Should Christians Get Tattoos?

God commanded the Israelites in Leviticus 19:28 to not make any cuts on their body for the dead or tattoo themselves. But he also told them in verse 19 not to wear clothing made of two different kinds of fabric. On what basis can we say that the command to not get tattoos or make cuts on our body for the dead is binding on Christians today while the command to not wear clothing made of different kinds of fabric is not? How we answer the question of whether Christians can tattoo themselves depends on how we answer the following questions: “What is the basis upon which we determine what Old Testament laws are still binding on Christians today?” and “What was the reason for the original command forbidding Israelites from tattooing themselves?” To answer these questions, we need to explore the relationship between the Old Testament and the New and the historical context in which Leviticus 19:28 was given.

The short answer to the question is no. The principle of ownership, the purpose of avoiding the pagan practices of the nations around Israel, and the reality that tattoos normally flow from the selfish motivation of expressing oneself to attract the attention of others are all reasons why this command is still binding on Christians today. On the other hand, the command to not wear clothing made up different fabrics was to be a reminder to the people of Israel that they are to be a people wholly sanctified to the Lord and are not to mix the holy with the profane.

Tattoos were common in the ancient Near East as a form of branding for slaves, to demonstrate one’s devotion to the god he or she serves, or for erotic enhancement. The land of Egypt from which the Israelites had come practiced tattooing for all these reasons. Some pagans would tattoo the image or name of the god they worship as a sign of their ownership by the god as a slave would be branded to show who they were owned by. The prohibition of Leviticus 19:28 also forbids making cuts on one’s body as a form of mourning for the dead. The association of tattooing with the pagan practice of cutting oneself reinforces that the motivation for this prohibition is so that the Israelites would not practice the religious customs of the nations around them, but instead derive their religion solely from God’s revelation in the Torah. The conclusion we should draw from this is not, “Tattoos are fine as long as they are not being done the same way pagans tattoo themselves,” but “Tattoos are an expression of pagan religion in the same category as cutting oneself for the dead.”

The word translated as “tattoo” in Leviticus 19:28 only occurs one time in the Hebrew Bible. But scholars are confident that the word is describing the act of tattooing based on the consistent translation of the word into other languages. Verse 27 gives further confirmation that the prohibitions of verse 28 are connected with pagan religious practices. Pagans would trim their hair in such a way as to signify their devotion to the god they worship as a form of distinguishing themselves from those who do not. In a similar way, tattoos serve as a visible sign of membership in a family, team, or cult. It is a perpetual outward reminder of one’s identity in a group (a hidden tattoo that no one can see defeats the entire purpose of having a tattoo). But for Christians, our identity is in Christ, not in any earthly fraternity.

The Israelites were forbidden to tattoo themselves because they were owned by God, not by any false god or any man. Would Moses approve of an Israelite getting a tattoo as long as the tattoo was of the name YHWH instead of a pagan deity? To tattoo oneself with the name of God would be taking God’s name in vain and worshiping God contrary to the way he has ordained in Scripture (Deut 12:4, 32). Because we are owned by Christ, we are called to glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor 6:20). Because we do not belong to ourselves, we are not free to do with our bodies whatever we want. We are forbidden to engage in gluttony, addictive behaviors which enslave us (1 Cor 6:12), or do anything which would disfigure or bring harm to the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17). Because our bodies are God’s temple, he has the right to tell us what to do with them, how to dress modestly, and how to worship with them.

Israel was given the command to not wear clothing with mixed fibers and to wear tassels on their garments to serve as a reminder that they belong to God rather than through the form of a tattoo. The parallel to Deuteronomy 22:11-12 demonstrates that the command not to wear clothing of mixed fibers is in the same category as the command to wear tassels on clothing as a reminder that one is a member of Israel because the commands occur next to each other. Since I am not an Israelite but a Christian living under the new covenant, the command to not wear clothing of mixed fibers is not binding on me (Eph 2:15). But since I am bought by Christ and am not free to do whatever I want with my body, I still have an obligation to not imitate pagan forms of self-expression rooted in false religions. Unlike tattoos, wearing clothing of mixed fibers was never an expression of pagan religion. That is what distinguishes the two commands from each other. One is the prohibition of an established religious practice while the other introduces a unique form of distinction for Israelites.

But what if I want to get a tattoo of a Bible verse? Many people believe that having a distinctly Christian tattoo will help them fight against sin by having a constant reminder on their body of God’s love for them. But the problem with this strategy of fighting sin is that it doesn’t work. Tullian Tchividjian had a tattoo of “Tetelesti” or “It is finished!” on his arm and he still fell into great sin. There are numerous people who have fallen into sin despite having Christian tattoos. Disregard for the lesser commands of God eventually results in disregard for the weightier matters of the law. The biblical remedies against Satan’s devices are many, but tattoos are not one of them. We fight against sin by hiding God’s Word in our hearts, not by hiding ink under our skin.

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5 thoughts on “Should Christians Get Tattoos?

  1. Hey there! I’m the one that authored the article on tattooing in the Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia you linked to.

    I’m thinking you either skimmed, or only read the title of the article, because I did state in my article that it’s not certain whether tattooing in Egypt was done for explicit, individual devotional purposes. Throughout Ancient Mesopotamia, slaves were the chief recipients of tattoos, either to mark them as a private upper class citizen’s property or to mark them as oblations to a temple, thus becoming temple property, id est the property of a God. In either case, it was designed to both affirm the owners’ rights to retain their slaves, and to prevent slaves from fleeing. Similarly to Mesopotamian practices, in Egypt tattooing was strongly tied to the institution of slavery, and as I quoted from Egyptologist Donald B. Redford in my article, “Asiatics” (residents of the Levant) brought back to Egypt as the spoils of foreign conquest were “branded with the name of the king or God [they were] to serve.” Which is not at all the same thing as a person consenting to be tattooed to show devotion to a God of their own free will. “Devotion” — enthusiastic love and loyalty for another being or cause — implies free will.

    Methinks you should amend your statements some to reflect this.

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  2. Additionally, I must note that you’re overlooking how Early Jews owned slaves and in what ways they marked their slaves to demonstrate ownership. Egyptians and Mesopotamians tattooing or otherwise branding their slaves, and making them (in the case of Mesopotamian slaves, see also the Eshnunna Laws) sport the distinctive abbattu hairlock, is fundamentally no different than Jewish masters having “permanent” slaves’ ears pierced with an awl. (Ex. 21:5–6; Deut. 15:16–17) If you’re at all invested in the subject, I recommend you read Victor Horowitz’s ” ‘His Master Shall Pierce His Ear with an Awl’ (Exodus 21.6): Marking Slaves in the Bible in Light of Akkadian Sources” published in the Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 58 (1992).

    It’s not so much an intrinsically and distinctly “Pagan” nor solely “religious” thing as it is a feature of all institutions of slavery: slaves are to be visibly marked to distinguish them from freeborn persons.

    Furthermore — and speaking as an ethnic though not “monotheistically”-religious Jew myself, and not just as an Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Medieval and Early Modern Studies specialist — Jewish law only applies to Jews, not goyim (that is, non-Jews, “Gentiles”). The so-called “Old Testament” doesn’t really belong in Christian Bibles, as it’s basically a glorified truncation and decontextualization of Hebrew material, and is particularly troublesome with regard to the piecemeal presentation of Hebrew legal matter. Christians don’t *need* to, nor should they, bother reconciling themselves with Jewish law from any time, in any form, because the Covenant of Christ and Pauline Doctrine, etc., “absolve” them from any and all obligations to Mosaic and Deuteronomic law — you know, on top of *not being the least bit Jewish in the first place* and adopting doctrines over the last several centuries which, either in whole or in part, aimed to alienate Jews from “Godly community” and make Christians “the New Chosen People.” Not to mention that Jewish law and the interpretations and enforcement thereof have changed considerably over the last few thousand years, the Diaspora gradually and noticeably put a dampener on Jewish ownership of slaves and justifications for slavery over the ensuing centuries, and as such Modern Jews don’t live or think or have concerns identical with slave-owning Jews in the 1st millennium BCE. Christians have infinitely fewer reasons to be concerned with any of this than Modern Jews do.

    And none of this even touches upon the emergence of exclusive Yahwism that eventually became “monotheistic religion” as we would recognize it today (but still very different from any form of Christianity) from polytheistic Levantine religions (being “Canaanite” and Israelite) and the conventions of their respective cultures. Concerning all that, I recommend you read the works of Rainer Albertz, Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, and Mark S. Smith.

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  3. Thank you for your lengthy reply. Actually, I have written on the question of whether monotheism developed over time in Israel: https://jamesattebury.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/were-the-earliest-israelites-monotheists-or-monolatrists/

    As Christians, we do believe the Old Testament and its laws are relevant for Christians today. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-19: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

    All Scripture (including the Old Testament) is inspired by God and profitable in one way or another: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).

    But there are many Old Testament commands that are no longer binding today because they have been abrogated and done away with in Christ. One example is Mark 7:19: “‘Since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean).” Another is Colossians 2:16-17 regarding Jewish feast days. Those laws which specifically distinguished Jews from Gentiles are not binding on Christians today (Eph 2:15).

    As for how tattoos were used in ancient Egypt, I linked to your excellent article because it demonstrates many of the different uses for tattoos in the ancient world. My conclusion that some Egyptians would freely choose to tattoo themselves with the name or image of the god they serve is an extrapolation based on the examples of mummies and artwork of tattoos with images of Bes, Hathor, and Neith. Since only those who were wealthy would be mummified in a way that would preserve their body, I concluded that not all mummies found with tattoos could have been slaves.

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  4. “As for how tattoos were used in ancient Egypt, I linked to your excellent article because it demonstrates many of the different uses for tattoos in the ancient world. My conclusion that some Egyptians would freely choose to tattoo themselves with the name or image of the god they serve is an extrapolation based on the examples of mummies and artwork of tattoos with images of Bes, Hathor, and Neith. Since only those who were wealthy would be mummified in a way that would preserve their body, I concluded that not all mummies found with tattoos could have been slaves.

    The information on the page you linked to is terribly wrong, I’m afraid (the lack of proper citation should be some indication). Amunet’s mummy dates to the Middle Kingdom Period — from which the first incontrovertible evidence of tattooing in Egypt hails — not the Predynastic. Geraldine Pinch and other scholars have come to different (much more plausible, less sensationalist) conclusions about the purpose of the female funerary figures than those expressed in the page you linked to, since they are found in far more than just adult male burials.

    In any case, her tattoos are not “religious,” much less “devotional.” They are geometric patterns which accentuate the “sexiest” parts of her body (by Ancient Egyptian aesthetic standards, that is). This was a common practice for women, especially female entertainers.

    Most of the evidence — in terms of actual bodies and artistic representations, particularly of an “informal”/domestic variety — pertains to female entertainers. Insofar as I can recall presently, there have been far more mummies found of tattooed entertainers, such as those found at Deir el-Bahari dating to the 11th Dynasty. (Ikram and Dodson, “The Mummy in Ancient Egypt,” 1998)

    The reason we find female entertainers — of a lower social position — mummified and buried in such contexts is because entertainers could be attached to affluent households. (Robins, “Women in Ancient Egypt,” 1993) Mummification is not directly correlative with high status, especially later in Pharaonic history (though the quality of the job, funerary accouterments, and location of burial, however, usually are).

    All pictorial representations of Bes tattoos have been found on either dancers or musicians from the latter part of the 18th Dynasty until the end of the New Kingdom. The placement of the tattoo and Bes’ principal roles indicates that the chief function is that of protection and secondarily of sexuality. (Tassie, “Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia,” 2003) It does not appear to be “devotional.”

    As for the “tattoos” of the Goddess Neith, those come from figurines of Libyans included among the items in Seti I’s tomb (ca. 14th century BCE). They weren’t actual mummies, so they aren’t admissible much less incontrovertible evidence in the way you suggested above. Nor was their “tattooing” “electively devotional” in nature.

    In addition to all the above, that tattoos virtually never appear on male mummies significantly weakens the (already troublesome) argument for “elective devotional tattooing.”

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    1. In summation: “Devotional tattooing of an elective nature” does not seem to have been a practice, and if it was, it was not a popular, widespread one. “Devotional tattooing of an elective nature” remains in the realm of speculation, to date, as the current evidence for tattooing in Ancient Egypt doesn’t come close to concretely supporting it. We are certain, however, that tattooing in Ancient Egypt served the purposes of distinguishing slaves from freeborn persons, and recreational sexual and/or reproductive enhancement and protection (with overwhelming emphasis on women). While religion was ubiquitous throughout all aspects of Ancient Egyptian life, tattooing was not itself an *expressly* religious practice.

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