Leviticus 19:28 and Tattoos as an Illustration of the Law’s Application Under the New Covenant

The following is an excerpt from a paper written by Pastor Jason on tattoos and the New Covenant.

The tattoo industry in the United States brings in an estimated one billion dollars in annual revenue.[1] A recent Fox News poll reveals that 20 percent of those questioned have at least one tattoo. What is interesting about this poll is that the number does not change among white, evangelical Christians, 18 percent of whom have at least one tattoo.[2] Permanently marking the body with ink is no longer a practice reserved for the rebels of society. The practice has made its way into the pews on Sunday morning. How should the church respond to this in light of the prohibition against tattoos found in Leviticus 19:28?

Concerning the application of this law, is there a direct one to one correlation from the Mosaic Covenant to the New Covenant? Is there no direct correlation but maybe a principle that can be derived from the law and applied within the New Covenant, or has the law been completely abrogated with no application whatsoever in the New Covenant?

The historical three-part division of the Mosaic Law between moral, civil, and ceremonial may be of some use here. If it can be determined into which category the prohibition against tattoos falls and if it can be determined whether that category of law is still binding within the New Covenant, then it would be easy to determine how the law applies in a New Covenant context. However, as Poythress points out, this is not a failsafe method as it poses two serious problems. First, how can one know with a sufficient degree of certainty in which category this law belongs? Second, simply assigning the law a category that is either binding or non-binding may miss the entire point of the law.[3]

As for the first concern, how can one determine this law’s category? The law is probably not civil as it carries no sanctions and does not deal with any wrong done by one man against another. While some may be eager to cast it into the ceremonial category, distinguishing this law as ceremonial from moral cannot be done based exclusively on the biblical text. This law is surrounded by other laws in Leviticus 19 that certainly include both categories. Stealing and swearing falsely by the name of God are forbidden in verses 11–12. Sexual sins are referenced in verses 20 and 29. Clearly ceremonial laws related to peace offerings and guilt offerings are found in verses 5 and 22. The entire chapter is a collection of both moral and ceremonial laws with no apparent literary distinction between the two categories.

In addition, the prohibition against tattoos does not appear anywhere else in the Old Testament. The command to not cut the body or shave the head for the dead is repeated in Deuteronomy 14:1, but tattooing is not mentioned. The law is not repeated or quoted in the New Testament either. Since it is not specifically abrogated in the New Testament, some would argue that the law must be moral and still apply in the same manner as when it was given. Others would argue that the law must not apply today because it is not specifically continued in the New Testament. While one side may have a higher degree of certainty than the other, definitively assigning this law to one category or the other is a lofty goal that is ultimately unachievable.

Even if one could determine the category in which this law belongs, that may lead the interpreter to miss God’s primary purpose for giving the law. If not tattooing is a moral law, then the interpreter simply concludes that the law must still apply, but he does not learn why it is immoral to mark the body with ink. Similarly, if not tattooing is merely ceremonial, then the interpreter concludes that the law no longer applies and that Christians are free to tattoo themselves, but he never learns why Israel was forbidden from tattooing. While the traditional three-part division of the law may be helpful in some cases, it does not answer every question and falls short of uncovering the primary meaning of the law.

Poythress offers an alternative approach that solves both problems. He rebukes the dichotomy between continuity and discontinuity concerning the relationship of the covenants and instead argues that the interpreter must recognize that there are both continuity and discontinuity with every law.[4] If Jesus is right and the Old Testament testifies about him, then there is most certainly continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament. On the other hand, if Israel received and applied the laws in a unique historical and cultural context, as is even true of the Ten Commandments,[5] then there is some level of discontinuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The job of the interpreter is to determine the degrees of continuity and discontinuity with each law.

Poythress’ alternative approach assumes that there is a general principle in each law that is continuous between the Old and New Testaments. In order find the line between continuity and discontinuity in a particular law, he says the interpreter must “start at the most general level”[6] and then work his way down to the particular context in which that general principle is applied in the text. As the interpreter descends from the general principle to the specific context in which that principle is applied, he will uncover the line between continuity and discontinuity and then be able to determine the way in which the law is to be applied in a New Covenant context.

So, what is the general principle of the law against tattooing? Israel would understand the principle of this law to be that they are not to participate in pagan religious practices. This general principle is applicable at Mt. Sinai and today. So, there is continuity. Just like Israel, the New Testament believer is to worship God alone. As one descends from this general principle to the precise application of the principle in Israel, tattooing is forbidden because it was part of the religious practice of the surrounding pagan nations. This is where the discontinuity is seen. Tattooing does not have the same meaning in a modern, New Covenant context as it does at Mt. Sinai.

With this information, the interpreter can see how tattooing in the Israelite context amounts to engaging in pagan religious practices, a violation of the general principle. At the same time, it can be seen how tattooing in the modern context does not necessarily amount to engaging in pagan religious practices and therefore does not inescapably violate the general principle. So, while tattooing is forbidden in Israel, it is not necessarily forbidden in the modern, New Covenant context.

However, the work of the interpreter is not yet done as the general principle must still be applied within the New Covenant. While it is not necessarily the case, the modern practice of tattooing could be associated with pagan religious practices. Tattoos that give praise or homage to the god of a modern false religion would certainly be banned under the general principle. In addition, tattoos that give homage to or identify the bearer with any idol, whether overtly religious in the modern sense or not, could also be banned under the general principle. This could include tattoos that identify the bearer with a gang, family, tribe, nation or other community or institution other than the church. Just because tattooing is not universally banned under the New Covenant does not mean that the Christian is free to bear any tattoo.

The general principle of Leviticus 19:28 is the same today as it was at Mt. Sinai. God’s people must worship him alone and not engage in pagan religious practices. The application of this principle in Israel prevented them from marking their bodies with tattoos. The same is not necessarily true today. While it is possible to bear a tattoo without engaging in pagan religious practice, the New Testament believer must remember that he is to identify with Christ and metaphorically wear his baptism and Christ-like behavior the way a pagan would wear a tattoo giving homage to his idol. If a Christian can bear a tattoo without hindering his identification with Christ in those two ways, then he may be free to bear that tattoo.

The Christian will do well, though, to keep in mind that Christ has purchased him. Christ has purchased all of him, body and soul, and everything the Christian does with his body and soul ought to be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Therefore, the Christian is not free to do whatever he pleases with his body. He must constantly ask how his behavior glorifies God, and asking this question prior to tattooing himself would be good and wise. If a Christian who identifies with Christ through his baptism and moral behavior wants a tattoo, can bear it without engaging in pagan religious practice, and the bearing of that tattoo legitimately gives glory to God, then he is by all means free to mark his body with that tattoo. If, however, these standards are not met, then the ban in Leviticus 19:28 still applies.

 

[1] “Tattoo Artists in the US: Market Research Report,” IBISWorld.com, last modified September, 2016, https://www.ibisworld.com/industry-trends/specialized-market-research-reports/consumer-goods-services/personal/tattoo-artists.html.

[2] Dana Blanton, “Fox News Poll: Tattoos aren’t just for rebels anymore” last modified March 14, 2014. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/03/14/fox-news-poll-tattoos-arent-just-for-rebels-anymore.html.

[3] Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1991).

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Ten Commandments begin with a reference to Israel being brought out of slavery in Egypt. The fifth commandment contains a promise of long life in the land. The tenth commandment refers to coveting a neighbor’s ox or donkey, items of property that were significant to Israel but not to modern Americans.

[6] Poythress, 338.

 

2 thoughts on “Leviticus 19:28 and Tattoos as an Illustration of the Law’s Application Under the New Covenant

  1. Jason

    This has been my understanding of how this applies today as well. I still believe many with tattoos get them for reasons other than glorifying God (desire to fit in, idolizing dead loved ones, etc…) but it’s not a blanket prohibition.

    However, I feel the threefold distinction of the law should be reconsidered. While it’s certainly true that what is typically called the “moral law” should still not be transgressed today, Jesus provides us with a more perfect direction than what the law provided in these matters.

    In Matthew 5, we find Jesus telling us that even the moral law was only a shadow of the substance. It’s true that we should not commit adultery, but even those who don’t are still sinning if they lust. If we harbor anger toward a brother it’s no different from murder.

    Just as the ceremonial rules of the Old Covenant find their perfection in Jesus the High Priest and the New Covenant, we have access to the perfections of ALL of the law in Christ. He told us as much (Matthew 5:17).

    I still feel like there’s a lot of work to be done to understand what God communicated through the parts of the law we have largely ignored (both civil and ceremonial), recognizing that they were all foreshadowing the Kingdom of God under Jesus.

    Reply
    1. Pastor Jason Post author

      Jason,

      I completely agree with you on the threefold distinction of the Law. It can be a really useful tool at times; but at other times, it falls short of the full meaning of a particular law. Since every law, ceremonial or moral, points to Christ, it should be our ultimate goal to see how each law actually points us to Christ. As you rightly point out, this means there is a lot of interpretive work to do in understanding the Law. Just assigning each law a category is not enough.

      Reply

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