Baptism for the Dead

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? (1 Cor. 15:29)

The fifteenth chapter of of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has long been regarded as one of the most thorough theological statements in the whole of the New Testaments. In it Paul mounts a brilliant polemic against those who doubt, distort, or otherwise disregard the validity and centrality of the doctrine of the resurrection. In typical fashion, the apostle weaves a technicolored tapestry from several threads in order to clothe the Corinthians in sound doctrine. From the historical to the biblical, and from the existential to the eschatological, he sews the whole of the gospel with the golden strand of life from the dead. In a very real sense, Paul isn’t arguing so much to the resurrection as he is arguing from the resurrection. That is, for him the resurrection of Christ (and consequently those in Christ) is the ground of everything else. As Pelikan once shrewdly observed, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.”

Also typical of Paul is the presence of certain textual difficulties. Paul’s erudition is often the source of as much confusion as it is clarification. Indeed as Peter remarked, Paul often uttered many things that are understood only through considerable labor. But to be fair, this is not entirely his fault. He assumed a certain biblical foundation, rooted in the history of Israel and Israel’s Scriptures, that is largely ignored by most contemporary readers. Moderns, with our usual sense of pride and chronological snobbery, squint at Paul’s strange statements and attempt to interpret them through a hazy, Western lens that would have been foreign (if not contemptible) to the aged to apostle. In his defense, our ignorance should not be held against him.

One prevalent example is found in 1 Corinthians 15:29 where Paul speaks of “baptism for the dead.” “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?” What in the world is that all about?

I would like to offer what I deem to be the most plausible interpretation to this admittedly ambiguous text. I hope to do so within while operating within the same framework from which I believe Paul was working. Namely, from the Bible itself.

One of the difficulties which the text presents is that Paul seems to be arguing with reference to certain practices by those outside the Church. This seems to be fairly evident from the context of the passage. Throughout the letter, Paul refers to the Christians at Corinth as “brethren.” He also refers to them by the use of the second-person, plural pronoun “you” (1 Cor. 15:1). But when we come to the text in question, Paul does not refer to those who practice “baptism from the dead” either as “brethren” or by the pronoun “you.” Rather, he switches to the third-person plural and refers to them as “those…who are baptized for the dead.” However, this presents its own set of problems. Paul is appealing to the practice of a group outside the Church while maintaining that such a practice holds some sort of authority over the practice of those within the Church. But how could a non-Christian rite inform (and even conform) Christian understanding? Perhaps the answer to the dilemma is found, not by examining various cultic practices in vogue in Corinth, but through understanding the general continuity of Paul’s arguments from biblical theology.

Paul seems to drop a hint in verse 30 as to the identity of “those” mentioned in verse 29. He speaks of a people who place him “in danger every hour.” These are “those” who are baptized for the dead. If we can ascertain their identity it’s possible that we are well on our way to cracking the this textual nut. Who is it whose practices are in some way authoritative for the Church, yet they themselves stand outside the Church? Who is it that accuse, abuse, and endanger Paul at every turn? The most plausible answer seems to be the Jews or the Judaizers of the day.

This fits all of the data. The Jewish Scriptures and practices both formed and informed Christianity, even though they were greatly transformed through the Messiah. Multiple passages in the NT reflect the regulating influence of the OT with regard to worship and ritual. As a matter of fact, “baptism” was not even the invention of the New Covenant order; baptisms were a longstanding practice in the Old Covenant economy. Consider the words from the author to the epistle to the Hebrews:

“The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the time then present, according to which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they related only to fool and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the flesh imposed until a time of reformation” (Heb. 9:8-10).

The “various washings” mentioned in Hebrews 9:10 corresponds to the many “instructions about washings (baptisms)” in Hebrews 6:2. The question then arises, which baptisms are in view in the mind of the author of Hebrews? The context makes it clear. He elucidates further in 9:13 as he mentions “the blood of bulls and goats and the sprinkled ashes of a heifer.” The author considers the sprinkled blood and sprinkled water at the inauguration of the Mosaic administration as “baptisms ” (Heb. 9:19; Ex. 24:8).  He also connects this to the “baptism” of priests for holy office (Ex. 24:6).

For our discussion, the most interesting feature of the argument in Hebrews is that which speaks of the “ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled” as one of Israel’s “baptisms.” This allusion is from Numbers 19 wherein a baptism is prescribed for those Jews who have come into contact with dead persons. The ashes themselves were referred to as “water to remove impurity” (Num. 19:9).  A person who comes in contact with a dead person, or shares the same roof with a dead person, had death communicated to him, and thus needed to undergo the baptism of the water/ashes before being permitted to rejoin the living in the assembly of God. This should be a familiar theme to Christians, because baptism in fact marks the Christian’s resurrection from death to life. This is the burden of Paul’s argument in Romans 6:3-9 and Colossians 2:12. That is, in baptism we are united with the death of Jesus Christ, and so partake of the resurrection of our Lord. We move from death to life in baptism, just as the Hebrews portrayed the movement from death to life in the baptism of the sprinkled heifer ashes.

Another issue that often gives interpreters pause is the usage of the Greek term huper in 1 Cor. 15:29 where the word is rendered “for,” as in “baptized for the dead.” The common assumption is that this must mean “on behalf of” or “in the place of.” But the term need not be understood in this fashion at all. It would be quite proper to render the phrase as “baptized on account of the dead” or “baptized because of the dead.” This would be in keeping with the earlier usage of the term in vers 3 where Paul speaks of Christ having died “for” our sins. That is, he died on account of our sins, because of our sins—not for the benefit of our sins.

Considering his grammar, along with the copious evidence from Hebrews, it seems most plausible that Paul was speaking of the practices of the Jews who were regularly ritually “baptized on account of the dead.”  Still you say, what hath this to do with the resurrection? I leave the last word to the one of the venerable dead who too saw Paul’s logic tied to the ceremonies of Israel:

“If there be no resurrection what shall they do who receive this purification by water and the ashes of the heifer from the ceremonial uncleanness incurred on account of the corpses of their dead brethren and neighbors which they have aided to shroud and bury? If there be no resurrection, would there be any sense or reason in this scriptural requirement of a baptism? Wherein would these human corpses differ from the bodies of goats, sheep, and bullocks, dressed for food, without ceremonial uncleanness? Had Moses, inspired of God, not believed in the resurrection, he would not have ordained such a baptism as necessarily following the funeral of a human being. His doctrine is, that the guilt of sin is what pollutes a human being, the soul spiritually, and even the material body ceremonially; that bodily death is the beginning of the divine penalty for that guilt: that hence where that penalty strikes it makes its victim a polluted thing {herein). Hence even the man who touches it is vicariously polluted, as he would not be by the handling of any other material clod, and so needs purification. For all this points directly to man’s immortality, with its future rewards and punishments; and these affecting not only the spirit but the body which is for a time laid away in the tomb, to be again reanimated and either to share the continued penalty of sin, or, through faith to be cleansed from it by the blood of Christ, and thus made to re-enter the New Jerusalem.” ~R. L. Dabney


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