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Baptism for the Dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29

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Baptism for the Dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Beyond any reasonable doubt or dispute, the Bible says nothing about eternal marriages (proxy or otherwise), and it also says nothing about proxy ordinances to endow people with spiritual power or to “seal” children and other family members to living Mormons. Oddly enough, if baptism for the dead is such an important and essential ordinance, there is absolutely no mention of it in the Book of Mormon. There is but one biblical text that Mormons claim refers directly to proxy ordinances:

“Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:29 NKJV).

Although scholars have debated the meaning of this verse endlessly, the debate has not been fueled by opposition to the Mormon practice. Very few religious groups practiced any kind of proxy baptism prior to Joseph Smith, and none engaged in an ambitious project to perform proxy baptisms on behalf of nearly all of the billions of people who have ever lived. Please let this point sink in before moving ahead: Mormons are the first religion ever to claim that practically everyone else in history needs to have baptisms performed on their behalf. 1 Corinthians 15:29 has been in everyone’s collection of New Testament since the second century, but it was not until the nineteenth century that anyone imagined that this verse mandated the massive program of genealogical research and proxy baptisms that is such a large part of the Mormon religion. In this respect, at least, Mormon baptism for the dead is not a restoration of a lost or neglected practice.

This is not the place for an academic treatment of this controversial verse, about which whole dissertations and monographs and numerous academic journal articles have been published. I will concentrate here on introducing the main issues and explaining why this verse simply cannot be viewed as precedent for the Mormon practice of proxy baptism.

A good number of contemporary scholarly studies of 1 Corinthians 15:29 have made some strong arguments to show that this verse may not have been referring to any sort of vicarious or proxy baptism. The most significant of these explanations take the words “baptized” and “dead” in their customary senses and turns on the question of the precise nuance of the little preposition “for” (Greek huper). The proxy baptism view presupposes that “for” in this verse means “on behalf of” or “for the sake of,” or more precisely “in the place of,” that is, that living persons were getting baptized in the place of persons who had already died. This is a natural way to understand huper and perhaps the most obvious way to understand it here. However, it is quite possible to understand huper to mean “for” or “on behalf of” or “for the sake of” in a somewhat different way. The most common alternative explanation is that these Corinthians were being baptized for the sake of departed Christians—perhaps deceased family members, martyred friends, or apostles or evangelists who had died or been killed—and in response to the testimony of those departed witnesses. According to this interpretation, out of love, respect, or both for the life and witness of those departed believers, some Corinthians had been baptized into the Christian faith in the hope of sharing in the life to come to which those deceased Christians had given compelling testimony. At least a dozen major commentaries and other academic studies in the past hundred years have supported some version of this understanding of the verse.

One of the main reasons that scholars are increasingly attracted to an interpretation along these lines is that it would clear up a puzzling mystery: there still is no evidence whatsoever (unless 1 Corinthians 15:29 is the sole exception) that anyone, anywhere, was practicing any form of proxy baptism in the first century or even in the early second century. Despite all the manuscript discoveries of previously unknown Christian writings from the early church, and despite all of the other archaeological discoveries that have shed so much light on Christian origins, no evidence has yet been found to show that anyone practiced proxy baptism during the first hundred years of Christian history.

Outside of the disputed reference in 1 Corinthians 15:29, the first clear reference to proxy baptism indicates that it was practiced by the Marcionites, a heretical group that originated from the teachings of Marcion around AD 140. By all accounts, Marcion had an idiosyncratic view of Christianity. His “canon” of Scripture consisted of some of Paul’s epistles—probably with some heavy editing—and an edited version of the Gospel of Luke. Marcion rejected the Old Testament and its God, a stance that would have outraged Paul. The Marcionites evidently read Paul’s epistles from their own peculiar perspective. More than likely, the Marcionites implemented a practice of proxy baptism after reading 1 Corinthians 15:29 and understanding it to mean that such a practice should be done. In short, Marcionite baptism for the dead was most likely not a continuation of an existing practice in early Christianity, but an innovation based on their reading of 1 Corinthians 15:29.

The argument that proxy baptism was not practiced in the first century and was initiated as an innovation by the Marcionites in the mid-second century is largely (not entirely) an argument from silence. Such an argument is not very compelling if the practice was a minor matter, but it becomes a very compelling argument if the practice is viewed as something of major importance. For example, we don’t have any evidence from first-century writings identifying the author of the second Gospel as John Mark, but this “silence” of first-century Christian writings is not significant because the authorship of that book was hardly a major issue. On the other hand, it would surely be an embarrassment to Christians to claim that belief in Jesus’ resurrection was an essential of the faith if there were only one passing, grammatically ambiguous reference to it in all of first-century Christian literature. So the overall significance of baptism for the dead as Mormons understand it is a relevant factor in assessing whether their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is likely to be correct. When we recall Joseph Smith’s claim that baptism for the dead is “the greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us,” suddenly the paucity of references to the practice in the first hundred years of Christianity becomes glaringly problematic.

It is in this light that we should consider what the majority of biblical scholars still think is the meaning and context of 1 Corinthians 15:29. That majority view is that Paul was referring to a very limited practice of proxy baptism that was being done only by some of the members of the Corinthian congregation. Far and away the most common view is that some of the Corinthians were getting baptized for immediate family members or friends who had come to faith in Jesus Christ but had died before they had a chance to get baptized. In fact, this is what the Marcionites a century later reportedly were doing. If there is a “historic” or “traditional” interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:29, this is it; it is the only interpretation that has had supporters from the second century all the way up to today.

If this interpretation is correct, it would explain why we don’t find any other reference to the practice in the New Testament or other first-century Christian literature. It was a local practice, limited to some of the Corinthian Christians, and done in the rather exceptional circumstance of persons who had expressed faith in Christ but had died before getting baptized. Such a limited and exceptional practice would merit little more than a “footnote” in the history of first-century Christianity. It would also explain why Paul neither commends nor condemns the practice: it isn’t something necessary or theologically proper, but it also isn’t something clearly harmful or theologically offensive. Paul is much more concerned about the denial of the resurrection of the dead by some of the Corinthians and so “picks his battles” and focuses on that far more serious issue.

Note the way Paul refers to those who engage in the practice in the third person: “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” In the Greek text, Paul uses third-person verbs here, “will they do” and “are they baptized.” He does not say, as we would expect if this was a normative Christian practice, “what will we do” or “why are we baptized.” Nor does he say “what will you do” or “why are you baptized” as if the whole Corinthian church engaged in this practice. Reinforcing this perspective is the fact that Paul immediately shifts his language in the following verses, using first-person language in verses 30-32 (“why do we stand,” “I die daily,” etc.) and second-person language in verse 33 (“do not be deceived,” “awake,” “to your shame,” etc.). The best explanation for these facts is that in verse 29 Paul is speaking about something that a certain group of Christians in Corinth did, not something that Christians regularly did or were expected to do.

Whatever the Corinthians were doing, Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 15 were not concerned about the fate of those who had never been baptized. Paul’s focus here and throughout the rest of the chapter is to prove that Christians should accept the doctrine of a future resurrection of believers to immortal, bodily life. His argument in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is simply this: the practice of baptism for the dead (whatever it meant) was inconsistent with the rejection of the doctrine of a future resurrection of the dead. If the dead are not raised, there is no point in baptizing for them! That is Paul’s point. Notice also the focus of Paul’s first rhetorical question in this verse: “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all?” The question “what will they do” might be asking what they will have accomplished, or what good will it do them, or what will happen to them; in any case, the focus here is on those who are baptized, not on those who have already died. Paul does not ask, “What will the dead do if no one is baptized for them?” Rather, he asks what the living believers will do if the dead are not raised. Thus, whatever 1 Corinthians 15:29 means, it is not teaching the necessity of baptism for the salvation of dead people.

We have very strong reasons, then, to conclude that Paul was not referring to a regular or normative Christian practice of baptism by proxy, even assuming it refers to proxy baptism at all (which, as we have explained, may not even be the case). We can also certainly rule out the notion that this practice mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:29 presupposed the belief that everyone who had ever lived without being baptized needs to have living Christians baptized by proxy on their behalf. We know this was not the case for at least two reasons. First, as explained in the article “Mormon Ordinances for the Dead”, this idea doesn’t fit with New Testament doctrine; the theological assumptions on which the Mormon understanding of proxy baptism rest are biblically unsound. Second, as just noted, the way Paul refers to the practice makes it reasonably certain that it was a local practice that only some of the Corinthians did and only in exceptional circumstances. The fact that there is no other reference to proxy baptism in the whole New Testament confirms that Paul was not referring to the kind of major, indispensable practice carried on today in the Mormon temples.


For Further Study

IRR has several informative articles on its website regarding temples and baptism for the dead:

Brattston, David W. T. “Ancient Gnostic Heretics and Baptism for the Dead” (2006). This article takes a somewhat different view of the original context of 1 Corinthians 15:29 than the one presented here but in any case presents some good information.

Wilson, Luke P. “Did Jesus Establish Baptism for the Dead?” (1996). Older article that discusses both 1 Corinthians 15:29 and the doctrine that baptism is necessary for salvation; gives some helpful details not covered in this article.