Barry Newman's Blog

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.



  1. Hi Barry,

    Love the series! Thanks for this presentation of your suggestion – very compelling. Must continue to mull over it.

    I just cast a glance over Fee’s commentary, and the closest position he cites (and rejects) is that of J. Murphy-O’Connor (Revue biblique 88 [1981], 532-43), who takes it as saying that the apostles “were being destroyed by their labors on behalf of the dead (i.e., those who are lost)” – but he takes this as a Corinthian gibe at Paul’s efforts, and the rest is Paul’s response. Rather different, despite the similarities.

    Oh well, that’s about it for exhaustive research from me 🙂 But I’ll keep following with interest.

    Comment by Stephen Shead — September 21, 2011 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

    • Hi Stephen,

      Glad you’ve liked the series. I have enjoyed working through the material myself.

      Murphy O’Connor is the only one I know that thinks that baptizo was being used metpahphorically. He thinks it has the notion of “destroy”. In a note on the previous post I made the comment that “destroy” is not really the sense underlying baptizo although “being immersed” can result in a type of destruction such as drowning. So there is a similarity. However, as you rightly point out apart from this perspective our views are quite distinct.

      Hope things are going well with you.



      Comment by barrynewman — September 22, 2011 @ 12:38 am | Reply

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