Sunday, June 26, 2011

“Baptizing for the Dead”: An Early Christian Practice by "Some" in Corinth

According to the New Testament book known as the “Acts” of the Apostles, a first-century CE Jewish lawyer named “Saul” converted to Christianity and was sent forth as an “apostle” to non-Jews, or to people of the “nations.” This one also became known as “Paul.”—Acts 13:9.

Among the nations to whom Paul and other early Christians visited and later wrote concerning Christian living, beliefs, and practices were those who lived in the ancient Greco-Roman city of Corinth, located less than 50 miles southwest of Athens on the west coast of modern-day Turkey—1 Corinthians 1:1.

In the first letter written to the Corinthians by Paul and by another Christian named “Sosthenes” (1 Corinthians 1:1), which letter was written sometime between 50 and 60 CE, we read early on about certain “divisions” which existed among them, specifically having to do with how the Corinthians viewed some of the leading Christian figures of that time, including Paul, Apollos, and “Cephas,” or Peter.—1:11-15; compare 11:18-22.

This letter goes on to note how when Paul had previously come to Corinth he had to treat the Christians there as “babes in Christ,” even as “fleshly men” rather than as “spiritual men” (3:1-4). In spite of this, the Corinthians were further instructed “not to judge anything before the due time” had arrived, that is, “until the Lord should come, who will also illuminate the things hidden in the darkness and reveal the intentions of our hearts, and then praise will come to be for each one from God.”—1 Corinthians 4:5.
At the same time, however, Paul gives "praise" to the Corinthians because they had ‘kept Paul in mind’ in part by “keeping the traditions which [Paul] passed on” to them (11:2), one of which was the manner and reason for sharing in the “Lord’s supper” (11:20, 23-26). But near the end of the letter a more serious issue comes up having to do with belief/non-belief in the “resurrection.” According to what is written in 15:12, “if Christ is being proclaimed because he was raised up from the dead [or according to the slightly different wording of P46, ‘if Christ is being proclaimed from the dead because he was raised up’], “How can it be that some among you are saying, ‘There is no resurrection of the dead’?”

In reference to those who were saying this among the Corinthian Christians, several verses later in 15:29 we read the following argument which was given in further support of actual belief in a real resurrection for the dead:

Those who are baptizing for the sake of [or, 'for,' 'concerning'] the dead, what will they celebrate? If, in fact, dead ones are not being raised up [or, 'made alive'], why are they also being baptized for their sake [or, 'concerning them' (= the dead)]?

The above translation is from my reading of P46 (datable to 150 – 200 CE), which I provided and commented on in part of my earlier Twitter translations of requested texts for June 26, 2011.

According to the above text (15:29), it is clear that we have here an early Christian practice in Corinth by “some” (Greek: tines [see 15:12, below]) who did not believe in the resurrection but who were “baptizing/being baptized for the sake of the dead.” That is why we read the following question in 15:12, "How can it be that some among you are saying, 'There is no resurrection of the dead'?"

In partial response to this non-belief on the part of “some” of those in Corinth, Paul chose to use another one of their practices as an argument against their view that “there is no resurrection of the dead.” That practice involved an actual ‘baptism for the dead’ which was not otherwise known or taught as a Christian practice anywhere outside of this group in Corinth. In spite of this, Paul does not condemn or repudiate the practice, which some in Corinth may have adopted from some of the well-known “mystery cults” or “Gnostic sects” who were known “to have held vicarious baptisms.”—Albrecht Oepke, “Baptō,” in TDNT 1 (Eerdmans, 1964 [1969]), page 542.

Or it may be, as Oepke also indicates in the same reference, that in some sense these Corinthians related the practice of “being baptized for the sake of the dead” to “the atonement for those who have died, which brings about the act of being set free from sin” (2 Maccabees 12:45)

Whatever the background or reasoning for this practice on the part of some of those in Corinth who denied the actual resurrection of the dead, Paul’s use of this practice among some of the Corinthian Christians who rejected the resurrection appears to be “purely tactical” (Oepke, page 542), though it shows how much he and other Christians were willing to go to gain others “for the sake of the Great Message” about the Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). But there is no indication the practice of vicarious or “substitution” baptism on the part of the living for the dead was practiced by all or even by the majority of Christians, and perhaps by none but by those in Corinth to whom Paul wrote, and who denied the resurrection (hence, as noted previously, Paul's use of their practice of baptizing the dead against their reasoning on the subject of the resurrection).

In fact, so unknown was the practice that outside of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians only one well-known person in the early congregations of the first, second, or even third centuries CE cites or discusses this practice or even Paul’s reference to it in 1 Corinthians 15:29. That one person is Tertullian (who lived and who wrote from around 160 – 220/230 CE), and in so doing he again shows just how unknown this practice was among Christians who believed in the resurrection:

Let us now return to the resurrection, to the defence of which against heretics of all sorts we have given indeed sufficient attention in another work of ours. But we will not be wanting (in some defence of the doctrine) even here, in consideration of such persons as are ignorant of that little treatise. “What,” asks he, “shall they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not?” Now, never mind that practice, (whatever it may have been.) [Against Marcion, Book V, Chap. 10; ANF 3, page 449 (available for reading online here).]

Tertullian goes on to try and explain this as a practice done in relation to the “body,” which Tertullian believes would be resurrected, with the reason for Paul’s acceptance of their practice being “that he might all the more firmly insist upon the resurrection of it” (see the preceding reference and Tertullian’s further discussion of this subject). Compare also his words on the same subject in his work On the Resurrection of the Flesh:

But inasmuch as “some are also baptized for the dead,” we will see whether there be a good reason for this. Now it is certain that they adopted this (practice) with such a presumption as made them suppose that the vicarious baptism (in question) would be beneficial to the flesh of another in anticipation of the resurrection; [Chap. 48; ANF 3, page 581 (available for reading online here).]

While there is no doubt that 1 Corinthians 15:29 does teach that some there were, in fact, “being baptized for the sake of the dead” (compare Oepke’s remarks, “All interpretations which seek to evade vicarious baptism for the dead ... are misleading” [TDNT 1, page 542, note 63]), there is nothing in this text or anywhere else in the New Testament writings which encourages the practice or that gives any basis for it.

The only ones who have any basis for the practice today are Mormons who accept Joseph Smith as a real prophet of God, who did teach and encourage the practice in ways which are far beyond what we read about among the Corinthians in the first century CE. See, for example, his revelation and teachings concerning how Mormons are to ‘baptize for the dead’ in Doctrine and Covenants 127:5-10 (available for online reading here) and especially 128, the entire section (available online here).

Therefore, Mormons aside, no one today is required to perform “baptisms for the dead” in order to be considered “Christian” (not that all Mormons would "require" this, either). But it was a practice by some in the first century Corinthian congregation who were struggling with all sorts of issues (as we all do), not the least of which was belief in actual resurrection of the dead. Some in Corinth denied this, though they claimed Christian association and practiced “being baptized for the dead” in ways which Paul and Sosthenes could use to show an inconsistency and show further what he believed to be the right Christian view of the dead, namely, ultimately, to be “made alive” after being baptized for the forgiveness of our sins, sins which on their own, without signs of repentance (mainly by a changed heart), will and always have so far to this point brought forth “death.”—1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 56.

In conclusion of this article, allow me to present the least supportable rendering of 1 Corinthians 15:29 which I have found in English for this text, and which Oepke would almost certainly classify also as “misleading.” Here is 1 Corinthians 15:29 according to the Watchtower Society’s New World Translation (NWT); all words, including those in brackets, are original to the NWT rendering of this text (I have added underlining to the one word [used twice] which has no basis at all for being part of any translation of this text):

Otherwise, what will they do who are being baptized for the purpose of [being] dead ones? If the dead are not to be raised up at all, why are they being baptized for the purpose of [being] such?

The use of the word “being,” whether in brackets or not, is misleading. It has no basis in the text, and it is used for the sole purpose of hiding the actual practice by some in Corinth, namely, “being baptized for the sake of the dead.” In 2003 the Watchtower Society published a “Questions from Readers” which explained, in part, the reason for the above translation and how the Society understands it:

Was Paul here [in 1 Corinthians 15:29] suggesting that living people be baptized on behalf of those who died in an unbaptized state? So it might seem from these [the King James and New Jerusalem Bibles] and some other Bible translations. However, a closer examination of both the Scriptures and the original Greek used by Paul suggests another conclusion. Paul meant that anointed Christians are baptized, or immersed, into a course of life that will lead to a death of integrity like that of Christ. Afterward, they would be raised to spirit life as he was. ... The Greek preposition hy·per´, translated “for” or “on behalf of” in various Bible versions at 1 Corinthians 15:29, can also mean “for the purpose of.” In harmony with other Bible texts, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures therefore correctly renders this verse: “What will they do who are being baptized for the purpose of being dead ones? If the dead are not to be raised up at all, why are they also being baptized for the purpose of being such?” [From The Watchtower, October 1, 2003, page 29.]

The problem with the NWT and with the Society’s above explanation (see also the Society’s book Reasoning from the Scriptures [1985, 1989 ], pages 56-57, where a similar defense of the NWT rendering is given) is not concerning the understanding of the Greek preposition huper, which as the Society rightly notes above can mean “for” or “on behalf of.” The real issue is the use of “[being]” twice in brackets, which has no grammatical or immediate contextual basis. In fact, using “[being]” here completely changes the sense of huper, so that instead of “being baptized for/on behalf of the dead,” the NWT has Paul teaching something about what it ultimately means when Christians get baptized while alive, namely, to be “baptized, or immersed, into a course of life that will lead to a death of integrity like that of Christ.”

That is not what is taught in 1 Corinthians 15:29, and if “[being]” was not used twice in this verse in the NWT then the meaning would be evident, even if not always easy to explain. Yet, as I have shown above the subject can be explained properly and without any controversy in relation to the views of those to whom Paul wrote, “some” of whom, in spite of “being baptized for the dead” in association with a Jewish Maccabean, “mystery cult,” or other “Gnostic” rite did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12). Yet, in this first letter the inconsistency on the part of “some” in Corinth is plainly shown through simple but powerful reasoning about their belief and their practices. The practices are simply difficult to define fully or clearly in association with any larger Christian community, but they are not impossible to define according to the best available reasons.

But the Watchtower Society and all other groups or people who interpret this passage from 1 Corinthians should note the practice on the part of some who were not consistent in their view or belief in the dead and their resurrection, or who had come to doubt it in spite of being baptized for the dead,” which they practiced. However, while Paul did tolerate to some extent a practice, his goal is made even more clear in relation to the practice itself, and which involves a baptism by water and spirit into a new life where you do your best to be like those who treat others best, and who better to be baptized into than the Father of all things and the one who is said merely to reinforce all things true.—Matthew 28:19; John 8:28-30; 18:37.