Tattoos, Homosexuality, and the Bible: An Apologetic Response to an Internet Meme

tattoos

It would seem that Leviticus 19:28 has become a favorite passage of Christianity’s critics. It especially crops up these days in Facebook rants and other forms of social media where unsupported arguments tend to easily succeed. Often, the claim goes something like this: Christians say that the Bible forbids homosexuality. In fact, they say this often, and at times are so passionate in their opposition to homosexuality that some even get tattoos of a particular verse denouncing it (e.g. Lev. 18:22). Yet, these Christians are evidently unaware that this very same book (Leviticus) also prohibits tattoos (19:28). This therefore proves (according to the critic), that (a) some Christian beliefs are outdated and simply cannot be applied literally in a modern world, and (b) most Christians themselves only cherry-pick which passages to believe and which to ignore. Otherwise Christians would be as opposed to tattoos as they are to homosexuality.

There are many, many problems with this claim. In fact, there are so many problems, its difficult to know where to begin. For example, first, there are the contextual and historical problems. I would venture to guess that probably 100% of the people who make this claim could not provide a brief but accurate purpose statement regarding the book of Leviticus. Nor could they likely describe in even the most general terms the historic period in view. Yet, apart from knowing these things, one can’t begin to dissect the material in Leviticus with even a remote hope of arriving at a proper interpretation. The point here is that the Bible, and this book in particular is not a list of do’s and don’ts that are disconnected from one another and are strung together in random order. There are themes and structures to these books, and these themes and structures prove vital to understanding, as do the cultural and historical contexts.

To illustrate this, we might take as an example the Shakespearean line, “beware the Ides of March.” What does this mean? What is an Ide? To answer this we need to first understand the Roman context in which the play Julius Caesar is set. We would have to know the meaning of “Ide” and how the concept functioned in the Roman calendar. We would also want to know who says this line in the play (the soothsayer), and how Caesar responds (he ignores it). Notice though that none of this information can be discerned solely from the line itself. Some further investigation is necessary. In the course of that investigation, one would also want to ask how Shakespeare’s audience understood this? What was its significance in their historical context? And, how does this single line contribute to the overarching story that Shakespeare has crafted? How does it move the story toward its climax? In other words, if we are to understand a line of text from any literary work, there is a whole host of other information that must be understood first. One cannot simply rip the line from its context and expect to understand it with any accuracy or depth. Every passage of Scripture, just like every line of prose, is part of larger story. Understanding that larger story is crucial to fully understanding the various parts.

The thing that is overlooked in these passages boils down to a very simple question. That question is, “why?” Why are tattoos and homosexuality prohibited in Leviticus? Is it for the same reason, and can these prohibitions be easily equated with one another? Answering this will tell us if the argument above holds water, and whether or not the prohibition against tattoos is as straightforward as critics would like to believe.

In addition to the question of “why”, another extremely important aspect of Scripture must be considered, namely, how do the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) relate to each other on this issue? For example, does the underlying issue represent an OT practice that was fulfilled in Christ? This is the case with the temple sacrifices. Christians no longer are required to offer animal sacrifices, even though the practice is commanded in the OT, not because the OT is irrelevant or outdated, but because Christ fulfilled this in becoming the ultimate sacrifice. The NT states this unambiguously (Heb. 7:27).

 The Prohibition Against Participation in Pagan Religion

Some might reasonably argue that it’s asking a lot to expect the casual reader of the Bible to seek out and explore additional resources such as commentaries and theological dictionaries to gain a clearer understanding of these ancient texts. Yet, if the critic would take the time to actually read the text in question, they would immediately realize that their interpretation is problematic. They would see, for example, that the prohibition against tattoos is based on and is an extrapolation from the first commandment: worship YHWH, and Him alone (Exod. 20:3).

Even by simply reading the verse in question, Lev. 19:28, this can easily be understood. Of course, these critics are usually not really interested in what the Bible actually says, but only in holding on to their erroneous indictment. But let’s look careful at vs. 28:

Lev. 19:28 “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.”

I’ve put in bold two phrases that alert the reader to the fact that the issue at hand is holiness, or rather, pure devotion to YHWH, the God of Israel, and a simultaneous rejection of foreign religious practices. “For the dead” regarding the prohibition against cutting obviously refers to pagan religions.[1] The final phrase, “I am the Lord,” serves to remind the Israelites Whom it is they are to serve and worship.

Furthermore, there is extra-biblical evidence to support the notion that tattoos in antiquity often carried religious connotations: “Such markings may have been designed to protect a person from the spirits of the dead or to demonstrate membership in a group. Some evidence for this has been found in the examination of human remains in Scythian tombs dating to the sixth century B.C.” [2] There is also archeological evidence that the ancient Egyptians, among others, practiced tattooing, and that it had religious significance.[3] So, the prohibition against tattoos must be seen as a prohibition against marking one’s flesh in ways that have religious significance or connotations, especially when considering that holiness, or separation and devotion to God, constitutes one of the dominant themes of Leviticus. This is especially true of the portion in which our verse is found. This section in fact, chapters 17–25, is usually referred to as the Holiness Code, based on the command, “You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy” (19:2; 20:7). When this is considered, it becomes even clearer that it is the connection to pagan religion that is the issue. Participation in ritualistic tattoos and scarring violate God’s command to be separate from, or to be set apart for service to God, which is the literal meaning of holiness. As Harris says, “There was nothing morally wrong with cutting the hair or the beard or with tattooing. But these practices then, and also now in some places, were parts of heathen ritual.” [4]

As such, this is a clear violation of what Jesus called the most important commandment, namely to love God with one’s whole life and self (see Matt. 22:36-37). So, the claim that the book of Leviticus forbids tattoos, especially the innocuous modern sort, is simply false. To say so would be like saying that William Shakespeare thought everyone should be extra careful and on guard against intrigue on March 15th. It would be a gross misrepresentation of the text in question, and demonstrate a complete ignorance of the main story line.

Does this not imply then that the prohibition against homosexuality should only apply only to homosexual acts that are attached to pagan (i.e., non-Christian) worship? The answer is no, because though holiness is in view in both cases, the underlying issues differ. With tattoos the issue at stake is participation in false religious practices, as I’ve pointed out. Here the issue is a violation of the order of creation and complementarity of maleness and femaleness. This is the meaning behind the phrase “as one lies with a female.” The author is pointing out that a male and a female compliment one another sexually in ways that two males or two females do not. Contra the tendency of our culture, the Bible does in fact distinguish gender, like it or not. Again, the key lies in the wording of each verse in question. Plus, that homosexuality is contrary to God’s design and ordering of creation is explicitly reiterated twice in the NT (Rom. 1:27; 1 Cor. 6:9).

The Greater Fulfillment

The NT though has more to say about both of these issues. At the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes a very profound statement about marks on his body. In 6:17 he says, “From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus” (NASB95). The word translated “brand-mark” here could also mean, tattoo or scarring, and it has tremendous relevance to the Levitical passage we’ve been considering.

Commentators are widely agreed that Paul is here referring to the various physical sufferings he endured in his service to Christ, such as his being stoned in Lystra (Acts 14:19).[5] Elsewhere Paul makes a similar statement, when he says true believers are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10 NASB95). In Paul’s day, many participants in the mystery religions used tattoos or branding as signs of devotion to their god. But Paul says in both the Galatians passage and in the 2 Corinthians passage that for the Christian there is a better mark of devotion, namely the marks that come from a life of surrender and sacrifice that are in continuity with the sacrifice and suffering of Christ.

Therefore, the most important question for the Christian related to NT reference to tattoos then, is not “does the Bible forbid tattoos?” but rather, does my life bear the true marks of a Christian, marks bought in the trenches of sacrificial service to Christ? The question ultimately is, does our life bear true signs that YHWH is our King, and that we are but sojourners in a hostile, foreign land (1 Peter 2:11)?

If Christians would focus more fully on understanding and applying this, it may be that our authority to speak to the issue of homosexuality would greatly increase as well. After all, how can we ask those that struggle with homosexuality to make the difficult sacrifice of celibacy (a sacrifice Paul also made), if our own lives lack the evidence of sacrifice?

There is a stark contrast here between the type of self-inflicted suffering made in the name of religious pretention, and the genuine scars that will inevitable come to those who have fully entered a life of humble service. Perhaps our arguments against homosexuality too often go unheeded because our “markings”—the things meant to declare “we belong to Christ!”, tend to be superficial and decorative, like tattoos of Bible verses and fish emblems on our cars. Paul would likely have been bewildered by these! Instead, if our bodies were “branded” the way Paul’s was, by enduring whatever hardships it took to advance the Gospel, by physically suffering in order to help others find the Truth, then we might find people somewhat more interested in what we have to say, simply because it would be evident that our own comfort and agenda was not our primary concern.

[1] See also 1 Kings 18:28, “So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them.”

[2]John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 134.

[3] See John A. Rush, Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants (Berkely: Frog, 2005).

[4]R. Laird Harris, Leviticus, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas, vol. 2 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), n.p.

[5] Cf. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982), 275–276.

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