What does the Bible say about tattoos? Is it right or wrong for a Christian to get one?
Let’s begin with a couple of general observations. First, the Bible doesn’t answer every question we might have, even questions that we may deem important. It does not tell us, for instance, which form of government is best for a nation, exactly how many angels there are, or what happened to the ark of the covenant when it disappeared.
Second, even when the Bible does answer a question, we need to be certain that the answer is addressed specifically to us and not to an individual, people group, or historic situation. For instance, is it okay to get a haircut? Nazarites were not allowed to cut their hair while they were in the time of their vow, but it would be nonsensical to apply “no haircuts” to believers today. Also, is pork an acceptable food? For Christians, yes, for we live under the new covenant, which is not governed by kosher and non-kosher foods. But when the Israelites were under the old covenant, the answer was No, for pork was a ritually unclean meat.
So, what about tattoos? What does the Bible say about them? And does the answer apply to us today?
The Prohibition in Leviticus
The pertinent passage is Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.”
Let’s look at this passage in context, both its immediate and broader context. Let’s also take a peek at the Hebrew behind the English translation to see what light it sheds on the verse. We’ll begin with the Hebrew.
What Does the Hebrew Show Us?
The word translated as “tattoo” entails two words in Hebrew: k‘tovet (כְּתֹ֫בֶת) and qa‘aqa (קַעֲקַע). Both words occur only here in the Bible. The first, k‘tovet, is derived from the common stem/root k-t-b (כתב) which means to write or engrave or mark.
The second, qa‘aqa, is much more difficult to pin down. The standard scholarly dictionary of biblical Hebrew defines it as “tattoo” but notes, “the exact meaning…is unknown; it could even be a simple decoration” (HALOT). The Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains defines qa‘aqa as “a marking of skin by incision, as a non-verbal sign of mourning.”
This leaves us in a bit of a quandary. We’re not even certain that “tattoo” is the correct translation of that Hebrew word. A literal translation of the latter half of Leviticus 19:28 might be, “A writing of tattoo you shall not give yourself.” Or it might be “A writing of incision you shall not give yourself.”
Therefore, we cannot speak with 100% certainty as to what this writing or marking looked like.
What about the context of this prohibition? How does that help us? Here, we can speak with greater certainty.
Let’s keep in mind the first half of the verse, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead.” This prohibition against body-cutting and the prohibition in the latter half of the verse should be read as a unit.
What is cutting all about? In his Leviticus commentary, Old Testament scholar, John Kleinig, notes, “The practice of self-mutilation was common in mourning rites” (Jer. 16:6; 41:5; 47:5; 48:37).” Some ancient people expressed their grief outwardly, in shaving their heads or beards, wearing sackcloth, and gashing their bodies. Here, the Lord of Israel is saying to his people, “When you mourn, you shall not make gashes on your body like the peoples around you.”
The preceding verse appears to speak to this same kind of mourning situation, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (Lev. 19:27). Hair was often cut during periods of mourning. Deuteronomy 14:1 also addresses this, “You are the sons of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead” (cf. Jer. 16:6).
The context, therefore, is about pagan bodily practices that most likely were thought to bond the living with the dead. If indeed “tattoo” is the right translation of the Hebrew word we discussed above, then the tattooing in question was a mourning ritual. To all such cutting and marring and disfigurement of the body, God said No.
Does This Answer Apply to People Today?
That, then, is a brief summary of what Leviticus 19:28 is talking about. But to whom is the Lord speaking when he addresses this subject? Who is prohibited from engaging in these actions? To everyone in every circumstance in every era of history? No. God is speaking only to the Israelites under the old covenant.
This takes us back to the point we made earlier: even when the Bible does answer a question, we need to be certain that the answer is addressed specifically to us and not to an individual, people group, or historic situation. The prohibitions in Leviticus 19:27-28 are never repeated in the New Testament, never applied to everyone, and certainly never included in prohibitions for Christians.
To Ink or Not to Ink?
Let’s circle back to the original question: Is it right or wrong for a Christian to get a tattoo? Followers of Jesus are free to choose whether or not they get inked. There is no law against it in the Scriptures. I would hope, of course, that if believers choose to get inked, that they think long and hard about it before they do. It is, after all, a lifelong alteration of the body. And, second, at a bare minimum, I would hope that they choose a word(s) or design that is meaningful and not vain, profane, or just plain ugly. (And we’ve all seen ugly tattoos!).
I would also hope that this brief study is a reminder of the dangers of sloppy biblical interpretation that is then foisted on others as legalistic demands that God never made. Yes, there were tattoos in the ancient world, but as we saw from the Hebrew, we are not even certain that the Lord is speaking about tattoos in Leviticus 19. Any time a Hebrew word occurs only once, it is almost always difficult, if not impossible, to be 100% about its meaning. What’s more, we cannot simply rip a verse out of context and say it applies at all times, under all circumstances, to all peoples.
The church has a reputation in the world for essentially being an “Against” institution. Against this and against that. Let’s not add fuel to that legalistic fire by being against something that God himself has not prohibited to believers but left us free to decide for ourselves.
Christians are, in truth, the freest people in the world. We have been set free in Jesus Christ. All our sins, no matter how horrific, have been utterly forgiven. All our guilt, no matter how heavy, has been removed. We have, in fact, already moved beyond death, because in baptism we have already died and entered into the unending life of Jesus. We can look in the mirror and say, “There is the person that God deeply and dearly loves.” And we can look into the face of any friend or stranger and also say, “There is the person that God deeply and dearly loves.” We walk in freedom, a freedom we use to love and forgive and serve others.
St. Paul puts it this way, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1).
Now those words would be a worthy tattoo.
If you are interested in learning more about Hebrew words and how they relate to Christ and the New Testament, check out Chad's newest book, Unveiling Mercy: 365 Daily Devotions Based on Insights from Old Testament Hebrew, available at Amazon or wherever you purchase books.