What does the Bible say about tattoos?


Leviticus 19:28 condemned tattoos in ancient Israel. This prohibition was part of the "holiness code," a large section of Leviticus dedicated to laws that were given to Israel in order to distinguish the people from the nations around them. The Gentiles used tattoos, therefore Israel was not to use them in order to provide a visible demonstration of the fact that Israel was "holy" (that is, set apart as special unto God). It would seem from the context of Leviticus 19:28 that the tattoos that were specifically forbidden were those received as part of a pagan ceremony, though some have taken it as a broad prohibition against all tattoos.

When Christ came, however, he tore down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:12ff.). Specifically, this means that the laws that were given in order to separate Israel from the rest of the nations are now counter-productive if applied in the same way that ancient Israel observed them. We must adapt our application of the Law so as to follow its original purpose in light of the changes that Christ brought.

Consider the example of circumcision. This stipulation distinguished Israel from the Canaanites in the Promised Land. But the New Testament clearly tells us that being holy unto God no longer requires us to be circumcised (e.g. Rom. 2; Gal. 2; 5). Circumcision was an outward symbol of dedication unto God. But that outward symbol, dividing people along racial lines, is no longer helpful. The people of God are from every nation, and the symbols of holiness that we now must bear are things like a pure heart (e.g. Rom. 2:28-29, which was also required in the Old Testament) and baptism (which does not have any racial connotations, and has replaced circumcision as the covenant sign; Col. 2:11-12).

Now, this is not to say that everything that appears in the "holiness code" pertains only to such separation — there are other factors at work too, such as moral ones (Israel's morality was to help distinguish her from other nations). If one is convinced that tattoos are a moral issue, then one ought to abstain from them. I, however, cannot think of any reason that a tattoo would be a moral issue — certainly the Bible does not state that there are moral failings involved in getting a tattoo no matter what the context. The case would seem to be very similar to the commands that we not round off the edges of our beards or cut the hair on our temples (Lev. 19:27). These are innocent practices in and of themselves. They were wrong in ancient Israel because of their association with pagan practices (such as divination, death rituals, cultic prostitution, etc.; cf. Lev. 19:26-31). If these actions do not have evil associations in our own time, there would seem to be no reason to forbid them.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.