What does the Bible say about tattoos and piercings?

Q: What does the Bible say about tattoos? or men getting piercings?

A: Thanks for asking.  Here are my thoughts on the subject.

Old Testament

The only Scripture specifically mentioning “tattoos” is found in the Old Testament: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19:28. Tattoos were used extensively by the other nations for pagan worship, decoration, and to mark a slave. Based on Leviticus 19:28, tattoos are still forbidden among Jews today (by both Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed Judaism). There is even one rabbinic text prohibiting the burial of bodies with tattoos. (However this prohibition is very rarely enforced – although some traditional Jewish mortuaries and cemeteries will not officiate at a funeral of one who is tattooed.)

The only Scripture that I know of on decorative “piercing” (as opposed to piercing by a sword or nails) is Exodus 21:6. This is a passage on piercing the ear lobe of a person to mark him as a slave. In the Jewish nation, slaves and pagans were the only ones with pierced ears. When Jacob’s family wanted to set themselves apart to the Lord, earrings are specifically mentioned as items that they put off (Genesis 35:4). Apparently any disfigurement or cutting  of the body was not allowed for His “holy people” (see Leviticus 21:5; Deuteronomy 14:1-2; 1 Kings 18:28). The only exception to this was circumcision (Genesis 17:11-13). In modern day Judaism, it has become permissible for women in the West to pierce their ears because it is a common practice among the majority non-Jewish population. Jewish men, however, still may not pierce their ears.

In the Jewish writings on this subject, the rabbis refer to two concepts: (1) We were “made in the image of God.” Even though God is spirit, somehow our bodies reflect God’s glory. (2) Our bodies are a good gift from God – complete as is. As one Jewish rabbi put it, “No matter how well considered, a tattoo is the result of a short-term decision to decorate the body forever. What hubris to imagine that any of us, as individuals, can improve artistically on the original design of the Lord.”

New Testament

So if you were a Jew living in the Old Testament (or today), it would be clear that God forbids tattoos and piercings. However, Christians don’t obey all the Old Testament laws. As a matter of fact, some of them are specifically set aside by Jesus and the apostles. Are tattoos and piercings still forbidden or are they now acceptable for a Christian?

For more on the subject of taking Old Testament commandments and relating them to the present day, I recommend that you read How to Apply the Old Testament to Today. But let’s ask, “Do the Old Testament verses line up with any basic principle found in the New Testament?” The answer is “yes.” There is the New Testament concept that our bodies are not our own. This teaching is found specifically in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20:

  • “The body is meant for the Lord” 1 Corinthians 6:13.
  • “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 6:19.
  • “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” 1 Corinthians 6:19.
  • “Honor God with your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:20.

The key principle here seems to be that our bodies belong to God, not ourselves, and that we are to use them in ways that honor and reflect God’s glory.

Conclusion

Now let’s use deduction to arrive at a conclusion. Based upon these facts (the Old Testament commands against tattoos and piercings AND the New Testament principle that my body is not my own) I would reason that God would rather I leave my body free from self-inflicted marks and cuts. We were made in “the image of God.” Apparently He thinks no further pictorial adornment is needed.

Could I be wrong about this? Sure, it’s a deduction, rather than a specific New Testament command. But I think the key point that is clear in the New Testament is that our bodies aren’t really ours to decorate as we see fit. Therefore, I tell people to ask God whether He wants His body tattooed or pierced. If you get a “yes” answer, then I won’t condemn you. Just make sure it is God speaking to you and not you speaking to yourself in the name of God.

A Final Word

Nothing in what I’ve said is meant to imply any disapproval against those who come to Christ with tattoos, cuttings, or piercings. We come to Jesus just as we are – with all our imperfections in spirit and body. There are many people in our church who have tattoos and scars from their previous life before Christ. Some of these tattoos are even pagan or demonic. Some of the cuttings are from suicide attempts. No one looks down on these brothers or sisters or judges them. We are all flawed sinners. That is why we need Jesus. Some of us bear our markings outwardly. Some of us bear them more inwardly.

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