Would Mary Approve if Jesus got a Tattoo?


Some days this summer it appeared I was the only parent at the pool without a tattoo. As I swam with the kids I’d notice a heart or college mascot on another mom’s ankle; or Our Lady of Guadalupe or a tribal design on a dad’s arm.

Once upon a time, tattoos were limited to the tough guy population: soldiers, bikers, rock stars. But today it’s a fad that’s affected virtually every age group, race, gender, industry and religion. A Pew Research Center survey found that 36 percent of Americans ages 18–25 have a tattoo, 40 percent of those 26-40, and 10 percent of those 41-64.

I know several people who have tattoos—most who happily sport their body art and a few who regret it. Love or loathe them, perspectives continue to differ regarding their appropriateness and morality, which makes me wonder:

Is it a trend that will continue? Will my kids want tattoos? Am I OK with that? What does the Church say on the subject?

In the article “Physical Graffiti: Tattoo You” (Envoy Magazine, issue 7.4), Deacon Robert Lukosh of Portland indicated tattoos are morally permissible as long as they respect a person’s dignity:

“Body art as a form of adornment, that is ordered to the ultimate good of the person and to humanity, if it observes modesty and avoids vanity, and if it respects the fundamental integrity of the human person—including the integrity of the body—can be morally permissible.”

However some argue that Scripture prohibits tattoos in the Old Testament book of Leviticus: “Do not lacerate your body for the dead, and do not tattoo yourselves. I am the LORD” (Lv 19:28).

OK, don’t do it. Bible says.

“Not exactly,” according to Mark Hart of Life Teen International, who’s affectionately known as the Bible Geek. Hart explained that this verse referred to the ancient mourning practices of the Canaanites that were forbidden for the Israelites. The law was meant to communicate that mourning wasn’t necessary if people believed in God’s salvation. It also sought to prevent people from hurting themselves (tattooing could be deadly back then).

“It’s not altogether correct to say a blanket statement like ‘tattoos are against God’ or are ‘anti-Biblical’ because they’re not,” Hart said, adding that the decision of a tattoo goes beyond what the Bible says about it and should be taken seriously.

Hart said some of the holiest people he knows have ink.

“We have to be able to look beyond the exterior…the saints of today are not going to look like the saints of 200 years ago.”

Perhaps it isn’t only a question of good, bad or if—but why? Why do people want them in the first place?

People get tattoos to memorialize a person; honor a relationship with a child, parent or spouse; commemorate an event or accomplishment; reflect their heritage; express their personality, convey their religious beliefs; and sometimes, to evangelize.

Christopher Baglow, Ph.D., a professor of theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, studies postmodern culture and its relationship to Catholicism. His research suggested the tattoo phenomenon is so prevalent because it demonstrates something significant about self-identity in today’s culture:

“I think in tattooing you see specifically a response to the loss of identity that occurs in a world in which everything is gray; a world in which everything can be deconstructed, and (it) doesn’t mean what it seems to, but can be a play for power. We stamp (our bodies) so no one else can have that canvas.”

Baglow said bodily marking is deeply ingrained in the Catholic faith, though in some ways the concept has been lost in the contemporary practice of the faith.

“It’s the reality of love that differentiates the people of the Church and manifests their identity. Let postmodern Catholics get tattoos. Do not discourage their affection for the outward signs of the faith. But also remind them that these signs, without love, are lies.”

In a world filled with colorful tattoos of butterflies and angel wings, Jesus and crosses, Chinese characters, loved ones’ names, and anything else you can imagine; it doesn’t appear there’s a black and white judgment.

While I don’t relish the idea of permanent ink jabbed into my children’s skin, I suppose it’s not the worst thing they could do (subject, of course, to many variables: the image, location and their age and motivation, to name a few)—and it sounds like the Church doesn’t think so either.

SHARE YOUR STORY: Do you have a tattoo? What does it mean? How do you feel about your children having tattoos?

Copyright 2011 Julie Filby


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  1. No, Mary would not have approved, then again, Jesus, being perfect would never have considered it either. Leviticus 19:28 expressly forbids the practice

  2. I was young and dumb when I got my tattoo and now that I am older than dirt I wish I hadn’t. It’s not large and it’s not boldly shown off on my body, but I know its there and I know I had no good reason for getting it in the first place. It was just something to do one day with no thought at all. Live and learn.

  3. I don’t have any tattoos, but my 4 children all do. Most of them were well thought out and meaningful, I am sure there are some they would rethink, but now they live with their choice. Last year my daughter’s best friend died in a terrible accident at 23 years of age. She and most of her friends have gotten tattoos to honor him–he was a wonderful young man who touched many lives in such a positive way. This was, for most of them, their first encounter with the death of one of their peers and I know they were so lost as to how to grieve. My daughter’s tattoo in his honor is a quote she had put on her rib cage and it is a little larger than what I would have liked. Several family members were very disapproving of it, and when the courageous few told me their feelings my response was that if I thought it would help heal her enormous pain I would have tattoo her myself!

  4. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been told that “somewhere in the Bible it says…” when it comes to why someone should not get a tattoo. Invoking an OT passage like LV 19:28 is hardly adequate evidence for the prohibition–especially by Christians—and is a cop out to discerning whether one’s actions are consistent with Jesus’ own teaching (JN 13:34), and St. Paul’s as well (1COR 13), on the primacy of love.
    First, if LV 19:28 is to be invoked, at least be consistent and be willing to follow all of the 613 Levitical laws (or at least the 300+ that do not refer to the Temple). By simply looking at the previous verse, Lev 19:27 “Do not clip your hair at the temples, nor trim the edges of your beard,” or at LEV 19:19 “Keep my statutes: do not breed any of your domestic animals with others of a different species; do not sow a field of yours with two different kinds of seed; and do not put on a garment woven with two different kinds of thread,” one can see that there might be more to this than meets the eye. Kudos to Mark Hart (above) for inviting the fuller consideration of the historical context encouraged by the Church through the use of the historical critical methods of textual analysis.
    Furthermore, Christians are not obliged to remain faithful to the whole of the Law. In fact, many Jews today are not and cannot remain entirely obedient to the fullness of the Law (especially with regard to Temple worship). Excepting some Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox, many Jews today also have a great appreciation for the historical context that gave rise to the laws that governed God’s people 3,000 years ago and take that into consideration when seeking to remain faithful to the Covenant. As early as the Biblical era, Christians decided early on that absolute obedience to the Law would not be required of new Christians. Acts 15 shows quite clearly that Christians would not be obliged to follow the Law. The notes below are from the N.A.B. notes on Acts 15:1-35.
    [1-35] The Jerusalem “Council” marks the official rejection of the rigid view that Gentile converts were obliged to observe the Mosaic law completely. From here to the end of Acts, Paul and the Gentile mission become the focus of Luke’s writing.
    [1-5] When some of the converted Pharisees of Jerusalem discover the results of the first missionary journey of Paul, they urge that the Gentiles be taught to follow the Mosaic law. Recognizing the authority of the Jerusalem church, Paul and Barnabas go there to settle the question of whether Gentiles can embrace a form of Christianity that does not include this obligation.
    The gathering of early Christians came to this conclusion, “It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28-29) There is simply no O.T. biblical basis for not getting tattoos, and the Gospels are replete with Jesus’ own condemnation of legalism as well.
    Jesus’ commandment to His disciples is to love (John 13:34). The are an infinite number of ways to manifest this love for self, others, and God–tattoos included. The disciple of Christ must concern himself not with the violation of an external law, but instead with whether or not the thing done is a violation of God’s law of love. As St. Augustine said, “Love, and do whatever you want.” With Jesus’ commandment love becomes the criteria for all human action.
    And what of St. Paul’s comment in 1COR 3:15 and 1COR 6:19 that we are a temple of the Holy Spirit? Don’t tattoos desecrate God’s temple? Not necessarily. First of all, Paul is not talking about tattoos in either case. In context, he is referring to destroying one’s body or that of another which has become one with God in Christ, in the first instance, and about sexual immorality in the latter.
    Those that have a culturally predisposed negative view of tattoos see them as a desecration of the temple, but the verse itself is insufficient to suggest that tattoos are bad in the first place. From a different starting point, if tattoos are seen as a valuable, beautiful and good expression of the gift of art, then far from desecrating the temple, one with tattoos are actually adorning it!
    Tattoos for the sake of art are not expressly forbidden by Scripture. Even if LV 19:28 could be shown to do so, Christians are not obliged out right to obedience to it. Jesus condemned legalism and challenged His disciples to get to the “heart of the matter” and ultimately act with love. Our bodies are Temples of the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t have anything to do with tattoos, and refers instead to our full dignity, Holiness, and goodness in light of the Spirit indwelling.
    Christians should encourage safe, responsible, age appropriate, and culturally appropriate actions that give glory to God and respect the dignity of the whole human family in all one’s words and deeds–tattoos included. And if you can do this, “you will be doing what is right. Farewell.”

  5. Some people are very attached to their tattoos. Just because something is not outright prohibited doesn’t mean that it should be done.

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