Baptism for the dead

Baptism for the dead - only mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:29.

In the 15th chapter of Paul's letter to the Corinthians the apostle reminds us of the great importance that the teaching of the resurrection of the body plays in the Christian faith. If one denies that God will raise the dead then devotion to the cause of Christ is madness. Suppress the resurrection, and baptism for the dead becomes meaningless, says Paul.

What was this baptism for the dead that the apostle was referring to?

Dozens of different interpretations have been brought forth over the centuries. Some of the more fanciful interpretations suppose that Paul was referring to a proxy baptism, where, like the Mormons of today, the living can be baptized on behalf of their dead ancestors. Such a meaning can be quickly dismissed since this is the only place in all of Scripture where such a teaching could be supported, and any doctrine that rests on just one verse should be suspect.

Other interpretations resolve the difficulty by interpreting the "dead" in "baptized for the dead" as referring to Jesus. Why are we baptized into the name of Jesus if in fact the dead do not rise? Why be baptized on behalf of Christ who has not risen from the dead? The only problem with this interpretation, as logical as it sounds, is that the word "dead" (Greek nekron) is plural, and not singular (i.e., "baptized for the dead [ones]").

Another alternative tries to rearrange the question marks in the English translation. The oldest and original Greek manuscripts, it must be remembered, were written without punctuation marks. The style of writing found in such manuscripts is referred to as Uncial, and is characterized by letters that were written side by side, with no spacing between each letter. Punctuation marks were not used in Uncial manuscripts. It was left to the reader (or in our case, the translators) to determine where the phrases and sentences ended. The commas, periods and semi-colons in our English translations are not divinely inspired. They were placed there by the translators. It has been suggested, therefore, that the verse in question suffers from improper punctuation.

Let us put the first question mark after the word "baptized," and remove the next to last question mark so that the verse would read: "Else what shall they do which are baptized? Is it for (in the interest of) the dead. If the dead rise not at all, why then are they baptized for the dead?"

Although the first half of the verse no longer causes any difficulty by rearranging punctuation, we still have a problem - there still remains the closing and puzzling words "baptized for the dead".

It is a shame that the word "hope" does not appear in the translation, for "baptized for the hope of the dead" would remove all difficulties. However, there is no reason to suspect that a word has been dropped from the original text.

The last plausible interpretation suggests that the word "baptized" referred, not to the baptism of water, but to the baptism of blood, by martyrdom. We have two sayings uttered by Jesus, in which the term baptism is used in this meaning; the one pointing to his own death (Luke 12:50), and the other to the bloody deaths of his disciples (Mark 10:38-39). One can easily understand how, under the influence of such sayings, there was formed in the primitive Church a new expression such as that used here by the apostle, to denote the bloody death of martyrdom. The words: "for the dead," would thus signify: to be baptized, not as the believer is with the baptism of water to join the body of Christ, but rather to join the ranks of the martyrs - the dead. Paul's question would then read, "If there is no resurrection, what will be gained by such baptized ones who are slain for their love of Christ?"

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