I was in a discussion not so long ago about tattoos, and I was asked about the historical view on this practice. It wasn’t something I had looked into before from a Church Fathers point of view, so it was an interesting topic of study. In my searching, I found this article from a Catholic site which seems to give a pretty interesting overview of some of the views about tattoos in the earlier centuries. The following is a quote about a Church Council in the context of native Britons, who still practiced tattooing at that time for pagan ritual, something which Tertullian also gives a fleeting reference to around 213 AD in his On the Veiling of Virgins, ch. 10.
In the 787 Council of Northumberland — a meeting of lay and ecclesial leaders and citizens in England — Christian commentators distinguished between religious and profane tattoos. In the council documents, they wrote:
“When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit there from.”
But, contrasted with Basil the Great of the fourth century, who supposedly (I say “supposedly” because I can’t find an original source for this quote, nor the quote above, though many other books and websites cite both; see end note) said: “No man shall let his hair grow long or tattoo himself as do the heathen” — it highlights that the views of this practice have been wide and varied over the centuries; as over in Egypt, the Coptic Church has been marking themselves with tattoos since the sixth or seventh century, even up to present times.
All of this debate stems from one seemingly clear verse in Leviticus:
Leviticus 19:28 (WEB)
You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you. I am Yahweh.
In the manner of how Hebrew works, the clause “for the dead” is applying to both phrases. The cuttings and the marks are not to be “for the dead”. Those Hebrew phrases which seem to repeat a similar thought are generally connected and are saying the same thing in two different ways to emphasise the point (just look at the Psalms for many examples of this).
Not to mention that the word “tattoo” didn’t exist until the 17th century, prior to that it was translated as “marks on the skin” or something similar, which has much different connotations than the word “tattoo” has in our contemporary society. An ancient, obscure word is translated as “tattoo” in one place, and we impose our modern thinking of what that word implies onto Scripture making it anything but clear and moving us a little farther away from the original intent. This verse is more than likely admonishing against copying the surrounding pagan practices of the time than being a blanket rule against any form of “tattoo”.
Arguably there are passages that say that Jesus’ body was “marked” in some way, as in the book of Revelation which some see as a reference to a tattoo of sorts:
Revelation 19:16 (WEB)
He has on his garment and on his thigh a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”
Or in the Old Testament, Isaiah speaks of God in a similar manner as having “engraved” the names of his people on the palm of his hand — a word with a much stronger and more violent visual than simply tattooing ink into the skin. Possibly even a nod towards what Jesus would eventually do for us when he would literally have his hands “engraved” (or “hacked” as this root word can also mean) for us on the cross!
Isaiah 49:16a (WEB)
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.
Similarly, a couple of chapters previously to this one in Isa. 44:5, it speaks of the people writing the name of the LORD of their hands in celebration, and a similar, but less violent, word for “engraving” is used here too.
Going back to the passage in Leviticus, the word translated as “tattoo” is a weird one in Hebrew from what I’ve read and isn’t easily put into English, so using “tattoo” is as close a meaning that we have, but not necessarily the same as what we mean.
h3793. כְּתֹבֶת ḵeṯôḇeṯ; from 3789; a letter or other mark branded on the skin: — x any (mark).
AV (1) — any 1;
impression, inscription, markin the flesh, perhaps a tattoo
So you can see it’s not a clear cut word of “tattoo” (or markings) in our modern sense as the definition above can relate to any type of skin marking (ie. via branding or knives) — not to mention that the specific word translated here is only used this one time in all of the Bible. That gives us even less context.
From looking at the definition in my Strong’s ESV, it gives a few cross references for this verse which are all to do with pagan mourning rituals which involve cutting yourself in some way, as Leviticus speaks of: Leviticus 21:1–5; Deut. 14:1; 1 Kings. 18:28; Jer. 16:6; 41:5; 47:5; 48:37. If you have a look through some of those references, you’ll see that there was definitely a common practice amongst the pagan nations which had some type of mourning ritual that involved cutting themselves (or as part of worship, as we see with the Baal priests who went up against Elijah in 1 Kings 18). The language used in these other passages of Scripture throughout the Old Testament is similar to that of Leviticus 19 and so we begin to see a theme here which the Law book was most likely also speaking against, rather than just being against body decoration in general.
Having said all that, and much of this restriction is from an Old Testament Law perspective, where does that leave Christians today? Since the prohibitions from the Law were in relation to pagan worship and mourning rituals, tattoos for God’s glory and worship should cause no one to feel like they have sinned as the intent and focus is not what Leviticus etc. was forbidding.
But to caution, and similar to how Paul taught about eating food sacrificed to idols, we should be careful to not cause others to stumble (1 Cor 8:11–13), and to just think long and hard before committing to getting tattooed yourself. If getting a tattoo goes against your conscience, then no one should try and violate that; but equally, since it’s not a clear or direct command in Scripture for or against, others shouldn’t make you feel like it’s a sin either (Romans 14:12–15). This should be one of those things left to Christian liberty: “For you, brothers, were called for freedom. Only don’t use your freedom for gain to the flesh, but through love be servants to one another.” (Galatians 5:1,13; cf. 1 Cor 10:23).
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