Suggested Solutions to Difficult Passages -- By: Anonymous
BSP 0 (Autumn 1987) p. 24
Suggested Solutions to Difficult Passages
What does baptized for the dead mean in 1 Cor. 15:29?
Many have been perplexed by this phrase. Some Christians have interpreted it to mean proxy baptism. (Check Bible dictionaries and commentaries.)
But there is a better way to understand it in light of first century Jewish belief regarding cleansing, as well as recent archaeological finds.
Observant Jews of the first century, during and following the time of Jesus, were bound by 613 laws. These were a “hedge” erected around Moses’ Law by the Rabbis in order to keep people from breaking that Law.
Many of these “extra” laws had to do with defilement, or uncleanness, which required cleansing in a ritual bath. (One should keep in mind that this was ritual cleansing, which had little or no connection with hygienic cleanliness.) The bath installation was called a mikveh. It was either built up or carved down into bedrock similar to a baptismal pool. Mikvaoth (plural) have been discovered all over Israel from this time, especially around the Temple. (It now seems probable that early Jewish Christians actually used these for their baptisms.)
The religious groups most concerned were the Pharisees and the Essenes. They performed daily cleansings and washings to remain clean from all sorts of defilements.
The Pharisees also believed in the resurrection from the dead. For people this concerned with ritual cleansing during life, it should not be difficult to understand that they would want to be absolutely clean for the resurrection from the dead.
Thus, they washed the corpses of their loved ones as a “final” preparation. This final washing served the same purpose as immersion in a mikveh or a baptism (“washing’ is an alternate meaning for “baptism”).
Therefore Paul asks, “If the dead are not raised at all, why are they baptized (washed)?”
Although the usual translation of Greek baptizomenoi is in the passive, the same form is used in the middle voice. The problem of proxy baptism, that is, being baptized for someone, arises when it is considered passive. However, in the middle voice, someone can take action regarding something belonging to him. In this case it is a loved one’s body. He can wash the body, the equivalent of baptism (or cleansing in a mikveh) in preparation for the resurrection.
It should be translated then, “baptism of the dead”, not “baptism for the dead.”
We hope this simple explanation for a difficult passage, illuminated through archaeology and ancient customs, will be helpful.
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