Baptism for the dead

Out of at least thirty proposed solutions to a difficult text, one measures up to the close scrutiny of both exegetical and theological considerations.

Alf Birch is secretary of the Trans-Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

Commentators generally agree that Paul's reference to baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is one of the most difficult passages to understand in the New Testament. The literature on this passage points to at least thirty proposed solutions, most of which are so improbable that little credibility need be given them. Whatever solution we finally adopt must be determined by the internal, exegetical, and contextual evidence.

The context makes it quite clear that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is dealing with the question of resurrection from the dead. He reminds the Corinthian Christians of his earlier instruction regarding Christ's resurrection and expresses surprise that some among them still say "there is no resurrection of the dead" (verses 11, 12). Paul then deals with several implications of the "no resurrection" notion: "If there be no resurrection of the dead'' (verses 11,12). Paul risen" (verse 13); "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (verse 19); "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?" (verse 29). Thus verse 29, the problem text alluding to baptism for the dead, is one in Paul's list of implications of the "no resurrection" idea. Whatever its interpretation, it must be supportive of Paul's argument for the reality of the resurrection, since in its context that is how Paul himself employs it.

Let's examine the internal evidence, looking at the key words and phrases of the passage:

1. "They . . . which are baptized" (hoi baptizomenoi, or literally, "the ones who are being baptized"). The Expositor's Greek Testament points out that this expression "unless otherwise defined, can only mean the recipients of Christian baptism, in its well-understood sense as the rite of initiation into the Christian state administered upon confession of faith." 1 Howard supports this concept and elaborates on it further: "Baptism throughout the New Testament is viewed as an act of faith-obedience, an act of active partnership, demonstrated, incidentally, by the consistent use of the active and middle voices." 2

2. "Baptized for the dead" (huper, meaning "for" or "on behalf of"). In his discussion of the three Greek prepositions to which the doctrines of the New Testament are most closely bound (anti, huper, and peri), Moseley points out that huper, the preposition used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:29, "is more variable than the other two," with its most general translation as "in behalf of" or its equivalents. "But in a number of instances it becomes similar to periand is translated 'concerning,''with regard to.' " 3

Moseley goes on to say:' 'In the light of this use of huper, it is reasonable to infer that it may have been this peri use of huper in the passage in question. What shall they do that are baptized with reference to the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they being baptized with reference to them? Why go on with a symbolism that has reference to death, burial and resurrection if there is no resurrection to symbolize?" 4

M. Raeder sharpens the focus that Moseley is applying to the preposition by showing that the preposition huper in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a preposition of purpose. Thus he argues that the baptism "is 'for the sake of the dead' or 'because of,' a sense well attested by classical examples." According to him, Paul's meaning is that the baptism is ' 'for the sake of the dead, to be reunited with dead Christian relatives at the resurrection." 5

3. "For the dead" (huper ton nekron). Commentators and exegetes generally agree that the definite article connected with nekron "points to a specific class of 'the dead' . . . presumably 'the [Christian] dead' . . . , and probably to those amongst them who were connected with 'the baptized' in question." 6

Therefore, the contextual and internal evidence seems to cut through the maze of both probable and improbable solutions to indicate that there are, in fact, only three possible approaches to a solution. As Robertson and Plummer suggest, "We may view the phrase as a reference to normal Ministry, April/1981 Christian baptism, as a reference to an abnormal vicarious baptism, or finally, as a reference to the baptism of friends or relatives of a dying Christian as the result of his testimony." 7

Barnes comments on the first possible solution by saying that the dead "had been baptized with the expectation of a resurrection of the dead. They had received this as one of the leading doctrines of the gospel when they were baptized. It was a part of their full and firm belief that the dead would rise. . . . According to this view the phrase 'for the dead' means with reference to the dead; with direct allusion to the condition of the dead and their hopes; with a belief that the dead will rise." 8

The theological truth involved in this explanation is unquestionable. But the validity of Baraes's exegesis must be questioned, because to translate the phrase huper ton nekron as "for dead persons" is to ignore the definite article before nekron, "an article which makes these particular dead people a specific group. . . . The article with nekron and the simple reference to auton [them] . . . alike prevent us from taking the words to be merely equal to death, in relation to death." 9

As a second probable interpretation of the passage, many expositors see in verse 29 a reference to some form of vicarious baptism. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament goes so far as to suggest that' 'none of the attempts to escape the theory of a vicarious baptism in primitive Christianity seems to be wholly successful." 10 The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible11 and Conzelmann, 12 among others, subscribe to this view and claim that Paul was not passing judgment (either approval or disapproval) on the practice, but simply appealing to it as additional support for his argument regarding the resurrection of believers.

Mormons also appeal to this passage for their belief in proxy baptism. However, their understanding of the practice does not mean in behalf of the dead, as may be rendered by the Greek preposition huper, but rather "that these proxies are baptized instead of the dead, taking the place fully as substitutes." 13 Moseley rightfully points out that such an interpretation "would require the preposition anti to express this 'instead of idea, and Paul would have most certainly used that preposition had he meant to convey the idea that it was proxy baptism that he had in mind." 14

It has already been pointed out that baptism throughout the New Testament is viewed as an act of faith-obedience, repentance, and active partnership. Such concepts cannot be demonstrated in vicarious baptism, because the one to receive the benefit of the act is already dead. (See Acts 2:38; 8:12, 13; 18:8; Gal. 3:27.)

From the historical point of view, vicarious baptism is also difficult to support. Apart from the unlikelihood "that such a practice would arise in one isolated instance," 15 there is no conclusive evidence that it was practiced either in Corinth or elsewhere at the time when Paul was writing, nor at a later time in the first century. On the contrary, "Paul associates himself with the action of 'those baptized for the dead,' indicating that they and he are engaged on the same behalf .... This last consideration excludes the interpretation . . . that Paul alludes to a practice then ... in vogue at Corinth, which existed much later amongst the heretical Cerinthians and Marcionites . . ., viz., that of the vicarious baptism of living Christians as proxies for relatives or friends dying unbaptized. With such a proceeding Paul could not have identified himself, even supposing that it existed at this time in the church (of which there is no evidence), and that he had used it by way of argumentum ad hominem. An appeal to such a superstitious opus operatum would have laid the Apostle open to a damaging retort." "16

The fact that Paul never participated in proxy baptism may be further supported by his statements in 1 Corinthians 1:13-17 regarding his baptismal practices. Under these circumstances, Paul could hardly be credited with introducing a strange notion regarding baptism even by way of an argument to support his point on the resurrection. Lenski observes that "if Paul had discovered the beginnings of such a perversion [vicarious baptism] in Corinth he would have opposed it in no uncertain terms. Nor would such a man as Paul was stoop to make use of this 'superstition' for 'tactical' reasons, i.e., in order to win a point in an argument.'' 17 Nor elsewhere in Paul's voluminous writings does he use that kind of argumentation.

The concept of vicarious baptism runs contrary to the whole trend of Bible truth. This interpretation of the passage may there fore be dismissed as an unsatisfactory solution.

The third interpretation is the most likely and remains most true to the theme of the certainty of the resurrection, which Paul is so strongly supporting in this passage. This interpretation suggests that "Paul is referring rather to a much commoner, indeed a normal experience, that the death of Christians leads to the conversion of survivors, who in the first instance 'for the sake of the dead' (their beloved dead), and in the hope of their reunion, turn to Christ. . . . Paul designates such converts 'baptized for the dead,' since baptism seals the new believer and commits him to the Christian life . . . with all its losses and hazards (cf. 30)." 18

Howard also endorses this interpretation: "Here we have a reference to the baptism of those close to a Christian who had recently died being baptized as a result of his testimony and in order to be reunited with him at the resurrection." 19

Supporting this view is M. Raeder's point (made earlier in this article) that huper in this phrase has the sense of purpose and harmonizes with the idea of "for the sake of" or "because of" a usage that has classical comparisons. To add further weight to his interpretation, Howard calls attention to Robertson and Plummer's suggestion that in this context poiesousin ("what shall they do") ''could have the sense of gain, giving us a final reading: 'Else what shall they gain from it who are baptized for the sake of the dead?'" 20

Howard concludes his comments by stating: "We have thus a much more credible situation: those in question were baptized, not in order to remedy some deficiency on the part of the dead, but in order to be reunited with them at the resurrection. ... In view of what we have said, this admittedly obscure passage represents the summation of the Apostle's argument. If Christ has not risen, those who have died 'in Christ' have perished, and, with no hope, we become hopeless and wretched, especially those who have entered the Christian community and have been baptized for the sake of those who have died in Christ, hoping to be reunited with them." 21

Any interpretation of this passage that disregards its harmony with the resurrection motif developed by Paul in this chapter will miss the point entirely. Any legitimate interpretation must be integrated into this theme. The contextual and internal evidence, as we have seen, points most directly in favor of the third interpretation. It would also appear to be the simplest solution to a most difficult passage and presents the least exegetical objections in comparison with all other proposed solutions.


1 W. Robertson Nicoll (ed.), The Expositor's Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1956), vol. 2, p. 930.

2 J. K. Howard, "Baptism for the Dead: A Study of 1 Corinthians 15:29," The Evangelical Quarterly, July-September, 1965, p. 140.

3 A. G. Moseley, "Baptized for the Dead," The Review and Expositor, January, 1952, p. 60.

4 Ibid.

5 M. Raeder, "Vikariatstaufe in 1 K. [Cor.] 15:29?" Zeitschrift fur die Nuetestamentliche Wissenschaft, 45 (1955), 258 ff.; quoted by J. K. Howard, and Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VIII, p. 513.

6 Ibid.

7 Quoted in Howard, op. cit.

8 Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, I Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1953), p. 304.

9 J. K. Howard, New Testament Baptism (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1970), p. 106.

10 Gerhard Friedrich (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Vol. VIII, pp. 512, 513.

11 Emory Stevens Bucke (ed.), The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), vol. 1, p. 350.

12 Hans Conzelmann, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 275.

13 Moseley, op. cit., p. 61.

14 Ibid.

15 Howard, "Baptism for the Dead," op. cit.

16 Nicoll, op. cit.

17 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's First and Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1937), vol. 7, p. 691.

18 Nicoll, op. cit., p. 931.

19 Howard, "Baptism for the Dead," op. cit.

20 Ibid., p. 141.

21 Ibid.

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Alf Birch is secretary of the Trans-Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

April 1981

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