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And Now, A Completely Different Argument for Tattoos

How I discovered the ancient Coptic tradition...

In Christian circles that debate this sort of thing, the subject of tattoos revolves around two things. Or rather, two primary arguments are made against tattoos, and there are like three that are given for them. Yesterday, I accidentally stumbled across a completely new perspective on Christians getting tattoos, stemming from an ancient pilgrim practice and a 700-year-old tattoo shop.

If you have ears and/or eyes, you are familiar with how the conversation normally goes (But if you don’t, here’s a more rigid examination of the arguments). Some fundamentalist-type brings up a verse from Leviticus which forbids the marking of skin, to which the young Bible scholar points out that this verse is archaic and refers only to Israelites who had escaped from Egypt circa the 1300’s BC. And so on.

It boils down to the fact that the older person simply doesn’t like them, and the younger person just thinks they’re cool, and neither one has a solid biblical imperative for their side; they just have their own preferences. Which is fine.

And for most of my life, until yesterday, that’s what I thought too. I thought that the best a Christian could do is eek by, building a series of excuses for why, no, I think it’s actually ok for me to have a tattoo and still love Jesus. Please.

In other words, I always thought it was permissible but never encouraged.

The closest I could come up with was the defense that they start conversations and get people asking about my faith. This is true too (for me anyway…I don’t know how many introverts who use that defense have actually chatted with strangers as a result of their ink. Am I biased against introverts? idk), but it’s still a rather anemic argument.

But yesterday I learned about an ancient Coptic tradition in which Christians–and especially Christians–would get tattoos to mark themselves as Christians. The most common of these Coptic symbols which you may have seen before is the Coptic Cross:

This and other symbols like it marked the individual as a follower of the Way of Jesus. Honestly, some of these are awesome and I’m considering sticking one on myself.

In other words, once you were marked publicly as a Christian, there was no more turning back. You don’t get tattooed and then just change your mind when you decide to pursue other comforts. At least in the Middle Ages you don’t–it’s either a knife to your skin or you embrace the decision you made: first to follow Christ, and then to take that decision public with your skin.

We in Christian ministry always use the explanation of baptism as a public declaration of our invisible decision to follow Christ. How much more public and permanent is a tattoo?

Now to take it a step further, place yourself in the Middle or Near East, where being a Christian is not merely a word you put in your Instagram bio, but could get you into some real trouble. Imagine living in a place where you regularly brush shoulders with Muslims and Sikhs and being outed as a Christian in the wrong part of town could have serious consequences.

The Coptic tattoo tradition wasn’t just to get some cool ink with some quasi-spiritual meaning beneath the ink, but a declaration of Who you follow, Who you worship. Like salvation should be, getting a Coptic tattoo is an irreversible statement that you’ve decided to follow Jesus and there’s no turning back.

The Greek word they used was ‘stygma’ which meant ‘marked.’ Christians were actually eager to mark themselves for Christ once they entered into the church.

Seen through this lens, getting a tattoo in the Coptic world seems more like something Christians should do, rather than something to be critiqued! I can almost picture a Coptic Christian grandmother chastising her grandchildren for not getting their tattoos soon enough.

“Where are your markings, child?? You’ve been baptized for two years now! Why haven’t you shown it yet?? What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation? Come on, Bubbeh will take you to the shop.”

Maybe we Westerners got so wrapped up in our own myopic arguments over these things that we lost sight of many of the larger realities: That any sort of public branding ourselves for Christ will not go to waste. Like Paul says with some strong language, we have become slaves to Christ, and a tattoo, especially in this tradition, is a beautiful way to show it.

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Read more about the 700-year-old shop here

More history of religious tattoos

3 comments on “And Now, A Completely Different Argument for Tattoos

  1. I love this! I confess that in days past, when I was younger (go figure) I leaned toward the Leviticus argument. Over the years, hearing about others who have marked themselves for Jesus, and after learning more about biblical context, I’ve warmed to the idea. I think of getting one myself because I don’t want anyone to question my love for Jesus. However, hopefully my life is enough to show it! I still can’t get onboard with a body covered in ink, but I guess that’s a personal preference. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Good article dude!

    From Abraham to Jesus the physical sign you were a Jew was that your foreskin had been cut off. The gentiles did no such thing. In the Greek athletic games (usually held in the nude) it was obvious who was a Jew. Paul circumcised Timothy so everyone knew he was half Jewish. It was a mark of separation,

    “Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.” (Genesis 12)

    Five hundred years later.
    “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)

    This type of circumcision, by definition a circumcision of the spirit and not the flesh, goes to the heart of a man, to his soul, his essence, his attitudes and relationship with God.

    For centuries virtually the only circumcised males in the world were descendants of Abraham. Male followers of Jesus today need not be physically altered today since all us experience at conversion a new inner circumcision of the heart.

    In Christ you were also circumcised, in the putting off of your sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.” (Colossians 2:11)

    The idea of “circumcision of the heart” is found in Romans 2:29. It refers to having a pure heart, separated to God. Paul: “A Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”

    “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

    Paul argues that Jewish circumcision is only an outward sign of being set apart to God. However, if the heart is sinful, then physical circumcision is of no avail. A circumcised body and a sinful heart are at odds with each other, he says that only the Holy Spirit can purify a heart and set us apart to God. Ultimately, circumcision cannot make a person right with God; the Law is not enough. A person’s heart must change. Paul calls this change “circumcision of the heart.”

    These days most men are cut and some have tattoos. Neither sign says anything about a person’s heart.

    I remember remember returning missionaries in the ‘60’s often showed us slides of very pagan Indians tattooed from head to toe.

    In the Jesus movement era all sorts of heavily tattooed men, for instance former Hell’s Angels, gave their lives to Jesus and were innerly made new. In World War II lots of enlisted men were tattooed but later when they married image of Rosie the Riveter on one’s chest was embarrassing on one’s wedding night.

    “Man looks upon the outward appearance but God looks upon the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

  3. I didn’t know this was an ancient Coptic tradition, but I’m glad I do now!

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