Christians have a lot of conflicting opinions about tattoos. There is of course that famous Facebook group that claims everyone who gets a tattoo becomes a violent criminal. And then I know plenty of pastors who were out and in the world and got all tatted up but when they started following Jesus they keep the flaming skulls and gang marks for the sake of sharing their testimony. But then there are those of us who were Christian before we got our tattoos. My cousin for instance has a cross that takes up probably 2/3 of his ribs and stomach.
Many people think that tattoos have a clear cut answer and there are typically two answers to this question that people will dogmatically spit out to justify their actions. You’ll find hundreds if not thousands of articles out there that answer this question for you. My purpose here is not to just repeat the normal answers about tattoos but is rather to point out a really interesting fact that not a lot of folks seem to bring up. That being said, let’s first look at the typical answers about tattoos and I’ll tell you what I think of them.
Anti-Tatoo Answer: Talk to anyone over the age of 60 and they’ll probably pull out Leviticus 19:28 and tell you the Bible is obviously against tattoos. This verse says, “‘You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you. I am the LORD.” So there you have it, this is the one verse in the entire Bible that talks about tattoos and it says “Do not get one.” Right? Well apparently, but context matters.
Pro-Tattoo Answer: There are two responses that we usually give to this; I think one of them is questionable but the other is totally valid. We can either say that Christians don’t follow the Leviticus laws so that doesn’t matter for us today, or we say that in context Leviticus 19:28 is about cutting or tattooing your body to worship the dead.
Is Leviticus for Today?
I don’t like to say Leviticus isn’t for us today because this reasoning feels really flawed. First of all, there are different kinds of laws in the Old Testament. Some were cultural, some were moral, and some were religious. The cultural and religious laws don’t usually apply to Christians today because Jesus changed the game. But the moral laws still apply. For example did you know that there’s only one verse in the entire Bible that says it’s wrong to have sex with animals and it’s only one chapter away in Leviticus 20. On top of that God starts out this passage of Leviticus in by saying, “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out became defiled” (Lev 18:24).
If not obeying these commands of God is how the people who were in the promised land became defiled, doesn’t that mean God was holding them up to the same standards as Jews? And if so doesn’t that mean that these commands were not just for the Jews? So I worry that we might be throwing the baby water by saying that no part of Leviticus is for Christians. It is better to say that some of (maybe even most of) Leviticus isn’t for Christians today.
Are Tattoos for the Dead?
This actually appears to be the right answer to the question. The first part of the verse is about cutting yourself for the dead, so the latter part must also be about tattooing yourself for the dead. The nonbelieving countries around Israel would mark their bodies and cut themselves to worship dead people, which was a form of idolatry. So it should be fine to get tattoo as long you’re not doing it to worship dead people.
An Unusual Answer
The answer about context and worshiping the dead is enough to settle this question, but it gets even more interesting than that when you learn that we aren’t sure how to translate the word tattoo. The Bible was written a long time ago in Hebrew, so over the centuries the meaning of words change and sometimes we totally lose the original meaning of some words. To briefly explain how we translate the Bible, we compare passages where the same words are used this way in order to get a better idea from context what these words mean. But in a few places we have words that are only used one time in the whole Bible and their exact meaning in ancient Hebrew is not clear.
Scholars call these kinds of words hapaxlegomena which is Greek for “(somethings) said (only) once”. The word that we translate as tattoo is ketovet ka’aka and it is one of these words that were said only once. The root word seems to mean “to mark” and that makes the most sense in context. But it is fuzzy if this word means tattooing in the modern sense of “injecting ink into the skin” or branding as in “using a hot iron to make a mark on skin.” No one can seem to come to an agreement on exactly what way the mark is being made on the body.
Yes, your tattoo is most likely fine
Don’t let anyone use Leviticus 19:28 to judge you because it’s actually not as clear as it could be that this verse even means tattoo. If you take that passage in context, what is really being forbidden is a specific practice of ancient religions, not the marking your body in general. So in short I hope that this post has helped you make up your mind about getting that cross or Jesus fish tattoo.