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In the very center of an argument about the general resurrection, which the Corinthians questioned, Paul says:

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?—1st Corinthians 15:29 (ESV)

As far as I can tell, no other mention is made of the practice in the New Testament.

So what were the Corinthians doing and why? And does this mention of the practice in a neutral or perhaps even positive light mean that Paul endorsed whatever it was they were doing?

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A small little reference and yet so many people have based entire beliefs around this verse. +1 for a question that I'm surprised hasn't already been asked. –  Richard Nov 28 '11 at 18:40
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@Richard: I didn't look beforehand, but it has been asked on Christianity.SE. This might be a good test case for how the two sites ought to differ. –  Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 18:44
    
Is there any trace of this practice outside 1 Corinthians in the first century ? –  Vooke K Aug 27 at 10:37

5 Answers 5

There have been various theories throughout the years as to what this refers.

  • Martin Luther believed it was an ordinary baptism of a living person, but that it occurred over the tomb of the dead.

  • John Calvin saw this as a normal baptism of someone when they were close to death.

  • Another interpretation is that this is a metaphor and someone being baptized has a view towards death

  • This also could mean vicarious baptism for the dead—people being baptized on behalf of the dead that had not been baptized.

Ultimately, we don't know what was going on, since this is the only reference to the practice.

As a side note, some Christians practice baptism for the dead during modern times. This baptism for the dead is a vicarious baptism for the sake of one who is dead but was never baptized.

Source

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1Co 15:29 Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? - AV

There is a practice that is well documented and was practiced not only by the ones being referred to but also by the the apostles. They all were baptized.

If they considered themselves dead, that is, that there is no resurrection, then what is the purpose of their own baptism.

The argument concerns the resurrection, not some foreign or odd practice. Baptism is a symbol of resurrection and why would you bother if you are dead men walking?

Joh 11:26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

If you do not believe Jesus, why are you baptized in his name?

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I'm not sure if, I'm reading you right. Are you suggesting that Paul is talking about ordinary baptism, but the "for the dead" part is metaphorical? Is it "dead" in the sense of Galatians 2:20? But doesn't that disrupt Paul's argument in 2 Cor. 15 that the death is actual and the resurrection is a bodily one? –  Jon Ericson Jun 11 '12 at 6:44
    
He is using their untenable belief. He says "they" not "we". If there is no resurrection like "they" believe, then they are dead already and why woudl they get baptized? But we who believe in resurrection are already alive, and therefore baptism makes sense for us. –  Bob Jones Jun 11 '12 at 13:43

I believe Paul used the phrase "Baptism for the dead" vs 29, in the context of a spiritual war. I think it means those who "stand in the gap" for (or in the place of) fallen Christian brothers and sisters. I know that sounds a bit odd so let me explain.

The Apostle Paul frequently used military terms to describe the Christian's ongoing spiritual battles and the victory we have in Christ. A few that come to mind are:

  1. Eph 6:11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
  2. Eph 4:8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men

Likewise, Paul used the same kind of analogies when describing the nature of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15. Consider Paul's "order of battle" reference in 1 Cor 15:24-25

23) But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.

Also, Paul's descriptive language in reference to Christ's powerful reign.

24) Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule, and all authority and power. 25) For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. 26) The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

No doubt Paul compared Christ's spiritual kingdom to a physical nation that subjects all its enemies. Yet what's implied here in the above verses is not a physical victory, but a total spiritual one. We know that because, for one, "death" is personified in verse 26. Paul goes on to say that there will be no more death because of the nature of our resurrected bodies. So in reasoning with the Corinthian Christians, Paul wanted them to understand what makes Christians persevere. In other words: If there is no resurrection, why does he and fellow believers risks their lives everyday. This line of reasoning is used in verses 30-33. Let's examine the context and follow Paul's argument in verses 29-31:

29) Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? 30) and why stand we in jeopardy every hour? 31) I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.

Paul's usage of "baptized" here is different from what we're used to. We typically think of water baptism when we see the word in relation to something someone does. The Gospel of Luke uses it differently in Luke 12:50:

(Jesus says) But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!

Jesus is not speaking of water baptism here, (he'd already been water baptized), but of an identity with sinful man He would take on to atone for man's sins. So when we read of those "baptized for the dead" in 1 Cor 15, it means those who identified themselves with those martyred; a way of saying, "filling in the ranks" or "filling in the gaps" so to speak. Paul later mentioned in 2 Cor himself and others who were persecuted because of their faith. So when those who stood on the front lines fell, there were Christians who came forward to fight, just like in the old Spartan movies.

I think a very loose paraphrase of verses 29-31 could be: Otherwise, what are people implying when they are determined to carry on the fight (or charge) when those in front of them suffer death? If the dead are not raised, why do they identify themselves with the dead?

Why are we facing danger every hour?

I die daily! It comes as a result of your boasting which I protest against. This directed to you I have in Christ Jesus our Lord...

References: (Matthew Henry Commentary) Perhaps baptism is used here in a figure, for afflictions, sufferings, and martyrdom, as Mat_20:22, Mat_20:23. What is, or will become of those who have suffered many and great injuries, and have even lost their lives, for this doctrine of the resurrection, if the dead rise not at all? Whatever the meaning may be, doubtless the apostle's argument was understood by the Corinthians. And it is as plain to us that Christianity would be a foolish profession, if it proposed advantage to themselves by their faithfulness to God; and to have our fruit to holiness, that our end may be everlasting life.

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I think you are on to something here. To leave out the military imagery, Paul is asking why Christians choose to identify so strongly (and perilously) with a dead man and the community of people (many of whom have died as well). I believe that fits the context of Paul's letter. –  Jon Ericson Jul 30 '13 at 14:33
    
Paul's imagery is strikingly similar to a Roman army campaign victory. A soldierly posture image gives a clearer picture. After describing Christ's conquest over death (vs 26), Paul continued with an order (or rank) of resurrection description. Christ's was preeminent. Our subsequent resurrection is the crown Christ reaped by His victory over His own death... 1 Thess 4:15-18 describes in similar tone our gathering to our almighty conquering King: A verbal cry announcing His arrival, a trumpet blast signaling assembly, the rising of those departed, then those alive, banishment of enemies. –  wilberteric Jul 30 '13 at 17:32
    
This is a fascinating answer. Do you have any additional scholarly sources you can draw on to support it? I'd like to check them out. –  Dan Dec 10 '13 at 18:03
    
Sorry, I don't. –  wilberteric Dec 11 '13 at 1:25

Short Answer: Paul was not in any way endorsing their action. On the contrary, Paul was bringing this up as evidence of their absurdity. The Corinthians were denying that the dead would be raised... but then they were turning around and getting baptized for them! His point is that they are being ridiculous.


Context: The flow of the passage

First, Paul addresses the heresy head-on:

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

Paul goes on to explain the sober implications of their heresy:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God . . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

...in other words, this is a pretty serious claim to be making, and has pretty serious implications! Paul proceeds to set them straight in the truth:

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. . . .

After a brief excursus on the resurrection, Paul returns to their heresy -- this time to highlight its absurdity:

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? Why are we also in danger every hour? I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

Paul mentions two reasons why it is absurd to think that the dead are not raised. (We'll return to this in a moment.) Then he concludes with this:

Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.

Paul's conclusion is a shameful rebuke of the sinfulness and deception of this heresy.

The function of the paragraph

Paul poses two rhetorical questions in verses 29-32:

  • (A) If the dead are not raised, why are people being baptized for them?!

  • (B) If the dead are not raised, why would I be risking my life every day to preach the gospel?! I'd be much better off enjoying my life!

The purpose of both is the same: to show how absurd their heresy was. He had already covered the implications of the heresy, and had already finished providing a doctrinal refutation of it. This is neither. This is the "icing on the cake" of his argument. This is his way of saying "you are being ridiculous!"

The interpretation of the verse

For reference, here is verse 29 again:

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?

First, notice that Paul is describing people who are being baptized for the dead. Given the context of the passage, it is hard to interpret "the dead" any other way than as people who are actually, literally, physically dead.

Second, notice who was being baptized for these dead people. Paul does not identify himself with that group. He says "they" are baptized for the dead; he is using "those" people's practice as evidence that the Corinthian heresy was absurd.

So to rephrase Paul's question in clearer English: If those who are dead are not going to be raised, then why are people getting baptized for them?! (If there was ever a time to recognize sarcasm in the Biblical text, this is it.)

Interpretation of the practice

By this point it should be clear that Group A was being baptized on behalf of physically dead Group B, and this somehow highlighted how ridiculous the Corinthian heresy was that the dead are not raised. Logically there seem to be two possibilities: either

  • (A) there was a legitimate practice of being baptized on behalf of dead people, which the Corinthian heresy jeopardized, or

  • (B) the Corinthians were being absurd in that they were saying the dead are not raised, but then turning around and getting baptized for them!

If it was (A) we would expect this argument to be located in the "implications" section of the passage, but it is not; It is located in the "look how absurd you're being" section of the passage, so interpretation (B) is more likely. This choice is further supported by the fact that there is zero evidence from elsewhere in Scripture that one person can be baptized on behalf of another (dead!) person -- in fact, this contradicts a number of other passages about each person being responsible for their own decisions, judgment coming immediately after death, etc.

So, in conclusion, it would seem that this practice entailed one person being baptized on behalf of another dead person under the false impression that this would have some effect on them in the resurrection, and that the absurdity lay in the fact that those who were performing this practice were turning around and claiming that the dead are not raised at all!


Reflection on the text

Thus, the structure of verses 29-32 takes the following form:

  • (A) If the dead are not raised, then why are you doing the ridiculous things you're doing? And,

  • (B) If the dead are not raised, then why would I be doing the (seemingly) ridiculous things that I'm doing?

This structure makes good sense in light of the flow of the passage, which is a nice check for this interpretation.

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This sounds like a very reasonable interpretation given our knowledge of the Corinthian church from the rest of the letter. I wouldn't put much of anything past them. ;-) Could you take a moment to address why Paul didn't argue against that heresy as he did against so many of the others he discovered in Corinth? –  Jon Ericson Jul 30 '13 at 14:38
    
@JonEricson Perhaps because that was not his focus in this passage. He may have addressed it previously in one of his (non-canonical) letters or visits, etc. Since Paul was talking to the Corinthians and not to us, it stands to reason that (if I am right,) the Corinthians would not have missed his sarcasm. It would not be the first time we see Paul alluding to an interaction we are not privy to. –  Jas 3.1 Aug 26 '13 at 4:03

I can hardly believe Paul would make a point by using something that doesn't make any sense in the first place, which were 'to be baptized for dead (ones)'. I believe he was having in his mind the ones that 'were baptized for (being) dead' due to the prevailing persecution in some places the disciples in Corinth must have known about.

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