Tattoos are more popular than ever. Currently one in five U.S. adults has at least one tattoo (21percent) which is up from the 16 percent and 14 percent who reported having a tattoo in 2003 and 2008, respectively, by the Harris Poll. Entertainers, professional athletes, and even a 2009 version of Barbie, have multiple, and very visible, tattoos. With such prevalence and rising interest, Christians rightfully ask what the Bible says about tattoos.
The short answer is...nothing. At least nothing definitive. The Bible makes no specific reference to tattoos as we understand them in modern times. Some Christians condemn all tattooing as immoral because God clearly forbids them in Leviticus 19:28. Since the word tattoo does appear in this verse in some popular English translations, this argument seems straightforward. For example, the NIV reads, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.”
Other Christians say this passage no longer applies to us because it is Old Testament law, and not for Christians. If you go online to try to answer the tattoo question, you’ll see both approaches and contradictory conclusions. Both of these approaches, however, are misleading because, as we will see, the answer to the tattoo question is that the Bible has nothing clearly to say about the practice of injecting ink under the skin to form permanent pictures, patterns or messages—a.k.a. tattooing.
Leviticus 19:28 literally translates, “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.” The word writing refers to inscribed or engraved symbols/words, and is used only here. The word for marks, also used here alone, has an uncertain root, so we’re not really sure what the word means. Further, the word tattoo did not enter into the English language until the late 1700s. This is probably why the KJV, written in the early 1600s, is closer to the literal translation saying, “ye shall not...print marks upon you.”
The background to this law was that Israel, after being rescued from slavery, was between Egypt and Canaan. Recent archeology indicates that, while Egypt did tattoo, it was limited to women. Evidence suggests that tattooing the body parts of women associated with fertility (breasts, thighs and abdomen) was believed to be a good luck charm to protect the birthing process. Women also frequently had imprints of the fertility goddess, Bes, which seems to support this theory.
In Canaan, evidence indicates that instead of marking the body with ink, more extreme scarification measures, like branding, slashing or gashing the skin were used. Archeology, backed by biblical texts, indicates the Canaanites would customarily slash their bodies for ritualistic purposes (1 Kings 18:28), especially to mourn their dead and honor their gods. Leviticus 19:28 seems to imply this when it says, “you will not make cuttings in your flesh, for the dead, nor print marks on you.” In light of this information from Egypt and Canaan, it would seem God was forbidding scarification, not tattooing as we know it.
With this said, while there may be no clear passage in the Bible addressing tattoos, this is hardly a license for unrestrained tattooing. You still need to think before you ink, especially if you’re a Christian. The following are guiding questions to help you think through your decision.
Modification – Since the Bible does not explicitly forbid tattoos, are there any limits? We know our body is not our own, but rather God’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The Bible has a high view of the body as God’s handiwork, which is not to be disfigured. Non-Israelites did not hold this view. Today, some have permanently modified their bodies to look more like animals or aliens than humans, who alone are created in his image. We must ask ourselves how much we can modify our bodies to suit our desires while not disfiguring the beauty of the human form as God made it.
Motive – Why get a tattoo? If it is in rebellion to parents, it is clearly not acceptable (Ephesians 6:1-3). And while artistic self-expression can be OK, our primary motive for anything we do should be to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31). This means seeking to honor and draw attention to him, not ourselves. Getting a tattoo for purposes of witness may be acceptable, but remember, this is not the primary or most effective way to evangelize. It is in no way a substitute for verbally communicating the gospel. You are not fulfilling the Great Commission simply because you have a tattoo of a Bible verse.
Modesty – Modesty means not being self-promoting. Are you seeking to direct people’s thoughts toward God or yourself? Tattoos often accentuate certain areas of the body and get our thoughts on that body part. It is hard to believe that anyone with a “tramp stamp” (a tattoo on the lower back) is really seeking to direct people’s thoughts toward God. Thinking modestly will lead you to think about, and even limit, the size, number, and locations of tattoos.
Marketability – Will employers want to hire you? Numerous companies don’t want your tattoo to be visible, and it can actually prevent you from being hired. Many employers will restrict your tattoos, requiring you to cover them up because they are not socially acceptable from a business standpoint.
Message – What is it about yourself that you want to communicate to the world? Tattoos are powerful messages, automatically conveying what you value. They are nearly permanent and will likely be with you for life. A growing experience with tattoos is what has officially been termed, “tattoo regret.” As you mature, you may, like increasing numbers of people, regret your tattoos because you have outgrown their messages and changed your values.
Money – Is this the wisest use of money? One website, Tattoo Info, says, “In America, you can expect a basic price of $80 to $100 an hour...very few shops will ever touch you for less than $40” (2004-2009). We are responsible to God for how we use our money. It’s also important to keep in mind that the removal technologies being developed are even more expensive than the cost of getting a tattoo in the first place.
Medical concerns – There are real health risks with tattoos. The Mayo Clinic warns, “don’t take tattooing lightly”. They’ve resulted in severe allergic reactions, infections, unsightly scars, and blood-borne diseases like Hepatitis B and C. Tattooing deliberately opens skin and exposes your blood to unknown bacteria. Tattoo parlors are not medical clinics, although they are puncturing skin and exposing blood.
Please, think before you ink. Don’t make this decision hastily or rashly. Use these guiding questions to think through your decision. Discuss them with mature Christian adults you trust.
This article originally appeared in Reach Out, Columbia magazine and is used with permission.
Will Honeycutt has been a professor of contemporary issues and apologetics at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, since 1995. He lives in Forest, VA, with his wife of 25 years and their adult daughter, and enjoys teaching college-aged adults in his church.
Publication date: September 9, 2014