The apostle Peter was right. Sometimes the letters of Paul contain things that are hard to understand. Peter’s warning was to avoid being of the “ignorant and unstable” who twisted these hard to understand writings of Paul to their own destruction (see 2 Peter 3.6). I neither want to be ignorant, unstable, or self destructive in any area of my life, but even more so in the study of the Scriptures. I don’t know if Peter had 1 Corinthians 15.29 in mind when he wrote his second letter, but this verse is surely one of the most difficult to understand of all of Paul’s writings.
29Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? 30Why am I in danger every hour? 31I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! 32What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15.29-32 ESV)
What in the world was Paul talking about? Best I can tell, here are the possible options for understanding the meaning of this verse.
Some think that Paul was referring to, and apparently affirming, vicarious baptism. By this we mean one person being baptized on behalf of another in such a way as to impart salvation to another person. Initially, this seems to be the natural reading of the text. However, there are some significant problems with reading the text this way.
First, there is no historical evidence that this was an issue in the early church, or more specifically, in the Corinthian church. The first evidence of vicarious baptism is in the Marcionites of the second century, long after Paul wrote this letter. And, contrary to what the Mormon church teaches, this was not a practice that has been observed throughout the history of the church.
More importantly, vicarious baptism is in contradiction to the rest of the New Testament teachings about baptism and salvation. According to the apostles, salvation was not dependent upon baptism, but rather baptism was an expression of salvation. Salvation is by grace through faith, and outward religious expressions mean nothing without a new birth. Paul even minimized his practice of baptizing among the Corinthians church (see 1 Corinthians 1.14). And there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that there is an opportunity for one to be saved by grace through faith after death.
If we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, the meaning of this passage cannot be to support vicarious baptism for the dead.
A Metaphorical Use Of The Word “Dead”
Some have suggested that when Paul wrote of being baptized for the dead, he was speaking not of the physically dead but of their “dying bodies.” In other word, Paul was really saying, “If there is no resurrection from the dead, then why are people being baptized for their dying bodies? If life ends when we die, then why worry about getting baptized?”
While this does solve the theological problem, and while it is supported by one textual variant dated to the 15th century, there is little evidence that the Corinthians, or any in the early church, thought of baptism as an act for their “dying bodies.” But more importantly, to accept this reading is to add something to the text that is not there. Technically, this is called an ellipse, which means “the omission of one or more words that are obviously understood but that must be supplied to make a construction grammatically complete.” If this were Paul’s intention, it is quite a significant omission.
An Alternative Meaning Of The Preposition “For”
Many have suggested different ways to translate the preposition that is translated “for” in the ESV (the Greek word is ύπερ). Martin Luther suggested that it should be translated as “over,” meaning that people were being baptized over the graves of the dead saints. Others have suggested it had the sense of being baptized for the dead, meaning in the hope of being reunited with their deceased baptized relatives in the resurrection. Some have suggested that it be translated “because of,” meaning that some were baptized because of the faith of those who have since died. Still others suggest that it could be translated “with reference to,” meaning with a reference to the resurrection of the dead, but this would require a significant ellipse. It could possibly mean “in the place of,” as it is used in Philemon 13, meaning that some were baptized to take the place of those who had died in Christ.
While prepositions in the Greek language are difficult to translate, and often carry with them many various shades of meaning, the most likely translation of this preposition with this case and sentence structure is “for.”
A Different Kind of Baptism
Some have suggested that Paul is speaking of a different type of baptism rather than water baptism. Perhaps it is baptism into suffering, or baptism in martyrdom. In effect, Paul was saying, “if there is no resurrection from the dead then why have people been baptized into martyrdom (why have the apostles been willing to die for the faith?)” While this reading may solve the theological problem of vicarious baptism, it requires a significant ellipse. And, there is no evidence that there had been any martyrs within the Corinthian church at the time of Paul’s writing.
A Corinthian Slogan
Some have suggested “baptism for the dead” was some kind of slogan or phrase used by the Corinthians and Paul was referencing that slogan in 1 Corinthians 15. Indeed, Paul was fond of quoting slogans used by the Corinthians in this letter, and then correcting the slogan. For instance, “You wrote, ‘it is good for a man not to touch a woman,’ but…” (1 Corinthians 7.1) or “All things are lawful for me” (1 Corinthians 6.12) or perhaps “All of us possess knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8.1). So, some have suggested that Paul is referencing another slogan or saying that the Corinthians were using when he wrote of people being baptized for the dead. However, Paul’s normal pattern was to quote the slogan and then correct it or expound upon it, something he did not do here. In addition, 1 Corinthians 15.29 is not a clear quote but more of a vague reference, but more importantly, Paul did not correct it or expound upon like in the other cases.
Connecting Context and Text (one attempt)
Though no one attempt has really seemed to solve the problem of 1 Corinthians 15.29, perhaps the best attempt was offered by Joel White, a professor in Austria (see his article in The Journal of Biblical Literature (1997) entitled, “Baptized on Account of the Dead: The Meaning of 1 Corinthians 15.29 in Its Context”). He has tried to take seriously the context and the text to find out what Paul meant by this verse.
First, the context is that Paul’s conviction of the resurrection was so strong that it caused him to lead a life of sacrifice that would be pitiful if the resurrection were not a reality (see 1 Corinthians 15.19). Why else would he have “fought wild beasts in Ephesus?” (1 Corinthians 15.32). His life of sacrifice was so extreme, that Paul even describes it as “dying daily” (see 1 Corinthians 15.31). The image of death as an expression of suffering is not unique to this passage. In fact, Paul used the image of death on four other occasions in his letters to the church in Corinth to describe his sacrifice and suffering as an apostle. Consider,
- 9For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10We are fools for Christ’s sake, (1 Corinthians 4.9-10)
- 14But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. (2 Corinthians 2.14-16)
- We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4.8-11)
- As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6.4-10)
Clearly, in Paul’s mind, the apostolic call had ushered him into such a life of sacrifice and suffering that he died every day. So, it should come as no surprise that he might think of himself as “the dead” for whom people in Corinth were being baptized for.
In addition, the Greek preposition ύπερ can be translated to mean “because of” or “on account of.” Which means that Paul might have been asking the question, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then why are people being baptized on account of the apostles who have been sentenced with a call of death? Why would anyone submit to the teachings of people who live such lives of suffering and sacrifice unless the resurrection was a real hope?”
Many in Corinth had come to faith through the teaching of the apostles. In fact, it was their very identification with the various apostles that had caused the divisions in the body. Some preferred Paul, some Apollos, and others Peter. Regardless, they had all been baptized because of the teachings of an apostle who lived a dead life (by the standards of this world). If the dead (the physically dead) are not raised, then why would people be baptized because of the apostles who live such lives of death?
This solution is not without its problems, obviously. It requires that the word for “dead” be taken figuratively in one sentence and then physically in the next. It also requires an ellipses to make the meaning of “the dead” clearly refer to the apostles. And, while “because of” is an acceptable rendering of the preposition, it would not be the customary usage. However, it does seem to be the best possible reading that takes seriously the context and the text.
The Example of 1 Corinthians 15.29
What this verse does do for us is to remind us of the important principles of interpreting Scripture.
First, the meaning of any text is bound up in the text and context. The words that the author chose are to be taken seriously, and the meaning those words have will be consistent with the context in which the author put them. We cannot rip a verse of Scripture from its context or ignore the basic meaning of words and the import of grammar without doing violence to the meaning of the text.
Second, Scripture always interprets Scripture. The meaning of one text of Scripture cannot be isolated from the message of Scripture as a whole. The reason that Paul cannot be speaking and affirming vicarious baptism in 1 Corinthians 15.29 is because this is inconsistent with the rest of the New Testament.
Third, the clear passages illuminate the less clear, not the other way around. When we come to a Bible verse whose meaning is confusing or unclear, we allow the meaning of the more clear passages to guide us as we seek to understand the unclear. The reason I have suggested the last possible solution to the 1 Corinthians 15.29 interpretive problem is because it is the one that is in most accord to the other clear teachings of Scripture.
This is also the reason why we ought to be very careful about building a complex theological system on an isolated and unclear verse. For instance, the Mormon church has built a very complex system of baptizing its members for the dead based on this one verse. Since this is the only verse that speaks of being baptized for the dead in the entire New Testament, and because it does not instruct followers of Christ to be baptized for the dead but merely refers to it, and because the rest of the New Testament teaches a view of baptism that it is an individual’s expression of their own rebirth in Christ and is never vicarious, it is unwise to develop an entire doctrine on an isolated, obscure, and unclear verse.