Barry Newman's Blog

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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