1 Corinthians 15:29 and "Baptism for the Dead": What Does it Mean?

Sunday, February 25, 2007


This discussion took place on a public Internet bulletin board, with six Protestants.
Their words will appear in various colors, with my primary opponent's words in 

* * * * *

How does a Protestant interpret this verse?:

"Otherwise, 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?" (RSV)

Footnote from my New Geneva Study Bible:

Apparently some in Corinth were being baptized on behalf of others who had already died. This practice is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible or in other ancient writings. Numerous explanations of the practice have been proposed, all of them speculative and none persuasive. Paul mentions the rite only to show the logical inconsistency of his opponent's position.

I don't see how that last sentence follows. I think the entire context falsifies it. Paul's statement -- whatever it means -- is used as a rhetorical argument favoring the resurrection of the dead, not as an anomalous, incongruous example within the context of a positive affirmation of resurrection. The entire chapter 15 is about Jesus' Resurrection and that of His followers. Paul's point is that the Christian life of toil and suffering is pointless if there is no resurrection, and if Jesus didn't rise again (15:14,17,19), and that if this were the case, we might as well be hedonists (15:32). After he makes his statement in 15:29, he proclaims in the next verse: "Why am I in peril every hour?" In other words, "why do I go through what I go through, if not for the hope of the resurrection and eternal life?" (cf. 15:32).

So his example of baptism is one of several practices which only make sense if there is a resurrection. By analogy, then, it is not presented as an inconsistency at all, but as an acceptable practice in light of the resurrection, just like his "peril" and dying "every day" (15:31). On the contrary, if he wished to condemn such a practice, it seems to me that here was his opportunity to make it clear that it was not only "logically inconsistent" but wicked and forbidden in the Church Age / New Covenant period. Paul certainly made no bones about other Corinthian faults in his two letters to them. So I say that Paul is supporting the practice, and that this has to be harmonized with Christian theology in some fashion.

I don't think Protestants would likely see this passage much differently than Roman Catholics.

I don't think they "see" it at all. :-) Or if they do they wrongly interpret it, in my opinion, just as the commentary above does, with recourse to special pleading and avoidance of the crystal-clear context. And there is other Scripture or ancient writing similar to this, which I will bring in in due course.

As you may know LDS [Mormons] use this passage to try to proof-text their practice of baptism for the dead.

Yes. I think they are wrongly interpreting as well.

Perhaps they were baptized for the sake of those who had died. Meaning, because of the testimony of believers that had been perhaps slain for the faith, these people were now becoming believers and being baptized. I always thought that "huper" could be like "because of." I dunno. One thing is for sure, you can't build a doctrine out of one verse.

There was a cult near Corinth in which the members were baptized on
behalf of dead friends and relatives. Thus cult also happened to believe in a

Paul was telling the believers how futile life is if there is no resurrection ("if
the dead are not raised...let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we
die"). Interestingly, that particular saying was popular among the
Epicureans. Paul is drawing on the teachings and practices of pagan
religions to give support to his argument! It is along these lines that Paul
also appeals to the practice of the cult (I have forgotten their name) that
practiced baptism on behalf of the dead; the reason that those people
practiced this was because they believed in a coming resurrection. Paul is
saying, "Why does that group that baptizes people on behalf of the dead do
what they're doing if there is no resurrection?" He is pointing out that even
among pagans, a belief or disbelief in the resurrection guides their ways of
life. In the case of the Epicureans, their disbelief resulted in a debauched
lifestyle. In the case of the Corinthian cult, their belief resulted in a
practice of baptizing members on behalf of the dead. Likewise, as Christians
our belief in the resurrection should produce a certain response in us;
namely, we should be willing to fight with wild beasts (v. 32), die as
martyrs, and live holy lives (v. 34).

Could I ask where you found this historical information (because others have denied it)?

There is nothing to support that Corinthian believers were being baptized for their dead relatives or friends. The note derives its existence from pure speculation and is contrary to Paul's larger message delivered through the testimony of his epistles.

Well, then this is a big difference of opinion. The above commentary said the practice may have occurred but that Paul opposed it. You say there is no evidence that it occurred, and that Paul is talking about something entirely different. I say Paul is upholding the practice also, but I would interpret it differently (and I am withholding my opinion till other opinions are on the table, because I want to see what they are).

Baptism is the identifying with someone or something. In this case Paul is speaking of identifcation as a dead person. It means the Corinthian believers were baptized or identified with Jesus Christ who had died for them. They were dead to the world but were alive to Christ. See the contrast of this idea in Gal. 2:20.

Considering Paul is about to launch in the program and pattern of the resurrection Paul was saying that if there is no resurection then we have been baptized for a dead man (Jesus Christ). Paul here, I believe, equivocates the denial of the believers resurrection as a denial of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Clever, but I don't buy it, for two reasons. First, 15:29 does not say we were baptized in Christ or with Him, as other baptism passages suggest; rather, it says people are baptized "on behalf" of the dead: an entirely different concept. Obviously, our Lord Jesus needs nothing done on His behalf.

Secondly, "the dead" seems to me to be a corporate term, not referring to Jesus alone. If you are right, this is an exceedingly strange way to refer to Jesus, as "the dead." And apart from the strange idiom and style, it is contradicted throughout chapter 15, because when Paul is referring to Jesus, He says so in no uncertain terms, repeatedly, by using the title, "Christ" (15:3-4,12-17,20), whereas "the dead" clearly refers to the resurrection of us poor, miserable created human beings, in contradistinction to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as in, e.g., 15:12-13,15-16,52. The distinction between the two couldn't be more clear, with Paul often contrasting them in the very same verse.

Therefore, I believe your interpretation utterly collapses.

Actually it does work with the Greek. All you need to do is look at what Paul
talks about in the proceding verse:

1 Cor. 15:28 And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the
Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God
may be all in all. 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?

In verse 29, Paul is contrasting the thought laid out in verses 24-28 which is
the end of human history and after the judgement when even sin and death
are defeated and God's kingdom encompasses everything having defeated all
enemies through the Son. Paul is basically saying in verse 29, "If these things
(vv. 24-29) are not to be, then what is the point of being baptized for a
dead man (Jesus Christ)?" It is a rhetorical question. Follow my line of

No, for reasons explained above.

St. Francis de Sales:

This passage properly understood evidently shows that it was the custom of the primitive Church to watch, pray, fast, for the souls of the departed. For, firstly, in the Scriptures to be baptized is often taken for afflictions and penances; as in Luke 12:50 . . . and in St. Mark 10:38-9 . . . -- in which places Our Lord calls pains and afflictions baptism [cf. Matthew 3:11, 20:22-3, Luke 3:16].

This then is the sense of that Scripture: if the dead rise not again, what is the use of mortifying and afflicting oneself, of praying and fasting for the dead? And indeed this sentence of St. Paul resembles that of 2 Maccabees 12:44: "It is superfluous and vain to pray for the dead if the dead rise not again. . . ." Now it was not for those in Paradise [heaven], who had no need of it, nor for those in hell, who could get no benefit from it; it was, then, for those in Purgatory. Thus did St. Ephraim [d.373] expound it.

The "penance" interpretation is supported contextually by the next three verses, where the Apostle speaks of being in peril every hour, and dying every day. St. Paul certainly doesn't condemn the practice, whatever it is (his question being merely rhetorical). Given these facts, and the striking resemblance to 2 Maccabees 12:44, the traditional Catholic interpretation seems the most plausible.

Furthermore, Paul prays for the dead man Onesiphorus in 2 Tim 1:16-18 (". . . may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day . . ." -- cf. 4:19). The New Bible Commentary admits that Onesiphorus is likely dead, and that Paul is praying (but somehow not for the dead). A.T. Robertson, in his Word Pictures of the NT, states: "Apparently Onesiphorus is now dead as implied by the wish in 1:18."


1. The guy is dead.
2. Paul is praying for him.
3. Therefore, prayers for the dead are taught (and practiced) by Paul.
4. Since Paul's writings are part of inspired revelation, prayer for the dead is NT and orthodox Christian teaching.

1 Corinthians 15:29 merely extends that spiritual principle by sanctioning penances for the dead (secondary usage of "baptism" -- and the similarity to 2 Macc 12:44). Penance, just like prayer, has the effect of aiding another person.

I anticipated your conclusion. as I stated above, such teaching is based purely upon commentators' speculation. In a nutshell your thesis is begging the question (for those reading along: begging the question is the name given to an informal fallacy of argumentation which occurs when one assumes inadequate premises provide adequate support for a conclusion. It normally comes from: (1) leaving out a key premise (2) when a premise states the conclusion in some way (3) circular reasoning).

Well, that's easy to say and sounds quite impressive, but the problem is that you have simply made an assertion and not demonstrated (by carefully taking apart my exegesis) how my argument has done any such thing. On the other hand, I replied to your exegetical argument point-by-point, and I believe I demonstrated that it made no sense in the entire contextual passage (though I agree that this doesn't prove my view -- it merely shows yours to be implausible). You have not yet counter-replied (I hope you will).

I gave all sorts of different arguments for my interpretation, but no one has yet grappled with them, apart from simply stating disagreement, which is, of course, philosophically and exegetically unimpressive, and no reason for anyone to be persuaded otherwise. So you disagree with prayers for the dead . . . fine; I already knew that, but there is still a text to be dealt with here.

In review of your thesis your conclusion is reached by speculating upon
earlier commentators' speculation. Therefore you forwarded no argument
because your thesis is begging the question.

In my thesis I forwarded biblical theology and prefaced my conclusion that I
believe that Paul was equivocating a denial of the resurrection to a denial of
Christ's resurrection. I stated my opinion based upon biblical theology.

Opinions are what you asked for, and what I presented to you.

The problem is when you shift from opinions to facts by attempting to
become dogmatic upon your opinion you then are committing a formal fallacy
of affirming the consequent.

Examples of the fallacy of affirming the consequent:

If Paul was hammering against baptizing for the dead, then David is right.
David is right.
Therefore, Paul was hammering against baptizing for the dead.

If you were a gorilla, you'd have two legs.
You have two legs.
Therefore, you must be a gorilla

If P then Q
Therefore, P

Once the formal fallacy is spotted one need not continue to examine the
argument. Since you have shifted from opinion to fact and I have noted the
fallacy, there is no need for this apologist to further demonstrate why the
argument is incorrect.

I don't buy it at all, but shoot yourself.

Are you at least willing to reply to my critique of your interpretation, if you won't respond directly (i.e., exegetically) to mine? We keep getting further and further away from the text itself, which is the really interesting thing in this discussion, not your descriptions of various logical fallacies wrongly applied to my analysis . . .

Look at the big idea that chapter 15 lays out and ask yourself why Paul is
going through the trouble of presenting his counsel concerning the resurrection?

Fact of Christ's resurrection (1-11)
Importance of Christ's resurrection (12-19)
Order of resurrection (20-28)
Moral implications of Christ's resurrection (29-34)
Bodies of the resurrected dead (35-50)
Bodies of the translated living (51-58)

Considering Paul had been handed a shopping list of problems and questions,
what problem or question do you suppose he was answering?

What fits the text better?

A denial of the believers resurrection or baptism for the dead?

My notion fits in perfectly well with the schema of the chapter because Paul was making a rhetorical argument having to do with the fact that there are folks who are resurrected and alive in the afterlife. Paraphrase of his rhetorical question: "why do something for their sakes if they aren't there in the first place?" That makes perfect sense to me.

You, on the other hand, have suggested a strange, eccentric reading of the phrase "the dead" and tried to apply it to Jesus' Resurrection, whereas Paul everywhere else in the chapter (since you agree, of course, that context is relevant and important) uses it as a term for the general dead, and contrasts it to Christ several times. I think this indicates exegetical desperation on your part, to latch onto such an exceedingly weak and implausible thesis.

My problem with the way you are proceeding in this discussion is your ignoring of both my particular exegetical arguments (which are various) and my critiques of yours. In my opinion, there is no dialogue unless you or someone else does that (we're just talking past each other). Failing that, I will simply assume that my interpretation is unchallenged (and, I believe, the most plausible of the choices presented), and that my critique of yours is successful, because you are unwilling to even attempt to overthrow it. Why would I think otherwise? Sometimes silence speaks volumes. And it is golden. :-)

Certainly you are capable of better than that.

Basically, I'm not challenging your opinion because it hasn't registered as an

That's a clever way to avoid a discussion. I'll have to remember that one. :-)

What I'm saying is that quoting people's speculation, and then
adding your own speculation in the end is still just opinion.

Well, I'm not going to argue this other than to deny that I did it, or to say --
granting that I was merely "speculating" --, that you are doing nothing
different. Else, why do you yourself write below: " I would point out that
Calvin's commentary on 1 Cor. 15:29-34 tends to support my opinion." So
you quote Calvin's speculations, add your own, and offer "just an opinion" in
the end, but that is okay, whereas my effort somehow is not? Strange. Or is
it because Calvin is a big shot, so then the procedure transcends your
alleged logical difficulties and then becomes proper and quite appropriate?

I submit that your real problem seems to be my presupposition that
penances and prayers for the dead are not ruled out from the outset; so I
incorporate them into my interpretation of the passage. Of course,
everyone brings a theological framework and paradigm to commentary (so
it is nothing extraordinary that I do the same from my Catholic belief). Our
choice, then, in doing comparative exegesis, is to either merely put down the
other view as "just sepculation" or "just opinion" because we don't like it, or
to actually 
interact with it point-by-point (i.e., make a
argument) and show (giving our own opinions and speculations)
how it is incorrect or implausible.

That sticks to the text, and is actually exegesis, as opposed to polemics and
grandiose statements about the supposed fallacies in the other guy's
opinion. And I often wonder why it is so difficult to get people to do that.
It's really fun, and one learns so much by delving deeply into any given
biblical text. I know I always learn something.

Calvin is widely read by many people and not at all obscure.

So are Marx, Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche, etc. So what? But I do agree with his
comments against another false interpretation, and will cite them below.

To opinions, I say, great, good for you!

And to you! Cheers (offering a toast to your mere opinions).

Within the context Paul is making certain that people know about the
resurrection of the dead in Christ. Again, this chapter is parked within an
epistle that is relating the apostle's answers to a shopping list of questions
and problems. Because of this the exegete would seek to understand that
nature of the question or problem Paul is responding to. I have suggested
that there were those within Corinth that were denying the resurrection of
the dead. I would argue that the context of the chapter supports this
approach, as does the larger context of the epistle.

We've been through that, and it is not at issue.

Further, the thesis I present, although still my opinion, blends well within Paul's theology.

Opinion? But I thought that is what you were objecting to in my posts????

Nevertheless, to support your thesis, you need to present something
concrete showing that the church of Corinth had fallen into the heterodox
practice of baptizing for the dead. To the best of my knowledge no such
evidence exists other than speculation.

This has nothing to do with my opinion. I have no idea why you would think
that it does. I'm not even interpreting Paul's reference to "baptism" as
referring to water baptism.

To the charge that mine, is "a strange, eccentric reading," I would point
out that Calvin's commentary on 1 Cor. 15:29-34 tends to support my opinion.

He doesn't say that "the dead" refers to Christ. That is what I was
specifically saying was "strange, eccentric" in your view. And you have
consistently refused to defend it and respond to my contextual critique.
That's your right, but it doesn't impress me, and I dare say that it won't
impress an impartial reader.

His commentary gives the "Corinthian Church baptized for the dead" position
a thorough plummeting, if you are interested in reading it.

Yes, it was very interesting. Thanks for that link. I totally agree with him
when he critiques that particular view (and made a shorter version of his
argument myself, above). I disagree with his own positive interpretation,
though. I would like to cite the portion of his commentary that I agree with:

Before expounding this passage, it is of importance to set aside the common exposition,
which rests upon the authority of the ancients, and is received with almost universal consent. Chrysostom, therefore, and Ambrose, who are followed by others, are of opinion that the Corinthians were accustomed, when any one had been deprived of baptism by sudden death, to substitute some living person in the place of thedeceased -- to be baptized at his grave. They at the same time do not deny that this custom was corrupt, and full of superstition, but they say that Paul, for the purpose of confuting the Corinthians, was contented with this single fact, that while they denied that there was a resurrection, they in the mean time declared in this way that they believed in it. For my part, however, I cannot by any means be persuaded to believe this, . . .

Granting, however, that the argument was conclusive, can we suppose that, if such a
corruption as this had prevailed among the Corinthians, the Apostle, after reproving almost all their faults, would have been silent as to this one? He has censured above some practices that are not of so great moment. He has not scrupled to give directions as to women's having' the head covered, and other things of that nature. Their corrupt
administration of the Supper he has not merely reproved, but has inveighed against it with the greatest keenness. Would he in the meantime have uttered not a single word in reference to such a base profanation of baptism, which was a much more grievous fault? He has inveighed with great vehemence against those who, by frequenting the banquets of the Gentiles, silently counte-nanced their superstitions. Would he have suffered this
horrible superstition of the Gentiles to be openly carried on in the Church itself under the name of sacred baptism? But granting that he might have been silent, what shall we say when he expressly makes mention of it? Is it, I pray you, a likely thing that the Apostle would bring forward in the shape of an argument a sacrilege by which baptism was polluted, and converted into a mere magical abuse, and yet not say even one word in condemnation of the fault? When he is treating of matters that are not of the highest importance, he introduces nevertheless this parenthesis, that he speaks as a man. (Romans 3:5; Romans 6:19; Galatians 3:15.) Would not this have been a more befitting and suitable place for such a parenthesis? Now from his making mention of such a thing without anyword of reproof, who would not understand it to be a thing that was allowed? For my part, I assuredly understand him to speak here of the right, use of
baptism, and not of an abuse of it of that nature.

I would disagree with your interpretation of the verse.

That's fine, but why? No one has replied to my interpretation, or to my counter-replies to their interpretation. Mine takes into account context, style, the different meanings of "baptism" in Scripture, and the parallel with Maccabees. No one has touched any of these elements thus far. Maybe they will yet.

Paul brings this verse seemingly out of nowhere to illustrate a point about the resurrection of the dead. It's obvious that the practice was known to the Corinthian believers in some way,

I agree, whatever the practice actually is. Everyone is assuming that Paul is referring to water baptism, when it is not necessary to do so simply by virtue of the word "baptism," which has a few different meanings in Scripture. Biblically (and in Catholicism), it is nonsensical to be water-baptized for someone else, because (for Catholics, Orthodox, and several species of Protestants such as Lutherans, Anglicans, Church of Christ, etc.) it confers regeneration, and a dead person is either regenerate or not. No "proxy baptism" will change that fact after they are dead. Even if one denies baptismal regeneration, "proxy baptism" makes no sense because the baptism applies only to the one receiving it.

because Paul would've probably shed more light on it if it was a new practice or an essential point in Christian doctrine.

What makes sense is the "penitential" interpretation, because that easily harmonizes with the parallel passage in Maccabees about prayer for the dead. The problem here is that Protestant theology has no place for such thought, and so it is ruled out from the outset; thus the text remains mysterious for Protestants because of the (in this instance) false preconception they bring to it.

My thought about it is that he was illustrating a practice from another religon to illustrate a truth about the resurrection.

I don't find that plausible. Why talk momentarily about baptism in another religion, in the context of a thoroughly Christian discussion about the resurrection? But bringing in the notion of penance and prayers for the dead makes perfect sense in the context of the Christian theology of the general resurrection.

The reason: my NIV says "...what will those do who are baptized for the dead?" which sounds like it is directed toward people outside of the Corinthian church. Honestly, unless anyone can time-travel back to the 1st century the passage will always remain obscure.

Only for Protestants, because their theology disallows the (in my opinion) most plausible and sensible interpretation of the verse. It is somewhat obscure for Catholics too, but -- with all due respect -- I think we at least offer some sort of plausible explanation of it.

Here's what the text note to my NIV Study Bible says if you're curious.


. . . because Paul does not give any more information about the practice, many attempts have been made to interpret the concept. Three of these are: 1. Living believers were being baptized for believers who died before they were baptized, so that they too, in a sense, would not miss out on baptism.

That makes no sense in any Christian system I am aware of, including Catholicism. The direct effect of a sacrament only applies to the one receiving it. We have the notion of "baptism of desire" for a person who was not baptized for some reason, but would do so if he could (such as the thief on the cross). That very concept and "loophole" -- so to speak -- presupposes that no one can be water-baptized for anyone else.

2. Christians were being baptized in anticipation of the resurrection of the dead.

This violates the text, because the baptism is on behalf of the dead.

3. New converts were being baptized to fill the ranks of Christians that had died.

Stretching it. This doesn't deal with the text itself, but strikes me as desperate special pleading. Again, it ignores the element of "behalf".

At any rate, Paul mentions the custom almost in passing,

Whether it is in passing or not, it has to be explained in some fashion. Better for Protestants to simply admit ignorance, than to special plead, in order to avoid at all costs a "Catholic" interpretation.

using its arguments substantiating the resurrection of the dead, but without necessarily approving the practice."

There is no hint in the passsage that I can see, that Paul disapproves of it. As I wrote earlier, if he did, it stands to reason that he would show his disagreement when he mentions it. That would be his responsibility as an Apostle and Christian teacher, responsible for his flock.

My problem with your exegesis is that:

1: How do we know that the guy [Onesiphorus] is even dead? It doesn't seem totally certain.

Because Paul refers to the "household of Onesiphorus" twice. If I were writing to you, I don't think I would say "I send greetings to the household of [name] . . . " No, I would say, "Greetings to you and your house," or "I hope you and yours are well," as I often do. But youwould be mentioned in it. That's why some commentators think he was dead. E.g., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (vol. 4, 2195, "Onesiphorus") states:

It is not clear whether Onesiphorus was living, or whether he had died, before Paul wrote the epistle. Different opinions have been held on the subject. The way in which Paul refers to 'the household . . . of Onesiphorus,' makes it possible that Onesiphorus himself had died . . . but certainty is impossible.

2: Is Paul praying or simply expressing a wish?

Well, I think this attempted distinction is stretching it a bit too far. The Protestant, in his necessity to escape the implication of prayers for the dead, comes up with this business of Paul "wishing" (as several commentators do). In any event, his words read exactly like a prayer: "may the Lord grant him to find mercy on that Day" (2 Tim 1:18; RSV). What is the difference between, e.g., "I pray that God will bless you" and "I wish that God will bless you"? The sentiment is pretty much the same one.

To jump from that to the claim that praying for the dead is Biblical seems more like a leap -- it is not certain enough for that kind of commitment.

I wasn't making a full-fledged argument for prayers for the dead. I do that elsewhere. I just mentioned it as a cross-reference to the discussion on "baptism for the dead," because Paul appears to have a verse from Maccabees in mind, where prayer for the dead is explicitly taught (and that shows it was indeed Jewish practice, whatever one thinks of the canonicity of that particular book). It's fun to throw these things out to see what Protestants try to do with them. :-)

Thanks for your feedback, and my wish, hope, desire (prayer?) is that God will be merciful to you on that Day! :-)