The following verse has perplexed many Bible readers. It is even the reason why the Mormon church has actually literally conducted baptismal rites for dead people (and in the process created genealogical databases of great use to people researching their family history). For other Christians the verse is simply an enigma…

1 Corinthians 15:29 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?

Half of the answer is found in Jewish ritual prayer for the dead:

The following describes the prayers which Judas Maccabeus (160BC) made for his dead soldiers following battle when the slain were discovered to be carrying pagan talismans. Prayers and offerings where made to pardon the dead for this sin so that they could take part in the resurrection. (Admittedly this is not a practice known in the Old Testament)

2 Maccabees 12:39 And upon the day following, as the use had been, Judas and his company came to take up the bodies of them that were slain, and to bury them with their kinsmen in their fathers’ graves. 40 Now under the coats of every one that was slain they found things consecrated to the idols of the Jamnites, which is forbidden the Jews by the law. Then every man saw that this was the cause wherefore they were slain. 41 All men therefore praising the Lord, the righteous Judge, who had opened the things that were hid, 42 Betook themselves unto prayer, and besought him that the sin committed might wholly be put out of remembrance. Besides, that noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forsomuch as they saw before their eyes the things that came to pass for the sins of those that were slain. 43 And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachms of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection 44 For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. 45 And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin.

In this verse “for them” [Greek hyper] is the same as Paul’s two uses of “for” “on the behalf of” as in 1Co.15:29. The use of “for the dead” in 2 Maccabees 12: 44 confirms that burial prayers, and rites, were seen as being for the benefit of the dead and also a demonstration of belief in resurrection. This is particularly key to 2 Maccabees — and the whole Maccabean revolt — as the belief in resurrection is the reason that Jews were willing to face martyrdom.

The other half of the answer is found in Jewish ceremonial washing:

The Greek verb “baptize” [Greek baptizo] does not always have to refer to the rite of baptism [baptisma,  a new concept, unique to the NT]; it may also refer to ceremonial washing [baptismos, the literal act of washing Mark 7:4, 8, Heb.6:2, 9:10]. For example when Naaman the Syrian washes in Jordan in the Greek OT it is recorded as “baptized”:

2 Kings 5:14 So he went down and dipped [baptizo] himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. (LXX)

Judith 12:7 Then Holofernes commanded his guard that they should not stay her: thus she abode in the camp three days, and went out in the night into the valley of Bethulia, and washed [baptizo] herself in a fountain of water by the camp. (LXX)

Among the things for which Jews had to ceremonially wash [baptizo] was any handling of a dead body. This practice was adapted by Jews into a custom whereby the pall bearers and male chief mourners also underwent the ceremonial washing, even though they technically did not touch the body.

Numbers 19:13 Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him.

Sirach 34:25 If a man again touches a corpse after he has bathed [Greek baptizo], what did he gain by the purification? (LXX)

Today most modern Jews reduce that custom to washing of hands before and after a funeral, but in Paul’s day the act of ceremonial washing [baptismos] was a more complete wash, though not necessarily actual “burial” in water as inChristian baptism [baptisma].

Conclusion

Put the two halves of those answers together and we have the comparison Paul is talking about; what do people (clearly Jewish people, since Greeks did not have this custom) mean by being baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Paul is demonstrating the connection between Jewish ceremonial washing — using baptizo in the Jewish sense — and Jewish belief in resurrection.  Judged strictly by what the Law of Moses says concerning ceremonial washing, Paul’s argument here could be seen as false, since the law of Moses counts this kind of washing as being for cleanliness, nothing to do with resurrection. However Paul does not say “why does the Law”, but “why do people” — he only has to be correct about inferring the motives of his countrymen washing before and after participating in a Jewish funeral. The quote above from Sirach shows the main reason for Jewish washing at burials to be a concern for purification, but the quote from Maccabees above goes further than Sirach and argues that it would be foolish to Jews to pray for their dead if they did not believe in resurrection. Given the parallels of Sirach and Maccabees, Paul is not going much further to suggest it would be foolish to Jews to wash for burying their dead if they did not believe in resurrection.

It is also important to note that the “baptized for the dead” verse is only a comparison. The real example of 1Co15:29-32 is not Jewish burial washings, but Paul’s own braving of danger.

1 Corinthians 15:29 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?

Paul first gives the example : what do [Jewish] people mean by ceremonially washing for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why do [Jewish] people ceremonially wash on the behalf of the dead? It’s a perfectly reasonable observation. For a Jewish person to honour a relative, or in the case of Judas Maccabeus his fallen soldiers, is linked to the Jewish belief in resurrection. If the Jewish people don’t believe in resurrection, then why go through the inconvenience of making oneself unclean and having to wash?

But the real example here is Paul. And this is why he switches from “them” (i.e. Jews) in vs.29 to “we” (i.e. Christians) in vs.30.

30 Why are we in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! 32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Finally there’s one more issue that needs to be noted. It’s often assumed that the Corinthian reluctance to believe in resurrection was the result of sceptical Greek elements in the church (pagans believed that the soul went to Hades, not in resurrection), but it is possible that the opposition to resurrection actually came from Jewish-Christians (Luke 20:27, 2Tim.2:18). This is only a suggestion, but it would explain why Paul felt it relevant to point to Jews who were baptized (using the Jewish meaning of the word) at funerals, and drawing a parallel with his own teaching about baptism (using the Christian meaning of the word) into Christ being a form of burial (Rom6:4, Col.2:12).

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3 Responses to What does “baptized for the dead” mean?

  1. Chris Brook says:

    This is a very interesting answer and may provide a good explanation.
    Another, rather simpler, understanding is as follows:
    What is the chapter all about? Resurrection and in particular the importance of the resurrection of Christ. Verses 20 through 28 can be put in parenthesis – they are a typically Pauline digression. So in v 29 ‘the dead’ is Christ and Paul is simply continuing his argument. ‘What is the point in being baptised into the name of a dead person’. This then explains the next verse (30) which does not seem to follow at all if Paul were really talking about ‘baptism for the dead’ – this would have no relevence to Paul’s own position because he had been baptised.
    The word for ‘dead’ in v 29 is a plural form but I think this is simply that Paul is talking in general terms – if the dead do not rise then there is no point being baptised into any name.

  2. Brian Jorgensen says:

    Perhaps a similar explanation to the Jewish ceremonial washing is the common practice of preparing a body for burial which includes washing, grooming, dressing and preservation (spices). Any mortician in that sense would baptize for the dead since the dead cannot do it for themselves. Also why do it at all if there is no resurrection?

  3. Russell says:

    Good info. The Dead Sea Scrolls and archeological work suggest that there were pre-Christian Jewish groups who seem to have performed ritual baptisms by immersion. Hard to know for sure, but perhaps in some cases there was more than just the ritual washings being done. I don’t think John the Baptist was the first to baptize people unto repentance.

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