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Baptism for the Dead


Photograph of the baptismal font in the Salt Lake temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; circa 1909; James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord, Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1912.


Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson September 4–10: 1 Corinthians 14–16


Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:29, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” The phrase “baptized for the dead” as translated at the website Bible Hub: βαπτιζόμενοι (baptizomenoi) means to dip, submerge, baptize; νεκρῶν (nekrōn) means a dead body, a corpse.1 By using this phrase as evidence for the literal resurrection, Paul is referring to a practice that obviously the Corinthians were familiar with and even practicing. Is there any archaeological or historic evidence of baptisms for the dead among the early Christians?


Richard E. DeMaris, at Valparaiso University, stated in 1995, “To date no satisfactory explanation of the practice described in 1 Cor 15:29 has appeared, though not for lack of trying: ‘Despite dozens of proposed solutions, the reference itself is simply so obscure and our knowledge so limited that we cannot discern just what this rite actually involved or meant.’”2 DeMaris postulated that, “The conditions that fostered the emergence of baptism for the dead must have been unusual, for even at Corinth we have only Paul's reference to it. How long this Corinthian practice survived is uncertain, but the paucity of references to it by Christian writers suggests neither a widespread nor long-lived phenomenon.”3


David Paulsen and Brock Mason, at Brigham Young University, stated, “A favorite tactic of proxy nihilists [those who believe in nothing] is to associate the practice of vicarious baptism with later heretical groups and by so doing infer that the Corinthian practice was likewise heretical. One of the most oft-cited heretical groups is the Marcionites. Born around ad 100, Marcion was raised as a proto-orthodox Christian by his father. Around ad 140, he entered Rome and converted many people to his own Christian theology, now quite distinct from other teachers of the time. It anticipated the teachings of Gnosticism, with ideas of strict dualism within the universe and that Yahweh from the Old Testament was a demiurge [an autonomous creative force]. Because of Marcion’s success, he became a marked target for heresiologists (i.e., heretic hunters) of the orthodox faith, both contemporary and those far removed (such as Epiphanius).”4


The problem with ascribing the origin of baptism for the dead to the Marcionites is that Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians around 53–54 AD, fifty years before Marcion was born. Paulsen and Mason stated, “But just as the lack of historical evidence is used by proxy nihilists to question the validity of the doctrine of baptism for the dead, the lack of historical records could just as well hide the fact that Christ himself taught this doctrine during his Forty-Day mission [between the time of his resurrection and ascension], or that baptisms for the dead were performed in numerous Christian communities, not just Corinth, under the auspices of the apostles. The fact is that we simply lack the historical evidence to determine these matters definitively.”5


Paulsen and Mason continued, “If the practice of proxy baptism was fairly widespread in the Marcionite communities throughout their history, then it would extend throughout the Near East and into nearly every area where Christian communities stretched during the first four centuries. Unlike other Christian sects that would normally worship right along with more ‘orthodox’ believers, the Marcionites had such a large following that they began to meet outside the confines of the ‘proto-orthodox’ church, establishing their own religious communities or congregations. Marcion had so much success with his teachings [Justin of Rome, an apologist for the proto-orthodox church, would recount of Marcion in the second century that he, ‘by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies.’]6 that in many areas of Asia Minor they were the ‘original form of Christianity and continued for many years to comprise the greatest number of persons claiming to be Christian (in those areas).’”7


Probably sometime after 380 AD, Marcion was branded a heretic and the Marcionion heretical teachings, including baptism for the dead, in spite of the scriptures, were not allowed to be taught in the church. In my recent book, The Immortal Messiah: The Physiology of Resurrected Beings, I have discussed how heretics were made.8


“In his book, A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day, John Laux admits that the outcome of the Nicaean Council had no scriptural foundation. Of that council, which opened 20 May 325, under the direction of the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine, and was attended by 318 bishops from all over the known Christian world, Laux stated,

‘It was proposed to introduce the word homo-ousios, which means ‘of the same essence or substance.’ Eusebius of Nicomedia objected that it was a technical term not found in Scripture. But his objection was overruled: for if Scripture is interpreted in different ways, the Catholics rightly maintained, the Church must explain Scripture by a term outside it. The word homo-ousios (Latin: consubstantialis) was therefore eagerly taken up as just the word wanted; and from that moment it became the watchword of the Catholics in their struggle against Arianism. Constantine himself advised its insertion in the Creed.’”9


“And what was that Arianism, the great Arian heresy, against which the Catholics struggled? Arius, a priest from Alexandria, wrote that,


‘If the Son is a real Son, then a Father must have existed before the Divine Son. Therefore He is a creature; the greatest indeed and the eldest of all creatures and Himself a God, but still created; therefore, like all creatures, of an essence or substance (Greek ousia) which previously had not existed.’”10


“Laux has stated that, ‘The Trinity and the Incarnation are the fundamental doctrine of Christianity.’”11


“On the 28th of February 380, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I issued an edict, which completely abolished Arianism:

‘We will that all the peoples who are ruled by the authority of our clemency shall hold to the religion which the Divine Apostle Peter delivers to the Romans, and which is recognized by his having preserved it there until the present day, and which it is known that the Pontiff Damasus follows, and Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness, that is to say, that according to the teaching of the apostles and the doctrine of the Gospel, we should believe in one Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in co-equal majesty and Holy Trinity. We order those who follow this law to take the name of Catholic Christians; all others, mad and insane, we condemn to the infamy of heresy, and they will be punished in the first place by Divine vengeance, and also by our penalties, wherein we follow the will of Heaven.’”12


“That edict of 380 AD brought an end to Arianism and marked forever — at least to the present day — anyone who does not accept the Nicaean creed of the Trinity as being ‘condemn[ed] to the infamy of heresy.’ My reply — long live the heretic!”


“Homoousios was the word used at the Council of Nicea to mean the ‘same substance.’ It means that the Son is exactly the same substance as the Father and thus is exactly the same person as the Father. Homoiousios was the term used by the Arians and other heretics, like myself, and it means ‘of similar substance.’ It was used by those of us who believed that Jesus Christ is the ‘Son of God.’ Notice that the difference in the spelling between the two words is the letter i, or iota in Greek. Therefore, the difference between a ‘true Catholic’ and a heretic is just one iota.”13


Paulsen and Mason said that, “Most commentators, though recognizing the fact that the Marcionites, as well as gnostic Christians, performed the rite of baptism for the dead, dismiss the practice because such groups are considered heretical sects of Christianity. However, the term heretical is used by the enemies of these early branches of Christianity: in scholarly work the term should hold no bearing on the legitimacy of the beliefs of the group nor upon the historical relevance of their practices. The Marcionite, Cerinthian, and gnostic beliefs have just as much of a claim on Christian doctrine as do orthodox views; the only difference between the two is that one lasted far longer than the other. Simply because later church fathers rejected the practice in no way indicates that the primitive church or Christ himself rejected the beliefs concerning proxy ordinances.”14


Paulsen and Mason stated, “In his work Panarion, Epiphanius of Salamis, bishop of Cyprus in the late fourth century, mentions baptism for the dead performed vicariously in parts of Asia and Galatia. In a section entitled Against Cerinthians, he diverts from his main writing to provide information about proxy baptisms: ‘For their school (Cerinthians) reached its height in this country, I mean Asia, and in Galatia as well. And in these countries I also heard of a tradition which said that when some of their people died too soon, without baptism, others would be baptized for them in their names, so that they would not be punished for rising unbaptized at the resurrection and become the subjects of the authority that made the world. And the tradition I heard of says that this is why the same holy apostle said, ‘if the dead rise not at all, why are they baptized for them?”’15


Two closely related scriptures in the New Testament are found in the first epistle of Peter. We read in 1 Peter 3:18-20, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” Then, 1 Peter 4:6 states, “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”


Just before His ascension, Jesus charged his apostles, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”16This scripture makes it clear that once the gospel is taught to people, they are to be baptized. The apostles took this charge to heart. We read in Acts 2: 37-38, “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” The logical progression here would be that once the gospel was preached to the dead (1 Peter 3:18-20; 1 Peter 4:6), the next step would be baptism (1 Corinthians 15:29).


In reference to 1 Peter 4:6, Charles Ellicott stated in 1878, “No one with an un-preoccupied mind could doubt, taking this clause by itself, that the persons to whom this preaching was made were dead at the time of being preached to. If this is the case, then, pretty obviously, St. Peter is carrying us back to his teaching of 1 Peter 3:19, and is explaining further the purpose of Christ's descent into hell.”17 It seems quite curious here to me that even though Ellicott linked the two references in 1 Peter together that he wouldn’t make the logical connection between teaching the dead and baptizing for the dead.


Ellicott's Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:29 states, “The only tenable interpretation is that there existed amongst some of the Christians at Corinth a practice of baptising a living person in the stead of some convert who had died before that sacrament had been administered to him. Such a practice existed amongst the Marcionites in the second century, and still earlier amongst a sect called the Corinthians… Does St. Paul then, by what he here says, sanction the superstitious practice? Certainly not. He carefully separates himself and the Corinthians, to whom he immediately addresses himself, from those who adopted this custom. He no longer uses the first or second person; it is ‘they’ throughout this passage. It is no proof to others; it is simply the argumentum ad hominem. Those who do that, and disbelieve a resurrection, refute themselves. This custom possibly sprang up amongst the Jewish converts, who had been accustomed to something similar in their own faith. If a Jew died without having been purified from some ceremonial uncleanness, some living person had the necessary ablution performed on them, and the dead were so accounted clean.”18 It is my opinion that the reason Ellicott claimed Paul did not sanction the practice of baptism for the dead is that, in his mind, it was connected to the heresy of the Marcionites, and he would have to consider Paul a heretic if he supported the concept. I find it very enlightening that Ellicott mentions Jewish rites in behalf of the dead.


The Pulpit Commentary says of 1 Peter 4:6, “Here, perhaps, he [Peter] asserts the general fact - the gospel was preached to the dead; perhaps (we may not presume to dogmatize in a matter so mysterious, about which so little is revealed) to all the vast population of the underworld, who had passed away before the gospel times…Therefore God was ready to judge the quick and the dead, for to both was the gospel preached…They had died before the manifestation of the Son of God, before the great work of atonement wrought by his death; but that atonement was retrospective - he ‘taketh away the sin of the world;’ its saving influences extended even to the realm of the dead.”19 Again, I find it interesting that this Commentary also failed to make the link between the teaching of the dead and baptism for the dead.


The Commentary says of 1 Corinthians 15:29, “This clause can have but one meaning, and that its obvious one, namely, that, among the many strange opinions and practices which then prevailed, was one which was entirely un-warranted-but which St. Paul does not here stop to examine — of persons getting themselves baptized as it were by proxy for others who had died… It is argued that St. Paul could not possibly mention such a practice without reprobation; but that is an a priori assumption not warranted by St. Paul’s methods... He always confines his attention to the question immediately before him, and his present object is merely to urge a passing argumentum ad hominem. There is nothing at all surprising in the existence of such an abuse in the medley of wild opinions and wild practices observable in this disorganized Church… The ‘interpretations’ of this verse are so numerous that it is not even possible to give a catalogue of them. Many of them are not worth recording, and are only worth alluding to at all as specimens of the wilful bias which goes to Scripture, not to seek truth, but to support tradition. They are mostly futile and fantastic, because they pervert the plain meaning of the plain words… It is a waste of time and space to give perpetuity to baseless fancies… Not a single argument which is worth a moment's consideration can be urged in favour of any one of these, or scores of similar views. If we are to get rid of everything that is surprising on the ground that it is ‘immensely improbable,’ we may as well discard Scripture at once, and reconstruct early Christian history out of our own consciousness. It has been very usual to represent it as we think that it ought to have been, and not as it was. The disuse of this vicarious baptism among orthodox Christians may have been due to the discouragement of it by St. Paul when he went to Corinth, and ‘set in order’ various erroneous customs (1 Corinthians 11:34).”


I find it interesting that the Commentary used terms such as “strange opinions and practices” and “abuse in the medley of wild opinions and wild practices observable in this disorganized Church.” The commentators then admitted that they had “reconstruct[ed] early Christian history out of our own consciousness. It has been very usual to represent it as we think that it ought to have been, and not as it was.” In my opinion the commentators were so meshed in the fourth-century notions of heresy that they couldn’t see the practices of early Christians for what they were rather than what they “ought to have been.” They also apparently failed to see that Paul’s attempts to set things in order in Corinth ultimately failed with the collapse of the original Church. I also find it very interesting that the commentators could “not presume to dogmatize in a matter so mysterious, about which so little is revealed.” They were admitting that teaching the spirits in prison and, later, performing baptisms for them could not be understood without additional revelation.



Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

trentdeestephens.com


References

1. biblehub.com/1_corinthians/15-29.htm; retrieved 26 August 2023

2. DeMaris, Richard E., Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights from Archaeology and Anthropology, Journal of Biblical Literature, 11414:661-682, 1995; biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/jbl/1995_demaris.pdf; retrieved 31 August 2023; the quote is from R. P. Carlson, The Role of Baptism in Paul's Thought, Interpretation, 47:261, 1993

3. DeMaris p. 673

4. Paulsen, David L., and Brock M. Mason, Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 19 Number 2 Article 4, 2010; scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1478&context=jbms; retrieved 31 August 2023; they cited: Hall, Stuart G., Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, p. 45–46, SPCK, London, 2005

5. Paulsen and Mason p. 43

6. Justin of Rome, First Apology 1.26, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:171; as cited by Paulsen and Mason

7. Paulsen and Mason p. 41; citing Ehrman, Bart D., Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, New York, p. 109, 2003

8. Stephens, Trent D., The Immortal Messiah: The Physiology of Resurrected Beings, Cedar Fort, Springville, UT, 2022, p. 133ff

9. Laux, John, Church History, A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day, p 110, Benziger Brothers, Inc, New York, etc, Printers to the Holy Apostolic See, 1930, p. 110

10. Ibid

11. Laux p.137

12. Stephens p.144; Laux p. 122-123

13. Stephens p. 144

14. Paulsen and Mason p. 41

15. Paulsen and Mason p. 41; citing Epiphanius, Panarion: Against Cerinthians 6,4–5, in Williams, Panarion of Epiphanius, 120 n. 137

16. Matthew 28:19-20

17. Ellicott, Charles John, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers; A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, 1878; as cited at biblehub.com/1_peter/4-6.htm; retrieved 1 September 20

18. Ibid, 1 Corinthians 15:29

19. Exell, Joseph S., and Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones, editors, Pulpit Commentary, In 23 volumes with 100 contributors, over a thirty-year period during the nineteenth century; Hendrickson Pub., 1985; as cited at biblehub.com/1_peter/4-6.htm; retrieved 1 September 2023

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