Baptism for the Dead
(baptizomai huper ton nekron).
1. Paul's Argument:
Some of the Corinthian Christians denied the resurrection of the dead, and Paul advances three arguments to convince them that the dead will be raised: (1) "If there is no resurrection of the dead, neither hath Christ been raised," but Christ is raised (1Co 15:13,20). (2) If the dead are not raised, why are men being baptized for the dead (1Co 15:29)? (3) Why should the apostle himself wage his spiritual warfare (1Co 15:30)? The first argument rests upon the central fact of Christianity, and the other two are appeals to the consistency of the Corinthians, and of Paul himself. Whatever "baptism for the dead" meant, it was, in Paul's opinion, as real, valid and legitimate a premise from which to conclude that the dead would rise as his own sufferings. The natural meaning of the words is obvious. Men in Corinth, and possibly elsewhere, were being continually baptized on behalf of others who were at the time dead, with a view to benefiting them in the resurrection, but if there be no resurrection, what shall they thus accomplish, and why do they do it? "The only legitimate reference is to a practice .... of survivors allowing themselves to be baptized on behalf of (believing?) friends who had died without baptism" (Alford in the place cited.).
2. Patristic Evidence:
Tertullian believed that Paul referred to a custom of vicarious baptism (Res., 48c; Adv. Marc., 5.10). There is evidence that the early church knew such a practice. Epiphanius mentions a tradition that the custom obtained among the Cerinthians (Haer., 28 6). And Chrysostom states that it prevailed among the Marcionites.
3. Modern Views:
But commentators have offered between thirty and forty other interpretations, more or less strained, of the passage. (For a summary of different views see T. C. Edwards and Stanley, Comms., at the place) Two of the most reasonable views from recent commentators are: "What shall they do who receive baptism on account of the dead? i.e. with a view to the resurrection of the dead?" and therefore to sharing in it themselves (Canon Evans, Speaker's Comm., at the place); "that the death of Christians led to the conversion of survivors, who in the first instance `for the sake of the dead' (their beloved dead), and in the hope of reunion, turn to Christ" (Findlay, Expositor's Greek Test., at the place). Both ideas may be true, but they are simply imported into this passage, and the latter also is quite irrelevant to the argument and makes Paul identify conversion with baptism.
4. The Difficulty:
But why is all this ingenuity expended to evade the natural meaning? Because (1) such a custom would be a superstition involving the principle of opus operarum; and (2) Paul could not share or even tolerate a contemporary idea which is now regarded as superstition. To reply (with Alford) that Paul does not approve the custom will not serve the purpose, for he would scarcely base so great an argument, even as an argumentum ad hominem, on a practice which he regarded as wholly false and superstitious. The retort of those who denied the resurrection would be too obvious. But why should it be necessary to suppose that Paul rose above all the limitations of his age? The idea that symbolic acts had a vicarious significance had sunk deeply into the Jewish mind, and it would not be surprising if it took more than twenty years for the leaven of the gospel to work all the Jew out of Paul. At least it serves the apostle's credit ill to make his argument meaningless or absurd in order to save him from sharing at all in the inadequate conceptions of his age. He made for himself no claim of infallibility.