Now that my cards are on the table, let’s talk about Tattoos and Jesus. The title of the post is a bit of a joke. The process of studying the Bible is usually called exegesis in academic settings. Since my last post, Tattoos and Jesus, covered some of my more practical thoughts about Tattoos, I thought I’d follow it up with a few posts about how I support those thoughts Biblically. I intended to only write one post, but it got away from me. So rather than cutting a whole bunch of material, I’m splitting it up. I’ll post the next one in a few days.
My perspective on the matter is that tattoos are in a category which are generally referred to as amoral (as opposed to moral or immoral). Moral actions are good. Immoral actions are bad. Amoral actions are neither. They aren’t inherently good or bad. Or put another way, we can’t say that an amoral action is good or bad without more information. We need context. Not all tattoos are okay. But many are, and some are neutral.
In my opinion, this is pretty easy to establish Biblically. The main verse prohibiting tattoos (Leviticus 19:28) is preceded by a verse prohibiting certain types of haircuts along with warnings about fortune telling (19:27). The haircut part seems pretty odd, particularly paired with the fortune telling. The “anti-tattoo” verse is followed by a prohibition against allowing your daughter to become a prostitute (19:29) which hopefully we all recognize as a universally bad thing. One thing that should be clear here is that the immediate context is a little confusing. Think about the four actions presented:
1.) Shaving around your ear
2.) Fortune telling
3.) Getting a Tattoo
4.) Allowing your daughter to become a prostitute.
Indeed, Ron Burgundy. Why the heck are these grouped together? Let’s consult some scholarship. If we read the Bible Background Commentary for the Old Testament in this passage, an interesting pattern emerges. All of these commands center around the cultic practices of neighboring religions (134). The reason that these certain haircuts were forbidden is that the cut hair would often be used in fortune telling. Lest anyone think, “Okay so as long as my fortune teller doesn’t use my hair…” the rest of verse 27 rules that out as well. If we consult the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, we see that these prohibitions exist only because their associations are not with Yahweh, but with other deities (209). The immediate context, understood against its cultural background, makes it clear that these four prohibitions actually do go together. They are all warnings against copying the cultic practices of the Canaanites. This includes prostitution.
This would be like writing something today that forbids Christians from copying the religious practices of the prevailing culture around us. While this might have something to teach us about the way we do church, it has nothing to teach us about tattoos. Tattoos are not primarily a part of religious expression in America, nor are they limited to one religion when they are. Further, most polls show that less than a quarter of the American population have a tattoo. While that number is increasing, it is nowhere near a majority.
The point here is that the text of Leviticus is not prohibiting the same thing we are talking about when we talk about tattoos. Leviticus is written to the people of Israel to warn them against mimicking the cultic practices of their neighbors. So contextually speaking, if you are getting a tattoo to mourn the death of a lost family member and to look like your Canaanite neighbors…you’re in trouble. Don’t have any Canaanite neighbors? Well then you are probably safe, theologically speaking. Your tattoo may still be a glaring mistake, but not on the grounds of Leviticus 19:28.
It should also be noted that the prohibition against tattoos is qualified. It prohibits tattoos for the dead. Not only that, but the Hebrew* could even be read to say that you should not make a mark on your body. All of us have at some point written or drawn something on our hands. So if we’re going to take a super strict approach, why not that one? At level best one might argue that tattoos for the dead are universally wrong, irrespective of Canaanite neighbors. I don’t hold to that position, but it seems to be the only way one can legitimately employ Leviticus 19:28 as a prohibition against some tattoos today.
Next, I’ll write about the most common objections to tattoos from the New Testament. In the meantime if you have questions or concerns, feel free to send them to me either through email or through Facebook. If there’s a particular objection to tattoos you are curious about, let me know!
*וּכְתֹ֣בֶת קַֽעֲקַ֔ע לֹ֥א תִתְּנ֖וּ בָּכֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃