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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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  • 1
    @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. Nov 28, 2011 at 18:44
  • Is there any trace of this practice outside 1 Corinthians in the first century ?
    – user5799
    Aug 27, 2014 at 10:37
  • Chrysostom's commentary can be found here.
    – Lucian
    Oct 10, 2019 at 23:09

14 Answers 14

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+50

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? Jul 30, 2013 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, 2013 at 4:03
  • Your answer is commendably logical, but lacks any actual information related to the question. The question relates to "what were they doing," and you only deduce that they were doing something, but you don't provide any source for what they might actually be doing. Do you have any info on that? Because, as it stands, you have not added any factual data, just your affirmation that such a practice must logically exist. But you've made quite an impression with your rhetoric.
    – Ruminator
    Jul 6, 2023 at 12:06
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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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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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  • 1
    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. Jul 30, 2013 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. Jul 30, 2013 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, 2013 at 18:03
  • Sorry, I don't. Dec 11, 2013 at 1:25
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Looking through the answers posted so far, one view seems to be missing, which happens to be my view.

Baptism in 1 Corinthians

Additionally, the context of 1 Corinthians shows that water baptism had a prominent place of discussion at the start of the epistle, as Paul is thankful that baptism did not become a means of dividing into groups (1 Cor 1:13-17) like the identification with different teachers had divided them (1 Cor 1:12). This is because water baptism is, at its core, a procedure to identify with Christ.

Then water baptism is alluded to in a figure for Israel in 1 Cor 10:2, as Israel identified with Moses in following him through the Red Sea and having the cloud over them in their going through the wilderness.

But then 1 Cor 12:13 may or may not refer to water baptism. Most commentators take it to refer to the baptism of the Spirit (since this passage clearly states it is "by one Spirit" that the baptism referred to occurs). Though an argument could be made that it is still water baptism, that does not need to be resolved here. The important point of this passage is still that it shows how baptism (whether water or Spirit) is what identifies Christians with the "one body" of Christ.

Immediate Context

The statement of 1 Cor 15:29 follows the defense earlier in chapter 15 of there being an actual, bodily resurrection that is to come, just like Christ (v.18, 20-23), and that Christian faith is grounded in the fact of resurrection (v.14, 17, 19), for resurrection is a core point of the gospel preached (v.4, 11-12, 14-15, 18), which resurrection is the abolishing of death (v.26).

"Baptized for the dead"

The preposition ὑπὲρ ("for") is in the Greek, coupled with the articular, genitive form τῶν νεκρῶν ("the dead"). The primary meaning of ὑπὲρ is the idea of "in behalf of" or "for the sake of."1 When tied to a genitive of persons (which I would argue here that "the dead" refer to the people who have died, who are due to be resurrected), the term implies the action is for the sake of those persons (in some way).

So now follow Paul's logic in context:

  1. There are people getting baptized for the sake of the dead (v.29a).
  2. But what is the point of that if the dead do not rise (v.29b)?
  3. Why get baptized for the dead's sake at all (v.29c)?
  4. Why do we (believers in Christ) stand in peril [if the dead do not rise] (v.30)?
  5. Paul faces death daily [via hyperbole "I die daily"] (v.32).
  6. Why believe if it means possibly having to face the beasts of Ephesus (i.e. be put to death, v.32)?

I believe what Paul means is that there are believers in Corinth dying because of their faith. Other people are seeing their faith in the face of death, and they are choosing to identify themselves as Christians (be baptized via water baptism) "for the sake of" those that have died for their faith. That is, they gain the courage to take that public step of proclamation of identification via baptism, and honor those who did die for their faith by taking a stand for Christ by being baptized. They do this, knowing that they too may die because of their public identification via water baptism. Why would they do this, unless they believed in a life to come? Why would Paul do what he does, facing the same possibility of death?

They would not and he would not. The resurrection is the hope that even death is not the end, and so keeping and expressing one's faith is more important than preventing death, for death is temporary.

So Paul, contrary to the most currently upvoted answer (as of my posting), is tacitly endorsing their practice by the fact that these Christians, who are stepping forward to be baptized because of those that have died for their faith before them, are doing even as he is, risking their lives to continue the testimony of what the gospel of Christ brings, and which Paul and they are all identifying with: faith in a coming resurrection because of Christ's work, specifically his work in dying Himself.


1 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. ὑπέρ, A.1.

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  • + 1 I agree that Paul did not oppose the practice. The many upvotes for the contrary view are apparently based on theological correctness rather than the plain sense of the text. One caveat: I don't think many people were actually dying for their faith at the time Cor. was written. Oct 6, 2022 at 23:52
  • So to summarize your view: To be baptized for the sake of the dead refers to the phenomena of people choosing to identify themselves with Christ through Baptism after witnessing and being inspired by the dead who are martyrs for their Christian faith?
    – Austin
    Jul 4, 2023 at 16:20
  • @Austin Yes, with perhaps the added clarification that this was a very public baptism (in public spaces, not behind church doors) in an environment hostile to Christians, so choosing to be baptized could have a definite death sentence applied to it; but because they believed in resurrection, if death came, that did not really matter.
    – ScottS
    Jul 5, 2023 at 19:06
  • Thanks. +1 for an insightful offering. I was inspired by your answer to post my own. Would be happy for any feedback.
    – Austin
    Jul 6, 2023 at 2:42
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There is no mention made in the New Testament, but in the Old.

I suppose that they weren't ever really water baptized for the dead, but put themselves through various forms of penance (e.g. fasting; cf. Mt 17:21) or prayer for them.

This is because 'baptism' was used as a term for a suffering or afflication—a "cup" of suffering (Lk 12:50; Mk 10:38; Mt 20:22). In a word, going through something otherwise difficult, but seen as bringing a greater good. Similar to how we might say "No, I need to go through this. If I don't now, it'll only come back to haunt me."

We see this interpretation corroborated in the very next verse, where he says:

1 Corinthians 15:30

And why are we in peril every hour?

"we" That is, not only the Corinthians do this, but Christians as a whole.

'Why would we go through the bother if it were in vain?'


But most convincingly, St. Paul seems to be making clear reference to 2 Maccabees 12 (or the same practice):

2 Maccabees 12:38-46

So Judas [Maccabeus] having gathered together his army, came into the city Odollam: and when the seventh day came, they purified themselves according to the custom, and kept the sabbath in the place. And the day following Judas came with his company, to take away the bodies of them that were slain, and to bury them with their kinsmen, in the sepulchres of their fathers. And they found under the coats of the slain some of the donaries of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbiddeth the Jews: so that all plainly saw, for this cause they were slain. Then they all blessed the just judgment of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden. And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought him, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten. [cf. Mt 12:32b] But the most valiant Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forasmuch as they saw before their eyes what had happened, because of the sins of those that were slain. And making a collection, he sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection, (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,) And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

1 Corinthians 15:16-18,29,34; 16:1-3 (arbitrary chapter division)

For if the dead rise not again, neither is Christ risen again. And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, for you are yet in your sins. Then they also that are fallen asleep in Christ, are perished. ... Otherwise what shall they do that are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not again at all? why are they then baptized for them? ... Awake, ye just, and sin not. For some have not the knowledge of God, I speak it to your shame. ... Now concerning the collections that are made for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, so do ye also. On the first day of the week let every one of you put apart with himself, laying up what it shall well please him; that when I come, the collections be not then to be made. And when I shall be with you, whomsoever you shall approve by letters, them will I send to carry your grace to Jerusalem. And if it be meet that I also go, they shall go with me.

There are too many points of congruity here to ignore that this is what is being referred to by St. Paul.

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  • Great use of the passage from 2 Maccabees. Upvoted +1 Apr 8, 2021 at 0:49
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The context of this verse is Paul's argument with some of the Corinthians regarding the nature of the resurrection of the dead. Certain Corinthians believed that Christ had, in fact, been resurrected from the dead, but they did not believe in the general resurrection of the dead for all (Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? - v.12).

Note that Paul here is neither strictly condemning nor strictly endorsing the practice of baptism for the dead (βάπτισμα ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν) - he is merely pointing out the hypocrisy of carrying it out if one does not believe in the resurrection of the dead. It seems from the verse that people were, in fact, practicing vicarious baptism - at least in Corinth. The practice seems not to have persisted, although - as Chyrsostom and Tertullian pointed out - it enjoyed a resurgence among certain heretical sects (e.g. the Marcionites). What Paul is asking here is in effect "Then if you don't believe in the resurrection of the dead, why do you bother to try to baptize the dead? What is the point?"

Lawrence Farley (an contemporary modern Orthodox commentator), acknowledging the diversity of interpretations of this particular verse, suggests that another plausible explanation might be that it is known that certain Jews practiced vicarious cleansing for friends or family members who died in a ritually unclean state. He suggests that this practice perhaps carried over in the form of vicarious baptism by some Jewish converts.

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In ancient times the Jews despised the Babylonians because they did not wash their dead. The Jews washed their dead that they should be in the state that they were in when they entered the world (washed with water). It isn't Christian baptism (because there is no such thing) but rather for purification, good form and to prepare them for the afterlife.

The practice is called TAHARAH and is described in some detail here:

Ceremony of washing a dead body before burial. This rite is performed by the members ("mit'assekim") of the "ḥebra ḳaddisha." The body is lifted from the ground, where it has been placed after death, and laid, feet toward the door, on the cleansing-table known as the "ṭaharah-board." The black cover and the old garments are removed, and a white sheet put under it, while the members assembled say a prayer for the dead, and recite, "Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment" (Zech. iii. 4). Then begins the washing. The body is thoroughly rubbed and cleansed with lukewarm water, during which process the mouth is covered so that no water may enter it. Next water is poured over the head, while Ezek. xxxvi. 25 is recited: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean." This is followed by washing each limb downward, the appropriate verses of Cant. v. 11 et seq. being repeated as the washing progresses: "His head is as the most fine gold . . . His eyes are as the eyes of doves," etc.

UPDATE: I've located another description from the Jewish Encyclopedia regarding the process of Mikveh for the dead

Mikveh was required by the new covenant Jews in the last days of the Jewish theocracy but was not part of Paul's "faith without works". This is because the believer is joined to Christ and is complete in him; NOTHING need be added:

Col 2:10-15 KJV - 10 And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: 11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. 13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 14 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; 15 And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

Paul points to the practice only to show that it is Jewish to have hope beyond the grave. He is not writing to unbelievers but rather to Jewish believers who believed that only those who are alive at the return of Christ were to be resurrected:

1Co 15:12-14 KJV - 12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: 14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

Please see:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yvz1M1MOpU&index=21&list=PLGEDjSuYm3FT6TqeoEa1XIVBm5kal7r7T&t=0s

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  • An intriguing theory. I think this answer would be better if it left out the reference to Shinar's etymology or backed it up with more evidence. More importantly, I'd like to know why Paul used the word for baptism in this context if he was talking about a different (yet closely related) rite. I think you might be on to something, but I think the argument could be more clear and persuasive. Sep 11, 2018 at 18:46
  • I also commend you for connecting the dots. However claiming a lack of connection to the Christian baptism seems non sequitur to me (sorry for the pun). Christians (from John the Baptist onwards at least) were dying for this world in order to live in the one to come. Matthew 16:25-27 I suspect that John was inducing a clinical death, through or followed by the baptism. This was to free the Jews from the bond of the old covenant. Jesus having wiped out the old covenant the baptism has changed it's form and essence yet the meaning seems to be the same.
    – grammaplow
    Jul 5, 2023 at 9:59
  • Paul certainly argues against baptism in water as being salvic. Are you Catholic?
    – Ruminator
    Jul 6, 2023 at 12:07
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Paul's mention of this particular type of proxy baptism was in response to the question of the resurrection. If there is no resurrection of the dead then why were people practicing a baptism for the dead?

The practice of a proxy baptism –

“What will those do who are baptized for the dead? Why then are they baptized for them?”

The first thing that has to be acknowledged here is that Paul affirms the existence of this practice.

The second thing is that the existence of this practice testifies to the importance the early Church placed on baptism, even though this practice represents a perversion of it.

The third thing is that Paul does not ask, “why do you or we” but, why do “they,” whoever the ‘they' were. Paul is clearly separating himself and those at Corinth who did not practice this ritual for the dead, from those who did. It must also be noted that Paul is not giving credence to the practice. He simply acknowledges that some, whom he does not identify, were practicing this and it would appear that it was from among some of those who were claiming there was no resurrection. This reveals the existence of yet another faction that existed among those at Corinth just like this who were forbidding to marry. Just like those who had divided into factions over baptism, etc….

Some were teaching that there was no resurrection from the dead while at the same time practicing this proxy ritual of baptism for the dead. Paul is not offering a defense for this practice. Rather, he is stressing the obvious absurdity of denying the resurrection and then baptizing for those who had died. How would they propose to defend the logic of this? Paul is not legitimizing the practice, he is showing the absurdity of it. If there is no resurrection, then the patient endurance of persecution and constant dangers for the sake of the gospel was all for nothing. “Why are we also in danger every hour?” All of the profound experiences of suffering that Paul and others endured would have all been meaningless.

Why not just eat drink and be merry? If there is no resurrection, then life is of no more value than the satisfaction of our appetites. If there is no resurrection then the satisfying of all fleshly appetites would be the highest and most noble aspiration we could hope to attain in this life. If there is no resurrection and we deny ourselves the greatest pleasures of this life, then all we are doing is robbing ourselves. Death, then, is the ultimate end of pleasures and we should enjoy every pleasure of life to its fullest because this is all there is. These are the consequences if there is no resurrection. On the other side of the coin, if there is a resurrection then the appetites of the flesh must be brought under control.

0

Paul is correcting people who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead(aka those who believed in Jesus,who were baptized and filled with the Spirit before they died).

There is no dead unbelievers being baptized in that chapter,they are talking about what happen to a believer when he dies(the first death).

The Sadducees also challenged Jesus about the resurrection of the dead .Those Corinthians were doing the same thing to the Lord's servant,Paul.

Those who belong to Jesus(who were baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit) will be risen at the last trumpet. "Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”John 11:25

"in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" 1 corinthians 15:52

The unbelievers are going be thrown into the lake of fire.Sprinkling water on them isn't going to do anything and I bet those Corinthians weren't that ignorant to believe that.They knew that whoever do not believe is already condemned,so why would they try to do such worthless thing(baptizing dead unbelievers)? "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death."Revelation 21:8

Sinners are dead but if you repent,believe in Jesus and are obedient to Him(after being born of the water and of the Spirit),you will be resurrected even after dying(from the 1st death).

That whole chapter was about people challenging the resurrection from death and everlasting life promised by our Lord and Savior,Jesus Christ.

"And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever."Daniel 12:2 "Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear" Matthew 13:43

Those who believe in the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever,Amen,will never suffer the second death.

"Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death." Revelation 2:11

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I will throw my 2 cents in as well. First I agree with many posters that the idea of the absurdity of practicing baptism without believing in the resurrection is ridiculous and that's the main point. I believe in chapter 4 he asks the question " Are you reigning without us?" It seems they believed they were already in the millennium or a form of amillennialism. But the question is why doesn't Paul ever condemn the practice and I would say he did. In the beginning of the letter he is angry that factions had developed in the church over who was baptized by who. Paul condemns them by saying no matter who baptized you it was all in the same name, Jesus Christ. ( So here I am speculating ) Is it possible when a new teacher came people were being baptized on behalf of dead Christians so they could claim that so and so was baptized by this teacher. I have seen this even in modern times when people get attached to a teacher and think he has the only right words of God. Humans put so much emphasis on the messenger and think they are saved because of that instead of the originator of the word, Jesus himself!

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I believe some light can be shed on this passage by writing out Paul’s argument as a formal logical proof.

Paul’s Logical Proof

Paul’s argument takes the form “If not A then not B” (colloquially we might put it “if the dead don’t rise there’s no point in being baptized for them”) where:

A is the resurrection

B is the practice of baptisms for the dead

--

Premise 1: ~A => ~B

Premise 2: B

Conclusion: Therefore A

--

It is important to point out right away that this is a deductive proof, not a reductio ad absurdum. Paul may well think that those who deny the resurrection are absurd, but he does not make a reductive argument when it comes to baptism for the dead. So I would respectfully differ with those who have suggested Paul appeals to baptisms to the dead as an absurd case. His deductive argument is not valid if he does that.

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The function of the 2nd premise

Premise 2 of the argument appeals to “B” (the practice of baptisms for the dead) as true in order to prove that A is true in the conclusion.

If the practice of baptisms for the dead was valid but unknown (to the Corinthians), Paul could not appeal to it as a premise. If the practice was heretical but well-known, premise 2 would not work at all.

It is only when the practice is both valid and known that premise 2 can perform its function in the argument. Paul is appealing to a practice that the Corinthian Christians are aware of, and a practice that is considered valid.

When Paul wants to call out heretical beliefs he knows how to do so unambiguously (for example, Romans 6:15, 1 Cor. 5:1-5, 1 Timothy 4:1).

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Vicarious ordinances

The details of baptism for the dead are not provided. However, the passage suggests, as noted previously by ScottS, that what is meant is baptism on behalf of the dead. That implies person A gets baptized on behalf of person B, and person B is already dead.

Although baptism for the dead is not found in other Biblical passages, other vicarious ordinances are. The most important of which (and the one that is transcendent and eternal in scope) is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ:

Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. (Hebrews 9:12)

Are vicarious actions something done only by Jesus? Apparently not.

From Hebrews 5:

1 For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins:

2 Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are bout of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity.

3 And by reason hereof he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins.

The Old Testament is full of vicarious ordinances, performed by the Levites on behalf of others.

--

Returning to the OP’s specific questions

So what were the Corinthians doing and why?

The details are not provided. Paul’s purpose here was to provide one of several arguments for the resurrection. The passing reference implies that the details are already known to his readers. I believe the most unambiguous way to read the passage is that it describes a vicarious ordinance, a concept which (in a general sense) is known to both Judaism & Christianity.

That the details of how to perform a baptism for the dead are not included may be frustrating, but it is worth pointing out that the New Testament details on how to perform a baptism for the living are themselves quite vague. Many debates have resulted from that absence of detail.

--

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?

Paul does not call out the practice as heretical. Since Paul had lived in Corinth for at least a year and a half (Acts 18:1, 11) and had maintained contact with the Corinthian church since, Paul almost certainly knew whatever it was they were doing, and he doesn’t appear to have any concerns with it.

From deductive logic (above) we found that the practice must have been considered both known and valid in order for Paul’s argument to work. In this sense then I would have to say that Paul does tacitly endorse the practice.

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    Normally I wouldn't answer a question that already had 11 answers--which clearly show a great deal of thought. I did notice though that the existing answers focused principally on explaining why the passage probably doesn't mean what it appears to mean. I thought it might help the conversation to offer the opposite, an answer suggesting why the passage probably does mean what it appears to mean. Maybe not a popular view, but in honor of Paul, why not share it anyway? =) Apr 8, 2021 at 1:04
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Short Answer: Paul is referring to the phenomena of people being baptized in response to the death of others.


Long Answer: This verse is notoriously difficult to interpret. The key to understanding it (and it's difficulty) my lie in the proper understanding of the Greek word hyper, often translated in this verse as "on behalf of." The root meaning of the word is "over," however in translation it has a wide lexiconic range.

Earlier in the book, 1 Cor 10:30, Paul uses the term ὑπὲρ in the sense of "because of" or 'in response to':

If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of (hyper - 'over') something I thank God for?

I believe that in 1 Cor 15:29, Paul is using ὑπὲρ in that sense again.

"Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized because of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why also are they baptized because of them?"

It seems that Paul here is documenting his observation that a number of people are being baptized in response to the death of others.

As the author of Ecclesiastes describes, people can be made to think about what's really important in life and where they are heading when dealing with the death of someone close or prominent or otherwise impactful to them.

Better to go to the house of mourning Than to go to the house of feasting, For that is the end of all men; And the living will take it to heart. -Ecclesiastes 7:2

Jesus likewise uses famously tragic and meaningless deaths as an occasion to prompt his listeners to seriously consider repentance:

Now at the same time some were present, telling Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And answering, He said to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were sinners beyond all the Galileans, because they have suffered such things? No, I say to you; but unless you repent, you will all perish likewise. 4Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: Do you think that these were debtors beyond all the men dwelling in Jerusalem? 5No, I say to you; but unless you repent, you will all perish likewise.” -Luke 13:1-5

So again, Paul may here be referring to those being baptized in response to the dead because they are prompted in the depths of their soul by the death of others to seek out the solution to and the reversal of what has happened to so many and what most likely awaits for them.

Paul has taught that if a person is united through baptism with Christ in the likeness of his death, with certainty that person will be resurrected like Christ was.

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. -Romans 6:3-5

So basically, Paul is asking what will people do who, inspired by the death of those around them, are seeking a solution and reversal to this death by being united with Christ through baptism if, in fact, the curse doesn't actually get reversed and the dead are not raised?

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This is a difficult section of scripture. These are the best possible answers I have found from my professors over the years:

1 Corinthians 15:29 Baptism for the dead: Five interpretations worth knowing about

1) Is Paul referring to a vicarious baptism for the dead?

That would fit Paul's wording easily (ⲩⲡⲉⲣ +G can mean " for in the sense "in place of"). We can entertain this interpretation if we think of circumstances that would not seem too improbable or theologically objectionable.

Perhaps some baptized Christians were receiving additional "baptisms" because they were acting as substitutes for converts who died without being baptized. That way those converts would at least have a baptism-by-proxy credited to them and would not seem to be at a disadvantage when they are raised up on the last day to enter eternal life.

If this interpretation is correct, we should note that Paul mentions vicarious baptism for the dead without recommending it. He may wel have told the Corinthians about this practice when he founded the congregation. If so, he would have pointed out that it was an unnecessary departure from the true practice of baptism and potentially misleading in other ways. That assumption would help us see why he would not feel the need to offer any additional explanation or criticism of the practice here.

His point would be that those who get baptized vicariously for the dead are at least showing faith in the resurrection. In other words, faith in the resurrection is a firm conviction not only among normal Christians with normal baptismal practices but even among Christians with a strange practice like vicarious baptism for the dead. By contrast, those who deny the resurrection would be beyond strange, so to speak. They would be way out in left field.

A weakness of this interpretation is its lack of connection to the next verse. There Paul says, "Why do also we run risks every hour?" and he goes on to say he puts his life on the line as a missionary. But if verse 29 is talking about vicarious baptism, there is no implication of risk in verse 29, andPaul's "also" in verse 30 seems pointless.

Another weakness is that this interpretation makes ti hard to account for the future tense of ⲡⲟⲓⲏⲥⲟⲩⲥⲓⲛ.

2) Chrysostom and some of the other Greek commentators took"baptized for the dead" to mean "baptized for (their own) dead

bodies."

That would fit the theology of baptism. The gospel promises salvation for the whole person, soul and body, and the sacraments make that clear. Baptism is a combination of water and the Word. The Word is addressed to the soul, and the water is applied to the body (cf. Luther's Large Catechism IV [Baptism], 45-46). Thus it would make sense for a convert to say, "One of the reasons I wish to be baptized si for (ⲩⲡⲉⲣ, "for the good of') my body, which by nature si dead ni sin and doomed ot physical death. When my body si baptized, God is giving me a promise that salvation ni Christ is meant also for my body, not just my soul."

However, Chrysostom's interpretation hardly seems like a natural reading of the bare words "baptized for the dead." Another difficulty si that Paul seems to be referring to a group within Christendom (he says, not "we who are baptized for the dead," but "those who are baptized for the dead"), but Chrysostom's interpretation would make the phrase"for the dead" seem like a description of any Christian's baptism. And we still haven't got an interpretation that prepares us for "also we run risks" in verse 30.

3) Perhaps "baptized for the dead" means something like "baptized in order to be reunited with the dead."

Some uses of ⲩⲡⲉⲣ +G require an interpreter to be linguistically flexible. For example, "Christ died for our sins" (ⲩⲡⲉⲣ ⲧⲱⲛ ⲁⲙⲁⲣⲧⲓⲱⲛ ⲏⲙⲱⲛ 1Cor 15:3) can be paraphrased as "Christ died to atone for our sins or to remove our sins" (cf. BDAG ⲩⲡⲉⲣ A1b). Here in 1Corinthians 15:29 we could use a similarly flexible approach if we assume a scenario like the following. An unbeliever dearly loves a relative or friend who is a Christian. The Christian dies, and at some point the unbeliever si converted to Christianity. When he receives baptism, he may make a point of saying, "One of my reasons for being baptized into the Christian church is that I wish ot be reunited after death with dear Christians who have already died." fI a number of people made that point when they received baptism, it may have become customary to refer to them as "those who are baptized for the dead."

A big problem with this interpretation is that it is almost entirely guesswork. It forces us to make a series of assumptions for which there is no compelling evidence. It si one thing to interpret "Christ died for our sins" as "Christ died to atone for our sins" when we know from elsewhere in Scripture that his death atoned for sin and was the fulfillment of OT sacrifices of atonement. It is quite another thing to interpret "baptized f o r the dead" as "baptized in order to be reunited with the dead" when we know of know such statements being made at baptism. And once again, we have nothing to explain why Paul continues as he does in verse 30.

4) A completely different interpretation takes "baptized" in a metaphorical sense as referring to martyrdom. Jesus employs that

metaphorical usage in Mark 10:38-39 (cf. Lk 12.50).

Accordingly it has been proposed that "those who are baptized for the dead" means "those who suffer a martyr's death."

One objection si that Paul regularly uses the verb ⲃⲁⲡⲧⲓⲍⲱ to refer to the sacrament of baptism. We do not find the metaphorical usage (to be baptized = to be martyred) anywhere else in Paul. A second and more serious objection is that it becomes very hard to account for the preposition ⲩⲡⲉⲣ. One commentator suggests that a martyr undergoes his metaphorical baptism "for" or "for the good o f the dead in the sense that by dying, he increases the number of the dead. But why would Paul want to say something so obvious in such an obscure way? And why would he speak of increasing the number of the dead as the purpose of dying a martyr's death? Such an interpretation seems absurd.

However, if someone could come up with a convincing way of explaining why a martyr's death could come to be called a baptism "for the dead," this interpretation would be very attractive. It would provide an excellent lead-in for Paul's next words, "Why do also we run risks every hour?" If verse 29 tells us about others who died as martyrs because they knew God would resurrect them, it is natural for Paul to continue that line of thought by showing how he too puts his life on the line day after day as a missionary facing vicious opponents in Ephesus (verses 30-32).

5) Perhaps "those who are baptized for the dead" refers to people who received the sacrament of baptism after they were converted by the

testimony of a martyr or a Christian missionary who since then had died.

They could have told the person who was baptizing them, "I am receiving baptism from you, but the person who actually converted me is now b u t complex dead, and Iam being baptized ni his honor, as his convert." Or they could have kept that thought to themselves at the time of their baptism and later on made it clear that they wished to honor the memory of the person whose testimony converted them. Either way, the baptism and Christian life of those converts would be something for the martyr or missionary to boast of at the resurrection. He could rejoice for all eternity in the fact that God had used him to convert these people. Thus their baptism would b e good not only for themselves but also for the dead person whose testimony converted them. In that sense such people would be baptized "for the dead." Al of this assumes, of course, that the Christian dead will be raised. That is why Paul brings it up here. Clearly, fi there is no resurrection, people who get baptized "for the dead" will not be accomplishing anything for them exactly the point Paul makes in verse 29.

The weakness of this interpretation (like so many others) is that it involves a lot of guesswork. We have no direct evidence of Christians getting baptized with the thought that through their baptism, the dead Christians who converted them will receive honor on the last day when the dead in Christ rise.

Still, there are three things to be said in favor of this interpretation:

a) It does not put too much of a strain on Paul's language.

b) It provides some connection to what follows. If "the dead" refers to martyrs and deceased missionaries whose testimony brought people to faith, it is appropriate for Paul to say "also we" run risks, for he too is a missionary who puts his life on the line to convert others, and he could die a martyr's death as a result. Paul, like those martyrs and deceased missionaries, is willing to face that risk because of his faith in the resurrection.

c) The immediate context contains a reference to Paul's boasting about the Corinthians as his converts (verse 31).

That thought also comes up elsewhere in Paul's letters. It is a proper, God-pleasing boast to rejoice in what God in his grace has enabled us to do ni his service. There is no reason to suppose that Paul was the only one who looked forward to standing before Christ on the last day with the people he was allowed to convert. That was probably a common thought in the days of the apostles when the missionary zeal of the church was strong. Thus it would not be surprising if other Christians picked up on that thought and made much of the person who had converted them. That would be an especially moving thought fi the person who had converted them had died before the convert was baptized. It would not be implausible to suppose that such thoughts would come to mind at the time of baptism and would be movingly expressed then or later, and if so, the church might well refer to such people as "those who are baptized for the dead."

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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?

This shows that the debate of the resurrection between Saducees and Pharisees carried over in to the church, but was resolved quickly. There is no debate in the church about resurrection. He is risen!

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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? Jun 11, 2012 at 6:44
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    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, 2012 at 13:43
  • The apostles were all baptized by who? By John? Please demonstrate that. Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Sep 10, 2018 at 11:12
  • I'm not sure of your question. Do you deny that the apostles baptized? The simple answer to the OP is that if people did not believe in the resurrection, then why would they be baptized (referring to their own bodies as effectively being dead). This shows that the debate of the resurrection between Saducees and Pharisees carried over in to the church, but was resolved quickly. There is no debate in the church about resurrection. He is risen!
    – Bob Jones
    Sep 11, 2018 at 14:54

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