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

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;

This single verse has amassed a vast amount of literature on it. Ostensibly the verse seems very straight forward: some Christians in Corinth were being baptized for deceased persons. However, due to numerous questions this verse raises, literally dozens of different hypotheses have been put forward in an attempt to explain exactly what Paul is referring to in this verse.

Does this verse refer to the practice of vicarious baptism (i.e. being baptized for a deceased person)? Or is a metaphorical understanding of this verse more appropriate? If it is vicarious baptism, was it performed for deceased Christians or non-Christians? Was it thought of as being salvifically efficacious? Is Paul praising those who perform the action? Or is Paul mocking them, asking why do they even bother to perform it if they do not believe in the resurrection of the dead? These questions are just some of the issues one has to deal with when trying to determine what exactly Paul is describing here.

Baptism On Account of the Dead is a revised version of Michael Hull’s doctoral dissertation which he successfully defended at the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2003. In a nutshell, he argues that this “strange turn of phrase” in 1 Cor 15.29 is a “dual rhetorical question” in which Paul is holding up a particular group in the Corinthian Christian community as a laudable and edifying example of belief in the future resurrection of the dead. However, the key point in Hull’s thesis is that these Corinthians are undergoing baptism on account of the dead, not for the dead. In other words, Hull does not believe that this verse refers to vicarious baptism (more on this later).

Chapter 1 of this book presents a survey of how 1 Cor 15.29 has been interpreted in contemporary scholarship. Hull says that while some scholars have made the claim that there is over two hundred interpretations of this verse, a careful examination reveal only about forty distinct  hypotheses (with the rest being minor variations of these forty). Hull subsumes his survey of contemporary scholarship under the general criterion of whether the verse refers to vicarious baptism or ordinary baptism.

Hull rightly notes that the vicarious baptismal view is easily the majority reading of this verse. However, due to the various questions which naturally arise from this interpretation, there are many differently nuanced views regarding what this vicarious achieved, how it was carried out, who was it for, etc. The primary scholars that Hull discusses here are Carr, Preisker, Moffatt, Rissi, Barrett, and Martin. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, apart from the notion that Paul is referring to vicarious baptism, all of these aforementioned scholars had quite different ideas regarding more exact understandings of this verse.

For Carr, Paul frowned upon such a custom and only mentioned it to show the incongruity within the community wherein those who practice vicarious baptism are showing faith in the future resurrection, whereas others in the community deny it. Preisker reckons that this anomalous practice was due to a heightened eschatological concern in Corinth due to the belief in the imminent parousia of Christ, and that by practicing vicarious baptism the Corinthians were in fact trying to hasten the parousia by filling up the number of the elect.

Moffatt is one of the few who thinks the vicarious baptism was actually an efficacious practice. Like the majority of commentators, he believes the vicarious baptism was only performed for deceased Christians who did not have the chance of undergoing the baptismal rite before they died. He believes that the Corinthians thought that without baptism, these dead Christians had no hope in sharing in Christ’s resurrection.

Rissi asserts that this practice was not only anomalous in early Christianity, but that it was not thought of as actually having any benefits for the dead. Barrett thinks that Paul did see some benefit in the practice amongst the Corinthians, but that since Paul took no steps in establishing it as a normal Christian practice, he evidently did not think it was efficacious in any way, and thought of it nothing more than a proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ. Finally, Martin thinks that it had to do with Christians who were concerned with deceased relatives who had never heard of the gospel, and he sees the effect of this baptism as a means to obtaining the resurrection.

Hull also discusses the important work of Downey and DeMaris. He separates them from the previous group of scholars because he says they both simply presume the vicarious baptismal view is correct and attempt to explain the why and wherefore of this practice in light of the historical context of Greco-Roman Corinth. Interestingly, for DeMaris, Paul’s approval or disapproval of the practice is irrelevant here, for he is simply utilizing an unusual practice at his disposal in order to boost his argument for the future resurrection of the dead.

Hull then examines the works of scholars who argue that Paul is referring to a normal baptism. First up are those who believe that the punctuation in v. 29 is askew, and that if we adopt alternative punctuation, it will clear up this whole issue (e.g. Thompson, Dürselen, Foschini). Also discussed are those who resort to a textual emendation (e.g. O’Neill). Following these are those who say Paul is referring to an ordinary baptism where υπερ is taken in the final sense (Raeder, Jeremias) or in the casual sense (e.g. White, Reaume).

Hull ends this chapter with an assessment of contemporary scholarship. Hull notes that vicarious baptismal view suffers from three critical difficulties:

  1. The dearth of historical parallel. This practice is found nowhere else in intertestamental Judaism,  earliest Christianity, or pagan religions of late antiquity.
  2. The complete lack of biblical parallel (i.e. vicarious baptism is nowhere else alluded to in the Bible). Therefore, if the vicarious baptismal view is correct, it was indeed an anomalous and brief practice that is sui generis to Corinth ca. AD 50.
  3. It is a rupture within the literary context of vv. 29-34.

I would agree with the difficulty that the first point raises, and with the third point to a lesser degree. Yet the second point concerning lack of biblical parallel seems to be more of a theological-dogmatic claim. I mean, why does it matter if the practice is not found elsewhere in the biblical text unless one is approaching the biblical text from the religious perspective that it is an authoritative and univocal text. Otherwise, the second point is just a different way of stating the first point (i.e. vicarious baptism is not found in  Second Temple Judaism or earliest Christianity), and thus should not be classified as a difficulty distinct from the first point.

Read Part II of the review.

2 responses

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

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