Vol. 18 New Series June, 1956 No. 3
BAPTIZED FOR THE DEAD

1. Corinthians 15:29
King James, 1611: 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?
R.S. Version, 1946: 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?

Many are the explanations which have been given of this difficult verse, but very few of them have been worth any consideration. Once more, Paul has been very brief, and we can only wish he had written a little more.

Cunnington, a very good translator, is very candid, saying in a note, "The explanation of this passage remains with its writer."

In the first place, due weight must be given to the words, "What shall they do, or be doing" (ti poiEsousin). The Greek word poiein is the root of our word poem, which is a literary work which requires some construction and creating. At Eph. 2:10 we read, "For we are His workmanship," where the last word is, in the Greek, poEma, our word poem. In the Concordant Version this reads, "For we are His achievement. The New World. Version reads, "For we are a product of his work."

Doing, in Greek, therefore implies accomplishment, carrying through a work. It is thus different from practising or putting into practice (prassO), which refers to regular or frequent habitual actions, or wrongs committed. A study of these two words is a most interesting and fascinating occupation.

Suppose, then, we read, "What shall they be achieving. .?" Some versions bring in the idea of gaining something, obtaining a benefit, or attaining an advantage, including those of Godet, Schaff, Stanley, Penn, Bloomfield, Wakefield, Joynson, Fenton and Nicolson.

Some expositors think the baptism referred to was by proxy for friends or relations (A. S. Way, J. B. Phillips, Bishop Wand). Others think some were baptized in view of martyrdom (as Godet, Schaff, Hebert).

Some have suggested a change in punctuation, to read thus: "Else what shall they do who are being baptized? (It is) for corpses if the dead rise not at all. Why are they then being baptized for them?" This was Dr. E. W. Bullinger's rendering in his magazine, "Things to Come" in September, 1903, also in his fine book, "How to Enjoy the Bible" (1907), page 53. The same explanation was also given in Part VI. of his Companion Bible, published after his death, on page 1723 (1. Cor. 1 5). "Why are they baptized also? (It is) for the dead. It is to remain dead, as Christ remains, if there be no resurrection, v. 13. The argument is, What is the use of being baptized, if it is only to remain dead? No suggestion here of the vicarious baptism which sprang up later among the Marcionites and others."

Arthur Carr, in "Horae Biblicae" (1903) adopts the same punctuation, but brings in the idea of sponsors for these dead ones. Bullinger's punctuation was also adopted in the Concordant Version of 1944, and appears in "Unsearchable Riches" of November, 1945. It also appeared in the issue of July, 1936.

This punctuation, however, was condemned about one hundred years ago by Webster & Wilkinson in their Greek New Testament, as giving "a construction unnecessarily harsh and elliptical." It is inconceivable that Paul should omit the words "it is" in such a position. The Greek word (estin, it is) is often omitted where the omission does not destroy the sense. But at the beginning of a clause it would be necessary. Other examples of such an omission by Paul ought to be. produced before such a rendering is accepted. Besides, taking the rendering as, "Else what shall those be doing who are baptizing? (It is) for the sake of the dead. . . ." there IS no proper antecedent to the words "It is." The same is true of the Concordant Version at Mark 13:34, "(It is) as a man, a traveller. .." Here there is no word in the Greek for "it is;" which ought to be omitted, with Rotherham, Young, and others, the sense running on from the previous verse. The A.V. is quite wrong to read "For the Son of man is . . ." and the RS.V. has no authority to read "It is like a man. . . "

Moreover, Dr. Bullinger's explanation does not explain the Greek word huper, rendered twice as "for". This word, when followed by a Greek genitive case, as here, is given the meaning of for the sake of, or, on behalf of. If some of the Corinthians were getting baptized only to remain dead when they died, how could it be said that they got themselves baptized for the sake of their corpses? Besides, this baptizing was for the sake of the dead, certain dead people, not for the sake of the baptizers' own dead bodies. Here is the literal sense of the verse: Else, what will-be-doing those getting baptized for-the-sake-of the dead if altogether dead (people) not are-being-roused? Why also are-they-getting-baptized for-the-sake of-them?

It is clear that there were certain individuals at Corinth to whom this verse applied. Paul is not condemning them, as has sometimes been stated. He may be referring to some action only performed by a minority of the people. He seems, in fact, to connect his own case with them in some respect, as is evidenced by the repeated "why. . . also," found in the next verse. "Why ALSO are WE (emphatic) continuing-in-danger every hour?"

This apparent affinity between Paul and his companions, and those getting themselves baptized for the sake of the dead, caused Godet to surmise that a special class of believers was referred to, those for whom there was "the bloody death of martyrdom." He quotes the baptism to which the Lord referred in Mark 10:38 and Luke 12:50. "If there be no resurrection, what will be gained by such baptized ones, by their joining the ranks of the dead for the love of Christ and of the Church in heaven?" How natural now, he says, is the transition to the question in the next verse, "Why do WE also stand in jeopardy every hour?"

But there is no record of any martyrs in the Ecclesia at Corinth in Paul's time at least.

Schaff's Commentary (by Principal David Brown, D.D.) is very similar. "Plainly the allusion is to some act performed in expectation of future benefit to themselves, which benefit would be lost if the dead did not rise. The view of the best expositors. . . . is: Foreseeing that their faith would cost them the loss of all things, perhaps of life itself, not a few converts, in proceeding to baptism, went to it as their virtual death warrant, as though saying with Paul (2. Cor. 4:11), We who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake; "The verse would then mean: What is to become of those who in advancing to baptism do so as not knowing that it may not prove their death warrant, if the dead rise not? What follows seems to confirm this."

Nicolson (Classical Revision of the N.T.) suggests a new idea, that the word huper ought to be given its simple and locative sense of over. When followed by an accusative case it means over, above, more than. He suggests, "Else, what advantage shall the baptized have over the dead? If, in general, dead men do not rise, why are people baptized at all?" This makes "the baptized" to be the sole subject of "shall be doing" (or, shall have advantage). The Greek word to do equally means to make, or to produce, or to form. We speak of people "making money," that is, gaining money; or "making a name." that is, acquiring a reputation.

The difficulty here, however, lies in the final few words of the verse. He ought to have finished with "why are people baptized over them," but as this does not suit his theory, he is obliged to alter the Greek text.

Thus far we have found nothing quite satisfactory. The solution must be something quite simple and unforced. In the Greek word huper we must find the meaning of "for the sake of," or "in behalf of," just as in Romans 5:6, "Christ died for the ungodly"—for their sake, on behalf of them. Taking the locative force of the word as over, that would almost mean that Christ died covering, or protecting, the ungodly. In line with, or in connection with God's grace, Jesus had to taste death "for the sake of everyone" (pantos; every individual), (Heb. 2:9). In some way it must accrue to the advantage or benefit of every individual. The Lord was morally concerned over everyone, and, surely, His moral concern cannot perish.

The Expositors' Greek New Testament on 1st Corinthians by G. G. Findlay sets forth another view, which is at least much more reasonable than any of the foregoing. "On behalf of the dead" points to a specific class of the dead, interested in the baptism of the living. Paul associates himself with their action, indicating that they and he are engaged on the same behalf, as shewn by verse 30, "Why are WE also" This excludes the idea of vicarious baptism of living Christians as proxies for relatives and friends. Definite dead persons are meant. (In this connection we might observe what is said at 1. Cor. 11:30, that on account of disorderly eating and drinking during the Lordly Supper, many were dying, probably too large a proportion of the Ecclesia). Paul refers to a fairly common and normal experience, namely, that the death of believers leads to the conversion of those left behind, who, in the first instance, "for the sake of the dead" whom they loved, and in the hope of reunion, turn to Christ. A dying mother might make a strong appeal to her son before she departed, and win him round. Such converts would become baptized on behalf of those who passed away, for their sake, because of their example and firm faith in resurrection. Baptism seals the new believer and commits him to the Christian life.

Paul had spent one year and six months at Corinth (Acts 18:11) and many had believed there and were baptized (v. 8). It was therefore quite possible that considerable numbers of believers had died while Paul was there, to be followed by new believers who had been impressed by his powerful message and by the lives of their relatives.

A.T. Last updated 14.1.2006