The caption is the Greek expression from 1 Cor. 15:29 rendered “which are baptized for the dead” in the KJV. What is Paul talking about here? There are lots of places where we Mormons read our own theology into a passage and see in it what we want to see. But this is one where the most natural reading is in fact the Mormon one, referring to “those who are baptized on behalf of the dead” in a proxy sense. Paul alludes to the practice neutrally, neither affirming nor rejecting it; that the Corinthians did such a thing was simply a part of his argument in favor of a physical resurrection.
Since I’m well aware of our own scripture interpretation follies, I have to admit that I find it more than a little amusing to see the incredible exegetical gymnastics people will go through who don’t want to accept the natural reading. Some have suggested that there has been on the order of 40 different interpretations of what those words mean, and others have put the number at more like 200. I’ve thought it would be fun to try to catalog all 200 or so (if that number really exists), but in the meantime here are 15 to give you a taste:
1. Theodore Beza (1605), H. Bullinger (1575) and J. Cocceius (1669) interpret it as a washing of the corpse. [Neither the syntax nor lexicography supports.]
2. John Lightfoot takes it as referring to dying martyrs. [Rejected by Wolff, Der Erste Brief, 392].
3. Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas de Lyra (d. 1349) take it as referring to mortal sins, for the sake of which people are baptized. [Anachronistic.]
4. Luther takes huper in a local sense (“above”) referring to baptisms occurring over the tombs or graves of the dead. [Local sense requires accusative case, not genitive; no historical evidence.]
5. Bengel, Flacius and Calvin follow church father Epiphanius in seeing this as the baptism of those on their deathbeds. [Forces the Greek.]
6. H. Olshausen and Preisker take it as referring to those baptized to fill the place of those who had died. [Foreign to Paul.]
7. John Edwards (1692) takes it as referring to those who were baptized after witnessing the deaths of martyrs.
8. Chrysostom, Theophylact, Photius and Erasmus think it refers to the creed and the belief in baptism which it represents.
9. Some, such as W.E. Vine, change the sentence structure to give it a different meaning, as in “Otherwise what will they achieve who are being baptized? Something merely for their dead bodies?”
10. J. Murphy-O’Connor says it refers to the opponents’ attitude towards Paul, which he turns around on them.
11. Thiselton thinks it refers to those baptized as a result of a desire to be united with their believing relatives who had died.
12. Most of the Greek fathers thought “the dead” referred to one’s own body.
13. Richard DeMaris sees it as a “rite of passage” influenced by Greco-Roman models.
14. J.P. Holding sees the “dead” as standing metaphorically for the apostles.
15. George Olsen believes it refers to the actual baptism of corpses(!)