32

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?

  • 2
    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
  • 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. – Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 18:44
  • Is there any trace of this practice outside 1 Corinthians in the first century ? – user5799 Aug 27 '14 at 10:37
17

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.

  • 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
7

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

5

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.

  • 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. – 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
2

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.

2

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.

1

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.

1

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

  • 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. – Jon Ericson Sep 11 '18 at 18:46
0

To be baptized for the dead means to put to death our carnal man (cravings) through a daily early evening baptism of our bodies, including the brushing of our teeth.

Luke 9:23 (NIV) Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me".

Rom 6:4 (NIV) "We were ... buried with him through baptism into death".

Gal 5:24 (NIV) "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires".

1 Peter 3:21 (NIV) "and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also - not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God".

-1

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!

  • 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
  • 1
    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
  • The apostles were all baptized by who? By John? Please demonstrate that. Thanks. – Ruminator Sep 10 '18 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 '18 at 14:54

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