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Friday, December 22, 2006
(12:27 PM) | sam k:
Rethinking Baptism, Again.

Up from the comments: an interesting treatment concerning the practice of vicarious baptism in 1 Corinthians 15, which I have written about in the past. I have been hopelessly remiss in gathering my wits to post a response, but I finally have a few moments to share some thoughts on the article.

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?

The answer to the first question rests in the difficulty of the text. For Rogers, the difficulty does not arise from an unorthodox practice of baptism—indeed a vicarious baptism is not in view at all, according to Rogers. Rather, the problem is that Paul gives evidence of the resurrection by reference to a non-Christian practice. This may not be apparent at first, but it is Rogers’ position that in v. 29 Paul is not speaking of the Corinthians, but of an unknown third party. That is, if he were speaking of the Corinthians, he naturally would have referred to them in the second-person plural or directly addressed them as “brethren”, as he does elsewhere in the letter. Instead he says, “What will those do who are baptized for the dead?” (Emphasis mine.)

This is rather problematic. The trouble, of course, is that Paul apparently draws an authoritative lesson for the church from the practices of non-Christians. To which group could Paul possibly defer concerning baptism and resurrection, if not the Corinthians? Rogers speculates that Paul is talking about the same people mentioned in v. 30, those who place Paul “in danger every hour” – namely, the Judiazers.

This, Rogers argues, is the key to the second question. If the passage is a reference to a Jewish practice, then Paul probably has in mind not a vicarious baptism (a baptism on behalf of), but something a perhaps more Jewish. Rogers cites Numbers 19, which describes a purification ritual that was required after a person came into contact with a corpse and was finalized by a washing with waters, or a purifying “baptism” (a baptism because of).

Such a reading is semantically possible given the flexibility of the Greek word for “for”, which can mean either “on behalf of” or “on account of”, depending on the context. What we’re left with, then, is something like this:

"If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied...Otherwise, what will the Judiazers do who receive baptism because of coming into a contact with a dead body? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized because of them?"

However, while Rogers’ exegesis takes precise care of our grammar, I believe the reading is “forced” and ends up spoiling the text. First, it assumes a particular sense of the word “dead” not actually in evidence (neither in Numbers 19 nor in Paul’s formulation of the resurrection). Second, the alternate interpretation of v. 19 lends feeble support for Paul’s argument, making it an unlikely candidate among Paul’s various possible meanings. And third, the most “natural” reading in the English (ie a consensus reached by scholars in a number of translations), unambiguous in both the NRSV and the ESV, is consistent with both Paul’s argument and what we know of the Corinthians, and thus, such an imaginative reading, while interesting, is unnecessary.

Who is the “dead”?

In order to fully understand Paul’s sense of the word “dead”, we must first understand the argument he intends to make about it. It is quite simple: There is literal afterlife, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ will be raised again to be a part of it. The interesting thing about this metaphor is how it expresses the transient nature of death in Paul’s eschatology. Death and sleep are conflated in Paul’s thought. The “dead” have not died in the usual sense; they have merely gone to sleep for a time. (Paul also uses this construction in 1 Thessalonians 4, where he addresses similar questions about the resurrection. I wish I had more time to discuss Thessalonians here, because I feel it should play an integral part in our understanding Paul’s eschatology more generally, as well as this passage in particular.)

Thus, when Paul speaks of the “dead” he is not merely speaking of a corpse; he is speaking of those who are only humanly dead, but who shall be raised, in bodily form, to face judgment on some later day. However, there is no internal evidence that the baptism described in Numbers 19 was performed because the corpse was believed to be somehow only “sleeping” in Paul’s sense of the word. This is problematic to Rogers’ exegesis for one of two reasons. It either requires imposing new meaning into the text of Numbers 19* or it utterly fails to understand the argument being made in 1 Corinthians 15. This brings me to my next concern.


While Rogers’ exegesis may make sense of v.30 in isolation from the text, it is irrelevant to Paul’s argument – that there is literal afterlife, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ will be raised again to be a part of it. Simply put, the fact that some Jews perform a ritual washing after coming into contact with a corpse doesn’t help answer the Corinthians’ question (again, unless we assume a particular sense of the word “dead” not in evidence).

On the other hand, the “natural” reading, the reading which a consensus of translators has settled on, actually supports the argument quite well. The point of v.30 is this. Why would anyone receive baptism on behalf of someone who has passed away if one believed there was no resurrection – that death was the end of the road? They wouldn’t, obviously. Paul uses the rhetorical question to show the Corinthians that deep down inside they believe in the resurrection, either because they have held out hope for the dead themselves, or, to account for the “third person problem”, because belief in life after death, evident in the practice of baptism for the dead, is a common, sensible thing in their culture. This reading fully accounts for the grammatical questions posed by Rogers and makes a good deal more sense within the context.

In conclusion

While I find Rogers’ exegesis interesting, and in some ways more attentive than my own, it ultimately proves to be insensitive to the context out of which v.30 arises. On the other hand, it has been tremendously helpful in forcing me to rethink through the passage, and I would like to take this opportunity to amend my previous reading of the passage. In so doing, I hope to indirectly answer Stephen’s question concerning Christocentric universalism.

In the past, I have argued that 1 Corinthians 15 provides good evidence that at one point the Corinthian church practiced vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead. And further, that the lesson we should take from the passage is how Paul “exhorts them and even commends the Corinthians for their earnestness, while pleading with them over those doctrines essential to their shared life and election as a community”. However, I no longer believe that is necessarily the best reading.

It is quite possible that Paul is referring to baptismal rites the Corinthians’ practiced before being finally baptized into Christ, rites presumably still practiced in the pagan culture. Although this changes the shape of the argument slightly, it finds accord in the context and fully accounts for the “third person” problem posed by Rogers. The rhetorical question in v.30, then, is not an artful reductio. Instead it asks the Corinthians, “Every one of you tacitly believed in the resurrection I am teaching, when you practiced vicarious baptism, so why would stop believing in it now?” It also has the added benefit of consonance with his advice concerning food sacrificed to idols. One needn’t fully abandon one’s cultural narrative in order to follow Christ. One must simply teach his narrative to be submissive to the Truth of the Gospel.


*As many of you know, I am not dogmatically opposed to reinterpreting and recontextualizing Biblical texts in this manner. In fact, I am of the opinion that New Testament authors did this a fair bit. However, in support of such a reading, proponents of Rogers’ reading would need to demonstrate two things. 1) Specifically how Paul re-envisions the text to apply toward his argument, and 2) that such a reading would have been evident to a (primarily) Greek community in the 1C lacking any internal context.

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