Baptism for the Dead, what does it mean?

Baptism for the Dead, what does it mean? by Jack Kettler

Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.thereligionthatstartedinahat.com/

“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?” (1Corinthians 15:29)

It has been a common interpretation of this passage to believe Paul is referring to a heretical group practicing baptism for dead people by proxy.

This passage is a favorite Mormon proof-text for one of their unique doctrines. Mormons are generally proud to point out that they still practice baptism for the dead, where Christendom has abandoned this Old Testament practice. In Mormonism, baptism by water is a necessary ordinance for salvation. Baptisms for the dead can only be performed in Mormon temples. Baptism for the dead in Mormon temples supposedly gives those who have died without embracing Christ the opportunity to do so after death.

How do we understand 1Corinthians 15:29? In addition, to whom is Paul referring in this passage of Scripture?

The Bible teaches that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. Using this scriptural approach, there is an Old Testament text to which Paul is referencing in 1Corinthians 15:29. When Paul talks about “they,” he is referring to the Old Testament practice in Numbers 19:11-22. This part of the law taught that an Israelite who touched a dead body became unclean and consequently unable to approach the Lord resulting in being cut off from covenant community. Contact with a dead body by an Israelite polluted him. In redemptive history, such contact served to demonstrate that the individual was under the biblical condemnation of death, the result of sin. No one but Jesus because of His sinless perfection, could come into contact with death and not be contaminated. Only Christ is able to vanquish the power of uncleanness and death.

How do we understand this baptism and its mode? An accurate understanding of baptism is crucial for a proper understanding of the passage.

As a necessary excursus, in Hebrews 9:10 we read:

[ceremonies and offerings]

“which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.” The writer of Hebrews is discussing how the ceremonies of the Old Testament pointed to the finished work of Christ. In Hebrews 9:10, the writer says that those Old Testament ordinances applied until the time of the New Covenant. Among those extraneous regulations of the Old Covenant, note how the writer refers to “divers washings.” In the Greek, this passage mentioning “divers washings” is accurately translated “various baptisms.” In addition to these First-Century Jewish “washings,” i.e. baptisms, there were Old Covenant baptisms.

Were these ceremonial baptisms done by immersion? The “washings” referenced in Hebrews cannot be understood as immersions because of availability of water considerations. The Jews would not immerse furniture; “and, coming from the market-place, if they do not baptize themselves, they do not eat; and many other things there are that they received to hold, baptisms of cups, and pots, and brazen vessels, and couches” (Mark 7:4). If we understand that baptism can be done by sprinkling or pouring, then we find a satisfactory interpretation of Hebrews 9:10; Mark 7:4 and the Old Testament text to which Paul is referring to in Numbers 19 This sprinkling in Numbers 19:13 is equivalent to the washings, or “baptismois” (baptisms) in Hebrews 9:10 and is, therefore, a baptism..

Paul is revealing to us that the Israelite who had been contaminated by contact with the dead was not only unable to approach the Lord’s tabernacle in Numbers 19:13, he in fact, would also be cut off from Israel because of his defilement. What was the Old Testament solution for this contamination resulting from defilement in touching a dead body? The remedy found in the law was that the unclean individual must be sprinkled or baptized with the water of purification on the third day, as is seen in verses 13 and 17.

The unclean person would not be cleansed until the seventh day, as is seen in verse 19.

A Holy God could never have sin in His presence. The certainty of death exhibits that we are all spiritual rebels, debased and unclean in the sight of the Lord. Paul’s assertion in 1Corinthians 15:29 affirms that the water of purification in Numbers 19 is a ceremonially cleansing, which in reality is accomplished by Christ’s resurrection.

By following the prescription of the law (the water of purification in Numbers 19), the power of death was broken. The unclean person could be made clean and able to approach the Lord and be restored to the covenant people. The water of purification in Numbers 19 was a shadow or type, like the blood of bulls and goats that in reality could never uproot or take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). The water of purification in Numbers 19 also could never truly cleanse the pollution caused by sin. It was a type or shadow, which finds fulfillment in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection.

The teaching of Paul in 1Corinthians 15:29 now becomes clear; “they,” or the Jewish practice based upon the law of God in Numbers 19, foreshadowed the resurrection of Christ. Today it would be wrong for Christians to practice the law of Numbers 19, and that is why Paul says “they” in Corinthians rather than “we.” This Old Testament Jewish practice foreshadowed Christ’s resurrection. To continue this Old Testament practice today would be to reproach the finished work of Christ by going back to a type or shadow of weak and beggarly elements (Galatians 4:9).

Paul, in 1Corinthians 15:29 sets forth a splendid picture of the resurrection foreshadowed in Numbers 19. Paul was not referring to the practice of some unknown heretical group for proof of the resurrection; he was referring the Old Testament Jewish practice in Numbers 19, an incredible foreshadowing of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. When the apostle in 1Corinthians 15:29 says, “Else what shall they do” he is referring to the Jews, the Old Testament covenant people of God.

The interpretation argued for in this article is not only consistent with types and shadows finding fulfillment in Christ, but it also does not depend on the purely speculative and unsatisfactory explanation of Paul referring to some unknown heretical practice in defending a vital doctrine of the Christian Faith; namely, the resurrection of Christ. It refers to the Old Covenant Jewish practice now fulfilled in Christ.

An additional line of argumentation for this understanding of 1Corinthians 15:29 comes from contextual evidence within the book of 1Corinthians where Paul quotes the Old Testament in the book. In fact, Paul quotes the Old Testament in 1Corinthians 33 times.

To give a few examples:

1Corinthians 1:19 Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14
1Corinthians 1:31 Paul quotes Jeremiah 9:23- 24
1Corinthians 2:9 Paul quotes Isaiah 64:3
1Corinthians 5:13 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 13:5
1Corinthians 6:16, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24
1Corinthians 10:7 Paul quotes Exodus 32:6
1Corinthians 10:1-11 Paul is mentioning what happened to Israel in the wilderness
1Corinthians 14:21 Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12
1Corinthians 14:21 – Isaiah 28:11-12
1Corinthians 15:3 – Isaiah 53:8-10
1Corinthians 15:4 – Psalms 16:10
1Corinthians 15:25 – Psalms 110:1
1Corinthians 15:27 Paul quotes Psalm 8:6
1Corinthians 15:32 Paul quotes Isaiah 22:13
1Corinthians 15:45 Paul quotes Genesis 2:7
1Corinthians 15:55 Paul quotes Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14

Are we really to believe after Paul’s quotes from the Old Testament in 1Corinthians to prove his points that in 15:29 he inconsistently breaks his background context and refers to a practice by an unknown group of people engaged in a heretical practice? Especially after verse 27, in which Paul is quoting Psalm 8:6. Then in verse 32, Paul is quoting Isaiah 22:13. Paul quotes the Old Testament eight times in chapter 15. Contextually, it makes no sense for Paul right in between verse 27 and 32 to refer to a heretical practice by an unidentified group to defend the resurrection, a cardinal doctrine of the faith.

Contextually, we can add to the list:

1Corinthians 15:29 where Paul is referring to the Jewish practice in Numbers 19:13; 17; 19 regarding ceremonial baptisms.

I first heard of the connection between Corinthians and Numbers years ago from Rev. Steven M. Schlei from Loveland, CO.

What about the preposition “huper” in the translation of 1Corinthians 15:29?

In 1Corinthians 15:29, we find Greek preposition huper, which is translated in English as “for.” What will those do who are baptized for the dead and if the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? Normally, huper means “for the benefit of,” or “on behalf of.”

This is why translators and commentators have always believed the passage in 1Corinthians 15:29 must be some vicarious baptism that some unknown esoteric aberrational group was practicing.

Can huper be translated differently?

In the New Testament, huper appears 160 times. Of these, huper is used a majority of times with words in the genitive case. Of particular interest for us is the text in question where it is translated “for” in 1 Corinthians 15:29, but it is also translated as “concerning” in Romans 9:27 and “because” in Philippians 1:7.

Consider what Joel R. White has written in his article titled: Baptized On Account Of The Dead:

“As for the preposition υπέρ, it is to be understood in its causal sense and is best translated “because of” or, more precisely, “on account of.” Standard grammars and lexicons give ample evidence for this usage in the NT usage in usage in the NT 63

63 See, in addition to BAGD, H. Riesenfeld, “υπέρ,” TDNT, 8.514; J. H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: Clark, 1963) 270-71; H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1927) 111. Υπέρ has an unambiguously causal sense when it describes the grounds for giving thanks or offering praise (Rom 15:9; 1Cor 10:30; Eph. 1:16; 5:20). It also seems to have a causal sense in many of the instances in which it is linked to suffering (Acts 5:41; 9:16; 15:26; 21:13; 2Cor 12:10; Eph. 3:13; 2Thess. 1:5). In Phil 1:29 this is undoubtedly so, for there we have two instances of υπέρ, the first, υπέρ Χριστού, giving the cause or ground of the Philippians’ suffering; the second, υπέρ αυτού, stating its purpose. Additionally, a causal sense is possible, if not likely, in Rom 1:5; 15:8; 2Cor 12:8;” (1)

James R. Rogers, in his article on Baptism for the Dead writes:

“Nevertheless, this is not the only way to take huper. Indeed, the Scriptures also use the word to mean “on account of” or “because of.” For example, huper appears in Romans 15:9, “the Gentiles…glorify God for His mercy.” Quite obviously Gentiles do not give glory to God for the benefit of mercy—mercy does not benefit from the glory we give God. Rather, we glorify God on account of or because of His mercy. So, too, in 1Corinthians 15:3, Paul writes that “Christ died for our sins.” Now, Christ did not die for the benefit of our sins. Rather, he died on account of or because of our sins. This use of huper occurs often (see, e.g., 2Cor. 12:8, Eph. 5:20, Heb. 5:1, 7:27, Acts 5:41, 15:26, and 21:13). I also consulted several of the best Greek lexicons, and pestered a couple of Greek scholars. All held that this is a permissible reading of the word. If so, then 1Corinthians 15:29 can be properly translated or read as the following:

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized because of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized because of the dead?” (2)

If White and Rogers are correct in their examples of the alternative translation and usage of huper, then the above interpretation holds up.

Significantly, A.T. Robertson M.A. D.D., L.I.D., regarding υπέρ notes:

“A more general idea is that of ‘about’ or ‘concerning.’ Here υπέρ encroaches on the province of περί. Cf. 2Cor. 8:23, υπέρ Τίτου, 2Th. 2:1 ὑπὲρ τῆς παρουσίας τοῦ κυρίου. Perhaps 1Cor. 15:29 comes in here also. Moulton1 finds commercial accounts in the papyri, scores of them with ὑπὲρ in the sense of ‘to.'” (3)

In the Greek English Lexicon Of The New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, we see other uses of ὑπὲρ under the heading:

“d. because of to denote moving cause or the reason because of, for the sake of… and under f. about, concerning (about equivalent to περί).” (4)

In conclusion, as noted, the Greek preposition translated “for” in 1Corinthians 15:29 is huper. It is possible to say that Paul is not writing about being baptized “in the place of,” or “on behalf of,” or “for” a dead person at all, as has been seen by the contrary evidence in how huper may be translated.

Since this is possible, then according to the context of 1Corinthians 15:29, huper could be translated “because of” or “on account of.” If huper can mean this, then the 1Corinthians 15:29 text can be properly translated: “Else what shall they do which are baptized because of the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized because of the dead?” or, “Else what shall they do which are baptized on account of the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized on account of the dead?”

In light of the above and considerations that follow, based on exceptions to a general grammatical rule involving the Greek preposition huper, we could translate Paul in 1Corinthians 15:29 to be saying: “else what do they, the Jews, mean by ceremonially washing or baptizing because of the dead? If the dead are not raised, why do the Jews ceremonially wash or baptize on account of the dead?”

In light of the different usage and the adaptability of the preposition “huper”, its use in 1Corinthians, 15:29 is by no means restricted to the translation conveying the idea of only proxy baptisms. In the matter of 1Corinthians 15:29 we must let Scripture interpret Scripture. The connection between 1Corinthians 15:29 and Numbers 19:11-22 is the most convincing interpretation.

To quote Joel R. White again in regards to 1Corinthians 15:29:

“Students of this passage have struggled to make sense of this curious reference, offering an astonishing number of diverse interpretations. In the past thirty years, however, interest in the subject has fallen off as scholars reached an impasse concerning its meaning. There has been only a trickle of new ideas, and curtailing close to a consensus on the proper interpretation has emerged. This has led to an exegetical agnosticism on the part of many scholars.” (5)

This conclusion of “exegetical agnosticism” is certainly unsatisfying for the Christian apologist. The solution argued for in the above article has the benefit of using Scripture as the best interpreter of Scripture. Moreover, it does not rip verse 29 out of context from verses 27, and 32 where Paul is quoting the Old Testament. The hesitancy of some to agree with this interpretation may be because of a prior commitment to a particular mode of baptism.

Have any theologians in church history seen the connection of 1Coringthians 15:29 and Numbers 19:11-13?

Consider the leading 19th Century Southern Presbyterian theologian, Robert L. Dabney, and the connection between 1Corinthians 15:29 and Numbers 19:11-13:

Baptism for the Dead by Robert L. Dabney:

“The instructive and almost exhaustive treatise of Dr. Beattie upon 1 Cor. 15:29 suggests still another explanation which readers may compare with those recited by him. I first heard this from that devout, learned and judicious exegete, Rev. J. B. Ramsey, D. D., of Lynchburg, Va. He advocated it, not claiming originality for it. This explanation supposes that the holy apostle refers here to the Mosaic law of Num. 19:11-13, which required the Hebrew who had shared in the shrouding and burial of a human corpse to undergo a ceremonial uncleanness of seven days, and to deliver himself from it by two sprinklings with the water of purification containing the ashes of the burned heifer. This view is sustained by the following reasons:

I. We know from Mark 7:4, and Heb. 9:10 (“As the washing [baptisms] of cups and pots, brazen vessels and of tables.” “And divers washings [baptisms] and carnal ordinances”), that both the evangelist and the Apostle Paul called the water purifications of the Mosaic law by the name of baptisms. Thus it is made perfectly clear that if the apostle designed in 1Cor. 15:29 to refer to this purification of people recently engaged in a burial, he would use the word baptize.

II. This purification must have been well known, not only to all Jews and Jewish Christians, but to most gentile Christians in Corinth; because the converts from the Gentiles made in the apostles’ days in a place like Corinth were chiefly from such pagans as were somewhat acquainted with the resident Jews and their synagogue worship. This explanation then has this great advantage, that it supposes the apostle to cite for argument (as is his wont everywhere) a familiar and biblical instance, rather than any usage rare, or partial or heretical, and so unknown to his readers and lacking in authority with them.

III. This view follows faithfully the exact syntax of the sentence. The apostle puts the verb in the present tense: “Which are baptized for the dead.” For we suppose this law for purifying persons recently engaged in a burial was actually observed not only by Jews, but by Jewish Christians, and properly, at the time this epistle was written. We must remember that while the apostle firmly prohibited the imposition of the Mosaic ritual law upon gentile Christians according to the apostolic decree in Acts 15, he continued to observe it himself. He caused Timothy to be circumcised, while he sternly refused to impose circumcision upon gentile converts. He was at Jerusalem going through a Nazarite purification and preparing to keep the Jewish Passover, when he was captured by the Romans. His view of the substitution of the New Testament cultus in place of the Mosaic ritual seems to have been this: That, on the one hand, this ritual was no longer to be exacted of any Christian, Jew or Gentile, as necessary to righteousness, and that such exaction was a forfeiture of justification by grace; but on the other hand, it was proper and allowable for Jewish Christians to continue the observance of their fathers, such as the seventh day Sabbath, and the scriptural Mosaic ritual (not the mere rabbinical traditions) so long as the Temple was standing, provided their pious affections and associations inclined them to these observances.

IV. Dr. Ramsey’s explanation is faithful to the idiomatic usage of the Greek words in the text. He correctly supposes that the apostle’s term, “baptized,” describes a religious water purification by sprinkling, founded on biblical authority; and here, perhaps, is the reason why expositors with immersionist tendencies have been blind to this very natural explanation; their minds refused to see a true baptism in a sprinkling, where the Apostle Paul saw it so plainly. Then, Dr. Ramsey uses the word “the dead” (nekron) in its most common, strict meaning of dead men; and that in the plural; not in the singular, as of the one corpse of Jesus. He also employs the preposition “for” (huper) in a fairly grammatical sense for its regimen of the genitive case; “on account of the dead.”

V. Lastly, the meaning thus obtained for the apostle’s instance coheres well with the line of his logic. If there be no resurrection what shall they do who receive this purification by water and the ashes of the heifer from the ceremonial uncleanness incurred on account of the corpses of their dead brethren and neighbors which they have aided to shroud and bury? If there be no resurrection, would there be any sense or reason in this scriptural requirement of a baptism? Wherein would these human corpses differ from the bodies of goats, sheep, and bullocks, dressed for food, without ceremonial uncleanness? Had Moses, inspired of God, not believed in the resurrection, he would not have ordained such a baptism as necessarily following the funeral of a human being. His doctrine is, that the guilt of sin is what pollutes a human being, the soul spiritually, and even the material body ceremonially; that bodily death is the beginning of the divine penalty for that guilt: that hence where that penalty strikes it makes its victim a polluted thing {herein). Hence even the man who touches it is vicariously polluted, as he would not be by the handling of any other material clod, and so needs purification. For all this points directly to man’s immortality, with its future rewards and punishments; and these affecting not only the spirit but the body which is for a time laid away in the tomb, to be again reanimated and either to share the continued penalty of sin, or, through faith to be cleansed from it by the blood of Christ, and thus made to re-enter the New Jerusalem.” (6)

Robert Lewis Dabney (1829–1898) was one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 19th century. A Southern Presbyterian, he was a teacher, statesman, writer, and social critic, as well as theologian, and taught at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In the American Civil War, he once served as Chief of Staff to the Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson. His work, especially his Systematic Theology, has been highly regarded by scholars from Benjamin Warfield to Karl Barth.

Notes:

1.Joel R. White Baptized On Account Of The Dead: The Meaning Of 1 Corinthians 15:29 In Its Context. Biblische Ausbildung am Ort, Vienna, Austria Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL) 116/3 (1997) 487- 499.

2. Biblical Horizons Newsletter
No. 76: Baptism for the Dead
by James R. Rogers
http: //www.biblicalhorizons. com/biblical-horizons/no-76-baptism-for-the-dead/

3. A.T. Robertson M.A. D.D., L.I.D., A Grammar Of The Greek New Testament In The Light Of Historical Research, (Broadman Press, Nashville, Tennessee), p. 632.

4. Walter Bauer, Greek English Lexicon Of The New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (The University of Chicago Press, Printed in the United States of American) p. 839.

5. Joel R. White Baptized On Account Of The Dead: The Meaning Of 1 Corinthians 15:29 In Its Context. Biblische Ausbildung am Ort, Vienna, Austria Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL) 116/3 (1997) 487- 499.

6. Robert L. Dabney Baptism for the Dead by (Appeared in the Christian Observer, February 3, 1897; vol. 84:5), pg. 10.

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

For more research see:

G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson Editors Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 1 Corinthians by Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Academic, 2007), pp. 695-752

Paul’s Use of The Old Testament in 1Corinthians by Davide Verlingieri online PDF

James W. Dale Vol. 1-4; Classic Baptism; Judaic baptism; Johannic Baptism; Christic Baptism and Patristic Baptism Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey

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