Review: Baptism on Account of the Dead (1 Cor 15:29) (Part II)

Title: Baptism on Account of the Dead (1 Cor 15:29)

Author: Michael F. Hull

Bibliographic info: XVI + 256 + 50 (indices + biblio)

Cover: Hard Cloth

Publisher: Brill (2005); Society of Biblical Literature (2005)

ISBN-13: 9781589831773

Buy it at Amazon

With thanks to Brill for the review copy!

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? (1 Cor 15.29, ESV)

Ἐπεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν; εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, τί καὶ βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν;

Read Part I of the review.

Chapter 2 of this dissertation deals with the literary context of 1 Cor 15.29. Here Hull examines the literary integrity and genre of the epistle, as well as the structure of 1 Cor 15. After dealing with these aspects, he takes a detailed look at the morphology and syntax of verse 29. This is a very critical part of this dissertation, because the whole controversy of this verse in large part depends on the morphology of three key words – βαπτιζω, νεκρος, and most critical of all, υπερ.

As noted by Hull, βαπτιζω, without any further clarification from Paul, must naturally be taken in its normal Pauline usage, i.e., water baptism, as opposed to a figurative baptism as per a minority of commentators (e.g. Godet, Murphy-O’Connor). However, the minority of commentators who hold to this fugurative view does not stop Hull from providing a thorough assessment of the case for a figurative usage of “baptized” in verse 29.

In his study of νεκρος, Hull points out the significance of the articular form in v. 29a, and the anarthrous in v.29b; by looking at Paul’s usage elsewhere, he rightly notes that the articular form refers to a specific group of people (in this case, dead believers), and the anarthrous form is a general reference to the dead.

Υπερ is used about 150 times in the New Testament corpus, about half of which appear in the Pauline epistles, and a quarter of which appear in the Deutero-Pauline epistles. With the genitive, υπερ usually means “on behalf of”, “for”, or “in place of”. However, it can be used in a more rarer casual sense, which denotes a reason or cause for something, e.g., “because of” or “on account of”. While rare, this usage is used by Paul elsewhere (Rom 15.9, 2 Cor 1.11b, 12.8, Phil 1.29).

So this leaves us with two plausible translations of this phrase in 1 Cor 15.29 –

  • Why are they baptized for the dead? (i.e. the sense of substitution)
  • Why are they baptized on account of the dead? (i.e. the sense of reason)

Hull finishes the chapter with a summary of the literary context and puts forward his interpretation of this verse:

[In Corinth,] individuals were undergoing the rite of baptism on account of their faith in the resurrection of Christ and, therewith, the resurrection of those who had died in Christ. By their acceptance of baptism, they showed their belief that the dead would be raised just as Christ had been raised. … [It is] an affirmation on Paul’s part of a particular group of individuals who were baptized on account of (faith in the resurrection of) the dead. (111)

Yet Hull does not believe that the literary context alone can decisively adjudicate the matter of whether this verse refers to ordinary baptism or vicarious baptism. “The literary context does not elucidate how υπερ ought to be taken.” (110) This issue is going to be largely determined by a look at the historical context of 1 Corinthians, which is where Hull turns to in the next chapter.

Read Part III of the review.

One response

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival 69 (November 2011) | Remnant of Giants

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