Bible Support for Tattoos
*All verses from the Revised Standard Version
Last updated: April 28, 2007
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Who says tattoos are sacrilegious? Does the bible? Definitely not!
So why do many good Christians condemn us, those who have tattoos or who want to get tattooed?
Unfortunately, I think many Christians do not fully understand the saving grace that was offered to us through the humanity, death, and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
As devout, tattooed Christians, it is incumbent upon us to educate other Christians about:
- The context of Leviticus 19:28
- The Old law and the New Law established by Christ and how Leviticus 19:28 relates to the New Law
- The context for 1 Corinthians 6:19…Your body as a Temple
- Certain imagery in the Bible
- Our duty to evangelize
We also need to prove to our critics that our faith is based on more than just tattoos; it is supported by good works as well. And we must pray as often as possible that divisive but trivial issues (such as body art) are cast aside in favour of more pressing problems: Christian unity, the onslaught of relativism, and difficulties in evangelization...
The context of Leviticus 19:28
It seems every Christian anti-tattoo argument is based primarily on one thing...a single verse from Leviticus:
"You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD."
Does this verse really condemn all tattoos?
Read properly, no!
Leviticus 19:26-31 deals with pagan practices and God's prohibitions against adopting those practices. In verse 28, God is warning the Jewish people about a pagan practice at funerals, where pagans would mutilate/mark themselves to appease their false gods. The pagans hoped that by cutting themselves and marking images/symbols of idols on their bodies, that they would obtain favour in the afterlife from their false gods, both for themselves and for those who just died.
See the Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible, the New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible, the Adam Clarke Commentary, and the Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible for more detailed analysis.
As no one with a Christian tattoo is trying to pacify a pagan deity, it is safe to say this verse is not relevant to us.
The Old law and the New Law established by Christ and how Leviticus 19:28 relates to the New Law
Still, many who read the Bible will not take into account historical considerations or the full context of Leviticus 19:28.
Yet, there is a very real problem with using this verse in an anti-tattoo argument. One cannot believe that Jesus is Lord and He came to save the world through grace and love and still accept this verse as applicable to us today. It sounds harsh, but it is true. Why? The answer is simple. Christ gave us a New Law, one that supersedes the Old Testament Law, which includes Leviticus 19:28.
By answering the following questions, we will see that Christ's New Law frees us from the fetters that kept us captive to rituals and observances such as Leviticus 19:28.
What is the Old Law? Why was it necessary?
Before we explain the New Law and its freedoms, we need to look at the Old Law, its nature, and why it was necessary in salvation history.
Before Christ embraced humanity and became man, the world was in disarray: it was divided and people did not understand that we shared a common Father, that is, the one true God. The bible tells us this much. In fact, we know that men were spiritually childlike, immature, and unable to comprehend their sinfulness, and divided as we were, there was no quick solution for unity. It was at this moment, with the coming of Christ already a part of His Divine plan, that the Lord our God took to himself a people who would be set apart and made ready to receive the Redeemer.
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.
To prepare for this moment, the fullness of time when Christ would appear, God gave Moses and the Israelites certain laws that awakened their consciences and, at the same time, set them apart from the pagan nations, a kind of "barrier" that ensured the Israelites remained free from "contamination."
Thus we have the Old Law, as outlined in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The Old Law is divided into two parts, the moral code and the civil and ceremonial precepts (ritual observances). The moral code, summed up in the Ten Commandments, is a natural law, the law of the conscience, gathered by reason, and the foundation upon which man is to realize his vocation to live in the image of God. The commandments make plain what is against the love of God, and therefore they show us our sins. The second part of the Old Law, the observances, was necessary to ensure the Israelites remained united as a people and apart from the pagans.
If we had a Law, why did we need a New Law?
So the next question is, if we had a Law, why did we need a New Law? The truth is this: the Old Law is incomplete. That is not to say it is unholy or uninspired or not part of God's mysterious plan. The Old Law, with its severe punishments and earthly rewards, was necessary for an obstinate people who were both carnal and unspiritual. God wanted his chosen people to develop an awareness of sinfulness so when the fullness of time arrived, God would introduce a New Law that would allow each of us to know, in our hearts, the love of God, who forgives our sins and raises us to eternal life. And therein lies the weaknesses of the Old Law:
- It does not forgive sins (since only God's love can do this)
- It can suggest that our actions, in accordance with the Law, are the only criteria for eternal life (wrong, since only grace based on faith and our cooperation with this grace can guarantee this)
- It relies on fear of punishment, rather than love, which is God
In truth, if the Old Law did have the power to make us righteous and sinless, clean and perfect sacrifices for the Lord, then Jesus' death on the cross, the sacrifice that opens the door to God the Father, would have been unnecessary.
"I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose."
"Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second."
It is clear that the Old Law alone does not have the power to free us from the chains of sin, because only the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to the faithful through faith in Christ, is able to remove the stain of sin. Faith and forgiveness of sins are gifts that lead to eternal life, and only Christ can give those gifts. The ceremonial and ritual observances of the Old Law were only indications of a purer, more effective way of life, as seen in the New Law, which, when instituted, rendered much of the Old Law meaningless.
But how do we know there really is a New Law?
The entire New Testament is a proclamation of the New Law, as are the actions of the early church. We see the New Law in:
- the writings of the Apostles, the Evangelists, and St. Paul
- the actions of the Early Church
- Christ's words and actions
In the New Testament, St. John the Baptist is among the first persons to acknowledge that there is a New Law we are to follow if we are to obtain forgiveness of sins and gain eternal life.
"The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said,
'Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'"
In just one statement, St. John the Baptist makes it clear that Jesus is the sacrifice (Lamb) that removes our sin, not the sacrifices outlined in the Old Law. If the ritual observances held any weight at this point, St. John the Baptist would have said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God, who, along with circumcision and burnt offerings, takes away the sin of the world!'" But he didn't.
St. John the Evangelist, in his Gospel, outlines the necessity of faith—not simply observance of the Old Law—as the basis for the gaining of the Kingdom:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
St. John doesn't write that in order to gain the kingdom, we must be circumcised or offer burnt offerings on an altar or refuse to touch lepers. No, he writes that primarily we need to have faith, faith in Christ.
And St. Peter, first among the Apostles and leader of the early Church, said that faith in Christ, and not adherence to the Old Law, is the main requirement for the forgiveness of sins:
"To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
If some Christians believe that these expressions are too obtuse and obscure and do not sufficiently describe the abrogation of the Old Law in favour of the New Law, then I say that they should read what St. Paul had to say about the Law that governed the lives of the Jews. St. Paul is prodigious in his condemnation of the Old Law as the only necessary tool for the attainment of salvation:
"You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love."
"But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit."
"For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith" -Philippians 3:8-9
"Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life."
-2 Corinthians 3:5-6
In addition to the writings of the apostles, evangelists, and St. Paul, the actions of the early church indicate that a New Law was being realized.
St. Peter, leader of the Church and Christ's proxy on earth, shows by example while visiting the pagan Cornelius, who is astounded that St. Peter would meet with him, someone considered unclean by the standards expressed in the Old Law. Here, Peter tells those gathered in the house of Cornelius that a New Law has been promulgated:
"You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean."
In the next few years, the early Church would become even more adamant about severing itself from the ritual practices that enslaved the Jews and kept them from loving all equally. In Acts 15, we see the leaders of the Church (Peter, James, Paul, Barnabas, and many others) gather to clarify the Church's position towards circumcision, one of the holiest (and most separatist) laws of the Old Covenant established by Moses. The result should surprise no one: the apostles abolished the requirement for circumcision and almost every other law that bound the Jews. Why? The Holy Spirit told them not to lay a greater burden than was necessary (Acts 15:28) because faith was the first necessary element for a life in Christ.
Another of the most sacred laws of the Old Covenant, the Sabbath, was thoroughly eroded by the time St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians.
"On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made." -1 Corinthians 16:2
The first day of the week during that time was Sunday, and this verse clearly shows that this was the day that Christians met to celebrate as a community (as opposed to the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday). How could the Christians have abandoned the old Sabbath, one of the holiest of precepts, if they did not have a New Law requiring faith and responding to grace?
But perhaps some Christians may say forget everything above: the early Church misinterpreted what Jesus said and did during His ministry. How far from the Truth this is! Jesus not only spoke about the New Covenant He was establishing, He acted in a way so as to make it abundantly clear that His New Law was a matter of fact:
- He calls apostles uneducated in the Law
- He forgives sinners almost exclusively
- He condemns the religious orthodoxy (Pharisees)
- His teachings and parables show examples of the New Law
- He breaks the Old Law
If Christ were concerned about perpetuating the Old Law, would He not have chosen all of his apostles from among the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were rigid in their confirmation to the Law? Instead, Jesus' choice of men is the complete opposite of such a scenario. His apostles are fishermen, tax collectors, and rebel fighters, hardly those who would be best to teach adherence to the Old Law.
Furthermore, who can contradict the Gospels, which relate how Jesus forgives the sins of pagans, unclean persons, and egregious sinners. (John 5:1, Mark 7:24, Mark 8:22, Matthew 9:20) If God were so concerned with rituals and observances, would Christ have bothered with these people, who obviously did not adhere to the Old Law? No, obviously not. So what do these "sinners" have in common? They have faith, the first necessary element for our union with God. That is why Jesus tells those He healed, "Your faith has made you well."
Of course, Jesus not only saves the sinners, He also condemns those who do follow the Law without concern for the Spirit, and this is very important. The very people who epitomize the Old Law are the people for whom Jesus reserves His most bitter condemnations. In several instances, Jesus denounces the Pharisees, who pride themselves on their strict adherence to the Law.
"How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sad'ducees. Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sad'ducees."
Sts. Matthew and Luke also relate a vehement speech in which Christ denounces the Pharisees, and by implication, the Old Law and its ritual observances to which they are so dedicated:
"...But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in… And you say, 'If any one swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.' You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and he who swears by the temple, swears by it and by him who dwells in it; and he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith..."
-selected verses from Matthew 23 (see also Luke 11:39-52)
Jesus' denunciation of the actions of the Pharisees does not end there. He also comments on their observances (part of the Old Law) and how those observances have no power to save them. In the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, the Tax Collector, who understands he is a sinner but has faith that God will save him, is justified while the Pharisee, who fasts twice a week and tithes all he gets, receives no justification (Luke 18:9-14)
Even Christ's teachings, His parables, are filled with the application and celebration of the New Law. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), it is not the priest or the Levite—staunch followers of the Old Law—who help the man who was beaten by robbers. Why didn't they help him? Well, if he had died or was dead already, the priest and the Levite, being followers of the Law, would have had to undergo a rigorous cleansing process. Of course, this "process," part of the Law, left no room for compassion. That is why it was the Samaritan, someone outside the Law, who aided the helpless man. Christ is showing us here that love, working in us through the Holy Spirit, is what's important, not adherence to a Law that puts so-called cleanliness above compassion.
With clarity, Jesus rescinds the prohibition against eating foods deemed unclean by the Old Law, because the prohibition has zero chance of making someone holy and welcoming to God:
"And he called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man."
Lastly, Jesus will BREAK certain precepts of the Old Law in order to show that rituals and observances are nothing without the Spirit, which moves us in unexplainable ways. Christ shocks and angers the Pharisees on two occasions, when He disobeys the Law restricting work on the Sabbath, one of the most revered of the Laws. In one instance, Christ heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-10, Mark 3:1-5), and, in another instance, He allows His apostles to pick and eat wheat in a field on the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-5, Matthew 12:1-8). Would Jesus do such things if the Old Law were sacrosanct? This is doubtful. Instead, it's more likely that He wanted to show that observance means little if the heart, the Spirit, is not part of the equation.
Then, there are those who say, "What about Christ's proclamation that He did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them?" (Matthew 5:17) It is true that Jesus said that not one iota of the law will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. But Jesus accomplished everything. His life, death, and resurrection fulfilled the prophecies and brought to a conclusion the Old Covenant, opening the way for a New Covenant governed by a New Law. So, when Christ is talking about the Law remaining, he is saying to his contemporaries that they will not see a change while he is alive.
Does this mean the Old Law is null and void?
Without a doubt, we have shown that God, through Christ, has instituted a New Law. Now what? Is all the Old Law null and void? Not at all! We know that each of us needs to follow what is essential in the Old Law: the Ten Commandments. How do we know this? Jesus told us so. When the lawyer asked him to name the first (that is, the most important) commandment, Jesus answered:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."
- Matthew 22:37-40
Here, Christ explicitly tells us that laws we need to follow are those that deal with the love of God and the love of our neighbour. Therefore, He is telling us to continue to practice the moral code (the Ten Commandments), but do so because you are motivated by love and spirit rather than fear of punishment.
In fact, Jesus not only tells us that the only part of the Law that is necessary is the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), He also takes those commandments and gives us a new understanding, based on his New Law of love and faith. He shows that it is not enough to follow the letter of the Law, there is also an underlying Spirit:
"You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire."
-Matthew 5:21-22 (see also verses 23-48)
Conclusion: the New Law
It is true that we have a New Law that both fulfills and abrogates the Old Law, by elevating the moral code (the Ten Commandments) and rescinding the rituals and observances. Hence, we are not bound by certain Laws, such as those that require our circumcision or the abstention from certain foods. It becomes rather obvious that the prohibition against tattoos in Leviticus is also one of those Laws. It is as simple as that.
The Context of 1 Corinthians 6:19…Your Body as a Temple
Of course, tattoo opponents also like to stress these words of St. Paul:
"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body."
-1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Unfortunately, the tattoo opponents have not read this verse in context. Here St. Paul is not opposing tattoos but warning the residents of Corinth about the dangers of sexual promiscuity, especially in the pagan practice of having sex with ritual prostitutes. To put this into perspective, Corinth during St. Paul's time was a thriving Metropolis, a rich city with two ports. One of its main attractions was a massive temple dedicated to the Greek Goddess of Love, Aphrodite. Thousands of ritual prostitutes, used in celebration of Aphrodite, congregated around the temple. Since a sizeable part of the newly formed Christian community in Corinth was of pagan origin, the use of ritual prostitutes was something of a habit that needed to be broken. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul shows that we belong to God, brought about through His Son Jesus Christ's sacrifice, and that fornicating with ritual prostitutes is tantamount to sacrificing to false Gods. He is also showing that sexual immorality is a sin against the body, which houses the Holy Spirit, in essence, sexual immorality is a sin committed directly against God.
Certain Imagery in the Bible
We know that religious tattooing before the time of Christ was common for nearly everyone except the Jewish people (otherwise we would not see the prohibition in Leviticus 19:28).
And although there are no scriptural references in which we are told to "get tattooed" (and we wouldn't expect any), there are a number of verses in which the writers, whom we believe were inspired by the Holy Spirit, speak about permanent markings and outward physical signs of devotion. In a very real way, religious tattoos are like those permanent outward signs.
"And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth." -Exodus 13:9
"It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes; for by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt."
A full reading of these verses shows that God is speaking figuratively about a celebration of the day the Jewish people were saved and brought out of Egypt. For the Jews, this celebration will be their unique mark. Later, around the time of Christ, the Jews began to take these verses literally, tying small leather boxes (phylacteries) on their arms and foreheads and placing passages of Scripture in the boxes.
"This one will say, 'I am the LORD's,' another will call himself by the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, 'The Lord's,' and surname himself by the name of Israel."
"Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me."
Here Isaiah is speaking God's word to the more conscious minorities of Israel who, during their exile, are worried about becoming lost amidst the pagans of Babylon. Through Isaiah, God reminds His people that he will never forget them because He loves them, and as proof that He will never abandon them, He tells the Jews that He has graven [carved into...written permanently] on his hands a reminder to save them.
"And the LORD said to him, 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it'."
The mark in this verse refers to the letter T or the Hebrew letter Tau, which appears as the shape of a cross, and which was painted in lamb's blood on the door posts to save the "remnant" of Israel when God wiped out all the first born of Egypt during the last plague. In this instance, the mark will be placed upon believers who are saddened by the sins committed in Jerusalem.
"Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the brand marks of Jesus."
Here, St. Paul is likely discussing the beatings and punishments he endured for the sake of the Gospel of Christ (see 2 Cor. 11:24-28). This is a pointed jab at those who believe they are justified by other marks, that is, circumcision. Undeniable, though, is the tattoo imagery. Brand marks are what Roman slave owners tattooed on their chattel to display ownership.
"Then I saw another angel ascend from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, 'Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads.'"
"On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords."
This last verse from Revelation is part of John's prophecy about the destruction of the Roman Empire and the heretofore-invincible Roman armies. The verse shows Christ as the "Master of the Universe" whose name, which is the Word of God (and, in essence, everything), is more than just a title on a royal garment. Instead, it is something that belongs to Jesus alone and is intrinsically linked to He who is Lord of all...through a unique marking on his body.
Now before you e-mail me, remember that these verses are not tattoo proof verses. They only show that permanent markings and outward signs of devotion, similar to our religious tattoos, are not foreign to God or His people.
Finally, it's important that Christians realize that Jesus doesn't want us to hide our faith or keep our faith to ourselves. Just the opposite. He commands us to do everything within our power to let our brothers and sisters know the one true Word, the Good News:
"Go, therefore, and make disciples from all the nations."
"What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops."
In fact, even if we wanted to keep it to ourselves (for selfish reasons or for fear of persecution), once the Spirit moves us, we can longer keep silent:
"No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a bushel, but on a stand, that those who enter may see the light."
So, whether we choose stone tablets or tattoos, God, through the Holy Spirit, lets us discover the different and dynamic ways we let others know about Him. One thing is certain, though: as Christians, we need to fully proclaim our beliefs, every day of our lives.
It is beyond doubt that tattoos are NOT sinful and that Christians expressing their faith with some ink under their skin have NOT succumbed to Satan's wiles (at least, not because of the tattoos). Yet, let us remember that just because we are allowed to be tattooed, doesn't mean that this is what is best for everyone. St. Paul tells us that we need to be careful that our actions do not lead others away from the faith:
"Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble."
With that in mind, let us pray that, through the intercession of the Holy Spirit, each of us may understand God's intention for us, and whether or not that calling includes some permanent ink under our skin.
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Last updated: April 28, 2007
© Copyright Jason Gennaro 2002-07. Feel free to use this article to educate friends, colleagues, parents, children, believers, and unbelievers. Provided you are not printing the article for monetary gain (e.g., including it in a book), you have my permission to reprint it. If you do print it out, please consider contacting me to let me know what you used it for. I always like to hear how the article was used.