Baptism for the Dead

Paul's mention of "the baptism for the dead" has puzzled Christians for centuries. Do the earliest Christians have any insight for us?

Oddly enough, very little! It appears that they were as puzzled by Paul's statement as we are. They do, however, seem to be consistent where they do comment.

Early Christian Commentators
on the Baptism of the Dead

We have only Tertullian and John Chrysostom to work with. The editors of The Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers apply 1 Cor. 15:29 in a note to a comment by Gregory of Nyssa, but I don't agree he is referencing the baptism for the dead. I will give you the comment and corresponding note anyway.

John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) is the most thorough commentator on the verse. He published Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, and he did not dodge 1 Cor. 15:29. He even suggests that he has more to say on the subject, but cannot:

I desire now expressly to utter it, but I dare not because of the uninitiated. These add a difficulty to our exposition, compelling us either not to speak clearly or to declare to them the unutterable mysteries. Nevertheless, as I am able, I will speak as through a veil. (Homily XL)

Summation of the Baptism of the Dead

We have only two people to work with, but both say that "the dead" refers to our bodies. Our bodies are buried with Christ in baptism, and we are raised to new life in Christ. We also hope in the resurrection, when our dead bodies will either rise from the grave or, if we are still alive at his coming, be transformed instantly ("in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye") from corruptibility to incorruptibility.

I can't say I find that interpretation very satisfying. Paul seems to referencing a specific practice in that passage. I suspect he is talking about a rite that he disagrees with, performed by the gnostic teachers that he is refuting in that chapter.

Thus, I would paraphrase Paul's argument as: "If those gnostics don't believe in a resurrection of the body, why do they baptize on behalf of dead people? It doesn't make any sense."

I can't say I'm right. I'm just speculating. However, with just two early Christians, one writing 150 years after Paul and the other more than 300 years after, I think we are free to guess as well as they are.

Quotes on the Baptism of the Dead in 1 Cor. 15:29

Let's quote Tertullian in full, as his is much shorter.

"What" asks he, "shall they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not?" Now never mind that practice. The Februrarian Illustrations will perhaps answer him by praying for the dead. Do not suppose that the apostle here indicates some new god as the author and advocate of this. Instead, he said this that he might more firmly insist upon the resurrection of the body, in proportion as they who were vainly baptized for the dead resorted to the practice from their belief in such a resurrection. We have the apostle in another passage defining "but one baptism." To be "baptized for the dead" therefore means, in fact, to be baptized for the body; for, as we have shown, it is the body which becomes dead. What then shall they do who are baptized for the body if the body does not rise again?

   We stand, then, on firm ground because of the fact that the next question which the apostle discusses equally relates to the body. "But some men will say, 'How are the dead raised? With what body do they come?" (Against Marcion V:10)

The homily (sermon) from John Chrysostom is several paragraphs long, so I will just give you excerpts.

Chrysostom's homily begins with a description of what the followers of Marcion do. Marcion was the founder of a heretical sect that accepted only Luke's Gospel and a few of Paul's letters and only accepted those with edits. He rejected the God of Israel as different from the Father of Jesus.

Chrysostom scoffs at Marcion's practice, so that "none of the more exceedingly simple folk" be led astray, then turns to explaining the passage.

I first wish to remind you who are initiated of the response, which on the evening they who introduce you to the mysteries* bid you make. ... After the enunciation of those mystical and fearful words and the awe-inspiring rules of doctrine which have come down from heaven, this we also add at the end when we are about to baptize, bidding them to say, "I believe in the resurrection of the dead," and upon this faith we are baptized.

The mysteries are the bread and wine of the Eucharist which were given to converts immediately after baptism. The "response" is the rule of faith or "creed" that those who are being baptized confess to at their baptism. The Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed that many churches still repeat each week are products of the baptismal confession of early churches. These are the "awe-inspiring rules of doctrine" to which Chrysostom refers.

In the fourth century, "I believe in the resurrection of the dead" would have been a part of almost every church's rule of faith (creed). Tertullian points out in a much earlier writing that the original rule of faith, given by Jesus, was "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (De Corona 3).

After we have confessed this together with the rest [of the rule of faith], then at last we are let down into the fountain of those sacred streams. This, therefore, Paul recalls to their minds and says, "If there be no resurrection, why are you then baptized for the dead?" i.e., the dead bodies. For, in fact, it is with a view to this that you are baptized, the resurrection of the dead body, believing that it no longer remains dead. (ibid.)

Finally we need to add the comment by the editors of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers on a baptismal comment by Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-395) from about the same time as John Chrysostom's. Again, I don't believe the editors are correctly referencing this to 1 Corinthians 15:29.

Gregory's comment concerns those who don't believe that Jesus is perfect. He says ...

Why are they baptized into Christ if he has no power or goodness of his own? (Against Eunomius I:22)

The editors' note says:

This throws some light on the much discussed passage, 'Why are these baptized for the dead?' Gregory at all events seems here to take it to mean, 'Why are they baptized in the name of a dead Christ?' as he is adopting partially St. Paul's words, 1 Cor. xv. 29.

There is a link there if you want to read the context of Gregory of Nyssa's words yourself. You'll have to search on the page I linked because that chapter is pretty long.

Summary

Only two early Christians, Tertullian and John Chrysostom, talk definitively about the baptism of the dead mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Both say that the reference is to our bodies, which are buried with King Jesus in baptism. Both say that we should understand this to mean that we live in expectation of the resurrection of our bodies.

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