SOME NOTES ON BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD:

EVIDENCE OF THE LDS INTERPRETATION OF 1 CORINTHIANS 15:29

 

Michael T. Griffith
1996
@All Rights Reserved
Revised on 4/21/2001

 

Major Committee Translations and Noted Private Translations of 1 Cor. 15:29

 

The Confraternity Version, a major Catholic translation prepared under the guidance of the Catholic Bishops of the United States:

 

Else what shall they do who receive baptism for the dead? If the dead do not rise at all, why then do people receive baptism for them?

 

The Revised English Bible:

 

Again, there are those who receive baptism on behalf of the dead. What do you suppose they are doing? If the dead are not raised to life at all, what do they mean by being baptized on their behalf?

 

The Revised Standard Version:

 

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?

 

J. B. Phillips:

 

. . . being baptized for the dead by proxy.

 

The New English Bible:

 

Again, there are those who receive baptism on behalf of the dead. Why should they do this? If the dead are not raised to life at all, what do they mean by being baptized on their behalf?

 

Andy Gaus:

 

Tell me, what are they doing when they hold proxy baptisms on behalf of departed souls? If the dead still aren't going to be raised, why have baptisms for them? (The Unvarnished New Testament: A New Translation from the Original Greek)

 

1 Cor. 15:29 in Major Commentaries and in Other Scholarly Works

 

It will be seen that even those scholars who opine that Paul disapproved of proxy baptism acknowledge that he was citing the practice as part of his defense of the resurrection.

 

One Volume Commentary on the Bible:

 

St. Paul then, almost in parenthesis, touches on what appears to have been a custom among the Corinthian Christians of baptizing by proxy on behalf of some, presumably members of the same family, who had died unbaptized and might therefore, it was thought, miss their chance of being incorporated into the fulness of Christ's Kingdom at his Advent. This practice, says the apostle, makes as little sense as his own daily contempt for physical death, if there is no resurrection. (William Neil, One Volume Commentary On The Bible, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973, p. 461)

 

The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible:

 

After sketching briefly the drama of the end, Paul resumes his attack on those denying the possibility of man's resurrection. Scribes and commentators have sought to avoid translating vs. 29 as in the RSV, since it is difficult to think that Paul would approve of baptism by proxy. But at this place he is throwing up questions to expose the illogical nature of the beliefs and practices of those denying the resurrection, and he withholds his personal judgment of baptism on behalf of the dead. (The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Nashville: The Abingdon Press, 1971, p. 811)

 

Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians:

 

. . . the most natural meaning of the expression [used by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:29] is that some early believers got themselves baptized on behalf of friends of theirs who had died without receiving that sacrament. (Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, London: Tyndale Press, 1964, p. 218)

 

James Moulten and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament:

 

Close inspection of the language of the reference makes all attempts to soften or eliminate its literal meaning unsuccessful. An endeavor to understand the dead as persons who are "dead in sin" does not really help; for the condition offered, if the dead are not being raised at all, makes it clear that the apostle is writing about persons who are physically dead. It appears that under the pressure of concern for the eternal destiny of dead relatives or friends some people in the church were undergoing baptism on their behalf in the belief that this would enable the dead to receive the benefits of Christ's salvation. (James Moulten and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981, p. 651, original emphasis)

 

Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament:

 

None of the attempts to escape the theory of a vicarious baptism in primitive Christianity [as indicated in 1 Cor. 15:29] seems to be wholly successful. (Harald Riesenfeld, "Hyper" ["huper"], in Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, editors, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, vol. 8, pp. 512-513)

 

The Expositer's Bible Commentary:

 

Here Paul returns to his argument for the resurrection of the dead. There is a special difficulty in understanding v. 29 because we do not know the background of the words "baptized for the dead." There are many interpretations, but it is difficult to find a satisfactory one. The present tense "baptize" suggests that the practice of baptizing for the dead was current and evidently well known to the Corinthians. . . .

 

. . . its ["huper's", the Greek word behind "for" in "baptized for the dead"] basic meaning with the genitive is "for," "in behalf of," or "in the place of."

 

According to [H. A. W.] Meyer, this verse means that believers already baptized were rebaptized for the benefit of believers who had died unbaptized. This was done on the assumption that it would count for the unbaptized dead and thereby assure their resurrection along with the baptized, living believers. . . .

 

At any rate, Paul simply mentions the superstitious custom without approving it and uses it to fortify his argument that there is a resurrection from the dead. (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976, vol. 10, pp. 287-288)

 

The Interpreter's Bible:

 

. . . whatever doubt some members of the Church had concerning it, there were others who were such firm believers in the resurrection that they submitted to this rite of vicarious baptism on behalf of certain of their brethren, probably catechumens, who had passed away before they had been baptized and received into full membership of the Church. (The Interpreter's Bible, New York: The Abingdon Press, 1952-1957, vol. 10, p. 240)

 

Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians:

 

The normal reading of the text [1 Cor. 15:29] is that some Corinthians are being baptized, apparently vicariously, in behalf of some people who have already died. It would be fair to add that this reading is such a plain understanding of the Greek text that no one would ever have imagined the various alternatives were it not for the difficulties involved. (Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989, pp. 763-764, emphasis added)

 

Mormon Scholars and 1 Cor. 15:29

 

Dr. Stephen Robinson, who holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Duke University and who was appointed as chairman of the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University (BYU) in 1991:

 

In 1 Corinthians, Paul also refers to an early Christian practice of vicarious baptism for the dead, which is one of the rites of the LDS temples. While arguing that without the resurrection of Christ and of all mankind, faith and repentance and even his own preaching are all in vain, he asks: "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?" (1 Corinthians 15:29.) Scholars and theologians have proposed many different theories to try to explain this verse. Yet honest scholars, both Catholic and Protestant (even those hostile to the LDS doctrine), are forced to admit that this passage describes vicarious baptism for the dead, and that proposed alternatives are really just attempts to avoid the clear meaning of the text because of its theological implications. . . .

 

Both Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that the Corinthian Saints practiced baptism for the dead. Now, the argument is sometimes made that Paul must have merely tolerated an aberrant practice at Corinth, that he looked the other way because these vicarious baptisms reflected a kind of faith in Christ. There are serious problems with this view, even from a non-LDS perspective. (Are Mormons Christians?, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1991, p. 98, original emphasis)

 

Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson holds an M.A. in Greek from BYU, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and a Ph.D. in History from the University of California at Berkeley. He is also an emeritus professor of Greek and Ancient Scripture at BYU:

 

If "there is no resurrection" (1 Cor. 15:12)--if "the dead rise not (1 Cor. 15:15), then the central realities fail. And Paul lists them in order: (1) Christ's own resurrection (1 Cor. 15:13); (2) the apostles integrity (1 Cor. 15:15); (3) forgiveness through Christ (1 Cor. 15:17; (4) the value of baptisms for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29); (5) the value of Paul's sacrifices and risks (1 Cor. 15:30-32). This perspective is critical in understanding baptism for the dead, for many commentators toss it aside as a local practice that Paul did not accept. Such an argument is simply near-sighted--the other four points on the above list are not only true but interlocked in Christ's plan of salvation. Baptism for the dead cannot be moved from its rightful place by skeptics' shrugs. . . .

 

While not understanding the practice, the best Greek scholars overwhelmingly support vicarious baptism as the only correct translation of Paul's challenge. Many translators continue to follow the "for the dead" of the King James Version. But of the six committee translations most used in this book, four have the phrasing of the Revised Standard Version: "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?". . . .

 

The practice of baptism for the dead is less disputed now, though its ancient application is debated. Its importance is minimized by some because it appears a single time in the scriptures, but it was a doctrine for believers and would rarely be discussed publicly--several practices of the believers appear only in the candid discussions of problems in 1 Corinthians. Others say with false learning that Paul disapproved of the practice, but putting words into his mouth is highly dangerous in a chapter where he insists time after time that he is telling God's solemn truth. Paul was most sensitive to blasphemy and false ceremonialism--of all people he would not have argued for the foundation truth of the Resurrection with a questionable example. He obviously did not feel that the principle was disharmonious with the gospel. (Understanding Paul, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1983, pp. 126, 404-405)

 

Sources for Further Study

 

1. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1983, pp. 403-415).

 

2. Michael T. Griffith, One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers as Evidences of the Restoration, Bountiful, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1996, pp. 196-206.

 

3. Hugh Nibley, "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times," in Todd Compton and Stephen Ricks, editors, Mormonism and Early Christianity, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 4, Deseret Book Company and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987, pp. 100-167.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Michael T. Griffith holds a Masterís degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelorís degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force.He also holds an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College.He is a graduate in Arabic and Hebrew of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School, San Angelo, Texas.In addition, he has completed an Advanced Hebrew program at Haifa University in Israel.He is the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts, including How Firm A Foundation, A Ready Reply, and One Lord, One Faith.

 

Note: This article is an edited version of a chapter in the authorís book How Firm A Foundation.