Barry Newman's Blog

September 25, 2011

Baptised on behalf of the Dead (Full Series PDF)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 3:01 am

Here is the full series.


September 24, 2011

Baptised on behalf of the Dead (part V)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 4:58 am

Concluding Comments

In the 1 Corinthian 15 text “baptizo” can be understood metaphorically, in accordance with a not uncommon practice in the ancient Greek speaking world of “baptizo” being applied in a metaphorical abstract sense.  With such an understanding, verse 29 takes up the notion of the mortality of humanity referred to in verse 22, and raises the problem of why anyone would suffer so much for the sake of those who have death written into them and who in the end will simply die if indeed there is no resurrection of the dead.  Focussing on this suffering that to begin with he associates with others, Paul moves from verse 30 through to verses 31 and 32a where the focus is simply on himself.  Understanding “baptizo” in this way places verse 29 contextually both within what he writes before but particularly within what he writes thereafter.

On the other hand, a traditional understanding somewhat isolates verse 29 contextually with the verse being understood as a reference to a practice that is theologically highly objectionable (and for which there is no historical evidence) but about which Paul makes no comment.

If the understanding of verse 29 argued for here is correct, it suggests that we need to be at least cautious when arguing for a water ceremony in some other texts where there are no explicit references to such.

September 20, 2011

Baptised on behalf of the Dead (part IV)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 11:08 pm

1 Corinthians 15: 29 ff

Verse 29a reads: “epei ti poiesousin hoi baptizomenoi huper ton nekron;” A literal translation, word for word, somewhat along conventional lines could be: “For (epei) what (ti) will they be doing (poiesousin), the ones baptised (hoi baptizomenoi), on behalf of (huper) the dead (ton nekron)?”

Before dealing with “baptizomenoi”, some reflections on “the dead” (ton nekron) and the preposition translated above as, “on behalf of”, (huper).

“The dead”:  In the second letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul wrote, “if one died for all then all died” (2 Cor. 5: 14)[1] and in his letter to the believers at Rome he wrote “If by the offence of one, many died …” (Rom. 5: 15).  Paul had an understanding of humanity that focuses on death being written into their existence.  In the chapter under discussion he again draws attention to this notion, in verse 22 – “In Adam all die.”  Let us make the assumption that Paul’s reference to the dead in verse 29a (and in 29b following) refers to the idea that human beings not only die but even when living are in principle “dead” – they are death-ridden, for they will surely die.[2]

The preposition, (huper), followed by the genitive case (as here) can have a variety of meanings including, “for the sake of” as well as, “on behalf of”.  Let us assume that the former is the sense intended in verse 29a (and in 29b following).

Let us now postulate that “baptizo” in verse 29a (and in 29b following) is being used metaphorically. That is one way that “baptizo” is used in the ancient Greek speaking world.

Furthermore let us assume that what is being referred to in the text is a matter associated with suffering.  There are some good reasons for making this assumption and they should soon become clear.  For starters,  it should be noted, by way of something similar, that in Vitae Aesopi, Vita Pl vel Accursiana, 278.4, a 1st century AD work, there is a reference to being overwhelmed (baptizomenos) by sorrow.

Verse 29a would then have the sense, “For what will they be doing, those who are overwhelmed (in suffering) for the sake of the death-ridden?”

Before examining 29b a comment about the Greek word, “holos”.  “Holos”, an adverb, traditionally translated in this text, “at all”, has the underlying sense of “wholly” or “completely”.  White (see note 3 in the previous post) assumes it is used attributively modifying “nekroi” [dead] and translates it as “truly”. If the sense is “truly” or “really” or something similar, the case for “ton nekron” [the dead] in the text, meaning something like, “the in principle dead” is strengthened.  “The really dead” is in contrast with “the in principle dead.”  Better still, “the completely dead” are in contrast with “the death-ridden”.[3] (Actually, understanding “holos” as qualifying “not raised” in the phrase, commonly translated, “if the dead are not raised at all”, is a little odd.  This hypothetical statement, so translated, seems to imply that in someone’s mind it could be that the dead are raised to some degree, or in some limited sense but not totally.  This is counteracted by stating, “… the dead are not raised at all”. Yet the tenor of 1 Corinthians 15 is that the resurrection of the dead including the resurrection of Christ is an all or nothing matter.)  That Paul omitted the definite article “hoi” when referring to the dead for the second time (see below) may be because he closely associated the adverb with the noun rather than with the verb, considering that  the inclusion of the definite article would weakening that connection.  However the omission or insertion of the definite article in ancient Greek, in many instances, appears to be simply at the whim of the writer.

So following on from verse 29a, verse 29b, (“ei [if] holos [completely] vekroi [dead] ouk [not] egeirontai [are raised], ti [why] kai [also] baptizontai [are they overwhelmed] huper [for the sake of] auton [them]?”) would then read something like, “If the completely dead are not raised, why are people then overwhelmed (in suffering) for their sake (that is, for the sake of “the death-ridden”)?

However, it could be that traditionally, and perhaps more than likely, we have divided the verse wrongly.  It could be argued that “kai” introduces the second question rather than being embedded in it. Thus perhaps verse 29 should read, “For what will they be doing, those who are overwhelmed for the sake of the death-ridden, if the completely dead are not raised?  Why are people then overwhelmed for their sake?”

The first question could be answered, “They will be acting extremely stupidly, bringing grievous hurt to themsleves and for no good outcome!” A response to the second question could be, “It wouldn’t make sense!”

Note now how the following verses (30-32a) read, “And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! … If with merely human hopes, I fought with wild animals at Ephesus what would I have gained by it?” (NRSV); “And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?  I die every day … If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? ” (NIV).  The context for these verses is clearly one of suffering.

We should also note how verses 29 to 32a, given the present analysis, interconnect and develop. Paul moves from the impersonal plural of verse 29 (his use of the future tense may have been another way of making the reference impersonal) to the personal plural of verse 30 and then to the personal singular of verses 31 and 32a.  At the beginning, if our analysis is correct, Paul distances himself a little from this suffering, then he refers to himself along with others (perhaps his apostolic band) as those enduring this suffering and finally he refers to his personal suffering only.  (His remarks in verse 31: “This is as certain brothers and sisters of my boasting of you – a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NRSV); “- I mean that, brothers – just as surely as I as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NIV) are meant to indicate the genuineness and severity of his sufferings.)

The point of Paul’s argument then, in verses 29-32a, is that if there is no resurrection of the dead why would people such as himself endure such suffering for the sake of those who in the end will simply die?  He and others like him are certain that there is a resurrection of the dead.  Otherwise they would not be prepared to put up with suffering for what they do and in the way they do.  He himself knows about intense suffering, having suffered and continuing to suffer a great deal for the sake of those who are death-ridden.

His reference in verse 32 b to, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” , a quote from Isaiah 22: 13, becomes a cynical but realistic response if the proposition that there is no resurrection from the dead is true.

The resurrection of the dead was part of the message that Paul and others delivered.  The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a cornerstone of that message.  And Paul in this part of his epistle links together both the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead in general.  “The dead are raised”, is his firm position. “Don’t be deceived”, he says. “Bad company ruins good morals.” “Come to your right mind and sin no more.”

[1] While recognising that the meaning of this phrase in the text is contentious, the idea of the death of human beings is still in mind.

[2] I am indebted to Bolt, P. G. for alerting me to this perspective

[3] In a traditional understanding of the text, the five assumptions enunciated in the last few paragraphs are matched by five other assumptions: the matter being addressed is a practice not a situation, the word, “baptizo” refers to a water ceremony, the preposition, “huper” should be understood as, “on behalf of”, “the dead”, when first mentioned, refers to those already physically dead and the adverb, “holos” means “at all” and qualifies the verb.

September 18, 2011

Baptised on behalf of the Dead (part III)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 11:12 pm

The Usage of “Baptizo” in the ancient Greek speaking World

A detailed analysis was carried out on the usage of “baptizo” outside of the New Testament by examining all known instances prior to 1st century BC and all known instances between 1st century BC and 1st century AD (that is over about 200 years).  There were 99 occurrences in all. An examination of the parts of speech involved revealed no significant difference between usage prior to 1st century BC and usage between 1st century BC and 1st century AD.  The contexts in which “baptizo” occurred were not all that dissimilar for the two periods and the underlying meaning appeared to be the same.[1]  The most common context was that of men drowning and ships sinking in a watery medium.  There was however a number of other entities immersed or submerged in a fluid medium which medium was almost always, but not exclusively, water.  Examples of these entities are: pieces of turnip, part of a fishing spear, seaweed, a bird’s nest, a javelin and military equipment. Something like, “immersion” or “submersion” seems to be the underlying idea in these instances.

Of special note is that of the 99 cases only one or two seemed to refer to a religious rite.  One instance involved purification from a dead body and the other involved a woman who may have been purifying herself.

Of importance for the present discussion however is the recognition that, in a significant number of instances, the immersion or envelopment was not in a literal fluid medium.  The usage involved could be described as somewhat abstract in character rather than simply physical. The 99 instances were consequently analysed to determine the extent to which abstract usage occurred. The categorisation utilised, recognised one type of physical usage and three different types of abstraction. Table 1 gives the percentages for  a literal physical usage (LP), an abstract usage involving a reference to a fluid medium by way of simile or metaphor (AFM), an abstract metaphorical usage involving alcoholic stupor (AAS) and an abstract metaphorical usage with no allusion to a fluid medium (AM-F).  Total abstract usage (A) was also determined.  The analysis considered the periods “Prior to 1st century BC” and “1st century BC to 1st century AD” separately and together.


Time Period













Prior to

1st century BC













1st century BC to

1st century AD


























Table 1

Types of usage of “baptizo” for the time periods “Prior to 1st century BC” and “1st century BC to 1st century AD”

The percentage distribution between the various categories was somewhat similar for the two periods involved.[2]  Overall an abstract usage is evident in 30% of all instances, with that percentage being somewhat higher for the period “1st century BC to 1st century AD” compared to the period “Prior to 1st century BC”.  Examples of an abstract usage involving a reference to a fluid medium by way of simile or metaphor are: being overcome with difficulties likened to being cast into a bog, people being swamped by affairs should struggle to find a safe haven, and disastrous matters can swamp a person like a ship capsizing. The main idea that seemed to be behind those abstract metaphorical usages involving alcoholic stupor was that the person or person were being befuddled by, that is, “drowning in?” or “being swamped by?” their drink.  Examples of an abstract metaphorical usage with no allusion to a fluid medium are, being overwhelmed in verbal engagements, enveloped by (“immersed in”) iniquity, robber barons causing a city to be overwhelmed (“sunk”?), people being overwhelmed by (“drowning in”?) excessive taxes,  the mind being enveloped by (“submerged in”) disasters, and being engulfed in debt.

Where, in the cases of a literal physical usage of “baptizo”, a suitable translation could often involve, “immerse” or “submerge” (resulting in some cases in drowning or sinking), in those instances where an abstract usage by way of simile or metaphor was involved, a word, something like, “overwhelm”, “engulf” or “envelop” might often be considered more suitable.  However even in these latter cases, “immerse” or “submerge” might still be thought adequate in some instances. It is then not a little intriguing that with respect to the New Testament, English translations, in general, persist with the word, “baptise”, wherever “baptizo” is found – a transliteration, even when a clear metaphorical usage is involved – as in the reference to the sufferings of Jesus “engulfing” him or as in the reference to the promised “envelopment” by the Holy Spirit.  But well before English translations, the writers of the Latin Vulgate had decided to do much the same. They universally used a coined word, “baptiso” rather than, “immergo”, “summergo” or other possibilities in their rendering of the text – another example of transliteration rather than translation.

Keeping in mind the not uncommon abstract usage of “baptizo” in the ancient Greek speaking world, attention is now focussed on the 1 Corinthian 15: 29 text.[3] There are other texts of the New Testament that should also be examined afresh but this is the only one under present consideration.

 [1] One might expect that over the long period of time studied there might have been some changes as to the use of the word.  There may well have been but no trends were evident. Perhaps the relatively small number of instances and the even smaller number of authors involved makes such detection difficult.

[2] The similarity in percentage distributions of instances within the categories for the two time periods involved, as with other observations, provides no evidence suggesting that over that time period, the word, “baptizo” underwent significant changes in usage.

[3] Garland, A.E. in his commentary, 1 Corinthians, (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2003), discusses three possible ways of understanding this text (pp. 716-719), all of which appeal to a literal water baptism.  Later, in several notes (p. 723) he refers to a number of further possibilities but considers them to be less plausible than those he outlined earlier.  In a preamble to these notes he refers to the “tweaking (of) the meaning of the verb ‘baptize’” as one aspect of other explanatory attempts.

In his note 1, in outlining some other positions he writes, “The term ‘baptism’ is explained as a metaphorical reference to martyrdom.  It refers to a baptism in blood or being drowned in suffering … rather than water baptism.”  In this same note he cites White, J.R. (“Baptized on Account of the dead: The Meaning of 1 Corinthians 15: 29 in Its Context”, Journal of Biblical Literature, 116, 1997, pp. 487-499) and Murphy-O’Connor, J. (“Baptized for the Dead” (1 Cor. xv, 29), A Corinthian Slogan”, Revue biblique, 88, 1981, pp. 532-543).  White believes that the baptism is literal water baptism but that the sufferings of Paul are being alluded to metaphorically in his reference to “the dead”.  His understanding of the text is, “Otherwise what will they do who are being baptized on account of the dead (that is the dead; figuratively speaking; that is, the apostles)?  For if truly dead persons are not raised at all why at all are people being baptized on account of them (that is, the apostles)?” White, rightly so, recognises that the notion of suffering in verse 29 links that verse with what Paul writes in vv. 30-32.  On the other hand Murphy-O’Connor believes that both “being baptised” and “the dead” are metaphorical, understanding the baptism to refer to being destroyed and the dead to be an allusion to “those who for the spirituals … were not worth bothering about”.  His rendering of the text is, “What will they do who are being destroyed [i.e., the apostles] on account of (the resurrection of) the dead?”.  Contrary to Murphy-O’Connor, it should be noted that in ancient Greek,  “baptizowhile sometimes referring to people drowning, in itself does not have the sense of “destroy”. The sense is “immerse”, “engulf” or even metaphorically “overwhelm” etc.

Garland’s reference to “tweaking” is perhaps a reflection of a lack of understanding of the extent to which “baptizo” is used metaphorically in the ancient Greek speaking world and so perhaps for that reason he fails to see much value in considering “baptizo” in a metaphorical light!

It should be noted that he discusses vv. 30-32 (pp. 719-722) as though they were somewhat isolated from v. 29.

September 15, 2011

Baptised on behalf of the Dead (part II)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 10:17 pm

An Alternative Approach

All of the above suggestions are based on the unquestioned assumption that in the text, a water ceremony, labelled baptism, is in mind.  The position in this paper is that this is a mistake – a mistake brought about partly because of a lack of understanding of how the Greek word, “baptizo[1] was sometimes used in the ancient Greek speaking world and partly as a result of the practice in some languages including Latin and English to transliterate the word, rather than translate it, when creating “translations” of the New Testament text.  That it was considered important to transliterate it may have had its origins in a view that “baptizo” had taken on a sacred and technical meaning in the New Testament documents.  The approach taken in this paper argues that in the text the reference being made is not to a practice but to a situation – a situation which is consonant with the context that follows in verses 30 – 32a.  Furthermore, with this alternative approach, Paul’s main argument for the reality of a resurrection from the dead is in no way weakened.  Perhaps some might see it as indeed strengthened.  And certainly, with the text that will be argued for below, no odd questions come to mind, such as, “Why would Paul refer to that?” or “Why would people do that?”

[1] A letter underlined indicates that a long vowel is involved.

September 14, 2011

Baptised on behalf of the Dead (part I)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 1:01 am

Baptised on behalf of the Dead

1 Corinthians 15: 29: “Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptised on their behalf?” (New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]); “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? (New International Version [NIV]).

Problems in Understanding the Text

Ferguson refers to this text as “the most problematic baptismal text in 1 Corinthians”.[1] Indeed one could be excused for exclaiming, “It is the most problematic text in 1 Corinthians, full stop.” It is a text that has puzzled exegetes for centuries.

Ferguson discusses the problem and outlines several attempts to explain what Paul is referring to here.[2]  Some aspects of what he says are reflected in parts of the following.

Is it a baptism carried out vicariously for those who have died without being baptised – the most obvious way of understanding the text? If this view is correct, the puzzle for some is why Paul didn’t indicate his rejection of the practice even though he wanted to refer to it as part of his argument – his essential position being that there is a resurrection of the dead. Is he being flippant or even sarcastic?  Is it that as he quickly moves through his argument it doesn’t enter his mind to speak negatively of the practice?  Does he consider that to indicate his rejection of the practice would be to divert his readers from his main argument?  Presumably some would say he actually approved of the practice!

If Paul is referring to an actual practice what were the perceived benefits by those who practised it?  From their point of view, did it ensure that the one for whom the baptism was carried out would thereby become one of the believers?  Did they believe that it ensured that for that person there would be a resurrection from the dead but as a believer?  If there was such a practice, given that Paul does not in any way indicate his rejection of it, it is no surprise that The Church of the Latter Day Saints see the text as foundational for one of their core activities.

Perhaps the text doesn’t actually mean what the translations commonly suggest?  Ferguson suggests, that if the preposition, “huper”, in the Corinthian text does not mean, ‘“instead of” or “for the benefit of”, might it mean, “because of,” “out of regard for,” or “with a view to” so that one is baptized to fulfil the request of someone now dead? Or, so as to be reunited with the dead in the resurrection? Or was the baptism for the sake of their own dead bodies? ’ Ferguson also refers to an argument by M.F. Hull who considers the text to say, “baptized on account of (resurrection) of the dead”[3]

[1] Ferguson, E., Baptism in the Early Church, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2009, p. 154

[2] Ibid, pp. 154, 155

[3] Hull, M.F., Baptism on Account of the Dead (1 Cor. 15: 29) Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005, in Ferguson, ibid, p. 154, note, 23

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