By Loren Seibold  |  10 December 2018  |

Had someone 40 years ago assigned to me the part of futurist, near the top of the list of things I wouldn’t have predicted would be the widespread popularity of tattoos. In my youth, skin art was associated with roustabouts in dockside bars, not educated professionals in offices. At best, tattoos were for servicemen who recorded upon themselves (often to their regret when sober) their travels and amours. Serious tattooing—anything beyond an anchor or a loved one’s name—was practiced by a tiny subculture, and no one called it art.

Leviticus 19:28 (“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord,” NIV) has long been used in some communities of the Jewish faith to discourage body art. As it has in recent years occasioned some discussion among Christians, too, we might look at it as a case study of how we use Scripture to address contemporary culture.

Exegetical Considerations

While some Levitical law is classified thematically, this passage is embedded in a grab bag of advice about husbandry, agriculture, occultism, the Sabbath, social justice, sex, and idolatry. Verse 28 is preceded by prohibition of certain styles of cutting the hair and beard (as still practiced by Hasidic Jews) and followed by prohibition of prostituting one’s daughters. The obscurity of verses 27-28 (and possibly the obviousness of verse 29) suggests customs about which we have little knowledge, most likely those of the pagan peoples with whom the Israelites mingled. The appended “I am the Lord” says that this is about fidelity to Yahweh in an environment of competing deities. If a certain style of the hair, for example, marked one as a worshiper of a pagan deity, the followers of an exclusive (“jealous” in Ex. 20:5) God should shun that appearance.

Cutting one’s body for the dead could mean ritual self-laceration in grief, or some kind of body scarification in memory or propitiation. The Hebrew for “marks” (qa`aqa`) is less than definitive; it appears only in this passage in all of Scripture, so its meaning is derived largely from this context. Jewish exegetes assigned it the meaning of “tattoo,” but we don’t know what the ancient process was. Although the two prohibitions are in proximity, “for the dead” follows cutting, not marking, leaving unclear whether body cutting and body marking are part of the same ritual or separate prohibitions.

God Said It; That Settles It

One can easily read Leviticus 19:28 as a condemnation of any kind of tattooing or body modification. This has simplicity in its favor: it is minimally interpretive of God’s desires, ignoring time and culture. We might speculate what God was addressing in this passage, but we don’t need to know for sure; it is enough that God said it. This approach at its best proceeds from a high view of God’s sovereignty: even if we don’t know why, even if the rule seems to our limited reason nonsensical or inapplicable, we should obey it.

Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, has many examples of God’s expectation that humanity obey “because I said so,” beginning with Adam and Eve at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). Circumcision, sacrifices, the Sabbath—none of these is immediately deducible from reason and experience, as murder or stealing might be. Such testing truths ask, “Are you dedicated enough to follow my commands even if you can’t explain the reason for them?”

Yet perhaps it is too simple. Note that in the immediate context of Leviticus 19:28 are rules that most Christians would admit cannot be taken at face value without doing violence to Christian principles. We would all agree that one ought not to prostitute one’s daughters (verse 29), but offering an animal sacrifice in propitiation for having sex with a slave girl (verses 20-22) isn’t as thorough a morality as that taught by Jesus, and so calls into question the applicability of the rest.

In the immediate context of Leviticus 19:28 are rules that cannot be taken at face value without doing violence to Christian principles. We must concede that much of the Torah falls at the cross, not because it was wrong for its time and place but because it is superseded by something less specific but considerably more complete.

We must concede that much of the Torah falls at the cross, not because it was wrong for its time and place but because it is superseded by something less specific but considerably more complete. Whole blocks of Levitical law move from prescriptive to illustrative when ritual sacrifices are replaced by Christ’s perfect sacrifice. The end of theocratic government erases chapters more. The complex set of laws governing the relationships of spiritually immature, newly emancipated people on a desert journey is replaced with a principled Christian social order built around marriage, family, and church. There may still be good advice for Christians in the Torah (the prohibited meats of Leviticus 11, say some, are unclean because they are unhealthy), but I doubt one could argue— especially since Jesus said nothing about it—that getting a tattoo falls into the same category as Christian testing truths such as believing that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 4:2) or that the way to salvation is to repent and have faith in Jesus (Acts 20:21).

Culturally Conditioned Interpretation

Another way to interpret the passage is to understand it in light of the culture to which it was addressed. Tattoos were prohibited when they were associated with pagan deities or done for the dead. These cultic practices, already barely understood, are millennia in the past. Tattoos, this interpretation would say, are now no more a spiritual matter than shaving one’s beard. The only question would be the subject of the tattoo. If a tattoo is a mark of ownership (as it was for slaves in some ancient cultures), then a tattoo proclaiming your loyalty to Jesus Christ might be not only appropriate, but desirable (cf. Isa. 44:5).[1]

Adapting Scripture to culture is both necessary and dangerous. Necessary, because without it we would have to live in mimicry of the culture of the Bible in order to apply all of its rules and proscriptions. There are hundreds of commands in Scripture that can be made relevant to modern times only with difficulty. A kiss in greeting between men (1 Thess. 5:26), for example, was expected in some ancient cultures but might be quite inappropriate in ours.

Yet many Bible-following Christians are terrified of cultural relativism. “Where do you draw the line?” they ask. Presumably, one could explain away the entire Bible by saying that it was relevant only to a cluster of Mediterranean cultures thousands of years ago, and so reduce the gospel to a few insipid principles about love and justice.

Most of the arguments don’t take place at the extremes, but somewhere in a muddy middle. Was Paul’s description of family relationships (Col. 3:18-25) intended to be a model for all Christians for all time, or was he illustrating principles of love and mutual respect by describing the way families behaved in his world? A related debate raged in the 1700-1800s around the absence of a clear Biblical prohibition of slavery.

On which side does an Old Testament prohibition of tattoos fall?

Principled Analysis

There’s yet another way to wrestle with an issue like this: take central Biblical principles and apply them to lifestyle choices about which the Bible says nothing, says little, or is unclear. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, some Christians marked tobacco as dangerous, expensive, habit-forming, and unhealthy. No scripture explicitly prohibits inhaling the smoke of burning leaves through a tissue-paper tube, but Biblical principles of health, sobriety, economy, association, and cleanliness led them to add tobacco use to the list of activities (drinking alcohol, playing cards, going to theaters, wearing jewelry and makeup, even bowling and billiards) they regarded as vices. In the long view, they were proven right about tobacco; it is now known to be a public health hazard, disparaged by nearly everyone.

In the same way, we might argue that whatever their function among the ancient pagans, because tattoos are attention-seeking, tend toward dark themes, and are (despite wider acceptance) still associated with gangs, drug culture, and people of low ambition, they are inimical to the wholesome, responsible Christian life as described in Scripture. It could also be added that tattoos might interfere with being hired by respectable employers[2] and are expensive and time-consuming to remove if later regretted.[3]

If the first position is criticized for being woodenly literal and the second for subjectivity, the weakness of the third is the authority it places in the church and removes from the individual Christian. For it is generally the church that processes, establishes as rule, and passes judgment—that, in short, sets the fusion of horizons[4] necessary to apply an ancient text to modern times. Roman Catholic ecclesiology accepts a broad role for the church in interpreting Scripture, creating doctrine, and making rules for behavior. Although we Protestants see ourselves as relying upon Scripture alone rather than a church magisterium, a surprisingly large proportion of us have been quite authoritarian on a range of behavioral issues that aren’t biblically central.

What’s Important?

I could easily be lured into a philippic on why I still think it is foolish to ink permanent designs upon your body. But I am, admittedly, the squarest of squares; I don’t even like my hand stamped to get back into a concert. My larger interest is the way we work with questions such as this one, for the reasoning I’ve outlined above takes place constantly within the church, and you can often track the argument as it is shaped by these three hermeneutical processes.

Consider, for example, the ordination of women to ministry. For centuries, a literal interpretation prevailed: women, says Paul, ought not to speak in church or teach men (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:12). Modernism opened the way for a culturally adjusted view: Paul was only addressing a specific unruly church situation in a male-dominated culture, but from the larger scriptural context we know he intended for us all to be equal in Christ. Working from Scriptural principles, the church has processed and hardened around several views. Some employ male headship arguments reinforced by the patriarchy of the local culture to say that women must never be ordained. From passages like Galatians 3:28, and influenced by Western egalitarianism, others argue that women may be ordained. Still others take a pragmatic approach, going as far as the church community will tolerate to admit women to ministry, short of ordination.

I would find it hard to argue that getting a tattoo is as significant a spiritual issue as, say, war, family breakdown, poverty, or even women’s ordination. Neither the literalist nor the modernist has an indisputable answer to Leviticus 19:28, nor does the Christian community. I was recently told of a church in Ohio that made a convert get a skin graft over a tattoo before he could be baptized. By contrast, a church in Texas asked members to get permanent tattoos symbolizing the crucifixion and death of Jesus![5] Some churches have made a ministry of helping individuals get rid of tattoos so they can find employment—an illustration of why they might have been discouraged in the first place. Yet given the popularity of tattoos, can you really claim to be winning the world for Christ if you would exclude those (about one in five in the United States[6]) who have permanent body art?

Churches, with the best of intentions, can fall into the trap of micromanaging their own small choices rather than transforming culture.

Church rules and standards are a two-edged sword. The saving power of Christ, combined with a community expectation of clean living, high moral standards, education, and spiritual discipline has transformed lives. But ask anyone who has left a conservative church why they left, and the usual answer will have to do with fussy rules overshadowing the joy of the gospel, and criticism straining relationships between church members. Churches, with the best of intentions, can fall into the trap of micromanaging their own small choices rather than transforming culture.

Indeed, one of the central struggles in conservative churches is sorting what is vital and important from the less important. When church standards are first discussed, it is to support Christians in making moral and lifestyle decisions. But as years pass, the group loses plasticity. It dislikes rethinking past decisions, even if circumstances have altered. The contrasts between important and less important flatten. Standards of a wide range of gravities dominate church culture, obscuring the good news that brought people together in the first place: “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief ” (1 Tim. 1:15, KJV). Some may begin to feel as though keeping the standards is in itself a saving activity. When change does happen, it is by revolution or abandonment rather than reasoned decision.

When everything is equally important (eschewing tattoos the same weight as, say, cultivating the fruit of the Spirit), then nothing is particularly important, and the gospel collapses into a heap of rules that excludes as many from receiving saving grace, as it gives false confidence to those who slavishly follow them.

Questions like this one will come to the church. And when they do, they require not just initial scrutiny but continual study, humility, and an attitude of grace.

    1. I have heard the argument from tattooed Christians that if body mods weren’t to be done for the dead, that’s all the more reason we should get Christian-themed body art in honor of Jesus Christ, who has overcome death!
    2. From a recent Pew Research Center study, reported in “76% of respondents feel tattoos and piercings hurt an applicant’s chances of being hired during a job interview. And more than one-third – 39% of those surveyed – believe employees with tattoos and piercings reflect poorly on their employers. Furthermore, 42% feel visible tattoos are always inappropriate at work, with 55% reporting the same thing about body piercings..
    3. A poll conducted in January 2015 by Harris Interactive reported that 3 in 10 of U.S. adults has a tattoo. One quarter of those with tattoos regret getting one.
    4. The phrase comes from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode (1960), to describe the complex way one’s own background and culture intersect with the text.
    5. “The tendency we have as Christians is to skip past Jesus’ suffering,” said Ecclesia pastor Chris Seay of Houston, Texas. “Not only do tattoos come with a bit of suffering, they are also an art form that has not fully been embraced” 
    6. Harris Interactive Poll.

Loren Seibold is a pastor, and the executive editor of Adventist Today. This piece is reprinted from the Winter 2015 Adventist Today magazine.

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