Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (October-December 1995) 457-75.
Copyright © 1995 by
AT 1 CORINTHIANS 15:29,
"BAPTIZED FOR THE DEAD"
John D. Reaume
First Corinthians 15:29 has puzzled many Bible stu-
dents throughout church history. In this verse Paul wrote,
"Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the
dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?"
More than two hundred interpretive solutions have been proposed,
but only a few remain as legitimate possibilities.1
A surface reading of the passage leads to the interpretation
that believers were actually being baptized for the benefit of those
who died without baptism. This practice is also known as vicari-
ous baptism, that is, substitutionary baptism for the dead.2 The
interpretation of vicarious baptism is problematic for two rea-
sons: first, there is no historical evidence of the practice of baptiz-
ing for the dead during New Testament times,3 and second, it
seems doubtful that Paul would have written of such a practice so
contrary to his theology without condemning it.4
John D. Reaume is Lecturer of Biblical Studies, United Missionary Theological
1 Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975),
276, n. 120; and Bernard M. Foschini, "Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead: 1
Corinthians 15:29, An Exegetical Historical Dissertation," Catholic Biblical Quar-
terly 12 (1950): 260.
2 Vicarious baptism was practiced by the Marcionites (Tertullian, Anti Marcion
10), the followers of Cerinthus (Epiphanius, Adv. Haer. 28, §6), and is presently
practiced by the Mormon Church. The custom of the Marcionites involved an indi-
vidual hiding under the body of the deceased who would answer for the corpse
when the corpse was asked if he wanted to be baptized. This individual was then
baptized for the dead catechumen.
3 Gordon D. Fee, 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary
of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 764; and F. F. Bruce, 1
Corinthians, New Century Bible (London: Morgan & Scott, 1971), 148.
4 Vicarious baptism implies a mystical view of baptism. For more on the mystical
implications behind this view, see note 10.
458 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October–December 1995
Despite these problems, a majority of modern scholars have
adopted this interpretation while at the same time rejecting other
possible interpretations that may in fact be more legitimate. A re-
examination of this text and possible interpretations will high-
light the deficiency of this majority view and suggest other more
plausible explanations. A survey of the most common positions
will be followed by an examination of the verse and the various
exegetical problems encountered in it. Then a summary of the
most plausible explanations will be given.
POSSIBLE INTERPRETATIONS OF 1 CORINTHIANS 15:29
Of the scores of proposed interpretations for 1 Corinthians
15:29, only those views enjoying the widest acceptance and great-
est support will be considered in this discussion. Three major
categories encompass the views suggested by various commenta-
tors.5 These categories are (a) vicarious baptism, that is, water
baptism undertaken by a living individual for the benefit of a
dead person who had died without being baptized; (b) metaphori-
cal baptism, which refers to either martyrdom or Paul's suffer-
ings; and (c) Christian baptism, water baptism of new believers.
Most commentators hold to some version of this interpreta-
tion, in which the beneficiaries of the baptism were catechumens
or family members who had died without having been baptized.6
Fee speculates that those involved in this practice felt that baptism
was necessary for entrance into the eschatological kingdom,
while Orr suggests that they felt that baptism was necessary for
The strongest argument for this interpretation is that it is
easily derived from the plain reading of the verse, since the
words bapti<zw, nekro<j, and u[pe>r are understood according to their
most common usages.8
However, this view faces two significant problems. First,
apart from this verse there is no historical or biblical evidence of
such a practice in
5 The majority of suggested interpretations are based on these three general un-
derstandings, with subtle differences leading to the proliferation of interpreta-
Orr and J. A. Walther, 1 Corinthians,
Anchor Bible (
Doubleday, 1976), 337; and Fee, 1 Corinthians, 764.
7 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 767; Orr, 1 Corinthians, 337.
8 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 764; and G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testa-
ment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 187.
Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29. "Baptized for the Dead" 459
Although there is reference to this practice in the late second cen-
tury, the practice was apparently limited to heretical groups. Ap-
parently these groups had instituted this practice because of a mis-
interpretation of the passage in question.9 Second, it is doubtful
that Paul could appeal to a practice so contrary to his theology
without commenting on it.10
9 Chrysostom, Homily 40; Tertullian, Anti Marcion 10; cf. Fee, 1 Corinthians, 764.
10 For most commentators, vicarious baptism for the dead implies that the
Corinthians held a mystical view of baptism, although the exact nature of the bene-
fit thought to be accrued for the dead varies. Some options would include its neces-
sity for participation in the eschatological kingdom (Fee, 1 Corinthians, 767); for
participation in the resurrection (H. V. Martin, "Baptism for the Dead," Expository
Times 54 : 193); or for salvation (Thomas Charles Edwards, A Commentary on
the First Epistle to the Corinthians [
and Orr and Walther, 1 Corinthians, 337).
A few have suggested that vicarious baptism does not necessarily imply any
benefit for the dead, but if this were the case one wonders why such a rite would
have taken place (C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the
Corinthians, Harper New Testament
1968]; cf. Edwards, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 424).
Also the force of Paul's augument would be severely reduced if this practice had
only sentimental value ("What will they do who are being baptized [as a sentimental
gesture] for the dead?"). As a result, most commentators who espouse vicarious
baptism hold that the practice involved a mystical view of baptism on the part of
the Corinthians in which baptism was thought to have some measure of saving effi-
cacy (e.g., Henry Leighton Goudge, The First
Epistle to the Corinthians [
1903], 149; Heinrich A. W. Meyer, Meyer's Commentary on the New Testament, trans. William
P. Dickson [reprint, Winona Lake, IN: Alpha, 1980], 365; Jean Hering, The First Epistle of Paul
to the Corinthans, trans. A. W. Heathcote and P. J. Allcock [
David K. Lowery, "1 Corinthians," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, ed.
F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck [
The problem with this position is that neither Paul nor any other New Testa-
ment writer hinted of a practice in which one's baptism could be substituted for
another's baptism. The clear teaching in the New Testament is that baptism has a
personal character, with each individual being called to identify himself person-
ally with Christ in obedience to His command (Matt. 28:18-20).
Pauline teaching makes it clear that baptism lacks saving efficacy. Paul taught
with great vigor that personal faith alone is the sole condition for justification
(Rom. 3:28, 10:8-9; Gal. 2:16, 3:6, 8; Eph. 2:8-9). Baptism is simply an act of faith sym-
bolizing a believer's identification and union with Christ in His death and resur-
Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1981], 755; and George Eldon Ladd, Theology of the New
Paul corrected the Corinthians for holding a superstitious view of baptism when
he declared in 1 Corinthians 1:17, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to
preach the gospel" (Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 755).
In light of Paul's teaching on baptism it is implausible that he would have re-
ferred to a practice so contrary to a fundamental aspect of his theology without
commenting on it. This is especially true in 1 Corinthians, in which Paul sought to
correct various errors in the church. The examples of believers taking each other to
court and the issue of headcoverings seem insignificant in comparison to the error
of vicarious baptism for the dead.
Some have argued that Paul elsewhere referred to practices with which he did
460 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October–December 1995
The commentators who understand baptism in a metaphori-
cal way arrive at different conclusions regarding the interpreta-
tion of the passage. Two of the most recognized suggestions are
the views that this baptism refers to martyrdom or to Paul's suf-
fering for the gospel.
Martyrdom. Godet proposes that "baptized" means martyred
and that "for the dead" means "for entering the place of the
dead."11 According to this view, Paul referred to those who had
been "baptized by blood" (martyred) with the hope of the resurrec-
tion as evidence for his argument that the resurrection is sure. In
support of this, Godet cites Jesus' use of bapti<zw in Mark 10:38 and
Luke 12:50, in which He spoke of the baptism He must endure, an
apparent reference to His death. This view seems to suit the con-
text well as Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians 15:30-32 of his suffering
unto death for the gospel.
However, this view has some insurmountable weaknesses.
First, there is no evidence of persecutions or martyrdoms in the
in the metaphorical sense of "suffering" or "martyrdom," Paul
did not do so.13 Third, Godet's rendering of u[pe>r as "for entering"
is without parallel in Greek literature.14
Paul's sufferings. Murphy-O'Connor proposes that the phrase
not agree. Often cited is Paul's appeal to dining in the temple of an idol in 1
Corinthians 8:10 (Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commen-
Epistle to the
Nisbett, 1868], 337; and
sitions and Theology in the Greek New Testament," in New International Dictio-
nary of New Testament Theology, 3:1208). In this case, however, Paul prevented any
misunderstandings by specifically denouncing this practice in the course of his
argument (1 Cor. 10:20). One would expect him to have done the same in 15:29 if he
were referring to a practrice of vicarious baptism.
11 Fredrick Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians (1889; reprint, Grand
Rapids: Kregel, 1977), 818.
12 Ibid., 818. Godet counters this objection by listing examples of martyrs in the
New Testament such as Stephen and James, concluding that there were many other
cases of martyrdom that are not known. This argument from silence is doubtful in
light of historical data suggesting that the church was experiencing a period of
relative peace in Achaia at that time (Earle Cairns, Christianity through the
13 Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, "Baptized for the Dead; 1 Cor. 15:29: A Corinthian
Slogan?" Revue Biblique 88 (October 1981): 534.
14 Ibid., 534; Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-
English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2d
rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (
Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, "Baptized for the Dead" 461
"baptism for the dead" was a slogan used by troublemakers in
of Paul's efforts for the unenlightened or spiritually dead. Here
the metaphorical understanding of bapti<zw points to Paul's trials
and suffering for the gospel while nekro<j refers to the "spiritually
dead" or "spiritually unenlightened." The verse would then be
rendered, "Why are they (Paul and other apostles) being de-
stroyed while working for the sake of the lost? If dead believers
are not raised, then why are they suffering for the lost?"15
In support of this view is the fact that it circumvents the theo-
logical problems of vicarious baptism. Also it fits the context well
in that Paul referred to his sufferings in the following verses
However, this position faces some major difficulties as well.
First, this view calls for differing nuances of nekro<j in the
immediate context.17 In its first occurrence nekro<j would be taken
metaphorically as "the spiritually dead" but in its second
occurrence it would have to be understood literally as "the
physically dead." A writer would probably not utilize different
nuances in the same sentence without indicating that intention.
Second, it is unclear how an appeal to this alleged slogan
would strengthen Paul's case for the certainty of the resurrection.
If the point of the alleged slogan was to demean Paul's efforts for
the spiritually dead, as Murphy-O'Connor suggests, then why
would the apostle include the slogan in a context where his strug-
gles for the spiritually dead are given as evidence for the cer-
tainty of the resurrection?
Third, little evidence exists that the phrase "baptized for the
dead" in verse 29 is a slogan, for it lacks some of the key charac-
teristics of slogans, such as brevity, sustained qualification, and
an unambiguous response.18 Murphy-O'Connor's suggestion
meets the first characteristic but falls short on the rest, as Paul is
suggests that the group in
resurrection was influenced by the pre-Gnostic views of Philo ("Baptized for the
16 In addition the diatribe form of 1 Corinthians 15 is maintained. Verse 29 is a
general statement referring to the troubles evangelists face, whereas verses 30-32
provide specific examples of these sufferings by referring to Paul's troubles in
Ephesians and elsewhere (ibid., 533).
17 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 765.
followed by sustained qualification, and the Pauline response is unambiguous and
does not require the addition of words or phrases to make sense of the text" (D. A.
slogans in 6:12-13; 7:lb; and 8:lb meet these three criteria.
462 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October–December 1995
seen as agreeing with the basic premise of the alleged slogan
rather than qualifying it.19 Also there is no adversative to distin-
guish the Corinthian's slogan and Paul's response to that slo-
gan.20 And, as Fee suggests, the assumption of Philo's influence
on the Corinthians in order to prove that the Corinthians would
have used nekro<j in the sense of "spiritually dead" is "question-
able at best."21
Several commentators argue that 1 Corinthians 15:29 refers
to Christian baptism in the normal sense of the initiation rite
symbolizing the believer's identification with Christ. This cate-
gory includes a variety of interpretations that can be grouped in
six major subviews.
Because of dead believers. This view is one of the most widely
supported alternatives to vicarious baptism. The phrase "baptism
for the dead" is understood in the sense of unbelievers being bap-
tized "because of believers who have died.22 In this interpretation
unbelievers decide to become Christians and be baptized because
of the influence of a believer who had recently died.
Several arguments support this view. First, Paul used nekro<j
with and without the definite article consistently in 1 Corinthians
15 to differentiate between "Christian dead" and "the dead in gen-
eral."23 Thus it is argued that tw?n nekrw?n refers to dead Chris-
tians. Second, the preposition u[pe<r with the genitive can have the
causal sense of "because of."24 Third, this interpretation fits the
19 Paul would be saying in essence, "I agree that I am suffering for the spiritually
dead (i.e., the unenlightened)," which would reinforce the Corinthians' gibe.
20 Paul usually used an adversative to distinguish the slogan from his response to
it (1 Cor. 6:12, 13; 7:1; Fee, 1 Corinthians, 765).
22 A. T. Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary
on the First Epistle of
tary (Edinburgh: Clark,
1975), 359; G. G. Findlay, "
Corinthians," in The Expositor's Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll, 4 vols.
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 2:931; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of I and
II Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1963), 690; John F. MacArthur, 1
Corinthians (Chicago: Moody, 1984), 425; and J. K. Howard, "Baptism for the Dead;
A Study of 1 Corinthians 15:29," Evangelical Quarterly 37 (July–September 1965):
23 M. Raeder, "Vikariatstaufe in I Kor. 15:29?" Zeitschrift far die neutesta-
mentliche Wissenschaft 46 (1956): 256-60; and J. Jeremias, "Flesh and Blood Cannot
24 F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other
trans. Robert W. Funk (
Press, 1961), 121; and Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the
New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 839.
Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, "Baptized for the Dead" 463
context with Paul returning to his former argument on the absur-
dity of denying the believers' resurrection, which he concluded
with a specific discussion of the Christian dead.25
A few arguments have been presented against this view.
Some have suggested that if Paul had meant "Christian dead" he
would have clarified his intention when referring to "the dead"
with more specific phrasing such as "dead friends" or "dead rela-
tives."26 Also Paul usually used u[pe>r with the sense of "on behalf
of" when the object of the preposition is a person.27
In order to be united with the dead at the resurrection. With a
slight modification of the former view, some have suggested that
the preposition u[pe>r is functioning with the final sense of "for."28
Jeremias, building on the work of Raeder, argues that verse 29
refers to "pagans who take baptism upon themselves u[pe>r tw?n
nekrw?n with the purpose of becoming united with their deceased
Christian relatives at the resurrection."29 Although this preposi-
tion may have a final sense, this usage seems uncommon in the
New Testament.30 In addition this interpretation requires filling
a significant ellipsis in order to convey this sense, such as
"baptized in order to be united with their deceased Christian rela-
tives at the resurrection."31
To take the place of dead believers. Another suggestion is that
the apostle was referring to individuals who were converted and
baptized to take the place of deceased believers.32 In addition to
understanding "baptism" and "the dead" in accord with consis-
"Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit the
27 See the discussion below on u[pe<r; and Fee, 1 Corinthians, 763, n. 11.
Jeremias, "Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit
"Vikariatstaufe in I Kor. 15:29?" 258-60; Rudolf Schnackenburg, Baptism in the
"Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit the
30 This sense is evident in 2 Corinthians 1:6 and may be present in Philippians
2:13 and 1 Corinthians 15:3 (Blass and Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New
Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 121; Conzelmann, 1 Corinthi-
ans, 276; Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, 186; cf. Bauer, Arndt,
and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early
Christian Literature, 839; cf. H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Gram-
mar of the Greek New Testament [
31 Meyer, Meyer's Commentary on the New Testament, 367.
32 That is, "What will they do who are being baptized to take the place of dead be-
lievers?" (A. G. Moseley, "Baptized for the Dead," Review and Expositor 49 :
57-61; and S. Lewis Johnson Jr., "1 Corinthians," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary
464 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October-December 1995
tent Pauline usage, this position maintains the common substitu-
tionary sense of u[pe<r without implying that this action is vicari-
ous or beneficial for the dead.33
The major difficulty with this interpretation is that the notion
of new believers coming in to replace believers who had died is
not immediately evident in this context.34
With reference to the resurrection of the dead. A fourth inter-
pretation understands "baptism for the dead" to refer to the gen-
eral baptism of all believers in which they are baptized "with ref-
erence to the resurrection of the dead."35 This view normally
holds to an implied ellipsis of "resurrection" in order to yield the
meaning of "baptism with reference to the resurrection of the
There is little support for this view other than the fact that it
alleviates the theological problems of vicarious baptism and that
Christian baptism has the symbolic sense of being united with
in His death and resurrection (
support includes the fact that Paul elsewhere used the preposition
u[pe<r to mean "with reference to" (2 Cor. 1:7; 8:23).36 The major
argument against this view is that the implied ellipsis of
"resurrection" in the phrase "baptized with reference to the resur-
rection of the dead" is too violent.37 Paul probably would have in-
cluded "resurrection" if this is what he meant.
For their dying bodies. A fifth suggestion argues that 1
Corinthians 15:29 makes reference to Christian baptism in which
an individual is baptized for the benefit of his own "dying" body.
Several early church fathers including Tertullian and Chrysos-
tom ascribed to this position, which was later held by Erasmus.38
33 See Philemon 13; cf. H. Riesenfeld, " u[pe<r," in Theological Dictionary of the New
34 Edwards, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 422. In addi-
tion this designation could rightly apply to all believers since all new believers are
in a sense replacing the previous generation of believers. Paul, however, used the
third person in this verse to indicate that he had a specific group of individuals in
mind as opposed to all believers ("what will they do") (Meyer, Meyer's Commentary
on the New Testament, 367).
35 Evans, 1 Corinthians, 364; Moseley, "Baptized for the Dead," 57-58; and Albert
Barnes' Notes on the New Testament
36 Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
and Other Early Christian Literature, 839.
37 Robertson and Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First
First Epistle to the Corinthians, 432.
38 Tertullian commented on this passage on two occasions and espoused the in-
terpretation of Christian baptism for their dead or dying bodies (Anti Marcion 10;
Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, "Baptized for the Dead" 465
Calvin suggested a more specific nuance of unbelievers repent-
ing and being baptized on their death beds.39 O'Neill has most re-
cently espoused this position, citing additional evidence based on
a tenuous deduction from textual evidence.40
This view has little support other than the fact that it avoids
the theological difficulties of vicarious baptism and understands
bapti<zw and u[pe>r in accord with common Pauline usage. The
major problem is that viewing nekro<j to mean "dying bodies" is
without parallel in the New Testament.41
Christian baptism based on alternative punctuation. Some
scholars have proposed that the solution to the interpretation of 1
Corinthians 15:29 is found in changing the punctuation of the
verse.42 Foschini argues that verse 29 consists of four rhetorical
questions: (1) ]Epei> ti< poih<sousin oi[ baptizo<menoi, "If there is no
resurrection, what is the point of being baptized?" (2) u[pe>r tw?n
nekrw?n, "Is it only to be united with the dead?" (3) ei] o!lwj nekroi>
ou]k e]gei<rontai, ti< kai> bapti<zontai, "If the dead do not rise again,
why are they baptized?" (4) u[pe>r au]tw?n, "Is it only to be united with
them (i.e., with the dead who will never rise)?"43 Thompson sug-
gests that verse 29 consists of two questions: (1) ]Epei> ti< poih<-
sousin oi[ baptizo<menoi u[pe>r tw?n nekrw?n ei] o!lwj nekroi> ou]k
cf. De Resurrectione Carnis 48; cf. K. C. Thompson, "1 Cor. 15:29 and Baptism for
the Dead," Studia Evangelica 2 : 654). Chrysostom argued that Paul was
referring here to Christian baptism for their own dying bodies (Homily 40). The
other Greek fathers generally espoused a similar interpretation (Evans, 1
Corinthians, 373; Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 12: St.
Chrysostom—Homilies on I & II Corinthians [
n. 3; 245.).
39 John Calvin, I and II Corinthians, trans. John
1979), 38; John Albert Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, trans. James Bryce,
7th. ed., 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Clark, 1873), 3:329. There is some evidence of deathbed
conversion in the early church (Calvin, I and II Corinthians, 37; Chrysostom,
40 O'Neill proposes accepting the reading au]tw?n tw?n nekrw?n (codex 69) for tw?n
nekrw?n in order to support his suggestion that in verse 29 the meaning of nekro<j ap-
proaches that of the Hellenistic form ta> ne<kra, "corpses": "What do those hope to
achieve who are baptized for their dying bodies?" (O'Neill, "1 Corinthians 15:29,"
311). The major problem with this suggestion is that this reading occurs only in
codex 69 and that O'Neill's deduction from this variant is tenuous (i.e., from
"corpses" to "their own dead bodies"), which he himself admits. For further criti-
cism of this view, see Fee, 1 Corinthians, 766.
41 Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
and Other Early Christian Literature, 534-35.
42 Thompson, "1 Cor. 15:29 and Baptism for the Dead," 647; Bernard M. Foschini,
"Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead: 1 Corinthians 15:29. An Exegetical
Historical Dissertation," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 13 (1951): 276-83; and F. J.
Badcock, "Baptism for the Dead," Expository Times 54 (1942–43): 330.
43 Foschini, "Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead," 278-79.
466 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October—December 1995
e]gei<rontai, "Else what will they achieve who are baptized merely
for the benefit of their dead bodies, if dead bodies never rise
again?" (2) ti< kai> bapti<zontai u[pe>r au]tw?n, "And why do people
get baptized for them?"44
Since paleography reveals that accents, breathing marks,
and punctuation were not used during New Testament times,
these proposed punctuation changes may or may not be legiti-
mate.45 However, there is one insurmountable difficulty with
these interpretations: they still hinge on Foschini's and Thomp-
son's understanding of the preposition u[pe>r and the noun
EXEGESIS OF 1 CORINTHIANS 15:29
Paul had been addressing various problems in the
Corinthian church, which had evidently been influenced by an
overrealized eschatology and Hellenistic dualism.47 Some in the
church felt they were presently experiencing the kingdom in its
fullness and were truly spiritual (1 Cor. 4:8-10). Also many in the
church felt that the physical body was of little importance both in
the present and in the future. This view led some to license (6:15-
16) and others to asceticism (7:1-7). Some had evidently extended
this view to deny the resurrection of believers (15:12). Having ad-
dressed these other problems, Paul then completed his letter by de-
fending the doctrine of the resurrection.
Paul's argument in defense of the resurrection of believers
includes three sections. First, he reaffirmed Christ's resurrec-
tion as a foundation for his argument that dead believers will be
raised (15:1-11). Second, he demonstrated the absurdity of deny-
ing the resurrection of believers and he revealed the theological
foundation that supports the resurrection of believers (vv. 12-34).
44 Thompson, "1 Cor. 15:29 and Baptism for the Dead," 651.
45 Ibid., 649; Foschini, "Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead," 278.
46 For example Foschini suggests that his punctuation breaks the connection be-
tween baptism and the prepositional phrase "for the dead" (ibid.). However, his in-
terpretation still hinges on the understanding of u[pe>r (i.e., the second question
could still be, "Is it for the benefit of the dead?"). In addition Foschini's proposal
that u[pe>r is equivalent to ei]j ("into") is doubtful; this nuance is evident only in
classical Greek (Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New
Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 838). Foschini strains to argue
for this use by appealing to a few extrabiblical sources ("Those Who Are Baptized
for the Dead," 281).
47 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 11.
Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, "Baptized for the Dead" 467
Third, he affirmed that the resurrection is bodily, although he ex-
plained that the body will be transformed for an eternal existence
Paul began the second major section of his argument (vv. 12-
34) by demonstrating the absurdity of the position of those who
deny the resurrection. Their position was contradictory, for they
denied the resurrection of believers while affirming Christ's res-
urrection (vv. 11-12). His argument for the resurrection of believ-
ers then proceeded in three directions. First, he pointed out that
their position implies that Christ was not raised from the dead,
thereby destroying the foundation for their faith (vv. 12-19). Sec-
ond, Paul reversed the proposition by arguing that the reality of
Christ's resurrection guarantees the reality of believers' resur-
rection (vv. 20-28).
Third, Paul pointed out the incongruity of both their own be-
havior and the behavior of the apostles (vv. 29-34). By a series of
rhetorical questions he pointed up the absurdity of various activi-
ties if there were no resurrection. The practice of baptism for the
dead (v. 29) and the apostles' risk-taking behavior (vv. 30-32)
were illogical if there is no resurrection of believers. In verse 31
he was probably emphasizing the truth of verse 30 that he daily
faced the possibility of death. After giving a further concrete ex-
ample of risk-taking in verse 32a, he quoted from Isaiah 22:13 to
argue that it would make more sense to indulge in license than
self-sacrificial behavior if there is no resurrection (1 Cor. 15:32).
He concluded this section with some poignant words of advice,
apparently designed to rebuke the Corinthians for associating
with those who deny the resurrection (v. 34).
It is evident that verse 29 is only one small part of Paul's
grand argument for the resurrection of believers. Verse 29 points
out the incongruity of denying the resurrection of believers while
at the same time participating in a certain religious practice.
CRITICAL EXEGESIS OF 1 CORINTHIANS 15:29
The wide variety of interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15:29 re-
sults from different suggested solutions to key exegetical prob-
lems. The meaning and referents of key terms such as oi[ baptiz-
o<menoi and tw?n nekrw?n are the subject of some debate. However, the
understanding of the preposition u[pe>r and the resulting theo-
logical implications are the decisive issues in this crux interpre-
oi[ baptizo<menoi. This verse begins with the statement, ]Epei>
ti< poih<sousin oi[ baptizo<menoi u[pe>r tw?n nekrw?n, "Otherwise,
468 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October—December 1995
what will those do who are baptized for the dead?"48 As already
stated, there are two basic suggestions for the meaning of bapti<zw
in this context. Some suggest that this word is being used
metaphorically to describe martyrdom or Paul's sufferings for
the gospel, while others hold that Christian baptism is in view. In
favor of a metaphorical understanding is the fact that the figura-
tive sense of "to perish" or "to suffer" is also evident in Greek lit-
erature,49 including the New Testament (Mark 10:38-39).
However, this suggestion has a number of difficulties. First,
apart from this verse there is no evidence that Paul used this term
metaphorically to indicate suffering or martyrdom. Although
Murphy-O'Connor's suggestion that the phrase "the ones being
baptized for the dead" is a Corinthian slogan alleviates the prob-
lem of Pauline usage for the term bapti<zw, his proposition seems
doubtful, as previously discussed. Second, a figurative under-
standing of "baptism" would also require a figurative under-
standing of "the dead" (i.e., spiritually dead), in order to avoid a
mystical view of suffering or of being killed for the benefit of the
physically dead. A figurative view of "the dead" is improbable in
this context, since Paul consistently referred to the physically
dead throughout chapter 15 and even in the immediate context (v.
29b).50 Third, there is no historical evidence of any believers be-
ing martyred in the Corinthian church at that time.51
Viewing bapti<zw as referring to Christian baptism is most
likely the correct understanding, since Paul consistently used
48 The subordinating
an elliptical condition where the protasis is suppressed (A. T. Robertson, A
Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed.
first-class conditional statement, "If all that I, Paul, have just said is not true, then
what will they do" (Lenski, The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians, 688; and Fee,
1 Corinthians, 763).
49 During the classical period the word bapti<zw was used in the literal (active)
sense of "to suffer shipwreck," "to perish," or "to drown." In the Septuagint the
word occurs only four times and both the literal and figurative senses are present
(cf. Lev. 6:28; Isa. 21:4). In the Koine Greek period the usage of the word bapti<zw
continued with both the literal (active) and figurative (passive) meanings, with the
active sense of "to immerse" becoming especially prevalent. In a few cases the lit-
eral meaning was applied to the sacred washings of the mystery religions. How-
ever, the figurative sense continued as bapti<zw is used to refer to "going under"
with respect to sleep or intoxication and "perishing" (A. Oepke, "ba<ptw, bapti<xw,"
in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1:536; and G. R. Beasley-Murray,
"bapti<zw," in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1:144).
50 This view requires a change in the meaning of nekrw?n within the verse under
question (see discussion on nekro<j on pages 469-71).
51 Godet, 1 Corinthians, 818.
Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, "Baptized for the Dead" 469
this term with the literal sense of the Christian initiatory rite.52
Also Paul's argument in verses 29-32 is more coherent if Chris-
tian baptism is in view, since Paul would be citing two different
examples of activities that demonstrate the absurdity of denying
Since bapti<zw probably refers to literal Christian baptism in
this context, of oi[ baptizo<menoi may be identified in one of two ways.
Some identify this construction as a reference to all believers,
while the majority hold that this construction refers to a specific
group of individuals within the church. The third person present
tense form of the verb bapti<zontai (v. 29b) suggests that this activ-
ity was currently being practiced by a group of individuals and
was probably well known by the Corinthians.54 Thus the former
suggestion is extremely doubtful, as Paul probably would have
used the first person or second person plural form if he were re-
ferring to all believers or to the Corinthian believers (cf. vv. 17,
51). As Fee states,
This is one of the rare instances in the letter where Paul ad-
dresses a community matter only in the third person plural. In
other instances (e.g., 4:18-21; 15:12-19), even when "some" are
specified, the rest of the argument is directed at the community as
a whole in the second person plural. Since that does not happen
here, one may surmise that this is the activity of only a few.55
tw?n nekrw?n. Some suggest that nekro<j refers metaphorically to
the spiritually dead in verse 29a.56 Others suggest that the first oc-
currence of nekro<j in verse 29 refers to "dying bodies."57 The ma-
jority of commentators hold that this word refers to literally dead
persons in both occurrences, with varying suggestions as to their
The first suggestion is possible, as the word nekro<j is used
both literally and figuratively in the New Testament and by
52 Paul used bapti<zw 13 times (10 times in 1 Cor.). He utilized the word literally
with reference to initiatory baptism eight times (six times in 1 Cor.), excluding the
two occurrences in 15:29. In the remaining three occurrences Paul used this term
in a nonstandard way with reference to a believer being identified with Christ in
believers being immersed by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 12:13).
53 In other words this interpretation is less repetitive, since verses 29 and 30 do
not both refer to the apostles' suffering.
54 W. Harold Mare, "1 Corinthians," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 12
vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 10:287.
55 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 763, n. 15.
56 Murphy-O'Connor, "Baptized for the Dead," 536-37; cf. Fee, 1 Corinthians, 765.
57 Calvin, 1 Corinthians, 36; O'Neill, "1 Corinthians 15:29," 310; and Bengel,
Gnomon of the New Testament, 330.
470 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October—December 1995
Paul.58 However, this interpretation is doubtful, since the literal
sense is plainly in view throughout the entire context (15:12, 13,
15, 16, 32, 35, etc.). In addition Paul clearly used nekro<j literally
in the immediate context (v. 29b). The suggestion that verse 29a is
a Corinthian slogan may alleviate some of the difficulty with the
occurrence of two distinct nuances within verse 29, but this hy-
pothesis is doubtful for reasons already enumerated.
Similarly, the second suggestion is likewise doubtful as this
understanding of nekrw?n as "dying bodies" is without parallel in
the New Testament and would differ with consistent Pauline us-
age in chapter 15.59 In addition, this understanding requires an
ellipsis such as tw?n nekrw?n (swma<twn) or a tenuous connection of
nekro<j with a derivative found in classical Greek in order to pro-
duce the sense of "corpses."60
Since Paul consistently used nekro<j in a literal sense
throughout 1 Corinthians 15 and since the literal sense is appar-
ent in the second half of verse 29, a literal understanding of
nekro<j as referring to "dead individuals" is preferred.
Who are tw?n nekrw?n? Was Paul referring to dead believers,
unbelievers, or catechumens who died before being baptized?
Grammar suggests that the articular construction tw?n nekrw?n
refers to a specific group of dead individuals (with the anarthrous
noun nekroi> referring to the dead in general).61 Pauline usage in
chapter 15 confirms this. Paul seems to have been distinguishing
between the dead in general (vv. 12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 21, and 29b) and
Christians who had died (vv. 29a, 35, 42, and 52).62
For example later in the chapter the resurrection of dead be-
lievers is clearly in view as indicated by the references to "a
heavenly body" (vv. 40, 47-49), "a spiritual body" (vv. 44, 46), and
a body "raised in power" (v. 43). However, in verses 12-29, the
anarthrous construction is used consistently to denote the general
concept of "the dead" in speaking of Christ being resurrected from
58 R. Bultmann, "nekro<j," in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 4:893;
cf. Matthew 8:22; John 5:21; Ephesians 5:14.
59 Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
and Other Early Christian Literature, 534-35.
60 O'Neill, "1 Corinthians 15:29," 310-11.
61 Blass and Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other
Early Christian Literature, 133.
62 Anarthrous constructions (i.e., the dead in general) are found in verses 12, 13,
15, 16, 20, 21, and 29, whereas articular constructions (i.e., the Christian dead) are
found in verses 29, 35, 42, and 52 (Raeder, "Vikariatstaufe in I Kor. 15:29?" 258-59;
Jeremias, "Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit
"Baptism for the Dead," 140.
Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, "Baptized for the Dead" 471
the dead (vv. 12, 15, 20) and the general resurrection of the dead
(vv. 13, 15, 16). In addition verse 29 seems to resume Paul's for-
mer argument in which he demonstrated the absurdity of deny-
ing the resurrection of dead believers and which he concluded by
referring specifically to deceased believers (vv. 18-19). Based on
Paul's apparent distinction between "dead believers" and the
"dead in general," the object of the preposition u[pe>r is probably
This observation leads to the question of whether these believ-
ers had been baptized or were catechumens who died before being
baptized. The latter suggestion depends on the existence of an
initiatory procedure in
later. The normal practice in the early church was for baptism to
follow immediately after conversion (Acts 10:47-48; 16:31-34;
Thus the possibility of a convert dying before being baptized
was improbable, contrary to what some have suggested.64 Added
to this improbability is the fact that this
volved more than one individual and would have had to be well
known to the Corinthians for Paul's argument to have force.
Rather than referring to an exceptional case where a convert died
before baptism, Paul was most likely referring to the more com-
mon case of dead believers who had already been baptized.
u[pe>r. The prepositional phrase u[pe>r tw?n nekrw?n has been the
major focus in the controversy on this passage. The preposition
u[pe>r with the genitive normally has the meaning of "on behalf
of," emphasizing representation (e.g., Eph. 5:2, 25; 1 Thess. 5:10;
Titus 2:14), or "instead of," emphasizing substitution (e.g., John
11:50; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; Gal. 3:13; Phile. 13),65 with the person as the
object of the preposition (also see Rom. 5:6, 8; 8:32; Gal. 2:20).66 In
63 Beasley-Murray, "bapti<zw," 1:146.
64 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 767; Goudge, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 149-50;
and C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New
65 The distinction between the two ideas becomes blurred at times since the idea
of representation can include substitution and vice versa. For example in the pas-
sages relating to Christ's vicarious sacrifice, Christ is presented as both the sub-
stitute and representative (Harris, "Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New
66 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 763; Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical Greek, trans. and ed.
Joseph Smith (Rome: Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963), 529; George B. Winer, Greek
Grammar of the New Testament (Edinburgh: Clark, 1870), 479; C. F. D. Moule, An
Idiom Book of New
2d ed. (
Press, 1953), 64; and Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New
472 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October–December 1995
this case the preposition is used to express favor or advantage ac-
crued to a person. As a result most contemporary commentators
view the phrase u[pe>r tw?n nekrw?n as denoting an esoteric practice
of vicarious baptism in which an individual was apparently bap-
tized as a substitute for the benefit of a dead person.67
Although this is a natural rendering of the text, the major dif-
ficulties with this interpretation are the complete lack of histori-
cal evidence for this alleged practice in the first century and the
theological problem of Paul appealing, without qualification, to a
practice that implies that baptism has saving efficacy.68 In addi-
tion, since the object of the preposition tw?n nekrw?n probably refers
to dead believers, the interpretation of vicarious baptism is doubt-
ful, as these dead believers had most likely observed the rite of
baptism before their death.
Another suggestion that maintains the substitutionary sense
of u[pe<r is that Paul was referring to individuals who were con-
verted and baptized to take the place of deceased believers.69 This
sense would be parallel to Philemon 13, in which Paul spoke of
Onesimus as "ministering in the place of Philemon." Here the
emphasis is more on substitution than on any benefit accrued by
Philemon (cf. Col. 1:7).
The preposition u[pe>r can also be used to denote the cause or
reason of an action as in the sense of "for," "because of," or "on
account of” (see Rom. 15:9; 2 Cor. 12:8).70 In the New Testament
this preposition is used to indicate the cause of suffering or slan-
der (Acts 9:16; 21:13;71 1 Cor. 10:30; 2 Cor. 12:10; Phil. 1:29; 2
Thess. 1:5), the cause of praise and thanksgiving (
and the reason for prayer (2 Cor. 12:8).72 In the passage in ques-
tion, the resulting sense would be that some new believers were
being baptized because of the influence of dead believers.73 The
67 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 764; Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 227; Beasley-Murray, Bap-
tism in the New Testament, 187; and Riesenfeld, "u[pe>r," 8:512-13.
68 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 764.
69 That is, "What will they do who are being baptized to take the place of dead be-
lievers?" (Johnson, "1 Corinthians," 1257).
70 Blass and Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other
Early Christian Literature, 121; Lenski, 1 Corinthians, 690; see 2 Corinthians 12:8;
Romans 15:9; cf. Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New
Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 839; and Riesenfeld, "u[pe<r,"
71 Cf. Acts 5:41. Here o!ti is used in the place of iithp in a parallel construction.
72 Riesenfeld, "u[pe>r," 8:514-15.
73 Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
and Other Early Christian Literature, 132.
Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, "Baptized for the Dead" 473
chief criticism of this view is that Pauline usage prefers the sense
of "on behalf of' with a person as the object, whereas the sense of
"because of' or "on account of' is preferred when the object is a
thing.74 The causal sense of u[pe>r is, however, used by Paul with a
person as the object either explicitly or implicitly on at least a few
occasions (Acts 9:16; 21:13; Rom. 15:9; Phil. 1:29).75
Closely related to this understanding of u[pe>r is the suggestion
that this proposition is functioning in 1 Corinthians 15:29 with the
final sense of "for": being baptized "with the purpose of becoming
united with their deceased Christian relatives at the resurrec-
tion."76 This understanding of u[pe>r with a final sense is evident
in the context of Paul's sufferings for the Corinthians' comfort (2
Cor. 1:6), although this usage seems to be uncommon.77 The ma-
jor problem with this view is that the phrase u[pe>r tw?n nekrw?n would
require a significant ellipsis or additional explanation to arrive
at a coherent interpretation.78 However, other passages utilizing
the final sense of u[pe>r similarly have to be filled out by the exege-
sis of the text.79
Others have suggested that the preposition demonstrates the
local sense of "over" as in "over the graves of the dead."80 This
understanding is doubtful, as there is no historical evidence for
this practice in the first century. Also this local sense of the prepo-
74 Harris, "Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament," 3:1196-97;
and Fee, I Corinthians, 763.
75 The causal sense is particularly evident in Acts 9:16 and 21:13, since u[pe>r is
substituting for o!ti in the parallel construction found in Acts 5:41 (Riesenfeld,
"Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit the
77 Beasley-Murray highlights the rarity of this usage (Baptism in the New Tes-
tament, 186). Blass and Debrunner suggest that this sense is found in Philippians
2:13 (A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian
Literature, 231). However, Riesenfeld and Harris translate the only other
occurrence of u[pe>r in 1 Corinthians 15 with a final sense: "for the expiation of our
sins," verse 3 (Riesenfeld, " u[pe<r," 8:514; and Harris, "Prepositions and Theology in
the Greek New Testament," 3:1197).
78 That is, "baptized in order to be united with their deceased Christian relatives
at the resurrection" (Jeremias, "Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit the Kingdom of
79 Schnackenburg gives the example of 1 Corinthians 15:3 and Galatians 1:4, where
the statement "Christ died for our sins" is interpreted to mean "Christ died in or-
der to redeem us from our sins" (Baptism in the Thought of St. Paul, 102).
80 Martin Luther, Luther's Works, ed. Hilton Oswald, trans. Martin Bertram (St.
Louis; Concordia, 1973), vol. 28: I Corinthians 7-15, 146-54. This view is also sug-
gested with reservation by F. W. Grosheide, 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, New In-
ternational Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974),
474 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October—December 1995
sition, although common in classical Greek, is applied only figu-
ratively in the Koine period.81
Still others suggest this preposition is used in 1 Corinthians
15:29 with the sense of "concerning" or "with reference to," as in
believers being baptized with reference to the resurrection of the
dead.82 This interpretation is doubtful, since it requires a signifi-
cant ellipsis such as "baptized with reference to [the resurrection
of] the dead."83
Although the first understanding of u[pe<r is most in keeping
with Pauline usage with persons as the object,84 the theological
difficulties presented by Paul's nonqualification of an erroneous
practice suggest that this occurrence may involve a different nu-
ance such as "because of the influence of dead believers," "in or-
der to be united with dead believers at the resurrection," or per-
haps even the understanding of new converts "taking the place of
Having examined 1 Corinthians 15:29, a number of conclu-
sions can be made. First, the baptism referred to is probably lit-
eral water baptism of Christians. Second, the phrase "the ones
who are baptized" most likely refers to a small group of individu-
als rather than the church as a whole. Third, "the dead" for whom
some individuals were being baptized were in all probability
dead believers. Fourth, these dead believers had presumably ex-
perienced Christian baptism before they died. If these four obser-
vations are true, it is extremely improbable that the proposition
u[pe<r denotes vicarious baptism for the benefit of the dead, as there
would be no value in such a practice, since the dead in question
would already have been "saved" and probably baptized. With the
additional problem of vicarious baptism and Pauline theology,
the improbability of 1 Corinthians 15:29 referring to vicarious
baptism becomes insurmountable.
81 Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
and Other Early Christian Literature, 838; and Riesenfield, " u[pe<r," 8:507-8.
82 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of His-
torical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 632; and Barnes, Barnes' Notes on
the New Testament, 793. This nuance also occurs with a person as the object as in
John 1:30 (Riesenfeld, "imip," 8:514).
83 Robertson and Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First
First Epistle to the Corinthians, 423.
84 Fee, 1 Corinthians, 763.
85 See n. 10.
Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, "Baptized for the Dead" 475
Therefore only three of the more than two hundred interpreta-
tions of 1 Corinthians 15:29 remain strong possibilities. One view
translates u[pe<r with the sense of "in the place of" as in new believ-
ers' being baptized to take the place of dead Christians. A second
possibility translates u[pe<r with the final sense: "in order to be re-
united with their loved ones at the resurrection." A third view
translates u[pe<r with the sense of "because of": new believers' be-
ing baptized "because of the influence of deceased Christians."
The first suggestion is perhaps less convincing, since it could be
said that all believers take the place of deceased believers and yet
Paul was evidently referring to a select group within the church.
The final two suggestions are closely related semantically and
fit the context well, as they both refer to a select group within the
church and include an emphasis on the resurrection as the im-
plied motive for these practices.
Perhaps the most plausible interpretation is the third option,
since it makes sense without a significant ellipsis. No doubt
many individuals in the early church were influenced by the tes-
timony of other believers who had recently died or who were
martyred. For example Paul may have been influenced by
Stephen's testimony when Stephen was arrested and stoned (Acts
7). Although all three interpretations are not immediately evi-
dent from initial readings of the text, all three respect the contex-
tual framework of Pauline usage and theology.
In light of the minor role this verse plays in the overall ar-
gument of 1 Corinthians 15, it is ironic that the verse has received
so much attention in the literature. This disproportionate atten-
tion is justified, however, if this passage refers to a practice im-
plying the saving efficacy of baptism. Was Paul referring to a
practice fundamentally opposed to his theology of salvation by
faith alone as the majority of modern commentators suggest? Ac-
cording to the evidence revealed by this study, this is highly im-
In addition there is no biblical warrant given in this passage
for instituting the practice of baptism for the dead. Both the an-
cient and modern practices of baptism for the dead are apparently
founded on misinterpretations of this verse.
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