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History of Baptism for the Deadby Krister Stendahl
In his first epistle to the Corinthians Paul wrote: "Otherwise, what shall they do who are being baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are they being baptized for them" (Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians 15:29).
This verse is part of Paul's argumentation against those who denied a future resurrection (cf. 2 Tim. 2:18, Justin, Dial. 80). He refers to a practice of vicarious baptism, a practice for which we have no other evidence in the Pauline or other New Testament or early Christian writings. Interpreters have puzzled over the fact that Paul seems to accept this practice. At least he does not see fit to condemn it as heretical, but Paul clearly refers to a distinct group within the Church, a group that he accuses of inconsistency between ritual and doctrine.
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.
Conzelmann, H. 1 Corinthians. Hermeneia Series. Philadelphia, 1975.
Foschini, B. "Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead; 1 Cor. 15:29." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 12 (1950):260-76, 378-88; 13 (1951):46-78, 172-98, 276-85.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Baptism for the Dead
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company