baptism of the dead

by peacefulpete 22 Replies latest watchtower bible

  • peacefulpete

    The cryptic words of 1 Cor 15:29 have ellicited much discussion through the years. What did the writer mean, "baptism of the dead"? The answer may be locked up in the controversy over who wrote those words and when. My opinion is that the book, as most of the letters presently addresssed to congregations, has undergone extensive editing and redaction by both Marcion/Marcionite and later orthodox teachers. It does not seem irrelevant that the practice of baptising in proxy for the dead was a Marcionite sacrement. It may be that the later orthodox editors reworked the context a bit to put the practice in a negative light. The "they" perhaps referring back to those who earlier in the book deny the resurrection are now exposed as hypocrits for persisting in this ritual that endorsed the idea of a resurrection. Tertullian understood the words in that context. Writing about A.D. 180 , he makes this comment on 1 Corinthians 15:29 ? ?His [Paul?s] only aim in alluding to it was that he might all the more firmly insist upon the resurrection of the body, in proportion as they who were vainly baptized for the dead resorted to the practice from their belief of such a resurrection."

    The inclusion of the phrase by an orthodox editor or Paul himself, without explanation, seems unlikely. The Phrase seems in my reckoning to best be attributed to Marcion, or one of his school, to support the practice then current.

  • Midget-Sasquatch


    From the bit I read up on this matter, I never came across anything showing that this was a practice in Paul's time, only later. So it does make alot of sense that verse 29 was a marcionite redaction.

    This writing shows that the Marcionites (at that time anyway ~ late 4th century) were using the verse to legitimize it:

    What then is that which he means? Or will ye that I should first mention how they who are infected with the Marcionite heresy pervert this expression? And I know indeed that I shall excite much laughter; nevertheless, even on this account most of all I will mention it that you may the more completely avoid this disease: viz., when any catechumen departs among them, having concealed the living man under the couch of the dead, they approach the corpse and talk with him, and ask him if he wishes to receive baptism; then when he makes no answer, he that is concealed underneath saith in his stead that of course he should wish to be baptized; and so they baptize him instead of the departed, like men jesting upon the stage. So great power hath the devil over the souls of careless sinners. Then being called to account, they allege this expression, saying that even the Apostle hath said, "They who are baptized for the dead. Seest thou their extreme ridiculousness?" (St John Chrysostom, Homily XL, on 1 Corinthians)
  • DevonMcBride

    Isn't this a practice of the Mormons'?


  • Deputy Dog
    Deputy Dog


    I admit verse 29 seems a little out of place. So, if we were to take it out, would it change the point Paul was trying to make?

    Another thing about this verse that's odd, is that this is the verse the Mormons use to support their baptising for the dead. I wonder who else practices this today?

    D Dog

  • jeanniebeanz
    Isn't this a practice of the Mormons'?


  • Leolaia

    I'm sorry to say that I just wrote a very lengthy and detailed reply to this post which went into some of the academic debate on this verse and whether it fits in its context or not, and whether the author was referring to vicarious baptism or something else, but my computer just froze and I lost the whole damn thing (damn Windoz!!). I just spent 2 1/2 hours writing it and I am not going to attempt to redo unfortunately, it's your loss (and mine as well). I'll just say that the vicarious baptism interpretation is rather problematic and if the preposition huper + GEN is read with a causal or respective sense ("on account of") rather than a representative or substitutionary one ("on behalf of"), the passage makes rather good sense and fits well not only with the immediate context (especially v. 30-32) but also with the epistle of 1 Corinthians as a whole. In fact, without v. 29 the following verses of v. 30-32 do not make as much sense. The vocabulary and style of the passage also is consistent with the rest of 1 Corinthians; the adverb holós "truly" in v. 29 for instance, is extremely rare in the NT (and in the LXX as well) and occurs outside of this passage only in Matthew 5:34 and 1 Corinthians 5:1 and 6:7. Rather than try to reconstruct my post, I'll just refer you to Joel R. White's 1997 JBL article ("Baptized on Account of the Dead: The Meaning of 1 Corinthians 5:29 in Its Context") and the earlier 1981 paper by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor on the subject.

    As for Marcion, since he clearly was influenced by the Pauline correspondence, one would also need to argue why the passage could not have been pre-Marcionite and influenced him.

  • Deputy Dog
    Deputy Dog

    John Gill's comments

    1Co 15:29

    - Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead,.... The apostle here returns to his subject, and makes use of new arguments to prove the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and reasons for it from the baptism of some persons; but what is his sense, is not easy to be understood, or what rite and custom, or thing, or action he refers to; which must, be either Jewish baptism, or Christian baptism literally taken, or baptism in a figurative and metaphorical sense. Some think that he refers to some one or other of the divers baptisms of the Jews; see Heb_9:10 and particularly to the purification of such who had touched a dead body, which was done both by the ashes of the red heifer burnt, and by bathing himself in water; and which, the Jews say (l) , intimated לתחיית המתים , "the resurrection of the dead": wherefore such a right was needless, if there is no resurrection; to strengthen this sense, a passage in Ecclesiasticus 34:25 is produced, βαπτιζομενος απο νεκρου , "he that washeth himself after the touching of a dead body, if he touch it again, what availeth his washing?" but the phrase there used is different; it is not said, he that baptizeth or washeth himself for the dead, but from the dead, to cleanse himself from pollution received by the touch of a dead body: it is also observed, that the Jews, as well as other nations, have used various rites and ceremonies about their dead, and among the rest, the washing of dead bodies before interment; see Act_9:37 and this by some is thought to be what is here referred to; and the reasoning is, if there is no resurrection of the dead, why all this care of a dead body? why this washing of it? it may as well be put into the earth as it is, since it will rise no more; but how this can be called a baptism for the dead, I see not: rather therefore Christian baptism, or the ordinance of water baptism is here respected; and with regard to this, interpreters go different ways: some think the apostle has in view a custom of some, who when their friends died without baptism, used to be baptized in their room; this is said to be practised by the Marcionites in Tertullian's time, and by the Corinthians in the times of the Apostle John; but it does not appear to have been in use in the times of the Apostle Paul; and besides, if it had been, as it was a vain and superstitious one, he would never have mentioned it without a censure, and much less have argued from it; nor would his argument be of any weight, since it might be retorted, that whereas such persons were mistaken in using such a practice, they might be also in the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead: others are of opinion that such persons are intended, called Clinics, who deferred their baptism till they came upon their death beds, and then had it administered to them; but as this practice was not in being in the apostle's time, and was far from being a laudable one; and though the persons to whom it was administered were upon the point of death, and nearer the dead than the living, and were as good as dead, and might be intended by them, for their advantage, when dead and not living; yet it must be a great force and strain on words and things, to reckon this a being baptized for the dead: others would have the words rendered, "over the dead"; and suppose that reference is had to the Christians that had their "baptisteries" in their places of burial, and by being baptized here, testified their faith and hope of the resurrection of the dead; but this was rather a being baptized among the dead, than over them, or for them; and moreover it is not certain, that they did make use of such places to baptize in; to which may be added, that the primitive Christians had not so early burying grounds of their own: others would have the meaning to be, that they were baptized for their dead works, their sins, to wash them away; but this baptism does not of itself, and no otherwise than by leading the faith of persons to the blood of Christ, which alone cleanses from sin, original and actual; nor is this appropriate to the apostle's argument. Others imagine, that he intends such as were baptized, and added to the church, and so filled up the places of them that were dead; but the reason from hence proving the resurrection of the dead is not very obvious: those seem to be nearer the truth of the matter, who suppose that the apostle has respect to the original practice of making a confession of faith before baptism, and among the rest of the articles of it, the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, upon the belief of which being baptized, they might be said to be baptized for the dead; that is, for, or upon, or in the faith and profession of the resurrection of the dead, and therefore must either hold this doctrine, or renounce their baptism administered upon it; to which may be added another sense of the words, which is, that baptism performed by immersion, as it was universally in those early times, was a lively emblem and representation of the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and also both of the spiritual and corporeal resurrection of the saints. Now if there is no resurrection, why is such a symbol used? it is useless and insignificant; I see nothing of moment to be objected to these two last senses, which may be easily put together, but this; that the apostle seems to point out something that was done or endured by some Christians only; whereas baptism, upon a profession of faith in Christ, and the resurrection from the dead, and performed by immersion, as an emblem of it, was common to all; and therefore he would rather have said, what shall we do, or we all do, who are baptized for the dead? I am therefore rather inclined to think that baptism is used here in a figurative and metaphorical sense, for afflictions, sufferings, and martyrdom, as in Mat_20:22 and it was for the belief, profession, and preaching of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, both of Christ and of the saints, that the apostles and followers of Christ endured so much as they did; the first instance of persecution after our Lord's ascension was on this account. The Apostles Peter and John, were laid hold on and put in prison for preaching this doctrine; the reproach and insult the Apostle Paul met with at Athens were by reason of it; and it was for this that he was called in question and accused of the Jews; nor was there anyone doctrine of Christianity more hateful and contemptible among the Heathens than this was. Now the apostle's argument stands thus, what is, or will become of those persons who have been as it were baptized or overwhelmed in afflictions and sufferings, who have endured so many and such great injuries and indignities, and have even lost their lives for asserting this doctrine,

    if the dead rise not at all

    ? how sadly mistaken must such have been!

    why are they then baptized for the dead

    ? how imprudently have they acted! and what a weak and foolish part do they also act, who continue to follow them! in what a silly manner do they expose themselves to danger, and throw away their lives, if this doctrine is not true! which sense is confirmed by what follows: the Alexandrian copy, and some others, read, "for them", and so the Vulgate Latin version; and the Ethiopic in both clauses reads, "why do they baptize?"


    R. Bechai & Zohar apud Lightfoot in loc.

    I never heard of the washing of dead body thing being thought of as a baptism before.

    D Dog

  • Midget-Sasquatch


    Sorry to hear about the blasted Windows glitch ... I want to thank you for all that work and that was an informative synopsis nonetheless. I also agree that vs.30-32 would read disjointed from the preceding text without something starting off that list of examples. So the verse isn't a simple insertion - yeah I see that.

    But to yourself or anyone:

    Since I haven't read this exact expression of "baptism for the dead" (be it causative or substitutionary) in any of the other pauline material, I wonder why he didn't elaborate on the meaning. How does this idea strike you? At Rom 6:3 Paul writes about being baptized into Jesus' death. Perhaps the verse originally had a similar notion of we being baptized into the dead etc. That was then redacted by a group (be it Marcionites or those Corinthians that supposedly practiced proxy baptism - thanks Deputy Dog for that commentary info).

    The use of they and not we is a problem in that verse with any kind of inclusive explanation one may put forward.

  • peacefulpete

    Hey everyone. I am so limited in my response time right now. Leolaia just how is the 'vicarious' interpretation "problematic" other than it creates questions and controversy. Certainly the interpretation and practice were not viewed as a problem by Marcionites. The books of 1/2 Cor and others have a number of likely Marcionite inclusions, (1 Cor 7:1, 2:8, 2 Cor 12:2 eg.)and the works alos underwent extensisve redaction by the later orthodoxy, so that this verse stylistically fits is no surprise. I do agree that it is posssible that Paul himself wrote the words and many others attributed by some to Marcion. My hypothesis seemed a little less radical. I've been working on that.

  • Leolaia

    White mentions four main difficulties: (1) The lack of contextual mooring of the text if vicarious baptism is meant (cf. Murphy-O'Connor's analysis). This could constitute positive evidence of the passage being an interpolation or it could indicate that the vicarious interpretation is incorrect. The evidence for an interpolation would at least depend on the vicarious reading; (2) If vicarious baptism is meant, the rhetorical argument is obscure. How does a group that performs a ritual for the sake of the dead (presumably for their salvation) also deny the existence of a resurrection? As I mentioned in my lost post, this problem might not have the force White believes it does, considering a 1995 JBL article by DeMaris that discusses archaeological and literary evidence for syncretistic chthonic cults in Corinth, e.g. the Demeter cult. (3) More weighty is the lack of any historical evidence for any such practice, apart from Marcion who himself was influenced by this text. (4) If the practice is a local syncretism, it is rhetorically strange for the author to allude to this semi-pagan practice as a proof of the existence of the resurrection, as if he himself recognized the validity of the practice. This stands in contrast to the stern admonition against idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10:1-22 and for the entire "church" to have the "same" spiritual food and drink. The vicarious reading is also weak because it depends entirely on how the preposition huper + GEN is interpreted. It also fails to take note of the contrast within v. 29 between "the dead" (tón nekrón) for whom the Corinthians are baptized and the "truly dead" (holós nekroi) who would be raised in the resurrection.

    White's suggestion is to recognize that the comparison between the "dead" and the "truly dead" implies that the former are metaphorically dead and to interpret huper + GEN as a causal or respective "on account of" instead of the representative "on the behalf of," upon which the vicarious reading depends. This would mean that the Corinthians are baptized not on the behalf of the dead but because of them or on their account. White thus renders v. 29 as the following: "Otherwise what would those do who are baptized on account of dead persons (huper tón nekrón)? For if even truly dead persons (ei holós nekroi) are not raised, why at all (ti kai) are people being baptized on account of them (autón)?" Interestingly, the Majority text and other witnesses has tón nekrón instead of autón in the last clause, which strengthens the contrast between the "dead" and the "truly dead" than the ambiguous autón which could refer to either (tho syntagmatically it corresponds to the first tón nekrón).

    Understanding "the dead" as metaphorical fits the local and broader context, for Paul frequently likens suffering to death and goes on to say in the next verse: "Why at all (ti kai) are we in danger at every hour. I am dying every day" (v. 30-31). The ti kai in v. 30 continues the thought of the ti kai clause in v. 29, likening being in danger continually with being baptized on account of dead persons, and then Paul asserts that he himself dies every day -- clearly a metaphor of death as suffering, suggesting that Paul is one of those "dead persons" on whose account the Corinthians were baptized. This metaphor extends to the apostles in general:

    "For I think God has exhibited us apostles last, as men under the sentence of death, for we have become a spectacle to the whole world, to angels and to men" (1 Corinthians 4:9).

    This thought of a "spectacle" in a Roman arena connects directly to 15:29-32, where Paul refers to his struggle as like fighting "beasts in Ephesus". Similar language of death as suffering is used in 2 Corinthians:

    "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life....We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you... As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots ... dying, and yet we live on" (2 Corinthians 2:14-16, 4:9-12, 6:1-10).

    Paul has a propensity to identify his sufferings with those of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7-12), and in 1 Corinthians 15, the passage about "baptism on account of the dead" is sandwiched between references to Christ's suffering and death and Paul's suffering and metaphorical death. The implications are the same for each:

    [1] "For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost" (1 Corinthians 15:16-18).
    [2] "What would those do who are baptized on account of dead persons? For if even truly dead persons are not raised, why at all are people being baptized on account of them?" (1 Corinthians 15:29).
    [3] "I die every day?I mean that, brothers?just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die' " (1 Corinthians 15:31-32).

    In its context, v. 29 would first refer to Christians being baptized on account of "dead persons". This goes back to v. 16-18 which mentions "Christ" not being raised -- Christ would remain a "dead person" if there is no resurrection -- and "those who have fallen asleep in Christ", who would also remain "dead". If there is no resurrection, those being baptized today are being baptized on account of the dead -- Christ and those who died in him. Then the next verse intensifies this further: "For if even truly dead persons are not raised, why at all are people being baptized on account of them?" The ambiguous pronoun and the specification of the "truly dead" implies that people are being fruitlessly baptized on account of not just the "truly dead" (Christ, those who died in Christ) but also the metaphorically dead, the apostles who are under a "death sentence" (1 Corinthians 4:9) and Paul himself who "dies daily" (v. 31). On this reading, v. 29 fits perfectly in its context, referring back to v. 16-18 as well as anticipating Paul's declaration (indeed, using an oath formula) in v. 31 that he is among those who are "dead".

    Regarding the translation of huper + GEN as "on account of," the construction has this sense in 1 Corinthians 10:30 ("Why am I denounced on account of something [huper hou] I thank God for"), Romans 15:8-9, 2 Corinthians 12:8, and especially in situations involving suffering such as 2 Corinthians 12:10; Philippians 1:29; 2 Thessalonians 1:5; Ephesians 1:16, 5:20; Acts 5:41, 9:16, 15:26, 21:13. Philippians 1:29 is interesting because it employs both senses of huper + GEN: "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ (huper Khristou) not only to believe on him, but also to suffer on account of him (huper autou)". There is also the possibility of a metaphorical understanding of baptism, with "baptism on account of the dead" being along the lines of "suffering on account of Christ", if we look to texts like Mark 10:38-39 and Romans 6:3-4 which liken baptism to martyrdom and death ("We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death").

    The notion of being baptized on account of the dead also has important ties to the discussion in ch. 1 of 1 Corinthians. Christ was the one who died in whose name people were being baptized, and it is on his account that people were being baptized in him. But by implying that people were being baptized on account of both the "dead" and the "truly dead" and by implying that he and the apostles die as well, Paul seems to suggest that it is on his account too that the Corinthians were being baptized. According to 1 Corinthians 3:5-6 and 4:15, Paul is their father in the faith, the one through whom they heard the gospel and believed:

    "What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe?as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow...Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel" (1 Corinthians 3:15-16, 4:15).

    Yet Paul strenuously resists the implication that people would be baptized into him, into Paul's name, and he notes that he himself performed few baptisms in Corinth:

    "Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul (eis to onoma Paulou)? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (1 Corinthians 1:13-17).

    The wording of 15:29 may thus reflect this earlier discussion in the epistle, in that huper + GEN avoids the connotations of eis + ACC, a phrase that is reserved for Christ (cf. "baptized into Christ" in Romans 6:3, Galatians 3:27, and the corresponding "baptized into Moses" in 1 Corinthians 10:2). That is, Paul likens his suffering and ongoing death to that of Christ while maintaining some distance between himself as the apostle of Christ and Christ himself. Had he said "baptized into the dead" and then went on to say "I die every day" that might smack too much of the "boasting" which he says he tries to avoid (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:29-31, 9:16; 2 Corinthians 10:8-20).

    White's analysis is interesting because it makes a plausible case for understanding v. 29 within its context, with links backwards to v. 16-18 and forward to v. 31-32, as well as to Paul's reference to the apostles being sentenced to death in 4:9, Paul's earlier reference to himself as the father of the Corinthian church in 3:15-16, 4:15 (so in a sense, it is also on his account that the Corinthians were being baptized), and his earlier discussion of baptism in 1:13-17. It also eliminates a reference to a mysterious practice not otherwise known to have existed (except through Marcion's presumed interpretation of the given text), and resolves the rhetorical difficulties mentioned earlier.

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