This entry is part 70 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
What will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they baptized for them?
As Thiselton (Shorter Commentary) says, Paul’s main point is clear enough:
“baptism for the dead” (whatever this means in detail) would be pointless and senseless if there were no resurrection. But since, evidently, they have themselves baptized for the sake of the dead, either some people tacitly assume the truth of the resurrection or else their action is self-contradictory.
As to the precise and detailed meaning, commentators from Poole to Hodge to Verbrugge have been willing express a degree of agnosticism.
Here are some of the alternatives.
1. Paul is using an ad hominem argument
Barrett suggests that this difficult verse refers to a practice (noted, but not approved by Paul) amongst the Corinthians of vicarious baptism. It may that in a time of epidemic, for example, a number of people had believed in Christ but had not had an opportunity to be baptised. There were some among the Corinthians who would undergo baptism on their behalf. Paul is then using an ‘ad hominem’ argument (note the ‘as for us’ in v30):- ‘What would be the point of some of you being baptised on behalf of the deceased, if there is no afterlife?’ It is important to recognise that Paul is not focussing on baptism at all here; he is focussing on resurrection. And this is one of a series of ‘if-then’ arguments that he uses to show the Corinthians how ridiculous it was on their own grounds for some of them to deny the resurrection.
Soards also favours the ad hominem approach, while expressing uncertainty about the type of baptism being referred to:
Paul refers to the practice of some in Corinth of being baptized in behalf of the dead. Whether this means they were baptized for their own dead bodies, or for the saints of the OT who died before Christ, or for family and friends who were on their way to being baptized because they believed in Christ but died before baptism, is impossible to determine and irrelevant for grasping Paul’s point.
R.E.O. White, similarly, thinks that Paul is using an ad hominem argument:
First Corinthians 15:29 remains an enigma, although over thirty “explanations” have been suggested. Substituting alternative phrases-baptism for “the spiritually dead,” “the dying,” “in memory of the departed,” or others-merely multiplies problems. Vicarious baptisms for the benefit of the dead, practiced on the fringe of Christianity from the second century, illustrate the influence of this verse, but not Paul’s meaning. Paul is arguing that if Jesus has not risen, then Christian faith, preaching, remission, hope, are all vain; so is “baptism for the dead.” He cannot mean Christian baptism, for none of its conditions or benefits, as Paul expounds them, can be affirmed of the dead. Besides, the following phrase (“And as for us.” NIV; “And we ourselves.” neb) dissociates Paul and his colleagues from the practice.
If docetic type Christians infected the church at Corinth, they may have accepted baptism for departed souls: but how would that prove bodily resurrection? Similarly, some Dionysian rites and some practices of the mystery religions were held to ensure access, and safe journeying, in the spiritual world, even for those already dead. And Paul could argue from pagan parallels without immediately condemning them (see, e.g., 1 Cor 10:20-22). But this analogy again does not necessarily imply bodily resurrection.
Yet even as a Pharisee Paul could not conceive a disembodied immortality, leaving the surviving personality incomplete. (see 2 Cor 5:1-4) Is he then arguing that even pagans, if their baptism for the dead be properly understood, testify unconsciously to a bodily resurrection?’ (EDBT)
If Paul is referring to vicarious baptism, why does he not condemn it? Morris answers:
It is perhaps significant that, while Paul does not stop to condemn the practice of which he speaks here, he dissociates himself from it (‘what will those do …?’; contrast ‘why do we endanger ourselves …?’, v. 30). He simply mentions the practice as taking place, and asks what meaning it can possibly have if the dead do not rise.
According to Blomberg, there is some evidence that such proxy baptisms did take place in the early (as well as the later) days of the church. ‘Paul neither condemns nor condones such a practice but argues for its irrelevance if Christ is not raised. In other words, those who are baptizing people on behalf of the dead contradict their own theology that denies the resurrection.’
2. Baptism was being practice on behalf of believers who had died before they could be baptized
Of the dozens of interpretations that have been proposed, Brauch (HSB) thinks that only two have any viability:
(1) some Christians in Corinth (presumably persons who had already undergone their own baptism) were undergoing the rite on behalf of dead relatives or friends;
(2) the rite was being practiced on behalf of persons who were Christians, but who had died before baptism was administered.
If the first of these is accepted, then Paul’s argument is ad hominem, as noted above, because the beliefs entailed would be alien to those taught by him. But, according to Ciampa and Rosner, there is no evidence, either from Christian or pagan sources, that vicarious baptism was ever carried out in the days of the early church.
Schreiner is sympathetic to the second of these. But the objection is that in the apostolic period baptism usually took place very soon after an individual’s profession of faith (Acts 2:37–41; 8:34–38; 10:44–48; 16:29–33). There would not have been must time for converts to die!
3. Baptism looked forward to resurrection life shared with believers who had already died
Ciampa and Rosner, in their rather thorough discussion of this passage, think that the word translated ‘for’ may mean, in context, ‘on account of’. According to their preferred interpretation, Paul’s meaning is something like: ‘Why are people being baptised, if they have no hope of joining in fellowship with believers who have pre-deceased them?’ This approach, they claim, is consistent with Paul’s emphasis on resurrection in this chapter, and is also consistent with his teaching in 2 Cor 5:2; Phil 1:21 and elsewhere.
The same commentators quote Hull:
We “can almost hear Paul bellowing: ‘Look at those eager baptismal candidates. Look at their faith. It was once yours. They believe all that I preached about Jesus. They do not doubt that many persons including myself have seen him alive after death. They do not doubt that those among us who have fallen asleep will rise on the last day. As a matter of fact, it is their firm faith in the resurrection of Christ and of his death that moves them to baptism. That is what they believe. That is what you once believed. Come back to your senses!’ ”
4. Part of the meaning of baptism is that it shares in the testimony of believers who have already departed this life
Thiselton (Shorter Commentary) also thinks that ‘for’ should be understood here as meaning, ‘for the sake of’. He is sympathetic to the view just mentioned, viz. that part of the motivation of those being baptised was that they ‘wanted to be united with their Christian loved ones who had died. Hence they sought baptism for the sake of the dead in the sense of their wanting to join them in the future life, which formed part of their motivation for baptism.’
On balance, however, Thiselton thinks that
the practice is most likely to reflect the dying testimony of those who witnessed to Christ with radiant confidence on their deathbeds. These may have been loved ones or simply radiant Christians. Death strips away pretense. If such Christians could face death with joyful anticipation of resurrection with Christ, this may well have led some to full commitment to Christ and to baptism. Paul asks: Do you no longer share their confidence in being raised with Christ? If you doubt the resurrection, why were you baptized?
5. Paul is referring to those who are baptized in the very teeth of death
‘The meaning I like best is, “What shall they do who are baptized with the certainty that immediately after baptism they will be dragged away to die – baptized in the very teeth of death?” For as soon as anyone was baptized, the Romans would be looking after him, to drag him away to death. Thus they were baptized as if they were being washed for their burial and dedicating themselves to the grave.’ (The Best of Spurgeon, 331)
6. Paul is referring to ‘spiritual’, rather than to physical, death
Verbrugge inclines to the view that spiritual, rather than physical death is in mind here. Paul would then questioning the logic of people who were dead in sin believing that they had been raised to life in Christ (as symbolised by baptism), if that life was snuffed out when the body died.