NOTE: The following article is an abridged version of chapter 14 in How Firm A Foundation: Evidences of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ (Horizon Publishers, 2003).

 

Baptism for the Dead in an Ancient Christian Text:

The Shepherd Of Hermas and Proxy Baptism

 

Michael T. Griffith

 

The LDS doctrine of baptism for the dead finds support in the ancient Christian text known as the Shepherd of Hermas. The Shepherd of Hermas was written between A.D. 100 and 150, and was greatly prized by the ancient Christians."The writing called the Shepherd of Hermas," says Bible scholar and early church historian Albert C. Sundberg, "was highly regarded in the early church in both East and West".[1]Sundberg continues, "Irenaeus cited it with approval; Clement of Alexandria regarded it as divinely spoken and by revelation."[2]Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria were both prominent, respected theologians in the early church.Other ancient Christians also believed the text to be inspired.The Shepherd of Hermas was not seriously questioned until the fourth century; and even then, it was viewed by some noted theologians of that period as "profitable."[3]Significantly, the Shepherd of Hermas was included in one of the oldest extant New Testament manuscripts, the Codex Sinaiticus.

 

Proxy Baptism in the Shepherd of Hermas

 

The concept of proxy baptism appears in Similitude 9 of the Shepherd of Hermas, in the allegory of the building of the tower.The tower represents the church.The lower layers of stones of the tower are the righteous men of ages past, probably from the Old Testament period.The last of the lower layers of stones is a set of 40 stones.These 40 stones represent "the apostles and teachers, who proclaimed the name of the Son of God."In Similitude 9, we read that the righteous dead who had died without baptism received "the seal," i.e., baptism, as a result of "the apostles and teachers" being baptized "with" them.Hermas doesn't understand why the apostles and teachers were baptized again.The angel explains that as a result of the apostles and teachers receiving the seal of baptism again, the dead received the seal as well and were able to enter into the kingdom of God.Richard Lloyd Anderson explains:

 

The three lower courses of stones represent the foundation generations of the righteous men of the Old Testament, with the last and largest number of 40 representing the "prophets and teachers of the Son of God."These have the seal, clearly defined as baptism by (1) the requirement to "come up through the water that they might be made alive"; (2) the quotation of John 3:5, referring to water as the way to "enter into the kingdom of God"; and (3) the summary, "the seal, then, is the water". . . .Hermas's messenger is explaining that the pre-Christian dead--"who had fallen asleep"--were also baptized; this is followed by the explanation that the New Testament priesthood bearers [the 40 stones, the "apostles and teachers of the Son of God"]had been baptized to make this possible. . . .

 

Those "fallen asleep" in his passage are, of course, the dead, and his subject closes with plain words about the righteous who had died without baptism.So Hermas is discussing what Christians believe about baptism for the dead. . . .That explains his question to the angel, for he found it contradictory that the New Testament priesthood leaders went into the deep again, the symbol of their personal baptisms.If they would merely baptize others, there could be no puzzle.So Hermas's question was really about rebaptism of those already baptized.The explanation was that both groups go into the water, but the effect of remission of sins is only for those dying without baptism.This cooperative baptism is proxy baptism, the only type mentioned by the "apostles and teachers" that he refers to.The joint immersion in water is part of the symbolism not expressly interpreted, referring to the earthly baptisms that were a shared experience of the living and the dead.[4]

 

The Symbolism of the Building of the Tower

 

Let's now read the relevant verses from the Shepherd of Hermas step by step.We begin as Hermas is questioning the angel as he tries to understand the symbolism involved with the building of the tower:

 

"But, sir," said I, "who are the stones that from out of the deep were fitted into the building?""The first ones," said he, "the ten that were placed in the foundation, are the first generation of righteous men, and the twenty-five are the second generation of righteous men, and the thirty-five are the prophets of God and his helpers, and the forty are the apostles and teachers of the proclamation of the Son of God."

 

"Why, then, sir," said I, "did the virgins also deliver these stones for the building of the tower, after they carried them through the portico?"

 

"Because," said he, "they are the first who bore these spirits, and they did not fall away from each other at all, neither the spirits from the men nor the men from the spirits, but the spirits remained with them until they fell asleep.And if they had not had these spirits with them, they would not have been useful for the building of this tower."

 

"Explain something else to me, sir," said I."What do you want to know?" he said."Why, sir," said I, "did the stones come up out of the deep place and, since they bore these spirits, find a place in the structure of the tower?"

 

"They needed," said he, "to come up through the water in order to be made alive, for otherwise they could not enter into the kingdom of God unless they set aside the deadness of their former life."

 

"So even those who had fallen asleep received the seal of the Son of God and entered into the kingdom of God.""For," said he, "before he bears the name of the Son of God, the man is dead, and whenever he receives the seal he sets aside the deadness and receives life.So the water is the seal.Therefore they go down into the water dead and they come up alive.So the seal was proclaimed to them also and they used it to enter into the kingdom of God."[5]

 

In another translation the identification of the seal as baptism is even clearer:

 

Now the seal is the water of baptism, into which men go down under the obligation unto death, but come up appointed unto life.[6]

 

Let's continue reading.Hermas asks another question of the angel:

 

"Why, sir," said I, "did the forty stones, though they already had the seal, come up with them [the dead] from the deep place?"[7]

 

This is key:Hermas asks why the 40 stones, i.e., the apostles and teachers, came up "with them," i.e., the dead, when they, the 40 stones, "had received the seal already."Coming up from the deep place is another reference to baptism.In other words, Hermas is asking, "Why did the apostles and teachers get baptized when they had already been baptized?"As we'll see below, they were baptized "with" the dead so that the dead could receive the seal of baptism and thus enter into the kingdom of God.We'll also see that the angel tells Hermas that the apostles and teachers preached to the dead, a clear reference to the preaching of the gospel in the spirit world.Let's read on as the angel answers Hermas's question about why the apostles and teachers were baptized again:

 

"Because," said he, "when they fell asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, the apostles and teachers, who proclaimed the name of the Son of God, preached also to those who had previously fallen asleep and themselves gave to them the seal of the proclamation."

 

"So they went down with them into the water and came up again, but these [the apostles and teachers] went down alive and came up alive, while those who had previously fallen asleep went down dead and came up alive."

 

"So through them they were made alive and came to know the name of the Son of God.For this reason they also came up together with them and were fitted together in the construction without being hewed.For they had fallen asleep in righteousness and in great purity, only they did not have this seal."[8]

 

The angel's explanation is clear.The dead in this case are good people who had "fallen asleep in righteousness and in great purity," but who "did not have this seal," i.e., baptism.They received the seal of baptism as a result of the apostles and teachers being rebaptized.When a member of the Lord's church is baptized in the name of a deceased person, it is as if the deceased person himself is being baptized.†† Indeed, both are being baptized.In a sense they go into the water together and come out of it together, since this baptism is a proxy baptism done by a living church member for a deceased person.The church member, having already been baptized once, goes into the water "alive" and comes out of it "alive."On the other hand, the deceased person goes into the water "dead" but comes out of it "alive."

 

This is what the angel is explaining to Hermas.He refers to deceased persons who had died "in righteousness," but who did not have the seal of baptism.In other words, they were righteous persons who had not been baptized.The apostles and teachers preached to these people.†† As the angel says, "They preached also to those who had previously fallen asleep."The dead then received baptism when the apostles and teachers "went down with them into the water and came up again."The effect of the baptism was of course different for the two groups involved.When the apostles and teachers were baptized, they "went down alive and came up alive."This makes perfect sense, since this baptism was not really for them, because they had already been baptized.However, when "those who had previously fallen asleep" went down into the water, they "went down dead and came up alive."Why?Because they were having a proxy baptism performed for them.They hadn't been baptized yet.Thus, when the apostles and teachers went down into the water "with them," they, the dead, went down dead but came up alive."So through them," i.e., through the apostles and teachers, "they," the dead, "were made alive and came to know the name of the Son of God."It is no wonder the angel then says, "For this reason they also came up together with them and were fitted together in the construction without being hewed."In other words, once the dead had received baptism, they were joined to the "tower," i.e., to the church, and were not cast off.

 

It's worth highlighting the fact that, as we've seen above, the angel tells Hermas that the dead could not enter into the kingdom without being baptized:

 

"They needed," said he, "to come up through the water in order to be made alive, for otherwise they could not enter into the kingdom of God unless they set aside the deadness of their former life."

 

"So even those who had fallen asleep received the seal of the Son of God and entered into the kingdom of God.""For," said he, "before he bears the name of the Son of God, the man is dead, and whenever he receives the seal he sets aside the deadness and receives life.So the water is the seal.Therefore they go down into the water dead and they come up alive."

 

The Shepherd of Hermas is further evidence that the ancient church believed baptism was essential for salvation.

 

The Shepherd of Hermas vs. Baptism for the Dead?

 

Some anti-Mormon critics argue there is no concept of proxy baptism in the Shepherd of Hermas and that all the baptisms in Similitude 9 take place in the spirit world.I find it hard to understand how one can deny the presence of the concept of proxy baptism in the text.The angel's explanation to Hermas about why the apostles and teachers were rebaptized clearly seems to indicate their second baptism was done in behalf of the righteous dead.The angel clearly seems to say the apostles and teachers were rebaptized so that the righteous dead who had died without baptism could receive baptism and thereby enter into the kingdom of God.

 

As for the argument that all the baptisms discussed in Similitude 9 take place in the spirit world, the location of the baptisms doesn't change the fact that those baptisms clearly are presented as proxy baptisms performed for the righteous dead.The location of the baptisms is not clear from the text.The angel's symbolic language could refer to proxy baptisms that were performed on the earth.On the other hand, the angel also says the apostles and teachers taught the gospel to the righteous dead in the spirit world, which would seem to place their baptisms in the spirit world.Perhaps the wording of this allegory, rich in symbolic language, does suggest the baptisms occurred in the spirit world.But the wording also makes it clear that these baptisms were proxy baptisms that were done on behalf of the righteous dead.

 

Another alternate interpretation of Similitude 9 is that the apostles and teachers went into the spirit world and baptized the righteous dead of pre-Christian times.Noted Catholic scholar Johannes Quasten expressed this view:

 

Thus Hermas is so thoroughly convinced that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation that he teaches the apostles and teachers descended into limbo after death (descensus ad inferno) to baptize the righteous departed of pre-Christian times.[9]

 

This interpretation ignores Hermas's question about why the apostles and teachers were rebaptized.If the apostles and teachers went to the spirit world to baptize others, why does Hermas ask why they were baptized again?Hermas would not have been puzzled if the apostles and teachers were simply baptizing others.The simple fact of the matter is that nowhere does the angel say or imply that the apostles and teachers baptized the righteous dead.Instead, the angel says the apostles and teachers were baptized again, even though they had already been baptized once, and that as a result the dead received baptism and were able to enter the kingdom of God.

 

I do agree with Quasten about one thing, however, and that is that "Hermas is . . . thoroughly convinced that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. . . ."This is what the angel tells Hermas, that the dead had to "come up through the water in order to be made alive, for otherwise they could not enter into the kingdom of God."This is why the apostles and teachers were rebaptized.They were rebaptized so that the righteous dead who had died without baptism could receive this ordinance and thus be able to enter the kingdom of God.

 

Footnotes

 

1. Albert C. Sundberg, "The Making of the New Testament Canon," in Charles Laymon, editor, The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1971), p. 1221.

 

2. Sundberg, "The Making of the New Testament Canon," in The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, p. 1221.

 

3. Sparks, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 156.

 

4. Anderson, Understanding Paul, pp. 409-410.

 

5. Shepherd of Hermas, 92:4-93:4, in Jack N. Sparks, editor, The Apostolic Fathers, (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1978), pp. 245-246.Note: The sections and verses of each of the similitudes are divided differently in different translations.†† For example, one translation simply divides up Similitude 9 into verses, while another translation breaks it up into sections and each section has its own numbering of the verses in the section.

 

6. Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude 9:154, in The Lost Books of the Bible (New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1979), p. 258.

 

7. Shepherd of Hermas, 93:5a, in Sparks, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 246.

 

8. Shepherd of Hermas, 93:5-7, in Sparks, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 246.

 

9. Quasten, Patrology, vol. 1, p. 101.See also Anderson, Understanding Paul, pp. 409-410.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Michael T. Griffith holds a Masterís degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Bachelorís degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College.He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas, and has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.He is also the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts and one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination.

 

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