How to consider Old Testament laws today
  • How to deal with the issue of tattoos using New Testament scripture

The only scripture that directly references what we today would consider tattoos is Leviticus 19:28.

Lev 19:28 Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.

To better understand this scripture, we need to examine the context. Leviticus 19:27?28 addresses four things:

1) Shaving the head a certain way 2) Shaving the beard a certain way 3) Cutting the skin ?4) Marking the skin

Leviticus 19:27?28 Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.? Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.

Taking time to identify how these four acts are addressed in scripture will not only help us understand the context of verse 28 better, but will serve as a good example of how we should examine Old Testament commandments from the New Testament (new promise or covenant) which we are now in.

Here are two other passages that address three out of the four items on the above list:

Lev 21:4?5 [But] he shall not defile himself, [being] a chief man among his people, to profane himself.?They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh (emph. added).

Deut 14:1?2? Ye [are] the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead (emph. added)..?For thou [art] an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that [are] upon the earth.

These three passages all reference at least three things: the shaving of the head, the cutting of the beard, and the cutting of the flesh. Leviticus 19:28 is the only one that specifically mentions the Hebrew words “qa’aqa'”, which means “an incision or gash, to mark (2)”. The KJV translates this as “print marks upon you”. Some newer versions like the NRSV actually use the word “tattoo”. The word tattoo was not used in the English language at the time of the KJV translation (1), otherwise the KJV may have said tattoo as well. This is the only time this particular Hebrew word is mentioned in the Bible.

The Hebrew word we translate as tattoo is only used once in the Bible.

In each of the three passages doing something for the dead is referenced. While it does not name each individual act as a pagan ritual relating specifically to the dead, some would make a case that each of the four acts listed above could be related to doing something for the dead. Since Leviticus 19:28 is the only verse that references tattoos, it’s worth examining closer. Let’s look at the other three items referenced in order to give us better context.

Shaving

While at first glance Leviticus 19 may not seem like shaving the head, when one looks at the Hebrew word used for round, naqaph (Strong’s H3562), we see it most likely means to cut short, shave off, or even strike the flesh:

“3562: to strike with more or less violence (beat, fell corrode); by imp. (of attack) to knock together, i.e. surround or circulate; – compass (about, -­?ing), cut down, destroy, go round (about), inclose, round”.(2)

Often this word is simply used to surround, but other times it is not:

Job 19:26, to “destroy(nagaph) this body…”

Isaiah 10:34 “cut down (nagaph) the thickets…”

Isaiah 29:1 “let them kill (nagaph) sacrifices.”

In light of the definition, it makes sense to interpret Leviticus 28:18 as shaving the hair, or cutting marks in the hair or even the skin of the head.

Like many commandment in the Old Testament that seem odd or somewhat pointless in our American culture, God had reasoning behind each commandment.

“There was a superstition even in trimming themselves used by the heathen, which must not be imitated by the people of God: You shall not round the corners of your heads. Those that worshipped the hosts of heaven, in honour of them, cut their hair so as that their heads might resemble the celestial globe; but, as the custom was foolish itself, so, being done with respect to their false gods, it was idolatrous.” (7)

“Herodotus tells of the use of this type of haircut, forming what is called a tonsure, as the practice of pagan religious cults of ancient times who did so honoring one of their gods.”(3)

In Ezekiel, we read that Levite priests should not shave their heads, but keep their hair trimmed and from growing too long.

Ezek. 44:20: ‘Neither shall they shave their heads, nor suffer their locks (hair, long hair of head(2)) to grow long; they shall only poll (to cut, clip, trim, shear(2)) their heads. (Word definitions added)

We read places in the Bible where the Israelites shaved their heads and/or beards, but for a general lifestyle, they were not supposed to.

Lev 14:8-­?9 For Cleansing Purposes

Num 6:9, Num 8:7 For cleansing and repentance purposes

Duet 21:12 Taking a woman to wed from among Israel’s enemies, her head would be shaven

Acts 21:34 To show a vow period was over and had been fulfilled (the hair and beard would not be cut during the vow period).?To shame others:

1 Chronicles 19:4As a discrace to David’s men

Isaiah 15:2? ?A disgrace

Jeremiah 48:37, Micah 1:16, Ezekiel 27:31 To show defeat, humiliation

Regarding the Cutting of the flesh

Circumcision: Circumcision was commanded by God for all the Israelites and for any servants of the Israelites (Gen 17:10-­?14) Circumcision set God’s people apart.

Ear Piercing: God commanded the Hebrew bondservant who desired to stay with his master after his time was up to be pierced in the ear. This was a sign that we would be the master’s slave for life (Ex 21:6).

“The cutting of one’s flesh also characterized pagan worship as attested by the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel in the contest with Elijah”(3).

“The practice of making deep gashes on the face and arms and legs, in time of bereavement, was universal among the heathen, and it was deemed a becoming mark of respect for the dead, as well as a sort of propitiatory offering to the deities who presided over death and the grave. The Jews learned this custom in Egypt, and though weaned from it, relapsed in a later and degenerate age into this old superstition (Is 15:2; Je 16:6; 41:5)”(4).

“nor print any marks upon you” (v:28 )—by tattooing, imprinting figures of flowers, leaves, stars, and other fanciful devices on various parts of their person. The impression was made sometimes by means of a hot iron, sometimes by ink or paint, as is done by the Arab females of the present day and the different castes of the Hindus. It is probable that a strong propensity to adopt such marks in honor of some idol gave occasion to the prohibition in this verse; and they were wisely forbidden, for they were signs of apostasy; and, when once made, they were insuperable obstacles to a return. (See allusions to the practice, Isa 44:5 Rev 13:17 14:1 )”(4).

“The making a large bare space between the eyebrows was another heathen custom in honor of the dead (see on JF & B for Le 19:27, 28; JF & B for Le 21:5). Such indecorous and degrading usages, being extravagant and unnatural expressions of hopeless sorrow ( 1Th 4:13 ), were to be carefully avoided by the Israelites, as derogatory to the character, and inconsistent with the position, of those who were the people of God [ Deu 14:2 ]” (5).

The cutting of the flesh in Leviticus 19 is specifically referenced as for the dead, the section about marking (tattooing) the skin however, appears to be a general commandment.

Now that we’ve defined the context of why these commandments were given, we need to address the question of, “How do these Old Testament commandments apply today?”

How do these Old Testament commandments apply today?

Some laws in the Old Testament were given just for the sake of setting the Israelites apart (a peculiar people, holy unto God), some were given for protection, some were moral laws; while many were a combination of all three. The forbidding of eating certain kinds of animals was done to set God’s people apart, as well as possibly keep them from eating animals that could potentially harm them in that environment. The former reason holds more weight then the latter however, given the fact that the Israelites were allowed to share or sell animals that they considered “unclean” to non-Israelites (Deu 14:21). It’s clear to us – and most of the rest of the world today – that eating bacon is not morally wrong. Therefore, we can conclude that the commandment to abstain from eating certain animals was given to set God’s people apart among the culture of that time. It was not a universally moral issue such as murdering or stealing. However, to be righteous with God, the obedience or breaking of the commandment would have moral consequences for the Israelites because the commandment was given to them.

Here is another example: In Leviticus 19:19, it says, “…neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee.” I don’t think anyone in any culture would argue that combining these two fabrics is morally wrong. This was another law that was maybe put in place to set God’s people apart and possibly to counteract superstitious or pagan practices that were going on at the time. And if we investigate further, we can see a practical and protective reason that God might have given this commandment:

“The law, it is to be observed, did not prohibit the Israelites wearing many different kinds of cloths together, but only the two specified; and the observations and researches of modern science have proved that “wool, when combined with linen, increases its power of passing off the electricity from the body. In hot climates, it brings on malignant fevers and exhausts the strength; and when passing off from the body, it meets with the heated air, inflames and excoriates like a blister” [WHITLAW]. (See Eze 44:17, 18 ).” (6)

As mentioned before, some laws are universally understood to be moral laws, such as not marrying another family member, not sleeping with a beast, etc. No Christian today needs to be told that this behavior is sin. Even though the New Testament does not say one shouldn’t sleep with a beast, we know it is morally wrong. Most would agree that shaving one’s head or beard is not morally wrong in today’s culture. The question then arises:

Is the commandment to not tattoo one’s body a moral law that did not need to be repeated in the New Testament because we should just know it is morally wrong? Or is it a commandment for the Israelites in their time and culture to keep them safe and holy? (Tattoos today are very safe and sterile, back then they would not have been.(

This is the first question the readers must answer for themselves. At this point in the study, if the reader feels convicted by God (by God) that tattoos are a moral commandment in which those who violate it would be guilty of sin, so be it. However, one must look at the fact that while almost all Christians consider marrying your mother-­?in-­?law or sleeping with a beast to be morally wrong by nature, there are many who do not feel tattoos to be wrong. They feel tattoos are about as wrong as wearing a sport coat that is 65 percent wool and 35 percent linen.

So let’s examine what the New Testament says regarding issues that are not specifically addressed in the Bible.

An example of this would be smoking marijuana. The New Testament does not say we shouldn’t smoke marijuana, but it does say we should be sober and not engage in drunkenness or excess of wine (Gal 5:21,1Pet 4:3, Tts 2:4, 1 Pet 4:7). Marijuana impairs the natural mind and senses similarly to alcohol or many other drugs. Therefore, we can conclude that any drug (even caffeine) that produces a drunken-like effect in a person is sinful. Any substance that is consumed to the point of making one not sober can be considered contrary to the word of God. Now, what if you need to take a prescribed drug for medial purposes that has this effect before going to bed or into surgery, is it OK then? Of course it is. And now we can see why the New Testament is more than a list of dos and don’ts. The list would be endless, and new things and circumstances would always be coming into existence. If every substance or drug was listed in the Bible, a new one would come along and people would say, “Well, the Bible doesn’t say we shouldn’t do this, so it must be OK”. I know people who have reactions to caffeine that makes then not sober. Should we declare a law then that caffeine is of Satan? No, caffeine is fine for me in moderation, but not for my friend. Being a Christian involves knowing God’s word, but also being led by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said the words that he speaks are “Spirit and Life” (John 6:63). So just because the black and white letters of the New Testament do not specifically address tattoos, this does not mean that we cannot find the answer in them. It just means we need to be led by the Holy Spirit when seeking for it.

And now we can see why the New Testament is more than a list of dos and don’ts. The list would be endless…

All of God’s word is still applicable today. Certain aspects of the Old Testament Law however, have been fulfilled by the coming of Jesus Christ.

Galatians: 3:23 -­?26 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.?Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster [to bring us] unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.?For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.?For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.?There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

It’s also important to point out that even in the Old Testament, the law was still a spiritual thing.

Romans 7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.

Even the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself as been around since the Old Testament. (Luke 10:25-­?28, Leviticus 19:18)

So regardless of the commandment, God expects us to be spiritual minded. The OT Law was not meant to be a burden, but a way to live in a closer, more holy relationship with God. This is why David repeatedly talks about his love for the law in Psalms. We should take joy in fulfilling the letter of the law as much as we can. For decisions which are not specifically addressed in the Bible, we need to weigh them up according to the Word of God, council with elders, and seek to be lead by the Holy Spirit. For instance, we know not to murder. But we can murder with our thoughts by entertaining them. We can murder with our tongue by the things we say. Simply following the letter of the law is not enough.

So what are some things to consider when the Bible is not clear on an issue?

If the reader had concluded that Leviticus 19:28 is not necessarily a commandment that applies in today’s culture as a moral law, the rest of this study will seek to offer an answer from Romans 14.

Romans 14:23 Hast thou faith? have [it] to thyself before God. Happy [is] he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.?And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because [he eateth] not of faith: for whatsoever [is] not of faith is sin.

I recently read an article (cited below) that phrased it in this very understandable way. Here is what this issue of tattoos may come down to: ?Not “Is it OK for a Christian to get a tattoo?” but “Is it OK for me to get a tattoo? (8)”

Not “Is it OK for a Christian to get a tattoo?” but “Is it OK for me to get a tattoo?”

Please read all of Romans 14, and then ask yourself these questions and reference the appropriate scripture again.

  • What are your motives?
  • Does getting/not getting a tattoo cause me to despise my brother? Rom 14:3
  • Am I doing this for God? Rom 14:6
  • Will it cause somebody to stumble? Rom 14:21
  • Will it offend my brother or sister? Rom 14:21
  • How does my spouse feel? You are both one body. Eph 5:31 (OK, not Romans but very applicable)
  • And once you come to your conclusion, remember:? You shouldn’t pass judgment on somebody else if they have the freedom you don’t have in an area. Rom 14:3?

As you review Romans 14, try replacing “eat” and “meat” with things like “get a tattoo”, “wear shirts that reveal my stomach”, etc.

Examples:

vs 6 He that tattoos his body, tattoos his body to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that does not approve of tattoos, to the Lord he does not approve of them, and giveth God thanks.

vs 21 It is good than not to get tattoos, or to wear overly revealing clothes, not anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.

Let’s expound on this.

Because it’s applicable to what we are trying to uncover in this study, we should briefly address earrings.

Q. Why are earrings in women not nearly as big of an issue as tattoos? You know… earrings… cutting multiple holes through the flesh and hanging metal through them.

A. Because almost no one is offended by them in our culture. Paul’s exhorts the churches not to defy existing social norms to avoid bringing reproach to the church when he asks the women to pray covered (1 Corinthians 11:16). Back then a woman praying with her head uncovered would be frowned upon in that culture. Today, it’s not an issue. We see then that cultural norms play into the decision making process that a Christian should go through in regards to standards of holiness, and trying to not offend as many people as possible.

We see then that cultural norms play into the decision making process that a Christian should go through in regards to standards of holiness…

The Greek word for offend in Romans 14 is proskomma: ?1) a stumbling block?a) an obstacle in the way which if one strikes his foot against he stumbles or falls b) that over which a soul stumbles i.e. by which is caused to sin. (2)

When I say “not offend as many people as possible”, here is what I’m getting at. First let me say this, somebody will be offended no matter what you do. If you wear a green shirt you will offend somebody. If you appease the person you offended by switching to a red shirt you will offend somebody new. We can’t be overly concerned with people’s opinions of us. But Paul exhorts us to become all things to all people, so that we may win some (to Christ).

1 Cor 9:19-­?22For though I be free from all [men], yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.?And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.?To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all [men], that I might by all means save some.

2 Cor 6:3 Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed:

Would a tattoo hinder or aid your lifelong ministry of relating to as many people as possible? If it would hinder it, it is contrary to the example set by the Apostle Paul.

Look again at the Greek word proskomma. Does a tattoo cause you or somebody else to stumble in their faith, or cause them or you to sin? If something is not done in faith, it is sin (Rom 14:23). One needs to examine their heart. If there is any conviction at all about getting a tattoo, it would be wise to refrain based off the scriptures we have just read.

Here is another point to consider if one feels neutral on the subject, but desires to get a tattoo.

In our walk with Christ, we grow. We go from milk to meat (Heb 5:12), as our knowledge of God grows, our wisdom grows (Eph 1:17). If one is a fairly new Christian who is about to make a permanent decision about marking their body, it would be wise to first add knowledge and temperance to their faith before making this permanent decision (2 Pet 1:5-­?9).

In short, put about as much thought into getting a tattoo as you would getting married. It would be advisable to pray, fast, and seek council. Weight the benefits of a tattoo against the points covered in Romans 14. If nothing convicts you to the contrary, it is your choice. It wold be wise to keep in mind though, that is was commanded against in Leviticus. If one honestly believes it is not a violation of God’s commandment in Leviticus and there is no conviction from the Holy Spirit in his or her heart, it would be difficult to argue that a tattoo is sin based on scripture.

Let me briefly add however, that even if you are not convicted for your own sake, if you are a part of a ministry who’s policy is not to get tattoos for the sake of outreach and/or testimony, then you need to consider if being disobedient to the elders of the ministry God has called you to is wise based on scripture (Romans 13:1-5).

We will now briefly discuss those who use the reference that your body is the temple of God, so you shouldn’t get a tattoo.

1 Cr 6:18-­?20 Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.?What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost [which is] in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

While this passage is specifically referencing fornication (sex outside of marriage), people will use it to say a person is defiling the temple of the Holy Ghost by marking their skin. There is nothing wrong with the principle behind this argument in general, but all the meat to justify this argument is really in places like Romans 14. Simply saying that tattoos defile the temple of God is an obtuse argument that is difficult to put reasoning behind. Does being overweight defile the temple? How overweight or underweight does one have to be to reach the “sin” factor? If I take the cheap multivitamins instead of the expensive ones, my body won’t be as healthy as it could have been. Am I defiling the temple? I’d be healthier and there wouldn’t be bags under my eyes if I got eight hours of sleep instead of only six. Have I sinned? What if the tattoo says, “I love Jesus”. Wouldn’t that be like putting a very nice decorative sign on my temple? One can now see how 1 Corinthians 1:19 may be used to help support taking the decision to get a tattoo seriously, but has difficulty standing on it’s own as a reason one should not get a tattoo.

1. “Tattoo.” How Products Are Made. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2011 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

2. Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: World, 1986. Print.

3. Coffman’s Commentaries on the Old and New Testament, Leviticus 19:28

4. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. On spine: Critical and explanatory commentary. (Le 19:28). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

5. Jamieson, Robert; A.R. Fausset; and David Brown. “Commentary on Deuteronomy 14.” . Blue Letter Bible. 19 Feb 2000. 2011. 29 Oct 2011.

6. Jamieson, Robert; A.R. Fausset; and David Brown. “Commentary on Leviticus 19.” . Blue Letter Bible. 19 Feb 2000. 2011. 29 Oct 2011.

7. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Leviticus 19:27

8. Fairchild, Mary. “Tattoos and Christians – Should Christians Have Tattoos?” Christianity – About Christianity and Living the Christian Life. Web. 1 Oct. 2011. <http://christianity.about.com/od/faqhelpdesk/f/tattoochristian.htm>.