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Volume 17, Issue 3: Liturgia

Baptism is Baptism, IV

Peter Leithart

My thesis in these several articles has been simple: When Paul uses the word "baptism," he means baptism—the water rite of Christian initiation. Here, I examine 1 Corinthians 15:29, where Paul argues for the reality of resurrection with two disorienting rhetorical questions: "Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?"

What does Paul mean by "baptize" in this passage? There is little dispute about this, though Jerome Murphy-O'Connor suggests that it is a metaphor for "being destroyed." On his view, Paul is asking rhetorically why preachers ("they") are being destroyed ("baptized") for the sake of those who lack wisdom ("the dead"). Though this interpretation makes some sense of the connection between verse 29 and the following verses, it hardly fits the language of verse 29 itself. Any interpretation that requires inverted commas for all the key words is, well, suspect. Apart from the idiosyncratic Murphy-O'Connor, no one seems to doubt that here "baptize" means baptize.
The interesting question in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is not what "baptize" means but what "for the dead" means. Many, not only Mormons, have taken this passage as evidence that some in the early church baptized living people as surrogates for the unbaptized dead, a practice that continued in some heretical groups into the patristic period. Didymus the Blind, for instance, claimed that "The Marcionites baptize the living on behalf of dead unbelievers, not knowing that baptism saves only the person who receives it." Chrysostom offers a more colorful description in his fortieth homily on 1 Corinthians: "When any Catechumen departs among them [Marcionites], having concealed the living man under the couch of the dead, they approach the corpse and talk with him, and ask him if he wishes to receive baptism; then when he makes no answer, he that is concealed underneath saith in his stead that of course he should wish to be baptized; and so they baptize him instead of the departed, like men jesting upon the stage"—the stage being, for Chrysostom, that than which nothing worse can be imagined.
Other early documents show that baptism was not only performed for the dead, but sometimes on them. (The era of baptizing house pets and farm animals was still some centuries away.) Baptism of corpses was apparently widespread enough at least in North Africa that the Code of the African Churches, compiled from various councils and approved in 419, included a canon condemning the practice: "Neither the Eucharist nor Baptism should be given to the bodies of the dead." In a Greek version of the canon, this explanation is added: "For it is written: `Take, eat,' but the bodies of the dead can neither `take' nor `eat.'" That's hard to argue with.
Calvin challenged this line of interpretation, pointing out that "it is hard to believe that people who were denying the resurrection were at one and the same time making use of a rite like this," since the rite makes no sense unless it is done with a view to resurrection. If the Corinthians denying the resurrection were not the same Corinthians who were baptizing the dead, they could respond to Paul's criticism with "Why do you put pressure on us with this old wives' superstition, when in fact you do not approve of it yourself?" And if Paul disapproved of the practice, why didn't he say so? He was not one to shrink from confrontation, particularly with the Corinthians.
If his argument is to work, Paul must be appealing to a practice that both he and the Corinthians accepted. If the Corinthians do not "baptize for the dead," then Paul's appeal to this practice is useless. If Paul doesn't think that the dead should be baptized, then his Corinthian opponents have a ready-made, and decisive, rejoinder.
So, what is "baptism for the dead"? Calvin suggests that "for the dead" means "those regarded as dead already," in other words, the mortally ill. Paul's argument is, "What's the use of death-bed baptisms if there is no resurrection?" Perhaps. But Chrysostom has the better of the argument. The baptismal rite of his time included a confession of faith in the resurrection: "I believe in the resurrection of the dead." Thus, "with a view to this art thou baptized, the resurrection of thy dead body, believing that it no longer remains dead." Baptism is added to the creed as a sign to assure the baptized. Citing Romans 6, Chrysostom says that entering the water and emerging from it "is a symbol of the descent into Hades and return thence" (Homily 40 on 1 Corinthians). Baptism for the dead is not a bizarre perversion of baptism. All Christian baptisms are baptisms for the dead, for everyone comes to the font dead in trespasses and sins. This also fits with the following verses, which show that Paul, having been baptized in hope of resurrection, faces danger, strives with beasts, and sacrifices himself for the church.
This almost satisfies. But not quite. Paul uses a distancing third person— "they" baptize for the dead; why not "we"? Paul might well be referring to Jewish practices. Under the ceremonial laws of Torah, every washing was a washing "for the dead." Uncleanness was a ceremonial form of death, and through washings of various sorts the unclean dead were restored to life in fellowship with Yahweh.
Whatever the particulars of Paul's argument, one thing is clear from 1 Corinthians 15:29: "Baptism" means baptism.

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