In a recent discussion with friends about baptism, I mentioned in passing that early on the church apparently practiced a vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead, presumably so that family members and friends who had died before they were baptized could take part in the full benefits of the sacrament. At the time, however, I couldn’t remember where Paul had discussed this, or why. This is found in 1 Corinthians, a book that I have read several dozen times since December. Paul appeals to the practice in his argument for the historicity of the resurrection, both Christ's and ours. He argues that the Corinthians' practice of vicarious baptism doesn't make sense if there is no resurrection.
"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied...Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?" (oremus)
For modern readers (such as myself), a question that naturally arises out of the text is, were these dead in Christ or outside of Christ?
Unfortunately, we can only guess at the answer. Naturally, I want to say that these were Christian dead. However, I'm having a hard time imagining a plausible set of circumstances out of which so many professing Christians could die before they had a chance to be baptized. Could it have been happening so often that baptisms on behalf of the dead became commonplace, such that Paul could appeal to the principle as a contradiction of the Corinthians' apparent denial of the resurrection? If the whole community did not generally accept it, Paul's argument falls a part on contact. Rather, if the Corinthians were baptized in the manner described in Acts 8, it was a natural part of receiving the gospel and entering the community: there was no time line of events to speak of, because it happened more or less immediately. (We of course have minimal evidence that the Corinthians thought of baptism in this or in any other way, but it seems to work with the text and is a good fit for the historical evidence.)
If I have laid out my facts correctly, the Corinthians ascribed some mystic power to the sacrament and held out hope that the deceased outside of Christ could benefit from it. This is not hard to see considering what else we know of the Corinthians–they exalted the gift of divine utterances and attached a superstitious potency to the food sacrificed to idols, to give two examples off the top of my head.
One other thought that occurs to me is, perhaps the baptismal rite was a later development in the Corinthian community. Perhaps one teacher taught the Corinthians about Christ, and someone else later taught them about baptism. It is possible that the Corinthian church was planted and flourished for a time before they were taught about baptism, and were now going back to shore up loose ends for those brothers and sisters now dead who had missed out on the benefits of baptism. This provides a motive, but is poor fit with our time line. Recall that in chapter one Paul suggests that he was not the Corinthians' only, or even their favorite, teacher. However, he claims to have planted the church and was probably their first
teacher. That would mean that, at the time, Paul wasn't teaching baptism. I find this kind of unlikely in general, but we know
that Paul baptized Crispus and Gaius (and, oh, by the way, the house of Stephanas as well), and thus we have specific evidence that suggests Paul was in fact the one who taught them about baptism.
Thus, we have a few options. Either Paul, or Apollos or Peter, who also had visited the community, was teaching baptism for the dead; or else the Corinthians brought this over from their previous religions, or were simply making it up. In any case, we know that Paul at least didn't think it was a big deal. (Some might argue that we don't have Paul's entire correspondence with the Corinthians, and he might have condemned it in an earlier letter [or else in person] that we don't know about. This just isn’t a natural reading of the text. If Paul had previously condemned the practice, why would he mention it again without censure? Had he given up hope of changing their minds? If so, doesn’t that pose the question of exactly how big a deal Paul thought it was?)
I don't think our reading should necessarily have any bearing on how we practice baptism today, but I do think that it is another piece of the puzzle and can teach us something about what gospel and community meant to the Corinthians, and by extension, Paul.
The evidence suggests that the Corinthians were highly superstitious people who had carried over a great deal of their thought and praxis from their pagan religions. Precisely what I find so encouraging about 1 Corinthians, then, is that we don't see Paul reprimanding the Corinthians and telling them to get their doctrine straight. Rather, we see him exhorting them and even commending them for their earnestness, while pleading with them over those doctrines essential to their shared life and election as a community.
What is strange is that Paul seems to me to be a thoroughly “enlightened” Jew. It is perhaps 1 Corinthians that most clearly throws him in this light. As regards the question of food sacrificed to idols, for example, we see Paul seemingly contradicting the Jerusalem council—i.e., it is not that food sacrificed to idols is actually bad, but rather out of love for our brothers that we abstain. Therefore, it is with surprising patience that he writes to the Corinthians, who at every turn it seems are reverting to their mystery religions.