It is a sin to get a tattoo? Is it wise? Does the Bible forbid it? Will Jesus give us tattoos someday? (Stay tuned to the end for an answer to that last question).
As a priest, I’ve heard those first three questions quite a few times, along with others like them. After all, Leviticus, the Hebrew Law Code of the Old Testament, says “you shall not tattoo yourself.”
Cut and dry case, right? The Bible says not to tattoo yourself, so its a sin.
Not so fast…
The passage in question actually reads, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” What seems like a straight out prohibition against tattoos turns out to be a commandment against cutting or tattooing oneself for the dead. In the religions of the peoples around the Israelites, this was an act of either worship of idols, or sacrifice to or for ancestors. So really its not a general command not to get a tattoo. Its just a command for the Israelites not to get a tattoo for the purpose of worshiping an ancestor or the dead. This was an act of worship of an idol, or something or someone other than the Lord.
But that doesn’t really answer our question either.
You see, the way I just read and used Leviticus is totally wrong. Even if Leviticus did tell the Israelites not to get a tattoo, that wouldn’t be the end of the story…
A Flat Bible?
The Bible is not, and was never intended to be a “flat” book. It is the story of gradual revelation of the fullness of God’s plan of redemption in Christ. The New Testament book of Hebrews opens: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” So going back to Leviticus and pulling out a verse, without that whole story in mind, isn’t the way Christians should read the Bible. It isn’t an encyclopedia, its a love story that reveals its protagonist slowly, with a growing understanding of his character and purpose.
God raised up Abraham, and the people of Israel, and he gradually prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. He gave the people of Israel a moral, civil, and ritual law to show them that we can’t save ourselves. The civil and ritual codes were for the ancient Israelites. The moral code is still understood to show us what love looks like and how we fall short of that reality. So really you can’t grab a Bible, turn to Leviticus, find a relevant passage, and take a position on tattoos because that isn’t why Leviticus was given to us. We have to understand the beginning of the Bible (and all of it) from the perspective of the end of the Bible.
Okay, So Should I Get a Tat? Tell me!
Here are your possible choices, in my view:
- Tattoos could be a terrible, sinful, or unwise thing to do today, even if we aren’t commanded not to get them.
- Tattoos could be a good thing, and we all should get a tattoo of the cross or another sign of our Faith as a witness.
- Tattoos could be a matter of indifference, something that we may or may not do.
- Or, we might never know the complete answer and have to use our own discernment and the guidance of our spiritual leaders/church body, in each generation.
Probably that last answer is closest to the truth. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “We see through a glass dimly” and “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” Paul wanted us to use humility, discernment, and concern for the well being and salvation of others to decide such matters.
There are a massive number of things that we don’t know and can’t know, and that we have to learn how to be wise about. And learning how to do that in humility and love is called maturity. It takes our whole lifetime and beyond. And it takes our church too.
Uncertainty, Discernment, and Grace
There are clear moral teachings in the Bible, and the Ten Commandments are the ultimate summary of them. But all of those moral teachings have to be understood within the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not apart from it.
For example, we know that the Bible teaches us not to murder. Old Testament. New Testament. Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, St. John (and many more). But it isn’t simply telling us what not to do. It tells us that God loves every human person and that human beings are made in his image, and so are sacred. Jesus taught us that, both by his words and his total sacrifice. It isn’t an arbitrary rule, its a vision of love. Its about the Gospel and about the cure for the human soul.
And anyway, murder is a big deal. Tattoos aren’t.
The Bible’s moral teachings are grounded in our need to be saved and loved, and cured and healed, and not to help us behave a little better and “look good for church.” That kind of legal thinking is about getting away or free from God, instead of learning to be with Him, being loved by him, and loving him in return.
Jesus the Tattoo Artist
One final thing, though, in terms of tattoos. Keep in mind that Jesus himself will give us three tattoos someday. In the Revelation, when describing eternal life in the New Jerusalem, Jesus says, “I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.” So he is going to write three names on us. God’s name, the New Jerusalem, and a new name. I don’t have a tattoo now, but I really want those New Jerusalem tattoos someday.