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No. 76: Baptism for the Dead

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 76
August, 1995
Copyright 1995, Biblical Horizons

This is a difficult passage, not least because Paul is arguing by reference to the practice of a non-Christian group. This is easy to see from the passage and its context. Paul refers to the Corinthian Christians as "brethren" and in the second person ("you," 1 Cor. 15:1). In referring to those who practice baptism for the dead Paul is not referring to the brethren or to "you" Christians. Rather, Paul refers in the third person to "those…who are baptized for the dead." So Paul is not referring to a practice of the Christian Church. This becomes a problem because Paul distinctly refers to this practice as holding some sort of authoritative lesson for the Christian church. So while "those" baptized are not Christians, "those" who practice this baptism constitute an authoritative example for the Church. How can this be, and what does Paul mean?

Duane Spencer hints at a possible solution in his book Holy Baptism, and I should like to flesh out the argument he suggests. Now, I don’t claim that I have stumbled across the definitive answer in unlocking this perplexing passage. The answer I do have does seem to be a plausible answer, however, and is the most satisfactory answer I have come across. The reason I particularly like this answer is because the key to unlocking the passage lies in the Bible itself, rather than in speculations about what sort of cults or heretical practices might have existed at the time Paul was writing to the Corinthians.

First we must set the context. The passage is in the middle of an extended discussion of resurrection. In fact, Paul devotes all 58 verses of chapter 15 to a discussion of resurrection. The structure of the chapter looks like this:

I think there is a hint in verse 30 of whom Paul is thinking about in verse 29. That is, the people who place Paul "in danger every hour" are also "those" who baptize for the dead. Just think for a moment: Whose practice may constitute authoritative examples for Christians, but are not Christians, and who might place Paul in danger? The natural answer is, of course, the Jews and/or Judaizers of Paul’s time.

We shall return to the precise grammar of verse 29 a little later. I want first to motivate what Jewish practice Paul might be thinking of in the context of resurrection and a baptism for the dead.

Clearly the writings and practice of the Old Covenant economy are authoritative for the Christian Church. This is why the Old Testament is part of the canon of the Church. The practice of baptism, however, is not an invention of the New Covenant Church (nor of Near Eastern mystery religions). There are a number of ritual baptisms described in the Old Testament, and prescribed for the Jews.

Thus, the New Testament author of Hebrews writes of Old Covenant rituals:

The "various baptisms" in verse 10 is often translated as "various washings." Nonetheless, the Greek word used there is "baptisms" (cf., "instruction about baptisms" in Heb. 6:2).

Now which baptisms is the author of Hebrews writing about? These baptisms are detailed in the immediate context of the passage. Specifically, in verse 13, the author refers to "the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling" as examples of the Old Covenant baptisms that he is writing of.

Interestingly, the author here invokes the baptismal picture at key moments of covenantal inauguration. Blood was sprinkled, together with water, at the inauguration of the Mosaic covenant (Heb. 9:19, cf., Ex. 24:8), which includes the priestly service of the altar (Ex. 24:6). (Note the communion meal directly following the sprinkling in Exodus 24:9-11, esp. v. 11),

But what we’re most interested in with reference to the "baptism for the dead" is the inclusion of "the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled" as one of the "various baptisms" (Heb. 9:13).

The sprinkling of heifer ashes refers to a practice described in detail in Numbers 19, and suggestively, is a baptism prescribed for Hebrews who come in contact with dead people. The first 10 verses in chapter 19 describe the means by which the ashes were made, gathered, and stored. The ashes were to be obtained and kept "in a clean place" for the needed times (Num. 19:9). Interestingly, the ashes are referred to as "water to remove impurity" (Num. 19:9). That is, God terms the heifer ashes, "water to remove impurity." (Note in Numbers 19:1 that God is dictating this rite directly to Moses and Aaron. So if your Red Letter Bible Edition does not have this entire chapter in red letters, then it is in error.)

The baptism prescribed in Numbers 19 was to be used on two occasions. First, if anyone touched a dead body, then he was to purify himself with the water/ashes on the third and seventh days after the contact (Num. 19:12). So, too, if someone died in a tent, then everyone who entered the tent became unclean and had to be sprinkled with the water/ashes on the third and seventh day in order to be cleansed from the uncleanness of death.

In the Old Covenant, after the fall of Adam, and as a result of the fall of Adam, death reigned supreme. The entire creation fell in Adam. God introduced life into the fallen creation through His covenants with Abraham and Israel. But the story of the Old Covenant is that death is always eating up life. That is, death spreads very easily in the Old Covenant. In Numbers 19, anyone coming into contact with a dead person, or even into a tent in which there was a body, had death communicated to him and was accounted ritually defiled and unclean (cf. Heb. 9:14, Num. 19:20). And not only were people who came in contact with a dead person, or in proximity with a dead person, ritually unclean, but anything or person that the unclean person touched became unclean also (Num. 19:22). And so death spread.

(Note that the cleanliness laws in the Old Testament did not have much, if anything, to do with sanitary living conditions. Modern man has had to rationalize the Old Testament rites as having some sanitary reference, because modern man cannot abide the idea that Old Testament rites actually have real spiritual meanings. And in spite of the fact that the burden of the book of Hebrews, and much of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ teaching, is to clue Christians into the dramatic lessons portrayed in the Old Testament, modern Christians all too often consign the entire Pentateuch, if not the entire Old Testament, to the theological dustbin as so much irrelevant rigmarole.)

A person who comes in contact with a dead person, or shares the same roof with a dead person, had death communicated to him, and so needed to undergo the baptism of the water/ashes before being permitted to rejoin the living in the assembly of God. This should be a familiar theme to Christians, because baptism in fact marks the Christian’s resurrection from death to life. This is the burden of Paul’s argument in Romans 6:3-9 and Colossians 2:12. That is, in baptism we are united with the death of Jesus Christ, and so partake of the resurrection of our Lord. We move from death to life in baptism, just as the Hebrews portrayed the movement from death to life in the baptism of the sprinkled heifer ashes.

Now let’s return to 1 Corinthians 15:29. The key word in the verse is the Greek word huper, meaning "for." The word occurs twice: "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?" Often times, huper means "for the benefit of," and this is how the Mormons take the verse; that is, there are those who are baptized "for the benefit of" the dead.

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 1 Corinthians 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., 2 Cor. 12:8, Eph. 5:20, Heb. 5:1, 7:27, Acts 5:41, 15:26, 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 the 1 Corinthians 15:29 can be properly translated or read as the following:


In either case, the problematic nature of the passage fades. Paul indeed points to a non-Christian group and argues that this non-Christian group provides an authoritative example for Christians to learn from. But this is hardly novel, Paul elsewhere points to Israel as providing authoritative examples from which Christians can learn (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:6, 11, cf., Acts 28:23).

Now, again, I do not argue that this reading of the passage is necessarily the correct one. Rather, I argue that it is a plausible reading of the passage and, if pressed, I might go so far as to claim that it is the most plausible reading of the passage (at least that I know of). It apparently accounts for all of the seemingly odd details of the passage (e.g., the practice of a non-Christian group being authoritative for Christians) as well as accounts for the grammatical details. Furthermore, this reading of the verse is consistent with Paul’s use of Old Testament arguments and examples elsewhere in his writing. Furthermore, this reading of the verse is consistent with Paul’s theology of baptism, which locates the sacrament in a movement of death resurrected into life, and calls upon a fairly obvious Old Testament baptism portraying precisely the same movement.