Does the Old Testament Condemn Tattoos?

By Wayne Jackson

*"So many young people are getting tattoos these days. In Leviticus 19:28, the Bible says: ‘Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you; I am the Lord.’ Would not this passage condemn having a tattoo?"

One must be very careful about trying to use Old Testament passages as proof-texts for what one may or may not practice in the Christian age. It is a fundamental aspect of Bible doctrine that the Mosaic system was abrogated by the death of Christ (Eph. 2:14ff; Col. 2:14ff). The law of Moses, therefore, is not the Christian’s standard by which to measure conduct.

The following observations are in order:

(1) This same chapter (Leviticus 19) also provides instruction for appropriate conduct in conjunction with offering animal sacrifices. It requires leaving certain portions of one’s crops unharvested (in the interest of the poor). The sowing of two types of seed in the same field is prohibited. The Hebrews were not to wear a garment with two different fabrics combined (e.g., wool and linen). When new fruit trees were planted, none of the fruit was to be eaten for the first three years. There are restrictions about how the man’s hair was to be cut, and the manner in which his beard might not be trimmed. Keeping the Sabbath is enjoined, etc.

Why should we focus on one of these injunctions to the exclusion of the others?

(2) The immediate context of Leviticus 19:27-28 suggests that Moses was attempting to inoculate Israel against the emulation of certain heathen practices related to idolatry.

For example, the prophet forbids “cutting the flesh” in the passage under consideration; yet no one contends that medical surgery is being condemned. Rather, “cuttings” in the flesh “for the dead” are in view (cf. also 1 Kgs. 18:28). This was an idolatrous practice.

Too, ancient archaeological evidence indicates that some of the Canaanites would tattoo themselves with the names or symbols of their favorite “gods.” This appears to be what the prophet is condemning, not the modern custom of “esthetic” tattooing – regardless of how distasteful such a practice may be to many people.

(3) Since the New Testament does not address the issue of tattooing specifically, one must be guided by principle. Any practice that is vulgar, gaudy, or a distraction to one’s Christian influence should be avoided. But, to some extent, this is a matter of taste and judgment.

No one can presume to prescribe conduct for everyone else in matters of this nature. Is it appropriate for women to wear make-up? How about permanent eye-liner? May men and women adorn themselves with jewelry? May they pierce their ears?

Christians must attempt to employ sound judgment in such matters, and give no occasion to the adversary for reviling (1 Tim. 5:14). Moreover, a Christian’s personal privacy and right of choice must be respected in ambiguous areas of judgment. This is the most a wise Bible instructor can say.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.