Well, let’s start with what I think is the most powerful, and easily understood argument: God gave the Apostle John a vision of Jesus having a tattoo, so we’re pretty sure God doesn’t hate all tattoos!
On his robes and on his thigh, he has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords. (Rev 19:16).
Now, of course, English translations don’t usually use the word “tattoo” here. They simply translate the Greek term (graphē) here as “written” but in Greek, at least, graphē is used for all writing regardless of the surface on which it’s done. There is no special word for tattoo in Koine Greek, so the way you’d describe someone having words tattooed on their thigh would be to say they had words “written” on their thigh…which is exactly what Rev 19:16 says.
Of course, as much of the language of Revelation is symbolic, the objection can be raised that Jesus did not actually have a literal tattoo and this is true. However, even as a purely symbolic description, the use of this image makes it difficult to argue that God sees tattoos as inherently sinful. To say that God inspired the Apostle John to write a description of Jesus using an image of a sinful practice is absurd. Would God have inspired one of the Biblical writers to depict Jesus committing adultery or telling a lie? Of course not. The fact that a description is symbolic doesn’t change the moral/ethical nature of the symbol itself. So while Rev 19:16 is likely symbolic, this does not change the inescapable conclusion that depicting the perfect Son of God as having a tattoo requires accepting that at least some tattoos are perfectly acceptable to God.
For many people, the fact that the Bible paints a picture of Jesus having a tattoo on his thigh is enough to settle the matter, but there is more understanding to be gained by looking carefully at all the biblical evidence on this subject.
The main biblical statement which has been taken as a prohibition against tattoos is Leviticus 19:28. In the NIV translation, this verse is rendered: Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD. (Lev 19:28)
Several things should be noted about this verse: First, this is the only place in English Bibles where the word “tattoo” appears. It is an attempt to translate the Hebrew word kethobeth which is a hapax legomenon, the scholarly term for a word that occurs only one time in the Bible. Hapax legomenon are problematic for translators because, with only one instance of the word to work with, it’s often hard to get enough context for a confident translation. We know that kethobeth is built upon the Hebrew word keth which simply means “to write, record or enroll”, so it’s safe to say that kethobeth refers to some kind of writing. What we don’t know is what the “obeth” addition does to the word, because we’ve never seen it added to keth anywhere else. “Beth” means “house” in Hebrew, but that doesn’t provide much help here unless “obeth” somehow refers to “writing of the house” which might then refer to writing on oneself some kind of mark that identifies one as belonging to the house of an ancestor who has passed away. This is possible given the context of the first part of the verse “cut your bodies for the dead”, but it is highly speculative.
The LXX (aka Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), is the earliest translation of Lev 19:28 we possess, which is important because it was made at a time when ancient Hebrew was still in use. We often look to it in order to understand Hebrew terms that are not easily understood. The theory is that translators living closer in time to when terms were being used are more likely than moderns to understand what those terms referred to. So, how does the LXX translate kethobeth? The LXX translation of this verse uses the ordinary Greek word graphē (to write) to translate kethobeth. All of this suggests that the most literal translation of Lev 19:28 is “and do not write on yourselves.” This makes it clear that the prohibition in Leviticus cannot be a timeless, universal prohibition against writing on oneself since Revelation portrays Jesus as having something “written on” himself using the same Greek term used to translate kethobeth in Lev 19:28. If Lev 19:28 is taken as a timeless, universal prohibition against “writing on yourself”, then Rev 19:16 would have to be a contradiction of it. Since we know that God’s Word, properly understood, doesn’t contradict itself, then Lev 19:28 cannot be interpreted as a timeless, universal prohibition against all forms or instances of “writing on yourself.” At best, we would have to see it as a prohibition that applied to the Jewish people under the Old Covenant Law, but which no longer applies to Christians under the New Covenant, since Jesus himself did not “obey” the prohibition. But as we’ll see in a moment, there is evidence even within the Old Testament that Lev 19:28 was not a universal prohibition against all tattoos but rather a prohibition against a specific kind of tattoo related to pagan mourning rituals.
Another thing to note about Lev 19:28 is that, while “tattoo” is one possible translation, it is not the only possible translation, and it is not even be the most plausible translation. The verse could be referring to temporary writing, such as painting or drawing in ash, which seems to have been part of many Ancient Near Eastern mourning rituals. Since the verse contains an explicit mention of “for the dead”, it is quite likely that some form of this practice is in view here. Conversely, and perhaps more likely, kethobeth could refer to other kinds of permanent writing on the skin such as words formed by a heated brand or by cutting the skin. Since the verse in question begins with “do not cut your bodies”, and since one of the predominant features of Hebrew literature is parallelism (i.e. say something, then say it again in slightly different language to drive home the point), it is likely that the second half of the verse is expanding on the first half. In light of this, a very responsible translation would be: “do not cut your bodies for the dead or cut words into yourselves for them.”
Perhaps more importantly, even if kethobeth is best translated by tattoo, which is questionable, the context of this verse makes it clear that there is a specific kind of tattoo that is in focus: tattoos taken as part of pagan mourning practices. The first half of Lev 19:28 sets the context for interpreting this prohibition: Do not cut your bodies for the dead… Canaanite mourning practices often involved gashing the flesh of living relatives and this seems to be what God is forbidding in the first half of Lev 19:28. The second half, therefore, might be referring to a customary practice of cutting the names of the dead into the flesh of living relatives. In other words, the presence of “for the dead” here limits the scope of the prohibition substantially. To make a persuasive biblical argument against all tattoos would require finding additional biblical prohibitions against marking the flesh without similar limitations of scope.
So, are there additional biblical prohibitions against marking the flesh?
No, there aren’t.
Some people point to the “mark of the beast” in Revelation as support for the idea that tattoos are sinful, but a) this is a description of something that some people think might be a tattoo, not a prescription against all tattoos and b) this argument is completely invalidated by the fact that similar imagery is used to describe Christians in Revelation:
- Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. (Rev 14:1)
- The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. (Rev 22:3-4)
There is also the fact that the prophet Isaiah describes something that is likely a tattoo in a positive light: Some will say, ‘I belong to the LORD’; others will call themselves by the name of Jacob; still others will write on their hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and will take the name Israel. (Isa 44:5). And yes, the Greek translation of this verse uses the same term (graphe) to translate the Hebrew here as in Lev 19:28. This could be figurative, like the Father’s name on the forehead in Rev 14:1, but it may very well be literal: a positive statement about writing the possessive form of YAHWEH on one’s hand to indicate consecration to Him.
It is also important to note the instructions vis a vis bondservants found in Exodus 21:
2 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. 3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him.
4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. 5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.
While, admittedly, this is not an example of a technical “tattoo” in the sense of “writing” on the flesh, there is considerable conceptual overlap in that piercing an ear is an example of marking/cutting the flesh to indicate the individuals desire to be associated with the house of a beloved master. This is very similar to the concept affirmed in Isa 44:5.
Bottom line, there are more pro-tattoo than anti-tattoo statements in the Bible.
But even if we ignored the more numerous positive statements, along with ignoring the contextual evidence that undermines the idea that Lev 19:28 could be interpreted as a universal prohibition of all tattoos, that anti-tattoo position has one other very large problem: We would still have to ask whether this prohibition applies to Christians who no longer live “under the Law” (Gal 5:18). If anyone is going to use Lev 19:28 to say that no Christian should get tattoos, would they not also have to accept that commands such as “do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (Lev 19:27) as equally binding, seeing as it is recorded in literally the verse right before Lev 19:28? How could we say “no tattoos ever because of Lev 19:28” but then say “but shaving your sideburns and neatening up the edges of your beard is ok in spite of Lev 19:27”?
And again, Rev 19:16 depicts Jesus as having words “written…on his thigh”, using the same Greek term used to translate kethobeth in Lev 19:28. This seems to make it quite clear that Jesus was not concerned with Lev 19:28, either because it no longer applies under the new covenant or, as is more likely given the evidence considered above, Lev 19:28 was never intended as a blanket prohibition against tattoos but only against a specific kind of tattoos as part of pagan mourning rituals.