As you can imagine there’s no shortage of opinion on this topic, but most of the “biblical analysis,” especially on the net seem to be expressions of cultural prejudices and biases. We must learn to separate our cultural preferences from the word of God, or we’ll taint the gospel with subjectivity.
The New Testament didn’t say anything specific about tattoos. It’s silent. We’re therefore not going to get much direction from the New Testament. And the only mention of tattoos in the Old Testament is a passage in the Book of Leviticus. This is what the passage says: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead nor print or tattoo any marks upon you; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:28) Scholastic honesty demands we determine that the textual and historical context of this command lies in the phrase, “for the dead”. For if we take this passage at surface value no woman will be able to use lipstick again, after all it amounts to printing a mark on the body. The commandment therefore is a reference to some ritual or occult-practice in that region around that period. We get a glimpse into such a practice down history from 1 Kings 18:28. In that passage we see the prophets of Baal cutting and lacerating themselves with knives and lances until blood gushed out as they sought to invoke the power of that terrible Canaanite god. God had particular issues with Baal. The worship of Baal would eventually infiltrate Israel during the time of the Judges, and later during the reign of Ahab. In the reign of Ahab the priests of Baal were given political cover by the first lady, Jezebel. Her surname was Ethbaal. Ethbaal means “with Baal,” so her family was pretty cosy with Baal. In fact, the literal meaning of Jezebel was, “Where is the Prince?” That was a ritual cry from worship ceremonies in honour of Baal during periods of the year when he was considered to be in the underworld. 2 Chronicles 28:1-3 gives us a glimpse into the horror of this god: “He (Ahab) cast metal images for the worship of Baal. He offered sacrifices in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, even sacrificing his own sons in the fire. In this way he followed the detestable practices of the pagan nations the Lord had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites.” If you’ve been following Game of Thrones this sacrifice of children by fire should be familiar. In Season 5 Episode 9, Melisandre – The Red Woman, priestess of the “Lord of Light” and spiritual advisor to Stannis Baratheon goaded him to sacrifice his daughter and only child in the fire. The night is dark and full of terrors. Especially with Baal.
Even if we accept that this commandment is about ordinary tattoos, the commandment is a promulgation under the Law, and the Law is not applicable to Christians. Because we’re not under the Law, we can’t insist people obey the dictates of the Law: “For you no longer live under the requirements of the Law (Ten Commandments). Instead you live under the freedom of God’s grace.” (Rom. 6:14 NLT) Those who insist people obey this commandment about tattoos must themselves be willing to obey the remaining 610 commandments under the Law. Contrary to popular belief, there are 611 commandments not 10. One of those remaining 610 commandments is found right before the commandment on tattoos. Leviticus. 19:27 reads: “Do not trim the hair on your temples or trim your beards.” Are we then going to interpret this command to mean that God doesn’t want Christians to go to the barber? Of course not! Such an interpretation violates the rule of absurdity. The rule of absurdity is a principle of interpretation of scriptures. It means that if an interpretation of scripture leads to absurdity, we need to re-examine such an interpretation. For example, when Jesus said if your right hand causes you to stumble cut it off, the rule of absurdity posits that it cannot be the intention of Jesus to produce righteous amputees, therefore such a statement should not be taken in a literal sense. And so it is absurd to imagine that God doesn’t want Christians to go to the barber’s. Thus that commandment can only make sense when we see it within its historical context – which is why the Amplified translation of the Bible states as follows: “You shall not round the corners of the hair of your head nor trim the corners of your beard AS SOME IDOLATERS DO.” In other words, what God was referencing was an idolatrous ritual. He didn’t want the Israelites getting into those rituals.
In the same vein, Leviticus 19:28 is not talking about aesthetic tattoos from say a tattoo shop in Miami. What God was against was the idolatrous practice of tattooing “for the dead.” And the “cuttings” refer to ritual mutilation, not nose piercing or piercing of the ear for earrings.
Aesthetic tattoos don’t disqualify anyone from salvation, or we’ll arrive at another absurdity. What about those covered with tattoos BEFORE they came to Christ? Would Christ not accept them, or would their salvation be conditional upon them getting rid of their tattoos? It is of course absurd to imagine that God would reject someone because of tattoos. And don’t the scriptures say if any man is in Christ he is a new creature? (2 Corinthians 5:17) It is the spirit that is rebirthed. The salvation of the body will come much later, when we receive resurrection body. (Romans 8:23)
But aren’t our bodies the temple of God? Don’t tattoos defile the body and by extension the temple of God? That scripture is actually 1 Corinthians 6:19 and we can’t keep quoting scriptures out of context in order to justify our cultural biases. The context of 1 Corinthians 6:19 is in relation to sexual vice, not body art. It’s why the preceding verse (1 Corinthians 6:18) states as follows: “Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body.” This passage has nothing to do with tattoos.
But again doesn’t the scriptures say we shouldn’t adorn our bodies? The scripture in question is 1 Peter 3:3 but that scripture has nothing to do with tattoos. Here’s what it actually says: “Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewellery, or beautiful clothes.” (1 Peter 3:3) To obtain the context for the scripture we must read 1 Peter 3 from the very first verse. This passage is talking about a woman’s character as a potent tool for spousal evangelism; essentially saying the captivation should be inner character rather than fanciful jewellery and clothes. Or are we saying that God is saying Christians should not wear fine clothes? That interpretation will of course result in absurdity. We must stop taking scriptures out of context. We must stop pushing our cultural biases as the gospel. It is scriptural malpractice.
There’s nothing in the Bible against aesthetic tattoos. If you’re a Christian and you spot tattoos just continue your walk with God. Don’t bring yourself under the condemnation of the Law. And if before you became a Christian you were already tattooed, likewise continue your walk with God. And if you’re a Christian and you want to get a tattoo, why that’s a personal decision and taste! And for those who prefer to stay clean without tattoos, that’s wonderful! Only don’t judge someone else’s faith by your aesthetic standards. For anyone to imply that the root of tattoos is witchcraft is to do injury to the history of many cultures and communities. There are cultural and traditional tattoos that are nonreligious in origin. They are mere decorative motifs rooted in sociology, convention, ceremonies and history. Same rules apply to piercings. We can’t operate double standards. It cannot be okay to have ear piercing for earrings and condemn those with nose piercing for nose ring. Both are piercings. And there are cultures where nose rings are expressions of beauty. Just as there are cultures where traditional tattoos are graphics of body beauty. We can’t see tattoos and piercings only through the lens of the western world.
However, what a Christian chooses to tattoo on his or her body, (if he or she chooses to tattoo) is another thing entirely. No one will expect a Christian for example to seek to tattoo a Satanic or pagan text or symbol on his or her body. It’s incongruous to expressed faith. It will raise questions. The body can be turned into a canvas but the fact remains you’re not your own. All things must still be done to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31) and not all things are expedient. (1 Corinthians 10:23) Neither should tattooing be done in the spirit of rebellion. That spirit is a problem, tattoo or no tattoo.
But here’s the ultimate revelation about tattoos. God carries our tattoo – “See, I’ve written your names on the backs of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:16 MSG) The King James translation says “engraved” on palms. Just serve God. God is more concerned about the witness of your character than your body art.
If you’ll like God to tattoo your name on his hand please pray this prayer: Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus Christ died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.
If you have any questions you can write me. Just mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be glad to answer your questions.