What does the Bible say about…tattoos?

The theology of inking is perilous. Christians attack.

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If I was searching the Bible for clues about whether to get a tattoo, I’d be very strongly inclined to get one. The first inking, after all, was done by God in Genesis 4:15, a.k.a. the ‘mark of Cain’, extending grace to the murderer. They continue as frequent signs of divine grace.

In Ezekiel 9:4–6, the prophet is told to “put a mark on the foreheads” of the faithful. In Isaiah 44:5, they’re to tattoo their arms with the words “of the Lord’s.”

Bible scholars will say this owes to the custom of slavery. In the ancient world, a slave was tattooed with the name of his or her owner.

But . . . in Isaiah 49:16, God tattoos Himself. “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…”

Why does God want humans tattooed on His palms? It isn’t explicit, but as the Bible scholar Sandra Jacobs notes, there is “the immediate association with a betrothal . . .”

When they get married, God and Israel get matching tattoos.

Tatted up with the name of another deity? It’s like having the name of your ex around. Your husband (God) isn’t too amused.

So we come to Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.”

In “The Biblical Prohibition Against Tattooing,” John Huehnergard and Harold Liebowitz puzzle over the reference and suspect that “in the biblical period tattooing was associated with the mark of slavery.”

The passage, then, would be telling Israelites not to have the marks of enslavement on them, indicating they’re under the power of those deities?

I suspect marriage is more the idea. The languages of marriage and slavery, as we’d expect, are going to be similar. The message of Leviticus 19:28 would be: You’re married to God now.

Of course, as we know from the Old Testament, Israel had a habit of keeping other gods in the back of her thoughts.

That’s ‘women’ for you.

The silence of the New Testament on the subject of tattooing might’ve been the occasion for not fighting about it. But alas, Christian history has seen a fierce struggle over this as well.

I look over the verses cited to ‘prove’ that the skin of the faithful is to be kept pure and virginal.

Could the “outward adornment” discouraged in 1 Peter 3:3–4 ban tattoos

This refers to priestly garments worn in pagan temples. It might be a Christian idea not to telegraph belief in other religious systems.

You shouldn’t get tattoos if your parents say not to (cf. Ephesians 6:1–2)?

Perhaps, but note that for Jesus, like Jews generally, the age of majority is 12 or 13. To tell one’s offspring what to do after that might get onto the wrong side Ephesians 6:4: “do not exasperate your children . . .”

As often, though, a legalistic enforcement of imagined “biblical principles” — without reference to love — ends up being the violation.

The Christian is encouraged to resist religious rules (cf. Colossians 2:20), but to be accommodating on concerns that could reasonably be contested (cf. Romans 14:13–23). Eating meat used in pagan sacrifices is the important example of this problem.

Tattoos wouldn’t seem to be in the same category. And even with sacrificed meat, Paul says that Christians are free to eat it.

There is no Christian instruction to be accommodating to fellow Christians who are enforcing Jewish law, or even remnants of it. The circumcision debate would be a guide. A Christians citing Leviticus 19:28 in a bid to manipulate other Christians are not, then, to be indulged.

The exception is a missionary effort. If one is trying to speak to a population in which tattoos were very poorly received, then not having them might be a consideration. This is an unusual circumstance.

Other verses supposedly against tattoos? The body is the Temple, per 1 Corinthians 6:19–20. So inking the Temple is bad . . . somehow?

The Temple in the time of Jesus was “adorned with beautiful stones and consecrated gifts” (Luke 21:5; Mark 13:1; Matthew 24:1). It seems odd to suggest a bare body is a ‘better temple’.

The disciples seem eager to share with Jesus that they find the Temple beautiful, as if they’d just realized it themselves? They seem to assign aesthetic interest to Jesus. The reference indicates they share with him their own discoveries of beauty.

He likes beauty, I’d say, and seems to be working on their artistic education, developing it like every human ability. But—theologically—the Temple that matters is his body (cf. John 2:21).

We would then find his body beautiful.

Jesus seems to favor total nakedness, which might be the strongest argument against tattos?

In the Gospel of Thomas, saying 53, Jesus is asked about circumcision, and replies: “If it was useful, their father would beget them from their mother circumcised. But the true circumcision in the spirit gives all profit!”

This is a remote reference, but might indicate a Christian position that the natural body is most beautiful and godlike. To tattoo could be seen as cluttering up a masterpiece, like those fig leafs painted later over the old Renaissance paintings of nudes.

At minimum, we might emphasize, with any adornment we’re wearing, the unique and beautiful self—not slip into any character to play. Any ‘clothing’—even tattoos—otherwise belongs to the scriptural category of ‘artistry’. There is no scripture standing over you, judging.

The great statement on tattooing would be: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

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