I read an interesting article on the Christian history of tattooing. You read me right; there is a long standing practice in some branches of Christianity of tattooing. Now, I know this is a polarizing topic for some people. I am tattoo free, mainly because of the pain and the wasting of money, two things I don’t enjoy. But, enjoy this article and let me know your thoughts. For the full article click here and the Christian History Site is very fun, educational and entertaining as well.
Tattoos of the Cross by Jennifer A. Johnson
Tattoos have become commonplace in modern American culture. According to a 2006 Pew Research Poll, more than one third of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 have at least one tattoo. Body art has become yet another way for people to express their beliefs and values. Young Christians have joined the trend, emblazoning Bible verses, crosses, or fish symbols on their biceps or ankles. But they are certainly not the first to do so in the history of the church. Some early Christians, including many in Egypt, took the ancient practice of tattooing and infused it with Christian meaning.
Christianity found fertile ground in Egypt in the first few centuries after Christ, and the Coptic church grew and assumed a position of leadership in the late Roman Empire. By the time Arab Muslims invaded Egypt between 639 and 641, therefore, the vast majority of Egyptians were practicing Christians. Arab conquerors adopted the Coptic word kubti, meaning “Egyptians,” which eventually evolved into the name “Copt.” So strong was the link between Egyptians and Christianity that the Arabs used the word “Copt” to refer both to their subjects’ ancestry and to their religion. To this day, a Copt is a Christian of Egyptian descent living in Egypt or abroad.
During long periods of maltreatment, the Coptic practice of tattooing arose.
Ancient (pre-Christian) Egyptian tattooing can be definitively traced back to 2000 B.C. In the Roman Empire, tattooing was a degrading practice used to brand slaves and criminals, and was also sometimes used in pagan religious rites whereby someone became the “slave” of a god. In the fourth century A.D., the Montanists, a Christian sect relying heavily on the Book of Revelation, began tattooing themselves as “slaves of God” (Rev. 7:2-3). The earliest evidence of Coptic tattooing goes back to the eighth-century, when Egyptian monks began to brand their hands with Christian symbols. Some scholars believe they learned the practice from Ethiopian Christians, who branded crosses on their foreheads, temples, and wrists.
Coptic scholar Otto Meinardus agrees: “In times of persecution, the tattoo of the cross has given strength to the faithful and has made it impossible for them to deny their faith.”
Let’s look at a verse that must be considered as it is often used as a blanket to not allow any and all tattooing.
Leviticus 19:26-28 “Never eat meat that has not been drained of its blood. “Do not practice fortune-telling or witchcraft. (27) “Do not trim off the hair on your temples or clip the edges of your beards. (28) “Never cut your bodies in mourning for the dead or mark your skin with tattoos, for I am the LORD.
Here we see some commandments here that condemn the practices and superstitions of the heathen. They were not to eat flesh with the blood in it. They were not to trim their sideburns. They were not to act like the heathen when a loved one dies.
But, does this verse really condemn all tattoos? Maybe and maybe not? Leviticus 19:26-31 deals with pagan practices and God’s prohibitions against adopting those practices. In verse 28, God is warning the Jewish people about a pagan practice at funerals, where pagans would mutilate/mark themselves to appease their pagan deities. The pagans hoped that by cutting themselves and marking images/symbols of idols on their bodies, that they would obtain favor in the afterlife from their false gods, both for themselves and for those who just died. So it is a command not to imitate the lifestyle of people who don’t serve the one true God. If you press this overly literally and ignore context then men we are sinning when we shave our sideburns.
The message of these verses for us today is that what our culture thinks and how they perceive things in our life is extremely important. If some clothing or jewelry or body decoration would associate us with the pagan world, it should not be done. We don’t want to lead worldly lives. A few verses later we read in Lev 20:7 “So set yourselves apart to be holy, for I, the LORD, am your God.” Being holy, means being different and set apart, unique and unstained from the rest of the world in how we live our lives.
Furthermore consider, 1 John 2:15-17 says “Stop loving this evil world and all that it offers you, for when you love the world, you show that you do not have the love of the Father in you. (16) For the world offers only the lust for physical pleasure, the lust for everything we see, and pride in our possessions. These are not from the Father. They are from this evil world. (17) And this world is fading away, along with everything it craves. But if you do the will of God, you will live forever.”
So the real issue in getting a tattoo simply is the question is “Am I simply imitating the rest of the world?” If you are a persecuted Christian in a part of the world where the boldness to get a tattoo of a cross meant your faith might cost you your life, then maybe it is a bold and good idea. But, if you are simply rebellious teen wanting to make your parents mad and get a Jesus Fish on your shoulder blade or a cross on your bicep to look cool, bad idea and you are conforming to the world and disobeying your parents. That is sin.
So, while I am not going out to get a “tat” today, I do think that we need to be public and open about our faith. A tattoo of Jesus is not substitute for a holy life that we live for all to see.
Matthew 5:16 says “In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”
So, live your life for Christ! Let all people see your holy life and be drawn to God by actions which speak far louder than a tattoo.
I probably just angered both those for and against tattooing, Pastor Phillip