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Baptism for the dead

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1 Corinthians 15:29 “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?”

This verse is often said to be obscure and has spawned a lot of controversy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contends that baptism for the dead was practiced at the time of Paul, as his letter indicates. However, most Christian faiths teach that this was either a heathen practice Paul was alluding to or something that only the Corinthians practiced. But either way, no one can deny that it was something that was being practiced. In order to claim that was not a valid Christian ordinance, people must then prove that it was unchristian.
To gain a better understanding of what Paul meant, let's take a closer look at what Paul wrote. First of all, we need to ask ourselves, To whom Paul was referring when he wrote “why are THEY then baptized for the dead?” Who are “they”? He couldn’t have been referring to the Corinthians otherwise he would have written "why are YOU being baptized for the dead?" At the same time whoever Paul was referring to was somebody whom the Corinthians were aware of otherwise it would have made no sense for him to mention them. It is just as clear that the people Paul was referring to must have been well respected to be mentioned as an EXAMPLE to his readers.

In verse 30 we see that Paul considered himself as one of "THEM." Therefore it is obvious that he included himself in the group he is referring to (see also verses 9, 10, 11, 14 and 19 of the same chapter). This is very important because Paul is not only pointing to these people as an example but also as his TESTIMONY to the people he is writing to concerning the resurrection. In effect Paul is saying, "The resurrection is true and this is the special witnesses that the Apostles are being baptized for dead. Therefore if you believe in what they are doing (baptism for the dead) why don't you accept the resurrection?” In other words, it would have been contradictory to accept the practice for the dead and not believe in the resurrection.

It is clear that Paul was referring to the apostles, not only because they were the special witnesses of the resurrection but probably because they were the ones who held the keys to perform this work. Not only was Paul bringing up this example because he was converted to the church after the resurrection of Jesus, and was himself a special witness of the risen Lord, but he was trying to say that this practice was being done even before his conversion.

Paul refers to "they" which are baptizing for the dead and is using them as "witnesses." It is clear that he was talking about some "special" people trusted by the Corinthians worthy of being considered as a very good example. If they were someone unknown to the Corinthians, surely Paul wouldn't have mentioned them.

It is true that we have just this one reference regarding baptism for the dead but both Peter and Jesus explained that the gospel was preached to the dead. Just before ascending into heaven, Jesus issued the command, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matthew 28:19). Baptism is a consequence of accepting the gospel. If the gospel is being preached to the dead, they it stands to reason that they must also be baptized in order to accept the gospel, otherwise preaching the gospel to them is useless.

The practice of praying for the dead comes to Christianity from Judaism. This practice is testified to in II Macabees 13:42-45 (RSV) which tells how Judas Maccabeus and his men "turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed [by their dead comrades] might be wholly blotted out.” If he were not expecting those who had fallen to rise again, it would have made no sense for him to pray for the sins of his dead comrades to “be wholly blotted out.”

II Timothy 1: 16-18 may also be a prayer for a departed believer; I Corinthians 15: 29 speaks not merely of prayer for the dead, but even of baptism on their behalf. Many inscriptions in the catacombs contain prayers for the souls of the departed. For instance, an inscription for "the dear and well-loved Sirica" concludes with the prayer "Lord Jesus, remember our daughter." The inscription for Agape pleads, "I beg you to pray when you come here and to entreat Father and Son in all your prayers. Do not fail to remember dear Agape so that God Almighty may keep Agape safe forever."(61) The early liturgies typically commemorated the dead. The writings of Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225), St. Cyprian (d. 258), and others demonstrate that private prayers for the dead were also common. While the fourth century heretic Aerius denied the "efficacy and legitimacy" of such prayers, his views on this and other matters were

A practice of vicarious baptism for the dead (for example among the Marcionites, A.D. 150) was known and seen as heretical by the ancient commentators. Thus they interpreted Paul´s words in 1 Corinthians 15:29 so as not to lend support to such practices or to any theology implicit in it. Through the ages their interpretations have persisted and multiplied (B. M. Foschini reports and evaluates forty distinct explanations of this verse). Most of the Greek fathers understood "the dead" to refer to one´s own body; others have interpreted the verse as referring to pagans seeking baptism "for the sake of joining" lost Christian relatives. Still others have suggested different sentence structures: "Otherwise what will they achieve who are being baptized? Something merely for their dead bodies?"

Once the theological pressures from later possible developments of practice and doctrine are felt less constricting, the text seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the Church of vicarious baptism for the dead. This is the view of most contemporary critical exegetes. Such a practice can be understood in partial analogy with Paul´s reference to how the pagan spouses and joint children in mixed marriages are sanctified and cleansed by the Christian partners (1 Cor. 7:14). Reference has often been made to 2 Maccabees 12:39–46, where Judas Maccabeaus, "taking account of the resurrection," makes Atonement for his dead comrades. (This was the very passage which Dr. Eck used in favor of purgatory in his 1519 Leipzig debate with Martin Luther. So it became part of the reason why Protestant Bibles excluded the Apocrypha or relegated them to an Appendix.)

To this could be added that the next link in Paul´s argument for a future resurrection is his own exposure to martyrdom (1 Cor. 15:30–32), a martyrdom that Paul certainly thinks of as having a vicarious effect (Phil. 2:17, Rom. 15:16, cf. Col. 1:24).

Such a connection may be conscious or unconscious. In either case it makes it quite reasonable that Paul´s remark refers to a practice of a vicarious baptism for the dead.
Historical records are clear on the matter. Baptism for the dead was performed by the dominant church until forbidden by the sixth canon of the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397. Some of the smaller sects, however, continued the practice. Of the Marcionites of the fourth century, Epiphanius wrote: “In this country—I mean Asia—and even in Galatia, their school flourished eminently and a traditional fact concerning them has reached us, that when any of them had died without baptism, they used to baptize others in their name, lest in the resurrection they should suffer punishment as unbaptized.” (Heresies, 8:7.)

Other Early Christian Allusions
A surprising amount of evidence suggests that the doctrine of salvation for the dead was known and understood by ancient Christian communities. Early commentary on the Pauline statement in Hebrews that “they without us should not be made perfect” holds that the passage referred to the Old Testament Saints who were trapped in Hades awaiting the help of their New Testament counterparts and that Christ held the keys that would “open the doors of the Underworld to the faithful souls there. It is significant that in his book, Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr, the early Christian apologist, cites an apocryphon which he charges had been deleted from the book of Jeremiah, but was still to be found in some synagogue copies of the text: “The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation.” Irenaeus also taught: “The Lord descended to the parts under the earth, announcing to them also the good news of his coming, there being remission of sins for such as believe on him.”
One of the early Christian documents linking the writings of Peter on Christ’s ministry in the spirit world with those of Paul on baptism for the dead is the “Shepherd of Hermas,” which states that “these apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, having fallen asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to those who had fallen asleep before them, and themselves gave to them the seal of the preaching. They went down therefore with them into the water and came up again, but the latter went down alive and came up alive, while the former, who had fallen asleep before, went down dead but came up alive. Through them, therefore, they were made alive, and received the knowledge of the name of the Son of God.” (Italics added.)

See also baptisim for the dead in ancient times  by Hugh B. Nibley

Last Updated on Monday, 17 May 2010 09:46  

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