Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tattoo v. Tallit

Someone recently asked me an interesting question. "In Revelation 19:16 it talks of his name being written on his robe and thigh... Is this Jesus?... And does this mean Jesus has a tattoo?"

Great questions! Aside from the fact that no one knows for sure what is going on in Revelation (since it is a very complex series of visions and contains a lot of symbolism), a knowledge of Jewish customs is very helpful in understanding what the writer (a Jewish man, self-identified as John of Patmos and traditionally believed to be the Apostle John) was trying to convey in this passage. And what he was not trying to convey.

Bible Study Principle #1: Common sense is a big help in studying the Bible.  Just as a realtor will tell you that there are three key factors in selling any property -- location, location, and location -- so the serious student of scripture needs to remember the three key factors in interpreting any verse: Context, context, and context! If something doesn't make sense, you may be taking it out of context.

The first and BIGGEST context issue is: Who wrote this?

Consider for a moment the following sentence:
I eat bacon at least three times a week.
If a Moslem writes this, it is a confession of grievous sin. If written by the owner of Hormel, however, it is merely an endorsement of his product. If a cardiac patient writes it, it is an admission of foolishness, and if written by a vegetarian, it is hypocrisy. But when written by a two-year-old child, it becomes a sign of budding literary genius.

Context, context, context.

Revelation was written by a first-century Jewish man.* So let's investigate what a first-century Jewish man means when he writes,

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
king of kings and lord of lords. (
Revelation 19:11-16, NIV)

In answer to the first question asked ("Is this rider Jesus?"), YES. Even if the rest of the book didn't make it clear, the key is in verse 13: "his name is the Word of God." John used this term for Jesus in his gospel (John 1:1).

The answer to the second question ("Does this mean Jesus has a tattoo?") has to be NO, if we keep in mind that a first-century Jewish man wrote Revelation. Presumably (here we go with common sense again) God is going to give people visions that make sense to them in the context of their own cultures. For example, it's highly unlikely that God would give me a vision in Mandarin Chinese because I don't speak that language and the vision would be meaningless to me. So when John writes about a rider whose name is written on his robe and on his thigh, he is describing something that he recognizes, something that makes sense to him.

When someone from my culture thinks of writing on clothing, the image is probably of embroidery or silkscreen art, am I correct? You may be picturing a uniform with a name tag, which (according to the leadership seminars I've taken) should always be displayed on the right side of one's chest and most definitely NOT on one's thigh. Face it, when someone is meeting you for the first time and trying to read your name tag, you do not want him staring at your thigh. Likewise, when someone from my culture thinks of writing on the thigh (or any other body part), the image is probably of a tattoo.

But what would a first-century Jew be imagining?

To answer this question, you need to go back to the beginning of the Bible, to the Torah, where God lays out some pretty specific instructions for how his people are to act and dress. Key to understanding the Revelation passage is Numbers 15:37-39.
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.
For centuries after this commandment was given, including the time period when Revelation was written, men commonly wore four-cornered garments similar to a blanket or poncho, and Jewish men added a tassel (tzitzit) to each corner in obedience to this command. (Observant Jews still observe this custom.) The tassels were tied in a distinctive pattern that symbolized God's character -- and thus, in Hebrew thought, his name -- and served as a constant reminder of God's presence. The blue thread, in particular, signified the "oneness" (ehad) of God.

To see how this relates to the Revelation passage, do this quick at-home experiment: Take one of those throw blankets that people usually keep near the living room sofa for chilly nights in front of the TV. (A Snuggie™ works, too, but only if you don't put your arms through the sleeves.) If you don't have one because you live in southern Florida or some other tropical paradise, use a really big beach towel instead. Wrap it around yourself, over your shoulders, like Granny's shawl. (See illustration.) Now, sit down. Where do the corners of the blanket fall?

If you get the same results I get, you'll notice that two of the corners are draped across your thighs. Of course, first-century Jews weren't wearing beach towels or Snuggies, or even Mexican throws. They called the garment a tallit (which means "little tent"). The Bible speaks of Jesus wearing such a garment (Luke 8:44, John 19:23), which is quite appropriate since he was a Law-abiding Jewish man. When a man wearing a tallit was seated (as the rider of this Revelation horse would be), two of the tassels would lie across his thighs. So when John speaks of the name of God written "on his robe and on his thigh" he isn't talking about embroidery or tattoos, but about the traditional clothing of a devout Jewish man.

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. (Malachi 4:2)
The corners of the tallit are commonly referred to as "wings." Something else to ponder!

*Even if someone other than John the Apostle was the author, it was someone from the same time period and culture. However, the earliest church fathers (Polycarp--who was John's disciple-- Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, etc.) agreed  that John of Patmos was John the Apostle. This identification was not questioned until the 4th century. Since Polycarp was there, I'm going to take his word for it. And yes, technically John was a Galilean but I am using "Jewish" in the ethnic sense; the Jews and Galileans had a similar culture, much like New Yorkers and Floridians.


  1. Israel is right place to buy a traditional tallit. From here you can get all variety of designs, and colors in different sizes at affordable prices.

  2. I really love the picture of the woman touching Jesus' tallit that you have shown here. Could you please tell me whether it is free of copyright?