I was thinking about getting a new tattoo to express my new Christian faith, but the Bible says not to (Leviticus 19:28)… or does it? What if I already have tattoos from before I was a believer, should I have them removed? In this post I look into this area to find some answers. I’m not a Bible scholar and I don’t have all the answers, I only have the ones that work for me…
In looking for an answer on whether it is a sin to get a tattoo I first had to look at what the Bible says in a few different translations of Leviticus 19:28:
- “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”(NIV)
- “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the LORD.”(NLT)
- “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”(KJV)
- “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh, for the dead, neither shall you make in yourselves any figures or marks: I am the Lord.”(DRA)
- “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you. I am Yahweh.”(WEB)
- “And a cutting for the soul ye do not put in your flesh; and a writing, a cross-mark, ye do not put on you; I am Jehovah.”(YLT)
It sounds pretty straight forward, when God commands us not to do something we should obey. But the more I break this verse down, the more confusing it all becomes.
There are two major differences in these translations (and others that I didn’t include). The first is punctuation; some translations include a comma between “the cutting your flesh for the dead” and “tattoos/marks”. This would indicate that some translations say no tattoos at all while others suggest it is acceptable as long as it’s not for the dead.
So which is right? To be honest, we don’t really know how it was intended to be broken down. I have found that some scholars believe that the first texts were written in Scriptura continua, where there were no spaces between words or sentences, no capitalization and no punctuation.
While others believe that the first texts were divided‘by’short’vertical’lines.and.later.by.dots.
Either way the exact meaning it is still a bit fuzzy. A friend of mine mentioned that no one but God really knows, history is filled with people just like you and me trying our best to interpret the meaning of the words.
The second difference I can see is a little more obvious, it’s the words “tattoo” and “mark”. A little history on the word “tattoo” is that wasn’t recorded until 1769 AD and stems from the Tahitian word tatau, which literally means “to hit” or “to strike” and refers to the method used in delivering the pigment into the skin. So, it would appear that the word “mark” is a more literal translation; however the custom of tattooing has been around for thousands of years, so I do believe that “tattoo” is probably an accurate interpretation.
Something I find interesting is the archaic practice in the Middle East that involved people cutting themselves and rubbing in ash during a period of mourning after an individual had died. It was a sign of respect for the dead and a symbol of reverence and a sense of the profound loss for the newly departed; and it is surmised that the ash that was rubbed into the self-inflicted wounds came from the actual funeral pyres that were used to cremate bodies. In essence, people were literally carrying with them not just a reminder but actually a part of the recently deceased. If I interpret the verse to mean “Don’t cut or mark your skin for the dead” I think it’s possible that the verse could be a reference to this custom, but I can also see how it relates to the modern tattoo. A memorial tattoo can be viewed as idolatry which is against the first 2 commandments:
- “You shall have no other gods before me“
- “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”
But I don’t practice ancestor worship, so I don’t really see the idolatry reason as applying to me.
The next thing I had to do was look into the book of Leviticus itself: It was written by Moses to the people of Israel after leaving Egypt where they had been slaves for 400 years. The Egyptians were polytheistic and had views of the nature of the gods which were very different than the God of Israel, but over such a long period of time the lines between YHWH and the Egyptian gods had to have become somewhat blurred. Even looking back during Ptolemaic times when a dynasty of Macedonian Greek monarchs ruled Egypt , the pharaoh, Ptolemy IV was said to have been tattooed with ivy leaves to symbolize his devotion to Dionysus, Greek god of wine and the patron deity of the royal house at that time. Granted this was hundreds of years after Leviticus was written, but it illustrates the ease at which one pantheon can be incorporated into another.
I’m not a Biblical archeologist, but I have found in multiple sources that there is little to no archeological evidence of a mass exodus of Jews from Egypt or that they were ever slaves. Regardless of whether this happened or not; the monotheistic Children of Israel needed to set themselves apart from the melting pot of pagan polytheism that surrounded them, where tattoos served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments and even forms of punishment. Leviticus was written to provide instruction and laws to guide the people in their relationship with a God, a guide to further promote the growth and health of the 12 tribes of Israel . Tattoos, especially before the arrival of antibiotics and sterilization techniques, could easily become infected which could lead to sepsis and death which would not be beneficial to the growth and survival of a nation.
So I wonder if those guidelines apply to us today and if we still have to follow them? Many people feel that we don’t and they often cite Leviticus 19:19, which basically says not to shave your face and not to wear cotton/polyester blended clothing. I feel that this is a weak argument, breaking one law isn’t okay because it is acceptable to break a separate unrelated law. That’s like saying you can commit murder because you cheat on your taxes.
The offering for sin was bringing young bull, free of any defect, to slaughter as a blood sacrifice (LEV 4). This is the important part, as a Christian I believe God presented Jesus as the blood sacrifice for sin, thus creating a new covenant. So the Levitical law would not apply to us today because we are under a new agreement.
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:13)
Under this new agreement why would someone have a problem with getting a tattoo? The only reason I can come up with is that God created us perfect and by marking our bodies we are changing our image. Under this logic we are changing our image every time we cut our hair and shave and this brings us right back into the Levitical law which I want to believe doesn’t apply to us today. I also question if this is considered altering our image, then why isn’t circumcision? I think a lot of parallels can be drawn between circumcision and tattooing. Some of the early argued that in order to be a believer in the Messiah, the Son of the God of Israel you had to follow the old law and become circumcised. Paul argued that it didn’t matter.
I don’t believe there is anything wrong with a Christian getting a tattoo as long as it is for the right reasons. The wrong reasons being vanity, idolatry, or allegiance to other gods. I don’t think God cares about what we wear on the outside, it’s what is inside that counts.
“No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” -Romans 2:29
“I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith” -Philippians 3:9
However if you have any doubt about getting a tattoo then you should should listen to that doubt and not get one. I quote Romans 14:23 (one of my favorite verses):
But if you have doubts about whether or not you should eat something, you are sinning if you go ahead and do it. For you are not following your convictions. If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning.
Here’s a great video a friend sent me:
So what about my old tattoos? They ARE pagan symbols and represent devotion to the pagan gods I once worshiped. Should I have them removed?
The tattoos I received before I was a believer and the sins I committed before I was a believer have been forgiven.
People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past -Romans 3:25
As for having them removed I don’t feel the need for it.
When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision–the cutting away of your sinful nature. -Colossians 2:11
I feel that Christ has preformed a spiritual tattoo removal.
- How Reliable Is Exodus (fontes.edu)
- What is Idolatry? (idkh.org)
- Christians getting tattoos (therisingmuse.com)
- Hebrew Tattoos: Buyers Beware! (biblical-studies.ca)
- Justin Bieber tattoo of Jesus: Is it blasphemy? (csmonitor.com)