By: Addie Mena

Our recent piece on ancient pilgrimage tattoos in Jerusalem generated a lot of comment, from both the pro- and anti-tattoo camps.

In the office discussion that ensued, we became interested in what the Church historically has had to say about the practice of tattooing.

There’s no biblical or official proscription banning Catholics from getting tattoos (contrary to some false reports of a ban by Pope Adrian I, which cannot be substantiated) that would apply to Catholics today, but many early theologians and bishops commented on the practice in either word or deed.

One of the most common citations against the use of tattoos among Christians is a verse in Leviticus forbidding Jews to “cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.” (Lev. 19:28). However, the Catholic Church has always distinguished between Moral Law and Mosaic Law in the Old Testament. Moral Law – for example, the Ten Commandments – remains binding on Christians today, while Mosaic Law, which deals largely with Jewish rituals, was dissolved by the new covenant at Christ’s crucifixion.

The prohibition on tattoos is included among the Mosaic Law, and therefore the Church does not see it as binding on Catholics today. (Also an important historical note: according to some sources, this prohibition was sometimes ignored even among Jewish believers around the time of Christ, with some mourners tattooing their loved ones’ names on their arms after death.)

Also of interest was the larger cultural practice within Roman and Greek cultures of marking slaves and prisoners with a “stigma” or tattoo to show whom a slave belonged to, or the crimes a prisoner had committed. St. Paul even references this reality in his letter to the Galatians: “From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.” While biblical scholars argue that St. Paul’s point here is metaphorical, the point still stands that marking oneself with a “stigmata” – generally understood as a tattoo – was a common practice to make the analogy.

Moreover, there is some evidence that in certain areas before the rule of Constantine, Christians began to anticipate the “crime” of being a Christian by marking themselves as a Christian with tattoos themselves.

Early historians, including the 6th century scholar and rhetorician Procopius of Gaza and 7th century Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta, recorded stories of local Christians willingly tattooing themselves with Crosses in the Holy Land and Anatolia.

There is also evidence among other, smaller communities in Western churches of early Christians marking themselves with tattoos or scars of the wounds of Christ.

By the 8th century, tattoo culture was a topic that was raised in many dioceses across the Christian world, from the tattooing of early pilgrims to the Holy Land to the question of using formerly pagan tattoo customs among new Christian populations. In the 787 Council of Northumberland – a meeting of lay and ecclesial leaders and citizens in England – Christian commentators distinguished between religious and profane tattoos. In the council documents, they wrote:

“When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit there from.” 

At the time, pre-Christian pagan tattoo traditions still existed among some Britons. The acceptance of tattoos lingered in English Catholic culture for several centuries after Northumbria, with legend saying that English King Harold II was identified after his death by his tattoos.

Later, some priests – most notably priests of the Franciscans of the Holy Land – began to take up the tattoo needle themselves as the tradition of pilgrimage, and souvenir tattoos began to take off among European visitors to the Holy Land. Still other priests of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages sported tattoos themselves.

Still, not all bishops and theologians in the Early Church were pro-tattoo. St Basil the Great famously preached in the 4th century:

“No man shall let his hair grow long or tattoo himself as do the heathen, those apostles of Satan who make themselves despicable by indulging in lewd and lascivious thoughts. Do not associate with those who mark themselves with thorns and needles so that their blood flows to the earth.”

Some kinds of tattoos were even outlawed outright by Christian rulers. In 316, newly Christian ruler Emperor Constantine banned the use of penal tattoos on a person’s face, commenting that “since the penalty of his condemnation can be expressed both on his hands and on his calves, and so that his face, which has been fashioned in the likeness of the divine beauty, may not be disgraced.”

With nearly 2,000 years of Christian discussion on the topic, there is no official Church teaching on tattoos. But with such a rich history to draw from, Christians have the opportunity to listen to the wisdom of theologians throughout the millennia as they think before they ink.