Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Baptism for the Dead
First Corinthians 15:29 remains an enigma, although over thirty "explanations" have been suggested. Substituting alternative phrasesbaptism for "the spiritually dead, " "the dying, " "in memory of the departed, " or othersmerely multiplies problems. Vicarious baptisms for the benefit of the dead, practiced on the fringe of Christianity from the second century, illustrate the influence of this verse, but not Paul's meaning. Paul is arguing that if Jesus has not risen, then Christian faith, preaching, remission, hope, are all vain; so is "baptism for the dead." He cannot mean Christian baptism, for none of its conditions or benefits, as Paul expounds them, can be affirmed of the dead. Besides, the following phrase ("And as for us " NIV; "And we ourselves " neb) dissociates Paul and his colleagues from the practice.
If docetic type Christians infected the church at Corinth, they may have accepted baptism for departed souls : but how would that prove bodily resurrection? Similarly, some Dionysian rites and some practices of the mystery religions were held to ensure access, and safe journeying, in the spiritual world, even for those already dead. And Paul could argue from pagan parallels without immediately condemning them (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:20-22 ). But this analogy again does not necessarily imply bodily resurrection.
Yet even as a Pharisee Paul could not conceive a disembodied immortality, leaving the surviving personality incomplete (see 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 ). Is he then arguing that even pagans, if their baptism for the dead be properly understood, testify unconsciously to a bodily resurrection?
R. E. O. White
Bibliography . M. Brauch, Hard Sayings of Paul .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Baptism for the Dead'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bed/b/baptism-for-the-dead.html. 1996.