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Saturday, July 08, 2006
(12:06 AM) | sam k:
Vicarious baptism revisited

In the comments a few weeks ago Al posted a link to a new (to me) treatment of the so-called vicarious baptism passage by James Rogers. Finally I have a few moments to share my thoughts on it.

At the foot of Rogers’ argument are two grammatical questions: who is receiving the baptism, and what is the nature of their relationship with the dead?

1) The answer to the first question rests in the difficulty of the text. For Rogers, the difficulty does not arise from the Corinthians’ unorthodox practice of vicarious baptism—indeed a vicarious baptism is not in view at all according to Rogers. It is that Paul is apparently arguing by reference to a non-Christian practice. This may not be apparent at first, but it is quite clear from the context that Paul is not talking about the Corinthians in the first place. If he were, Rogers argues, he would probably refer to them in the second-person plural, or perhaps as “brethren,” as he does elsewhere in the letter. But he doesn’t do that—instead he says, “What will those do who are baptized for the dead?”

As Rogers points out, this is rather problematic. The trouble is that Paul apparently draws on the practices of non-Christians as somehow authoritative for the church. But who is Paul referring to, if not the Corinthians? Rogers speculates that Paul is talking about the same people mentioned in v. 29, those who place Paul “in danger every hour.” In other words, the Judiazers.

2) This gives us a clue to the second question. If it is the Judiazers who are receiving baptisms for the dead, and not the Corinthians, then the ritual in view is not a vicarious baptism at all (a baptism on behalf of), but something perhaps more Jewish: something like the ritual washing described in Numbers 19 (a baptism because of). A cleanliness ritual, a washing required of Jews after coming into contact with a dead body, for instance, is contextually credible.

The argument of course depends on interpreting the phrase “baptism for the dead” to mean “baptism because of the dead,” but the Greek word for “for” is huper, and can plausibly mean either “for the benefit of” or “on account of” depending on the context.

While Rogers’ interpretation takes very precise care of our grammar, it disturbs the passage as a whole. We have to ask ourselves, How would the citation of such a practice fit into the flow of Paul’s argument?

If the dead are not raised, what about those who are baptized after coming into contact with a dead body?

My objection is perhaps best phrased as a question: What would the Judaizers’ practice of ritual cleanliness have to do with a bodily resurrection of Christ? And if Paul is speaking only of a metaphorical death, just what type of resurrection was Jesus’?

More later...

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