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

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 and Part II.

Chapter 3 of this volume deals with the historical context of 1 Cor 15.29. If we see this verse as a reference to vicarious baptism then we are faced with the fact of the complete lack of mention of this practice elsewhere in the literature of earliest Christianity. Hull believes this should be taken into account when deciding whether 1 Corinthians 15.29 is referring to vicarious baptism or normal baptism. This observation of the lack of evidence, while being an argument from silence, is quite a deafening argument of silence. In other words, if one does propose that this verse is a reference to vicarious baptism, one can not legitimately go on to claim that it was a regular practice in earliest Christianity. This is actually the consensus opinion amongst scholars and commentators, as those who do believe this verse refers to vicarious baptism, also assert that it had to of been an anomalous (and aberrant) practice unique to the Church in Corinth at that particular point in history.

In this chapter, Hull explores three pertinent avenues of investigation in this inquiry: (1) the history and cultural baggage of the Apostle Paul; (2) first-century Greco-Roman Corinth; and (3) Corinthian Christianity. Hull explains the purpose of this historical investigation:

In all of this, we are looking for a needle in a haystack – something indicative of vicarious baptism – which is not to say that the needle does not exist, but it is to say that if it exists at all, we should be able to find its traces somewhere. (114)

The author’s discussion of the Apostle Paul was a bit long-winded. I mean, after nearly forty pages concerning Paul’s background, we arrive at the simple and obvious conclusion that: “If the needle of vicarious baptism is to be found anywhere in Paul, Corinth, or Corinthian Christianity, we can safely say that we have eliminated Paul as a possibility.” (149)

Similarly, Hull concludes that vicarious baptism did not arise out of some prior ritual traceable to Greco-Roman religion, and furthermore, that there is “simply no grounds” that we know of in Corinthian Christianity that necessitates a reading of vicarious baptism in verse 29. Hull says:

Our portrait of Corinthian Christianity discloses nothing remotely akin to any crises (theological, existential, or otherwise) that would merit any seemingly twisted innovation on the part of the Corinthian Christians to substantiate vicarious baptism. (222)

Chapter 4 then provides a rereading of 1 Cor 15.29 in light of the previous chapters. Hull makes the novel suggestion that we should read this verse as having something to say about Paul’s baptismal theology, instead of the usual method which is to take Paul’s baptismal theology gleaned from the other Pauline literature and use it to interpret 1 Cor 15.29. After doing so, what does Hull’s interpretation of 1 Cor 15.29 add to our understanding of Paul’s baptismal theology? Hull notes three main things:

[F]irst, 15:29 as another principal baptismal text in addition to Rom 6:1-14 and Gal 3:26-29; second, 15:29 as the strongest fastening of baptism and resurrection in the Pauline literature; and third, 15:29’s unmistakable accent on the importance of the sacramental rite of baptism. (251)

This chapter was quite interesting. It is true that in the scholarly literature written on this verse, those who view this verse as a reference to vicarious baptism also (rightly) think of the practice as an aberration in early Christianity, thus the verse is not considered relevant in ascertaining Paul’s baptismal theology. All that this verse is usually taken for is an affirmation of the resurrection of the dead, with Paul not being particularly interested in either approving or disapproving the practice. However, Hull believes that 1 Cor 15.29 “places an unmistakable accent on the importance of the sacramental rite of baptism.” (254)

Hull further explains:

While Rom 6:1-14 and Gal 3:26-29 highlight essential aspects of baptism – dominion of life in Christ, death to sin, newness of life, unity, and full participation in God’s promises – 15:29 highlights the reception of the sacrament itself. … In other words, baptism makes no sense without faith in the resurrection of the dead, just as Paul’s sufferings make no sense without it.  (254)

Summary

All in all, this dissertation was quite a comprehensive account on the meaning of 1 Cor 15.29. Hull provides a very thorough examination of (1) how contemporary scholarship interprets the verse, (2) the literary context of the verse, and (3) the historical context of the verse.

A point of disagreement regarding his take on the literary context would be his contention that verse 29 stands at in the center of the epistle (as he sees vv. 29-34 as being the central part of the chiasmatic structure of 1 Cor 15). In regards to the historical context, I think the section on Paul could have definitely been trimmed down, and the section on the Greco-Roman context expanded. But the only major shortcoming I see in this dissertation is the lack of attempt at trying to ascertain exactly why it was the Corinthians had a problem with the notion of the resurrection of the dead. I really think this avenue of investigation could open up the path to better understanding the purpose and meaning of 1 Cor 15.29.

Hull’s translation of υπερ as “on account of”, while being a definite possibility, still seems like a secondary and inferior choice of translation compared to “for”. His main reason for translating it as “on account of” is that there is no trace of vicarious baptism in first-century Christianity and the Greco-Roman context. While I agree with him on that, and while he could not find any reason as to why vicarious baptism would arise in Corinthian Christianity, I don’t think we can say by any means that there definitely wasn’t some sort of crisis which led to the introduction of the practice into the Christian community at Corinth.

Did Hull prove that 1 Cor 15.29 is actually a reference to ordinary baptism and not vicarious baptism? In my opinion, not decisively. I do not think this interpretation will do what every other interpretation has failed to do so far by garnering a consensus. But Hull does certainly give good reason to pause and think as to whether this verse has to necessarily be referring to vicarious baptism as many (somewhat blindly) assert.

One response

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

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