“Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?” 1 Co 15.29
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 Co 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?
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:
-- vv. 1-11: Resurrection is a doctrine of “first importance” (vv. 3-4).
-- vv. 12-19: If there is no resurrection from the dead, then
-- Christ is not raised
-- Christian faith is in vain
-- the Apostles are liars
-- Christians are still in their sins
-- the dead have truly perished
-- Christians are most pitiable.
-- vv. 20-28: But Christ is resurrected.
-- Christ’s resurrection is only the first fruits of the general resurrection.
-- vv. 29-34: If Christ is not truly resurrected, then,
-- v. 29, Why are “they” baptized for the dead?
-- vv. 30-34, Why does Paul risk danger?
-- vv. 35-58: A discussion of the nature of resurrection.
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 of Paul’s time.
We will return to the precise wording of verse 29 below. 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 Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the time then present, according to which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they related only to food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the flesh imposed until a time of reformation." (Heb 9.8-10)
The “various baptisms” in verse 10 is often translated as “various washings.” Nonetheless, the Greek word used there is “baptisms” (see, also, “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 a communion meal directly following the sprinkling in Ex 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.”
The baptism prescribed in Numbers 19 was to be used on two occasions. First, if anyone touched a dead body, then they were to purify themselves 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 was unclean, and must be sprinkled with the water/ashes on the third and seventh day in order to be cleansed from the uncleanness of death. (We might note that if a baby inhabited a tent, and grandma passed away during the night, that baby would undergo this baptism as well as the adults who shared the tent, vv. 14, 18).
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 “tendency” in the Old Covenant is for death to eat up life. (Now that Jesus has come, I believe we see the opposite tendency in the New Covenant.) That is, death spreads very easily in the Old Covenant. In Numbers 19, anyone coming into contact with a dead person, or who shared a tent in which there was a body, had death communicated to them and were accounted ritually defiled and unclean (cf. Heb 9.14, Nm 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.
A person who comes in contact with a dead person, or shares the same roof with a dead person, had death communicated to them, and so needed to undergo the baptism of the water/ashes before they were 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 Co 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 1 Co 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?
Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized on account of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized on account of the dead?
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 Co 10.6,11, Acts 28.23).
How, then, does this baptism fit into Paul’s overall argument for resurrection? The argument is now pretty easy to make from Numbers 19. If, in fact, dead people are not at all resurrected from the dead, the argument would go, then why do we have the picture of resurrection for those who merely come in contact with dead people in the Numbers 19 baptism? Or, to put it another way, if there is no resurrection of dead people, then why does the Numbers 19 baptism portray the resurrection of the dead into life on the part of those who merely come into contact with dead people? Let’s consider this in a little more detail.
Death – real death – is exclusion from the presence of God (2 Th 1.9, Mt 8.11-12, Rev 22.14-15). Resurrection is the movement from being excluded from the presence of God to being admitted into his living presence (Jn 5.25-26, Mt 22.31-32). As noted above, we observe the same movement from exclusion to admission into God’s presence in Numbers 19. The person coming into direct contact with or who is tabernacled with a dead person is excluded from God’s tabernacle – from God’s presence – unless they are baptized (Nm 19.13, 20). This is the very form of death. But upon completing the Numbers 19 baptismal rite – suggestively administered on the third and seventh day after contact with death (vv. 12, 19) – the person is cleansed of death and readmitted into the presence of God (vv. 13, 20).
Of course, the sequence of “death to life” portrayed in Numbers 19 is not a definitive sequence of death resurrected into life. Rather, it is a type, “a shadow of the good things to come” in the New Covenant (Heb 10.1). So Paul’s argument is this: what point is there to having a type if it portrays no reality? If the dead are not resurrected, then why would there be an Old Covenant rite that presents a picture of resurrection? It makes no sense, Paul would argue. The OT baptism for ["on account of"] the dead in Nm 19 is a typological picture of resurrection. But if there is a type, then the reality that it represents must exist as well, therefore the dead are truly resurrected.