hoi baptizomenoi huper tOn nekrOn

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(!)

Comments

  1. I have always wondered about this, and have stumped many a Christian friend by asking. Thank you!

  2. Kevin, I once heard a youth minister explain that this verse was Paul’s condemnation of the practice of baptism for the dead – that there were heathens performing baptisms for the dead, and Paul was rejecting that local heathen practice. Of course, this means that Paul was seeing the future and prophetically rejecting Mormonism, as well. He made an impassioned and compelling argument . . .

    as long as nobody actually read the preceding 28 verses in context.

    In context, I agree that there simply isn’t a way to read it logically outside the standard Mormon interpretation.

  3. The Only Jewish Anti-Mormon site I have ever seen had perhaps the most compelling response, that the Baptism for the Dead was actually Mikvah for touching a dead body, but it doesn’t go with “If the dead rise not at all”

  4. My favorite is:

    “We don’t understand what it does mean, but we are certain that it doesn’t mean what you Mormons think it does.”

  5. Let us not forget the New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witnesses) version:

    29 Otherwise, what will they do who are being baptized for the purpose of [being] dead ones? If the dead are not to be raised up at all, why are they also being baptized for the purpose of [being] such?

  6. I remember as a missionary making a copy of the page from Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible for this verse because he goes through a bunch of the interpretive contortions and shuts them all down. I’m looking forward to your catalog of all 200.

  7. Thanks for this valuable inventory, Kevin.

    For anyone who may be interested, here is a portion of the entry in Buck’s theological dictionary which Joseph Smith used in his own article on baptism for the dead in the Times and Seasons . . .

    BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD, a practice formerly in use, when a person dying without baptism, another was baptized in his stead; thus supposing that God would accept the baptism of the proxy, as though it had been administered to the principal. Chrysostom says, this was practised among the Marcionites with a great deal of ridiculous ceremony, which he thus describes:—After any catechumen was dead, they hid a living man under the bed of the deceased; then, coming to the dead man, they asked him whether he would receive baptism; and he making no answer, the other answered for him, and said he would be baptized in his stead; and so they baptized the living for the dead. If it can be proved (as some think it can) that this practice was as early as the days of the apostle Paul, it might probably form a solution of those remarkable words in 1 Cor. xv. 29: “If the dead rise not at all, what shall they do who are baptized for the dead?” The allusion of the apostle to this practice, however, is rejected by some, and especially by Dr. Doddridge, who thinks it too early . . .

    — Charles Buck. A Theological Dictionary . . . (Philadelphia: Published by William W. Woodward, No. 52, South Second Street, 1825 [first published London, 1802]), 44; compare to Joseph Smith, “Baptism for the Dead,” Times and Seasons 3 (April 15, 1842), 761

  8. 4 — I think that’s a winner. It’s right there next to “I don’t understand what the Trinity is, and I can’t explain it to you, but I’m saved because I believe in it, and you’re damned because you don’t.”

  9. Dang. Someone got to the Jehovah Witness interpretation before I did. As a missionary in Germany, they read it from their Bible, and it made no sense to me. I remember there was confusion over a specific word (I believe it was “for”), so they got out some Greek dictionary, and found several alternative translations of that specific word. Every translation except for the one they used made sense, and worked well with the concept of baptism for the dead. The only one that didn’t make any sense was the one they used.

  10. On #4, Tyndale also mis-translated the preposition, “huper,” to mean “above” as opposed to the sense of “on behalf of” (as Kevin pointed out, huper + genitive [pl. in this instance] means _on behalf of_) in his translation of 1 Cor 15:29. Just wanted to point this out.

  11. I learn something new on this blog every day. Thanks!

  12. Smith’s use of Buck’s is treated at length in an MHA talk and a manuscript in progress by mb and smb.

  13. Very interesting.
    A friend of mine, who is an Epicopalian clergyman, used my own ‘translated correctly’ caveat against the passage. Touché.

  14. Of course, that the Corinthians were doing this doesn’t mean that they needed to do it.

  15. Kevin, my favorite Bible, the NIV “Archeological Study Bible” (used mostly by evangelicals) says the following:

    “Numerous propositions have been offered for the meaning of ‘baptized for the dead’ in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Every theory has some problems, but some are more plausible than others:
    +One explanation holds that Paul was alluding to some form of ‘proxy baptism’ (an individual being baptized to secure the salvation of ancestors, relatives or friends who had died without Christ). There is no indication in this text, however, that Corinthians were being baptized for their ancestors or for other dead pagans — and no evidence that this was ever practiced in the early church.
    +Some suggest that the term refers to baptism for believers who had died unbaptized; others that it may have been some ritual rooted in a superstitious belief that baptism itself had almost magical, life-giving powers. The Corinthian believers may have been influenced by a local cult of the dead at Corinth. On the other hand, if such a pagan background were behind this practice, we would expect Paul to have voiced his disapproval.
    +Still others propose that the phrase actually means ‘baptized in the placed of the dead’ in the sense of taking the place of Christian martyrs who had lost their lives for the faith. This kind of baptism would thus have been a rite whereby a living believer symbolically took the place of his or her fallen brother or sister. This interpretation has some support in the context, since Paul immediately spoke in the following verses of his own endurance of persecution.”

    The writers of this Bible get some credit for at least pondering the issue carefully. Unfortunately, they are incorrect that “there is no evidence that this was ever practiced in the early church.” They should get around to reading “Rescue for the Dead” by Jeffrey A. Trumbower, which discusses at length the reality that baptism for the dead was discussed often in the first few centuries AD.

  16. Point #12 seems plausible to me — it is a reading that wouldn’t be foreign to Paul’s theology or usage. Kevin, which Greek fathers advance this point?

  17. What does any of this have to do with Proposition 8?

  18. One evangelical friend pointed held that Paul was using this practice of apostates to show that even “they” believe in the resurrection as demonstrated by their practice and so should we. I don’t get that either.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 17 Ann, that one wins Niblet consideration!

    No. 16 JNS, that list was based on a handout I did for a class once. I don’t have any backup material and would have to do more research to determine which specific Greek Fathers should be included in that category.

  20. Very interesting. Yet another reason to take up Greek.

  21. Kevin,

    Thanks for this post. You might want to also read Trumbower’s “Rescue for the Dead,” since he goes over this passage and some of its possible readings, as well as points to other more lengthy treatments.

    I generally find treatments of this passage rather tiresome. I very much weigh in on the side that Paul not only refers to a genuine practice of baptizing on behalf of others who have died, but that he supports the Corinthian practice as well.

    Regardless, thanks for sharing.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  22. Wikipedia has a page about this topic and includes some other interpretations as well. I’ve linked to the relevant secion:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism_for_the_dead#Early_History

    –O

  23. re 7 and 12:

    if memory serves, buck’s theological dictionary is one of the titles that joseph smith contributed to the nauvoo library and literary institute, as is william hone’s apocryphal new testament which contains other material–from acts of paul and thecla, shepherd of hermas, and gospel of nicodemus–dealing with the salvation of deceased nonchristians, material that is commonly drawn on in mormon apologetica and assumed to have been inaccessable to the prophet.

  24. I attended a University supported by the Churches of Christ and did a paper on this topic for my required religion class. I got -10 points for logic. It was very interesting looking at the justifications; and, my favorite, which I found in at least three New Testament commentaries, was that Paul was mocking those who were baptized for the dead. Essentially the authors accepted the natural reading but with a sarcastic tone of voice.

  25. A combination of 8 and 12 it by far the most likely explanation. Chrysostom’s explanation in his homilies on 1 Corinthians seems very plausible to me.

  26. According to Pagels, Paul was a Gnostic. The gnostics thought that we were all, generally, dead to the spirit. So it is not too far off base to understand this scripture as point 12 would have us.

    In the gnostic world it would have been understood that the dead referred to the dead in the spirit. The rising of the dead would then be a spiritual rebirth, a birth of perception into the spirit realm of the true God out of the dead world of the demiurge.

    This interpretation would have been obvious if, in fact, the early Christians did NOT baptize for the literal dead. Paul’s meaning would have leaped out of the page to the initiated in the spiritual teachings of gnosticism, not seeming strange or discordant.

    In other words, a rebirth or rising to the pneumatics world from the world of the psychics. So we baptize the physical, spiritually “dead” with real water hoping that they will rise and be reborn in the spirit in a spiritual rebirth.

    In the gnostic theology baptism would be the entry into the church of the psychics ruled by the laws of the demiurge, the god of commandments and requirements. The spiritual rebirth is into the law of the true god, into enlightenment and freedom, a salvation by grace, not by works.

    Interesting.

  27. John Turner says:

    As an evangelical Christian studying Mormon History, it’s interesting for me to re-encounter biblical verses like I Cor 15:29. That’s a verse that most evangelicals would encounter, puzzle over briefly, and then forget. After learning about the Mormon practice of proxy baptism, proxy baptism appears to me to be the most commensensical way to read the verse. However, even if some early Christians performed proxy baptism, the verse does not mandate the practice. At most, it suggests that Paul in one instance spoke approvingly of the practice. The emphasis in the verse, in any event, is on the reality of the resurrection — Christ’s and those who have faith in him.

    Thanks for the post, Kevin, and for the fascinating discussion.

  28. #27 John,

    I think you’ll find that most LDS are in agreement with your observation. The point of Paul’s discussion is the reality of the resurrection, not a treatise on baptism for the dead. He just used it to illustrate his point.

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