Hard to Interpret: 1 Corinthians 15:29

One of the most difficult passages for many New Testament commentators is First Corinthians 15:29: “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (ESV). There is much debate and confusion around this passage. Some have even gathered from this passage the practice of vicarious baptism for the dead as a doctrine. Was this Paul’s intention? Further, is there any application for the Christian from this difficult passage? Both of these questions can be answered by a balanced methodology of interpretation.

Historical Context

Before one can grasp the meaning of First Corinthians 15:29, both the historical and literary contexts must be understood. This verse becomes illuminated when the historical context is examined. But first, we must examine the context in the actual text. The thrust of First Corinthians 15 is the resurrection of the dead. In fact, from the outset of this chapter, Paul is determined to prove to the Corinthian reader the dead indeed will be raised. Otherwise, “not even Christ has been raised” (15:13), Paul’s preaching and their faith “is in vain” (15:14), Paul and the apostles have been “found misrepresenting God” (15:15), the Corinthians’ “faith is futile” and they are still in their sins (15:17), those “who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (15:18), and Christians are “of all people most to be pitied” (15:19). But thankfully, Paul’s thesis as it were, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20). It is in this discussion of resurrection and its necessity that First Corinthians 15:29 is found.

The scholarly world is divided on the meaning of verse 29. Some believe that Paul was alluding to the practice of some in Corinth who somehow vicariously baptized the living for the benefit of the dead (see Collins 557), while others believe that the “dead” in the verse is referring to the living person being baptized (i.e. they are spiritually dead; see Lenski 691, Bruce 149). Either way, the first step in determining meaning is to examine the historical context.

With the possibility of Paul referring to the practice of some in Corinth vicariously baptizing the dead, historical context is crucial. In Greco-Roman pagan religions, the dead were highly revered. This reverence began with the rites of burial, and continued with grave visits, festivals, rituals, and feasts for the dead (DeMaris 663). Some Greek graves even had tubes traveling into graves from the surface so blood offerings and libations could make direct contact with the deceased (DeMaris 663). First century Corinthians were obsessed with the dead and purposefully worshiped deities that had associations with the underworld powers (DeMaris 671). It is very possible that as the Corinthian church grew and converted more Gentiles that it adopted such a concern for the world of the dead. Thus, it seems that the Roman era paganism in Corinth may have influenced the church to act on this widespread religious concern for the dead. Indeed, the Corinthian church found itself in “a culture in which aiding the dead was all important and which assumed that the world of the living could affect world of the dead” (DeMaris 674). Likewise, early church writers Ambrosiaster and Didymus the Blind contend in their commentaries that vicarious baptism for the dead was a practice in the Corinthian church; perhaps by the infiltrating Marcionites (Oden 166).

However, there is a lot of disagreement on this point. As Lenski so boldly asserts, “To call this part of Paul’s presentation an argumentatio ad hominem that is based only on the admissions of Paul’s readers and thus hoisting them on their own petard is unwarranted” (688).  Lenski goes on to suggest that the reports of church fathers referencing vicarious baptism among the Marcionites and the followers of Cerinth is wrongly “carried back across the years to Corinth in order to explain a preposition which complicates the efforts of the interpreters” (691). Lenski makes the point that if Paul had learned of this perversion, he would have condemned it in “no uncertain terms” (692).  Wiersbe contends that “The phrase probably means ‘baptized to take the place of those who have died.’ In other words, if there is no resurrection, why bother to witness and win others to Christ? Why reach sinners who are then baptized and take the place of those who have died? If the Christian life is only a ‘dead-end street,’ get off of it!” (619). Likewise, John D. Reaume suggests that “there is no biblical warrant given in this passage for instituting the practice of baptism for the dead. Both the ancient and modern practices of baptism for the dead are apparently founded on misinterpretations of this verse” (475). Also, F. F. Bruce suggests that “We could not easily envisage Paul referring without disapproval to a practice of vicarious baptism on behalf of unbelieving friends” (179).

Measuring the Distance

To measure the distance between the Corinthian world in which Paul wrote First Corinthians and our current world is quite the task. While in twenty-first century America there is at least one group that knowingly practices vicarious baptism, the river is still very wide. This width is due in part to the fact that even when the historical context and original language is examined, many scholars agree that “we simply do not know” (Fee 767). Perhaps one of the best illustrations showing the width of the mighty river that separates our context from the one in which Paul penned First Corinthians 15:29 is regarding language. As Ronald J. Feenstra points out, there is a “highly attractive interpretation of this passage, which depends on the absence of punctuation in the earliest Greek manuscripts” (7). Punctuation can be a matter of interpretation in some instances, and First Corinthians 15:29 may be one of those instances. Given that the oldest manuscripts had no punctuation, Feenstra contends that the text could be punctuated to read, “Otherwise what do they do who are baptized? [Is it] on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are they baptized? [Are they baptized] on behalf of them?” (7). According to Feenstra, this translation is faithful to the text, is more akin to Paul’s usual style of questions (cf. Rom. 3:27-30; 8:31-35), and fits well in the scheme of Paul’s argumentation in this chapter. Between the linguistic challenges, the holes in the historical context, and the theological implications of a reference to vicarious baptism, one needs a ferry to cross this river.

What’s the Principle?

Whether or not Paul was referring to a vicarious baptism, this verse’s principle is essentially the same. Indeed, “Whatever they may have proclaimed, the Corinthians’ actions demonstrated that they had hope for a bodily resurrection” (B. S. P.). As Feenstra put it, “in this beautiful chapter on the resurrection, Paul shows how baptism demonstrates the Christian hope for the future” (7). In this passage Christians can see that we can be assured of the resurrection of the dead. In verse 29 and following, Paul escalates his logical discussion of the assurance of the resurrection of the dead. Certainly, Christians are to be pitied if there is no resurrection of the dead. Then, our faith would be futile, and we would be dead in our sins. Then, we might as well eat, drink, and be merry for tonight we die. But, because of the principle behind this verse, we can be certain of a blessed hope in the resurrection to come. Paul makes his point clear—whether using an ad hominem argument or not—that Christians can be sure of a resurrection; and that fact should motivate our life.

Examining the Principle

When this principle—of the resurrection and its power—is compared to the rest of the Bible, it certainly belongs on the map. The resurrection of Christ and of all in the future is one of the most foundational tenets of Christianity. Jesus preached a universal resurrection in his earthly ministry, and it is attested by the inspired writers (Jn. 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 15:52). Likewise, the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-8, 13, 16-17; cf. Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16:1-13; etc.). The certainty of the resurrection is what allow Christians to live a new life free from sin (Rom. 6:3-7; 8:11).

Making Application

Making an application to a passage like First Corinthians 15:29 may seem absurd to some, but it is after all a major goal of biblical interpretation. Really, there are a plethora of applications. The assurance of the resurrection allows Christians to be bold in the face of suffering, and even death: “What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32). In truth, it is the assurance of the resurrection which legitimizes Christian suffering everywhere (White 499). Likewise, because of the assurance of the resurrection, we ought to be bolder in our evangelism and more upright in our walk; knowing that there is more to this life: “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Cor. 15:34).

Also, the assurance of the resurrection gives us an undying hope, and ought to produce thankfulness in believers: “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:24b-57). Similarly, because we can be sure of the resurrection, we can know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain, and we can be motivated to be steadfast: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Overall, the thrust of First Corinthians 15:29 is one of hope. It is a point of assurance for the Christian. Indeed, In Christ and his resurrection alone is the ultimate joy found.

Works Cited

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition Notes. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

Bruce, F. F. 1 And 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.

DeMaris, Richard E. “Corinthian Religion And Baptism For The Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights From Archeology And Anthropology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 114, no. 4, 1995, pp. 661-682.

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.

Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians. Minneapolis, MN. Ausburg Publishing House, 1963.

Reaume, John D. “Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, ‘Baptized for the Dead.’” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 152, no. 608, 1995, pp. 457-475.

White, Joel R. “’Baptized On Account Of The Dead’: The Meaning Of 1 Corinthians 15:29 In Its Context.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 116, no. 3, 1997, pp. 487-499.

Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996. Print.