Baptism for the Dead

BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD (Gr. οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τω̂ν νεκρω̂ν). “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (1 Cor 15:29) This is a famous crux interpretum. Opinion concerning its meaning has been divided since early times, and there can be few vv. of Scripture concerning which the views of modern commentators are so bewilderingly diverse.

Divergent views.

Only a selection of the more important views can be given:

1. Vicarious baptism to benefit those who died unbaptized.

2. Baptism for the sake of the dead—i.e. in order to secure reunion with Christian relatives after death.

3. Baptism on account of the dead—i.e., because of the witness in life of Christians martyred for the faith, such faith leading to the conversion and subsequent baptism of others.

4. Baptism to take the place of the dead—i.e., to make up their number and so, perhaps, to hasten the Second Advent by assisting the completion of one of its preconditions.

5. Baptism over the dead—i.e., over their graves, to express solidarity with them if they are Christian believers; if they are not, to involve them in salvation by this ritual.

6. Ceremonial ablution because of defilement through contact with a dead body.

7. Prayer for the dead described fig. as baptism for them, rather as “sacrifice” is sometimes spiritualized as prayer in the NT.

8. Death for the dead: the death of Christians regarded as redemptive and as securing salvation for the dead, and described as baptism because this symbolizes death.

9. Baptism to wash away mortal sins.

10. Baptism to confess the resurrection of the dead, because it symbolizes death and resurrection.

11. Baptism to secure benefit after death, because the thought of death has hastened the act of baptism.

Important factors bearing upon the interpretation of the passage.

The chief of these would appear to be the following:

1. The general context. The v. must be relevant to an argument for the resurrection of the dead.

2. The connection of thought between vv. 29 and 30. Here are either two separate arguments for the resurrection or two parts of one argument.

3. The congruity of the interpretation with apostolic thought and practice or with some perversion of the same.

4. Grammatical factors, of which the chief is the sense of ὑπὲρ τω̂ν νεκρω̂ν (“on behalf of the dead” RSV). For example, No. 9 above requires a dubious sense both for the preposition and for the noun.

Conclusion.

The issue is anything but simple to decide. A number of the above interpretations are very forced, esp. in their understanding of the Gr. No. 10 is popular because it presents no theological problems, but is grammatically suspect. No. 2 has been powerfully advocated of late esp. by Jeremias and Raeder but No. 1 still seems much the most natural. The post-apostolic heretical sect the Marcionites certainly practiced vicarious baptism although possibly in misinterpretation of this passage. It does not seem likely that Paul was expressing approval of the practice. By an ad hominem argument, he is seeking to show the inconsistency of those who follow the practice while doubting or denying the Resurrection. “It is wholly illegitimate to suppose that because Paul pronounces no condemnation on a custom to which he refers he must have given it his approval. This is surely a misapprehension of the very nature of an argumentum ad hominem.” (H. A. A. Kennedy, St. Paul and the Mystery Religions [1913], 253.)

Bibliography

F. Godet, First Corinthians (1893), ad loc.; T. C. Edwards, First Corinthians (1897), ad loc.; J. A. Beet, First and Second Corinthians (1902), ad loc.; A. Robertson and A. Plummer, First Corinthians (1911), ad loc.; H. Preisker, Die Vicariatstaufe in I Corinther 15:29 (1924); B. M. Foschini, Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead (I Cor 15:29), (1951); F. W. Grosheide, First Corinthians (1953); M. Raeder, Vicariatstaufe in I Corinther 15:29” ZNW (1955); J. Jeremias, “Flesh and Blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God,” NTS II (1955-1956), 151-159; W. F. Flemington, The NT Doctrine of Baptism (1957); G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the NT (1962); R. Schnackenburg, Baptism in the Thought of St. Paul (1964).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(baptizomai huper ton nekron).

_1. Paul’s Argument:

Some of the Corinthian Christians denied the resurrection of the dead, and Paul advances three arguments to convince them that the dead will be raised:

(1) "If there is no resurrection of the dead, neither hath Christ been raised," but Christ is raised (1Co 15:13,20).

(2) If the dead are not raised, why are men being baptized for the dead (1Co 15:29)?

(3) Why should the apostle himself wage his spiritual warfare (1Co 15:30)? The first argument rests upon the central fact of Christianity, and the other two are appeals to the consistency of the Corinthians, and of Paul himself. Whatever "baptism for the dead" meant, it was, in Paul’s opinion, as real, valid and legitimate a premise from which to conclude that the dead would rise as his own sufferings. The natural meaning of the words is obvious. Men in Corinth, and possibly elsewhere, were being continually baptized on behalf of others who were at the time dead, with a view to benefiting them in the resurrection, but if there be no resurrection, what shall they thus accomplish, and why do they do it? "The only legitimate reference is to a practice .... of survivors allowing themselves to be baptized on behalf of (believing?) friends who had died without baptism" (Alford in the place cited.).

2. Patristic Evidence:

Tertullian believed that Paul referred to a custom of vicarious baptism (Res., 48c; Adv. Marc., 5.10). There is evidence that the early church knew such a practice. Epiphanius mentions a tradition that the custom obtained among the Cerinthians (Haer., 28 6). And Chrysostom states that it prevailed among the Marcionites.

3. Modern Views:

But commentators have offered between thirty and forty other interpretations, more or less strained, of the passage. (For a summary of different views see T. C. Edwards and Stanley, Comms., at the place) Two of the most reasonable views from recent commentators are: "What shall they do who receive baptism on account of the dead? i.e. with a view to the resurrection of the dead?" and therefore to sharing in it themselves (Canon Evans, Speaker’s Comm., at the place); "that the death of Christians led to the conversion of survivors, who in the first instance `for the sake of the dead’ (their beloved dead), and in the hope of reunion, turn to Christ" (Findlay, Expositor’s Greek Test., at the place). Both ideas may be true, but they are simply imported into this passage, and the latter also is quite irrelevant to the argument and makes Paul identify conversion with baptism.

4. The Difficulty:

But why is all this ingenuity expended to evade the natural meaning? Because

(1) such a custom would be a superstition involving the principle of opus operarum; and

(2) Paul could not share or even tolerate a contemporary idea which is now regarded as superstition.

To reply (with Alford) that Paul does not approve the custom will not serve the purpose, for he would scarcely base so great an argument, even as an argumentum ad hominem, on a practice which he regarded as wholly false and superstitious. The retort of those who denied the resurrection would be too obvious. But why should it be necessary to suppose that Paul rose above all the limitations of his age? The idea that symbolic acts had a vicarious significance had sunk deeply into the Jewish mind, and it would not be surprising if it took more than twenty years for the leaven of the gospel to work all the Jew out of Paul. At least it serves the apostle’s credit ill to make his argument meaningless or absurd in order to save him from sharing at all in the inadequate conceptions of his age. He made for himself no claim of infallibility.