Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity
Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity
David L. Paulsen and Brock M. Mason
In the first part of this series,1 we established
that apocalyptic Christian writers were deeply concerned about the fate of
those who had no chance to receive the gospel in this life. They felt that an
eternal condemnation meted out to these souls—simply because they had not
accepted the inaccessible—was not in keeping with their understanding of
a merciful God.
This concern is the crux of the soteriological problem of
evil, which is best stated as a logically inconsistent triad: (1) God is
perfectly loving and just, desiring that all his children be saved;
(2) salvation comes only through an individual’s acceptance of Christ’s
salvific gifts in this life; and (3) countless numbers of God’s children
have died without having a chance to hear about, much less accept, Christ’s
salvific gifts.2 Surely, the God of mercy would offer salvation to
all; according to some early apocalyptic Jewish and Christian writers, he has.
Apocalyptic Jews taught that eternal damnation was a punishment reserved for
fallen archangels and wicked men,3 while righteous Gentiles would be
spared such tortures.4 However, this solution did not fully mitigate
the soteriological problem of evil; righteous Gentiles, although escaping endless
punishment, would not share in the exaltation of the covenant people.
Some early Christians, on the other hand, provided a more
thorough solution than the said Jewish predecessors. They taught that righteous
individuals could receive the gospel in the next life through postmortem
evangelization, a work initiated by Jesus’s descent into hell “to save
those who had not known him on earth.” 5 However,
some did not believe that postmortem acceptance of the gospel was sufficient to
ensure the salvation of the deceased but that it must also be accompanied by
vicarious ordinance work, a belief implicit in their involvement in baptisms
for the dead.
In this paper we will provide evidence that the practice of
baptism for the dead existed in some early Christian6 communities.
We do not attempt to prove that baptism for the dead is a true teaching. This
cannot be demonstrated by historical research. We intend only to trace the
history of proxy baptism in early Christianity and the theological rationale
for its practice. To support our thesis, we will show that early Christians,
including New Testament writers, taught that baptism is essential to salvation.
Because of this belief, vicarious baptisms were performed to ensure that the
unbaptized dead would not be denied access to salvation. Next, we examine
1 Corinthians 15:29, arguing that metaphorical interpretations of this
passage are ultimately unconvincing. Instead, we support what some modern
scholars refer to as the “majority reading,” 7 which understands 15:29 as a reference to vicarious baptism. Third, we explore
the possible origins of the practice by examining the texts that teach
doctrines closely related to baptism for the dead. And, finally, we detail the
historical practice of proxy baptisms by early Christian communities now labeled “heretical.” We argue, however, that retroactively measuring
ancient Christian practices by later standards of orthodoxy is misguided and
that we must, therefore, independently reexamine practices traditionally
Before setting out and assessing historical evidence for
early Christian practice of proxy baptisms for the dead, an important caveat is
in order: though Joseph Smith believed that first-century Christians performed
proxy baptisms,8 the modern Latter-day Saint practice is not grounded on historical precedent. Rather, as we will detail in the last part of
this series, it is based on modern revelation.
Baptismal Theology of the New
Testament and Patristic Literature
Proxy baptisms are based on the conviction that the
sacrament of baptism is necessary for salvation. Accordingly, we will look at
the teachings of New Testament and patristic writers regarding the necessity of
this sacred ordinance. These writers taught that baptism was essential for
forgiveness of sins and for entrance into the church and into heaven. Indeed,
according to Everett Ferguson in his highly respected study of early Christian
liturgy, Christians through the first five centuries believed that baptism “effects
salvation, forgiveness of sins, freedom from the rule of sin and death,
purification, and washing.” 9
Three main arguments from the New Testament support the
essential nature of baptism. First, Christ himself is baptized, signifying the
necessity for Christians to receive the same. Second, there are pivotal verses
of scripture, such as John 3:5, Mark 16:14–16, and Matthew 28:19, which,
according to some scholars, affirm the necessity of baptism for salvation.
Third, throughout the book of Acts, baptism is without question the rite of
initiation that all converts must undergo. According to Acts, this rite assures
the convert a remission of sins and links them to Christ.
The synoptic Gospels all attest to the fact that Christ was
baptized by John in order to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew
3:13–17; cf. Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21). W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann explain
Christ’s baptism in relation to Matthew’s goal of showing Christ’s fulfillment
of ancient scriptural prophecies. These scholars explain the term fulfill all
righteousness as a reference to the “fulfillment of those
Scriptures in which those demands are set out—law, prophets, writings. In
any event, the baptism administered by John was a direct response to the will
of God, and so the Messiah must submit to it.” 10 Thus Christ’s baptism, for Matthew, fulfilled both divine commands and ancient
scripture (notably Isaiah 43:2 and Psalm 2:7). The Oxford Bible Commentary suggests that Matthew’s account demonstrates this fulfillment of both commands
and scripture by focusing on the apocalyptic vision that Christ receives upon
baptism, in which God affirms Jesus as his Son and the Holy Ghost descends as a
dove.11 A few Christian authors such as Hilary, Theodore of
Mopsuestia, Chromatius, and Cyril of Alexandria declare Christ’s baptism as the
example for Christians to follow, that they may receive salvation and remission
of sins.12 Although no New Testament text explicitly confirms the
point, Jesus’s baptism likely became the foundation for later Christian
Christ’s example of baptism is not alone in signaling the
necessity of the ordinance. Mark 16:15–16 declares a similar sentiment: “And
he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every
creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that
believeth not shall be damned.” It is quite certain that this passage was
added to the text by a later author.14 Nonetheless, it still
corroborates the doctrine of baptism, as it was added by a Christian who
obviously believed baptism was salvifically requisite. This addition was added
before AD 185, as it is quoted by
Irenaeus 15 and perhaps may be referenced earlier by Justin.16 Regardless, a
Christian of the first or second century inserted these verses, and they were
taken as canon by many Christians following thereafter.
Gospel records that the risen Christ instructs the apostles: “Go ye
therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and
of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things
whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the
end of the world. Amen” (Matthew 28:19). According to Matthew, then, one
of the duties of the apostles was to teach and baptize all nations.
Professor Ulrich Luz notes in his commentary on these verses
that “the task of ‘making disciples’ of the nations involves first of all
the command to baptize. Since baptism is the sign that all Christians have in
common, the command to baptize is a confession of the whole church.” 17 He further explains, “It is certain that with their baptism the newly won
disciples of Jesus follow the example of Jesus who also submitted to baptism
(3:13–17). Just as in so doing he ‘fulfilled all righteousness,’ they too
follow him onto the way of righteousness.” 18 Matthew’s
account of Christ’s ministry thus begins and ends 19 with a call
to baptism—first with the example of Christ’s own baptism in the third
chapter of the work and finally with the risen Lord’s dramatic commission to go
to “all nations” and baptize those who will believe and follow.
Ferguson notes that “early Christians commonly based their practice of
baptism on the dominical command of Matthew 28:19 and on the Lord’s example.”20
John 3:5, when read straightforwardly, explicitly indicates
that baptism by water is essential for “entrance into the kingdom of
heaven.” Many Christian authors and writings from the early
centuries—including Tertullian,21 Justin Martyr,22 Ambrose,23 Irenaeus,24 Cyprian,25 and the
Seventh Council of Carthage 26—cite
John 3:5 as evidence for the necessity of baptism for salvation. Tertullian,
for example, boldly declares: “The prescript is laid down that ‘without
baptism, salvation is attainable by none’ (chiefly on the ground of that declaration
of the Lord, who says, ‘Unless one be born of water, he hath not life’).” 27 Modern scholars may disagree about the proper interpretation of John 3:5,28 but many prominent early church writers unequivocally read 3:5 as affirming
that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Finally, Christian history lends support to our claim that
baptism was considered necessary. Throughout the book of Acts and the writings
of the church fathers, baptism is viewed as the mandatory initiation rite for
converts into Christendom. Acts 2:38; 8:12, 38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:14–15,
30–34; 18:8; and 22:16 all present historical evidence that whenever a
group of people were converted to Christianity baptism was the ordinance that
initiated them into the faith. Lars Hartman, in the Anchor Bible Dictionary,
notes, “It [Baptism] is treated as the undisputed initiation rite of the
Church . . . baptism is mentioned as a natural step in connection
with people’s acceptance of the message about Christ, i.e., becoming believers;
. . . baptism was practised from the very beginning in the early
church.” 29 It further explains that, in
Acts, “entering the Christian community through faith and baptism means to
be ‘saved’ (2:40; 11:14; 16:30–31).” 30 Acts 2:38
is quite explicit in tying baptism with forgiveness of sins: “then Peter
said unto them, repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus
Christ for the remission of sins.” This verse illustrates the Lukan
understanding of what it means to convert to Christianity: “Those who
receive the apostolic message, recognize Jesus as Lord and Messiah, repent, and
are baptized in his name receive forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.” 31
The Shepherd of Hermas reiterates that baptism is
essential for a Christian. It says, “some teachers maintain that there is
no other repentance than that which takes place, when we descended into the
water and received remission of our former sins. . . . that [is]
sound doctrine which you heard; for that is really the case.” 32 In addition to the patristic fathers mentioned above in relation with John 3:5,
Clement of Alexandria,33 Firmilian,34 Victorinus,35 Cyril of Jerusalem,36 John Chrysostom,37 Augustine,38 and Barnabas 39 affirm the necessity of baptism
for salvation, repentance, remission of sins, begetting sons of God, or some
other purpose which Christians must receive.
Other writings by Christian gnostics show a similar
viewpoint. The Tripartite Tractate indicates that “there is no
other baptism apart from this one alone, which is the redemption into God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” 40 The Gospel of
Philip teaches that “when speaking of baptism they say, ‘Baptism
is a great thing,’ because if people receive it, they will live.” 41 Marcion and his followers, who were not properly gnostics, seem to have viewed
baptism similarly and did not deviate much from what became the orthodox view
on this issue.42
The New Testament, early Christian literature, and Christian
history all affirm that many early Christians viewed baptism as essential for
entrance into the kingdom of God. Everett Ferguson concludes, “Although in
developing the doctrine of baptism different authors had their particular
favorite descriptions, there is a remarkable agreement on the benefits received
in baptism. And these are present already in the New Testament texts. Two
fundamental blessings are often repeated: the person baptized received
forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 43 From such belief, the doctrine of vicarious baptism was a natural corollary.
Apparently, the earliest group mentioned to perform this sacrament for the dead
is the Christian community at Corinth.
Exegesis of 1 Corinthians
Ἐπεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν οἱ βαπτιζόµενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν; εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, τί καὶ
βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν.44
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the
dead? If the dead rise not at all, why are they then baptized for the dead? 45
Paul’s mention of the Corinthian practice of baptism for the
dead has long troubled many Christians. A plain, matter-of-fact reading of
15:29 clearly speaks of vicarious baptism, but many scholars are unconvinced
that such a reading is best. Indeed, scholarly consideration of this verse has
produced more than two hundred variant readings. However, if the simplest
reading were not so much at variance with modern baptismal theology, we would
not expect the abundance of interpretations that attempt to remove this
teaching from the New Testament or to portray it as an anomaly. We will review
those interpretations of 15:29 which scholarly consensus judges most credible.
Significantly, of this subset, vicarious baptism is the reading supported by
the majority of scholars.46
We will focus on three main words in the verse while
interpreting its meaning: βαπτίζω (baptizō / baptized),47 ὑπὲρ (hyper / for),48 and νεκρῶν (nekrōn / dead).49 Those who do not view the baptism of 15:29 as
referring to a vicarious ordinance provide alternative readings for each of the
aforementioned words. Following the analysis of these words, we will turn our
attention to variant punctuations that seek to make 15:29 read as ordinary, as
opposed to vicarious, baptism. This task is especially pertinent in that there
is no punctuation in extant copies of New Testament documents.
metaphorically. Scholars who treat the baptism spoken of in
1 Corinthians 15:29 as figurative have largely based their interpretation
on the meaning of baptizō. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine
It is therefore the true and genuine explanation that
the Apostle speaks concerning the baptism of tears and penance which one
receives by praying, fasting, and giving alms, etc. And the sense is “What
will those who are baptized for the dead do if the dead do not rise?” That
is, what will they do who pray, fast, grieve, and afflict themselves for the
dead if the dead do not rise? In this way Ephraem in his book “Testamentum,”
Peter the Venerable in his “Contra Petrobrusianos,”
Dionysius, and others explain this passage.50
Bellarmine understands baptizō not as
a reference to the Christian baptismal sacrament, but as other works done for
the dead. This is a significant interpretation for adherents of Catholicism
since this understanding lends scriptural support to their concept of purgatory
and the works of penance that release the souls bound there. Interestingly,
though, such a reading does not discredit the ideas upon which baptism for the
dead rest. Even if the verse is taken metaphorically, the works of penance and
the release of souls from purgatory are literal. There is common ground between
the LDS and Catholic views of vicarious works. Both imply that the living can
perform acts to help the deceased in their postmortal advancement.51
However, any metaphorical interpretation of baptizō seems inconsistent with the body of Pauline literature and with the New
Testament as a whole. T. J. Conant, after conducting a thorough analysis
of the use of the word baptism in biblical and patristic literature,
concludes that baptism almost always refers to the Christian sacrament of
immersion, the only exceptions being Mark 10:38–39 and Luke 12:50.52 Conant also notes that many commentators have viewed 1 Corinthians 15:29
in reference to the baptismal rite, which reading he neither condones nor
condemns.53 So, while a figurative reading has some precedence, the
literal reading is much more common.
When viewed in the context of Pauline literature as a whole, baptizō is consistently used in a literal sense (that is, to refer to sacramental
immersion). Paul makes reference to baptism in Colossians 2:12; Hebrews 6:2;
Romans 6:3, 4; Galatians 3:27; 1 Corinthians 1:13, 14, 15, 16 (twice), 17;
10:2; 12:13; and 15:29 (twice), for a total of fifteen times. In each of the
other thirteen usages (excluding 15:29) baptizō is used literally.
Michael F. Hull points out that “in all, each and every one of these
eight instances of βαπτίζω in
1 Corinthians is to be read literally.” 54 Hull
concludes, “What of the two instances of baptizō in 15:29? Given Paul’s
other uses of the term, and especially his use thereof in 1 Corinthians,
we can read them only in like manner. There is no compelling reason to do
It seems difficult to interpret baptizō in any
way other than literally in 15:29.56 If taken literally, the Corinthian
community was practicing actual baptism. However, this alone is not sufficient
evidence to conclude that these baptisms were being performed vicariously for
the dead.57 Instead, we must view the meaning of ὑπὲρ in context with νεκρῶν to fully comprehend the meaning of the verse.
1 Corinthians 15:29 as ordinary baptism, an alternative
reading of ὑπὲρ and νεκρῶν. A
frequent interpretation of 15:29 among scholars is that of baptism in its
literal sense but not performed on behalf of the dead. To maintain such a
reading, the standard usage of the Greek preposition ὑπὲρ (hyper)
or of the adjective νεκρῶν (nekrōn)
must be altered.
John D. Reaume, who championed an alternative reading
stated that “the understanding of the preposition ὑπὲρ and the resulting theological implications are the decisive issues
in this crux
interpretum.” 58 The way the
preposition is read determines whether vicarious or ordinary baptism is meant.
Most scholars who subscribe to such an approach feel that 15:29 is a reference
to “baptism by example.”
Maria Raeder believes that in 15:29 Paul refers to
Corinthians who desired to undergo ordinary baptism for themselves so they
could join with their deceased loved ones in the hereafter. She believed that
such a practice was motivated not by faith in Christ, but by a hope to inherit
heaven, a less than fully honorable observance of the Christian sacrament.59 Central to Raeder’s position is to render hyper in a final sense,60 giving the verse a sense of finality or, rather, for what goal or for what
purpose some action is being performed. In this light, the verse now refers to
a “baptism by example” in which the catechumen is compelled to
baptism by the example of the dead.
In reference to Raeder’s translation of ὑπὲρ in its final sense, Joel R. White characterizes Raeder’s concept as “pure
conjecture; there is no historical or biblical evidence for any such practice
anywhere in the ancient world.” 61 Second, he
regards her reading as “unrelated to the context” of Paul’s letter as
White, in opposition to Raeder, feels that hyper should
be read in its causal sense.63 He interprets nekrōn as
a figurative reference to the apostles and their persecution unto death.
Consequently, he translates 1 Corinthians 15:29 in the following manner: “Otherwise
what will those do who are being baptized on account of the dead (that is, the
dead, figuratively speaking; that is, the apostles)? For if truly dead persons
are not raised, why at all are people being baptized on account of them (that
is, the apostles)?” 64 White suggests that Paul
considers himself as one of the “dead,” due to the persecutions that
However, such a reading seems
arbitrary. In order to understand why, it is important to spell out the entire
Greek of 15:29:
Ἐπεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν
οἱ βαπτιζόµενοι ὑπὲρ
τῶν νεκρῶν; εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, τί καὶ
βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν.
According to Hull, “White . . . propounds a
metaphorical reading for τῶν νεκρῶν in 15:29a and claims that ὅλως functions attributively to modify νεκροὶ in 15:29b. The former ‘dead’ he equates with the apostles; the latter ‘dead’
are the actually dead”—in other words, “White contends that the
same word is used in the same sentence to mean entirely different things.” 65 So, without further criterion as to why White uses this modifier in distinct
and varied ways within the same context, his usage certainly appears arbitrary,
and we cannot be persuaded to accept his translation.
Furthermore, as with baptizō, hyper and nekrōn are used in a consistent manner in Pauline literature; hyper is almost always used by Paul in its genitive sense—that is, “on
behalf of.” 66 The final and causal senses
previously discussed seldom occur in Pauline literature.67 Additionally, “In Paul’s letters, νεκρός [nekros] is
always used as a noun in the literal sense.” 68 Thus, a
straightforward reading of the three words in question appears to be the most
sound interpretation and consistent with Paul’s writings as a whole.
1 Corinthians 15:29 with variant punctuation. Some
biblical scholars have taken still another approach toward reading 15:29 as
ordinary baptism. This approach does not try to give alternative translations
to any of the words in question, but instead punctuates 15:29 in a way that
makes the verse read like a reference to ordinary baptism, something proponents
of this reading find more in line with Pauline theology. Since the original
Greek manuscripts of the New Testament contain no punctuation at all, we must
consider the methods of punctuation used by translators of the KJV and
comparable versions of the Bible.
In explaining why he opted for a variation in the
punctuation of the text, Bernard M. Foschini states that he considers the
approach “more simple and more probable than any other, because it seems
most consonant with manuscript, with Pauline style, with the nature of Baptism,
with the signification of the preposition hyper and with the words tōn
nekrōn.” 69 Foschini
further claims that the word “baptizesthai has nothing to do
with the phrase, hyper tōn nekrōn, and is to be separated
from it by a question mark,” 70 rendering
the following translation of 15:29: “Otherwise what shall they do who are
baptized? For the dead? (that is, are they baptized to belong to, to be
numbered among the dead, who are never to rise again)? Indeed, if the dead do
not rise again at all, why are people baptized? For them? (that is, are they
baptized to be numbered among the dead who are never to rise again?).” 71
Foschini takes his analysis from Dürselen, a German scholar,
and his punctuation is therefore very similar to Dürselen’s. Yet, Foschini
diverges from Dürselen’s approach by positing that while Dürselen was right to
separate “to be baptized” and “for the dead,” Dürselen
breaks the rhetorical parallel Paul was building between verses 29 and 30 by
punctuating them in such a way as to improperly link “on behalf of”
with verse 30.72
However, as Reaume points out, there is an “insurmountable
difficulty” 73 with such an interpretation. Foschini’s
reading, which preserves the parallel between verses 29 and 30, leans heavily
on a skewed interpretation of hyper. According to Reaume,
Foschini seeks to give an interpretation to hyper that makes it synonymous
with εἰς “into.” Reaume asserts that such a reading is doubtful, as the nuance
upon which it depends is evident only in classical Greek,74 whereas
the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, which flourished between 300 BC and AD 300. Consequently, Foschini has to appeal to extrabiblical
texts of a different time period to establish his case. Due to these
considerations, Hull concludes that “such a desperate attempt to read ὑπὲρ [hyper]
as εἰς diminishes Foschini’s argument to the point of facile refutation.” 75
Hull also presented an interpretation of 15:29 that appeals
to variant punctuation. Hull’s undertaking is no small enterprise. He examines
15:29 not only from a historical standpoint but from a literary standpoint,
giving a lengthy treatment of Paul’s theology and his manner of writing as a
guide toward a greater understanding of how the apostle intended the difficult
passage in question. In the opening pages of his work, Hull states his case: “In
our rereading, we see that 1 Cor 15:29 is a reference to ordinary baptism.
. . . Baptism ‘on account of the dead’ is baptism into eternal life;
it is a rite for the living, and undergoing it expresses faith in the
resurrection of Christ and of Christians.” 76
Hull’s coverage of the literary issues regarding 15:29 is,
in our opinion, one of the best treatments on the subject. However, we are not
compelled to accept his interpretation for two reasons. First, Hull recognizes
that 15:29 is a crux interpretum. Not only does he express this
outright, but he also acknowledges that “while it is true that the
literary context does not necessitate such a reading of ordinary baptism any
more than it necessitates the majority reading of vicarious baptism, the
literary context does not, in fact, demand a reading one way or the other.” 77 So, even with all textual information considered, there is no objective way of
deciding between ordinary and vicarious baptism. Secondly, in agreement with
David Kuck, we conclude that while “Hull’s causal reading of the
preposition is possible,” its viability is not strong, since “on
account of the dead” must be read as “on account of faith in the
resurrection of the dead,” 78 a reading
which the text itself does not need in order to function in the larger literary
context. Once again, it appears to us that a straightforward reading of 15:29
avoids the most difficulties.
1 Corinthians 15:29 as vicarious
baptism. As has been shown,
1 Corinthians 15:29 is a crux interpretum. Of the over two hundred interpretations, only a
few remain as “legitimate possibilities.” 79 The aforementioned analysis was not meant to
resolve these interpretive issues; instead, it was intended to familiarize the
reader with some of the textual difficulties and interpretations associated
with this verse.
Latter-day Saints affirm without reservation that a
straightforward, literal reading is best. And we are not alone in this
approach. It has previously been shown that the reading of 15:29 as a reference
to vicarious baptism is in fact the majority reading among modern biblical
scholars. These scholars have recognized that a literal reading is best, as it
avoids many of the aforementioned difficulties. Any alteration, either in
semantics or in syntax, generally creates more problems than it solves. William
F. Orr and James A. Walther conclude that:
The allusion to the idea and/or practice of baptism on
behalf of the dead is unique in the New Testament in this passage.
. . . Close inspection of the language of the reference makes all
attempts to soften or eliminate its literal meaning unsuccessful. An endeavor
to understand the dead as persons who are “dead in sin”
does not really help; for the condition offered, if the dead are not being
raised at all, makes it clear that the apostle is writing about
persons who are physically dead. It appears that under the pressure of concern
for the eternal destiny of dead relatives or friends some people in the church were
undergoing baptism on their behalf in the belief that this would enable the
dead to receive the benefits of Christ’s salvation. Paul remarks about the
practice without specifying who or how many are involved and without
identifying himself with them. He attaches neither praise nor blame to the
custom. He does take it as an illustration of faith in a future destiny of the
New Testament scholar Leon L. Morris, in the Tyndale
New Testament Commentaries, expresses a similar sentiment:
This reference to baptism for (hyper) the dead is a notorious difficulty. The most natural meaning of the expression is that
some early believers got themselves baptized on behalf of friends of theirs who
had died without receiving that sacrament. Thus Parry says: “The plain and
necessary sense of the words implies the existence of a practice of vicarious
baptism at Corinth, presumably on behalf of believers who died before they were
baptized.” He stigmatizes all other interpretations as “evasions
. . . wholly due to the unwillingness to admit such a practice, and
still more to a reference to it by S. Paul without condemnation.” 81
Yet, there are those who affirm this reading, qualified with
the explanation that the Corinthian Saints were engaging in a heretical
practice. Those who hold such a position often assert that Paul was merely
referencing vicarious baptism to demonstrate the inconsistencies of denying the
resurrection and yet baptizing the deceased: “Else what shall they do
which are baptized by the dead, if the dead rise not at all?” Arthur Carr
asserts that ordinarily Paul would have strongly discouraged such a
disreputable practice; however, he did not want to offend the tender new
converts of Corinth. Consequently, Paul neither condemns nor approves such a
practice; he merely points out the inconsistency.82
Readings such as Carr’s seem fairly common among biblical
scholars. Richard E. DeMaris is one such scholar who attempts to justify his
position with modern archaeological findings in connection with first-century
Corinthian culture. He points out that archaeological excavations show that
Corinthian citizens of the time were vested in cults of the dead. DeMaris
asserts that what was happening in Corinth was simply a “phenomenon”
that was catalyzed by the aforementioned cultic practices. He insists, however,
that vicarious baptism was “neither widespread nor long-lived.” 83
DeMaris’s claim cannot be reasonably maintained. After all,
Christian communities that were very widespread and endured for a significant amount
of time engaged in this practice. DeMaris seems to take for granted that there
is no connection between these groups and Corinth, but lack of textual evidence
establishing such a connection is not sufficent to conclude that there was
none. That would be an argument from silence.
Additionally, many sects within the Judeo-Christian
tradition have espoused some form of vicarious work for the deceased, from the
Catholics and their ancient doctrine of penitence for souls bound in purgatory,
to the ancient Israelites’ concern with proper burial. Religions unrelated to
the Judeo-Christian tradition also have variations of vicarious work for the
Granted, none of these examples compare exactly with
vicarious baptisms for the dead. However, the general principle is the same:
the living can perform some rite or act whereby the deceased may progress in a
postmortal sphere. Without these vicarious efforts, the dead do not advance. So
DeMaris’s claims that the Christian practice of baptisms for the dead was a “phenomenon”
that was not “widespread” gives us reason to pause.
Yet, even given DeMaris’s critique, we still contend that
Paul’s failure to openly condemn the practice was in effect an endorsement of
the same. It has been asserted that Paul’s lack of condemnation on the subject
has a parallel to Paul’s initial unwillingness to condemn the practice of
eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:10). But the parallel is
weak, since Paul does state explicitly later in the same epistle that such a
practice is inherently wrong (1 Corinthians 10:21). We do not find that in
respect to baptisms for the dead.
An additional point also needs to be made on this topic. As
previously pointed out, Carr believes that Paul did not openly condemn the
practice of vicarious baptism because he did not want to offend new converts.
But reflecting on the greater part of Pauline writings, including his epistle
to the Corinthians, leaves one to wonder if there can be an example found of
Paul holding back condemnation for fear of offense. Throughout
1 Corinthians Paul unabashedly condemns instances when the Corinthian
community has strayed; one hardly gets the sense that Paul is ever concerned
about wounding the tender Corinthian heart. Carr’s statement seems to be out of
harmony with the whole tenor of 1 Corinthians and based on pure speculation. H.
V. Martin reads the verse in question just as Carr does. He feels that Paul is
pointing out the inconsistency of the Corinthian practice, with their skewed
belief on the resurrection. Yet, Martin disagrees with Carr. He feels that by
abstaining from condemnation Paul is actually giving his approval to such a
The theologian Fernard Prat does not take the case quite as
far as Martin, but he does lend considerable support to the concept of work for
the deceased. Prat feels that Paul neither condemns or approves of the
practice. Instead, he insists that Paul sees in it
a profession of faith in the resurrection of the dead.
. . . [the] practice was . . . a solemn protestation that the deceased
belonged to Jesus Christ and that he had lacked the requisite time, but not the
desire, to become an effective member of the visible Church. Nor were they
mistaken in thinking that through the communion of saints an act of faith and
piety on their part could be profitable to the deceased.86
As can clearly be discerned, many scholars see
vicarious baptism as the most plausible interpretation of 15:29, simply due to
its immunity from the perplexities generated by all other readings.
Ancient support for 1 Corinthians 15:29 as vicarious baptism.
Two early Christian theologians also affirm that first century Corinthian
saints practiced vicarious baptisms, the first being Tertullian. Writing
sometime in the late second to early third century, Tertullian took it upon
himself to define the Christian faith (in effect, delineating a standard for
determining heresy). In one of his earliest works, On the Resurrection of the
Flesh, Tertullian discusses baptism for the dead and the community
at Corinth. After quoting 1 Corinthians 15:29 he states: “Now it is
certain that they adopted this (practice) with such a presumption as made them
suppose that the vicarious baptism (in question) would be beneficial to the
flesh of another in anticipation of the resurrection.” 87 Tertullian, using the phrases vicarious baptism and flesh of
another frankly acknowledges that the Corinthians engaged in the
practice under the belief that it would benefit their dead.
However, in a later work, Against Marcion,88 he
reinterprets the verse, explaining that to be baptized “for the dead”
was really only to be “baptized for the body” because “it is the
body which becomes dead.” 89 It seems
that he is attempting to recant his earlier statements about Corinth and deny that
“vicarious baptism . . . for the flesh of another” ever
occurred. Jeffrey Trumbower argues persuasively that Tertullian, while
combating Marcion in Against Marcion, goes at length to ensure that 15:29
is not construed to legitimatize baptism for the dead presumably because
Marcion himself has endorsed the practice. Trumbower concludes, “It is
significant that Tertullian only makes these moves when combating the
Marcionites, leading me to conclude that between the writing of De
Resurrectione and Adversus Marcionem he had learned
of their (Marcionites) practice based on 1 Corinthians, some 200 years before
it received a full reporting in John Chrysostom.” 90 Tertullian’s remarks thus provide good evidence that the Marcionites were
practicing baptism for the dead as early as the late second or early third
century AD—a rite that
continued until at least the early fifth century.
Apart from Tertullian’s change in language with regard to
baptism for the dead, he also mentions while attacking Marcion, the “Februarian lustrations” 91 and prayer for the dead as a parallel to the rite. Although ambiguous,
Tertullian seems to connect baptism (either the Marcionite practice of baptism
for the dead or the Corinthian one) with these Roman forms of vicarious
offerings and prayers for the deceased. It seems that the baptismal rite was in
existence at the time and was not simply baptism “for the body” for
every Christian of the time.
Further, the writer now known as Ambrosiaster,92 writing in the latter half of the fourth century, substantiates Tertullian’s
initial confirmation of Corthinian proxy baptisms. In his famous commentaries
on the Epistles of Paul, he notes “that some people were at that time (of
1st Corinthians construction) being baptized for the dead because they were
afraid that someone who was not baptized would either not rise at all or else
rise merely in order to be condemned.” 93 He clearly
affirms the practice and argues that Paul refers to such work in his epistle.
Although scholars have difficulties ascertaining the identity of “Ambrosiaster,”
his remarks provide further evidence that some Christians in the early
centuries continued to read 15:29 as reference to vicarious ordinance work.
Origins of the Lost Practice
The New Testament and other early Christian literature give
some important insights as to how the earliest Saints viewed posthumous
salvation and vicarious ordinance work for the dead. Many apocryphal, gnostic,
and even New Testament writings present themes that are reasonably connected
with baptism for the dead. Perhaps these texts are merely echoes of the true
origin of the work, or they mirrored an existing practice. We will look at a
number of different texts, some from the New Testament, others apocryphal,94 some purporting to be forty-day literature,95 others from the
gnostics, to examine the teachings that seem to provide a way for accepting
baptism for the dead under Christian theology, searching for their origin in
In the case of
Paul, it is not far removed from his general theology to assume that vicarious
ordinance work, particularly proxy baptisms for the dead, was plausibly a part
of his own beliefs and teachings. Unquestionably, vicarious work—in the
figure of Jesus Christ—was the central theme of Christian belief in
Pauline theology; Christianity, for Paul, hinges on the salvific gifts of
Christ. Christ is a “propitiation . . . for the remission of
sins” (Romans 3:25). Paul even recounts his own “sufferings for you,”
where, by his own exertion, he fills up “that which is behind of the
afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church”
(Colossians 1:24). In this context Paul is performing vicarious work to make up
for the shortcomings of the church as a whole. With the emphasis Paul places on
baptism elsewhere in his writings (Romans 6:1–5; Galatians
3:26–27),96 “it is not a stretch to imagine a Pauline
community practicing vicarious baptism for those who had died ‘in the faith,’
but without baptism.” 97
Another interesting New Testament writing is the epistle of
Peter, specifically 1 Peter 3:19–22 and 4:6, which speaks of Christ’s
evangelization of the dead, a belief that relates directly to the doctrine of
vicarious ordinance work, where Christ is preaching to the “spirits”
or to the “dead” (3:19; 4:6). Verse 4:6 is more direct in its wording
that those being taught are the “dead” (nekrois), meaning
those who are physically dead rather than the vague term spirits (pneumasin),
and states that the gospel is being preached to the deceased so that “they
might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the
spirit.” Scholars are divided over the relation of these two passages of
scripture and whether or not they refer to the same event in which “spirits”
and “dead” are equivalent, with Christ being the subject of both
verbs (ekēryxen and euaggelisthē, both usually translated as “preached”).98 Regardless of what stance is taken, some form of postmortem evangelism is clearly
reported in the verses in question, particularly 4:6.99
Referring to 1 Peter 4:6,
Ernest Best notes that “the Gospel is now offered to those who never had
the opportunity of hearing it when alive.” 100 However,
he observes that a likely objection to this assertion is the implication that a
“second chance” remains for the dead. This, he states, is
incompatible with other verses within 1 Peter that affirm that death is
the final judgment for men.101 Later scholars have concurred with
his objection, arguing that the dead referred to must be those who have died
among the group addressed in the epistle, who accepted the gospel while in
mortality.102 But these scholars fail to explain why those who have
already received the gospel need it preached to them again upon death. It is
far more reasonable that the “dead” referred to are those who did not
have the opportunity to receive Christ while in mortality. None of the verses
of 1 Peter that they cite explicitly state that there is no “second
chance” for the dead. Peter’s warnings appear more precisely to discourage
procrastination of repentance.
If the dead were indeed given an opportunity to accept the
gospel of Christ, then certainly this would open room for the idea of proxy
baptisms on their behalf. First Peter suggests baptism as requisite for
salvation (3:21),103 thus providing a basis for a theology that
includes vicarious work for those who cannot perform rites for themselves.
The Apocalypse of Peter 104 shows
a different theme, in which the righteous can affect the salvation of the
condemned dead. It presents scenes from the final judgment of the world, with
the wicked receiving their eternal punishment. In chapter 14, some of the
damned are saved at the behest of those who are with God. The Greek text, purported
by Dennis D. Buchholz and Montague R. James to be closest to the original writings,
explains, “I will g
request of me from out of punishment. And I will give them a beautiful baptism
in salvation from the Acherousian Lake which is said to be in the Elysian
Field, a share in righteousness with my saints.” 105
Apparently, the righteous are able to choose certain damned
souls, who are then released from eternal punishment and receive baptism
(literal or figurative) that they might be saved with their counterparts.
Buchholz concludes that this scene “teaches a form of universal salvation,
that is, if any who are saved request pardon for any wicked, . . .
the latter will be released from punishment.” 106 These same lines are paraphrased in the Sibylline Oracles, and the
doctrine therein is the same, whereby some of the damned souls are given salvation
at the hands of God through intervention by righteous people. Interestingly,
the later Ethiopic translation of the Apocalypse of Peter changes the
wording of these lines so that no second chance could be interpreted from the
text. This was likely done because “someone had theological objections to
it.” 107 Further, the Sibylline Oracles, when paraphrasing this scene from
of Peter, contains a small interjectory note written by a later
author declaring that the doctrine taught concerning damned souls was “plainly
false: for the fire will never cease to torment the damned. I indeed could pray
that it might be so, who am branded with the deepest scars of transgressions
which stand in need of utmost mercy. But let Origen be ashamed of his lying
words, who saith that there is a term set to the torments.” 108 The idea that righteous people could intervene on behalf of the condemned and
that their punishment would see an end was apparently held by the authors of
these two texts and by Origen. According to such beliefs, which are related to
other teachings of the era about affecting the salvation of the dead, baptism
on their behalf certainly seems plausible. Another important area of research
in relation to the doctrine of salvation for the dead is Christ’s three-day
descent into Sheol or Hades. Early Christians believed that after Christ died
on the cross, he descended into hell to evangelize the dead. To those who
accepted him, he placed his “name upon their head(s)” and made them “free.” 109 This rite was called Chrismation, which would almost always be linked with
baptism in later church practice.110 After preaching to the
unevangelized dead, Christ returned to the earth for his Forty-Day ministry, in
which he was continually “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom
of God” (Acts 1:3).
A common form of symbolism to
express Christ’s descent is breaking the gates of hell or unlocking them with
his key,111 as discussed in the “Harrowing of Hell,” the
first article in this series.112 Christ’s mention of his descensus to Sheol to preach the gospel and free the captives there is certainly linked
with the idea that the dead therefore need baptism.113 If they need
the gospel preached to them, why not the saving rite of baptism? The Epistula
Apostolorum, a composition dating roughly to AD 140–150, describes the purpose for Christ’s descent.
In the text, the Savior speaks of the resurrection and the ultimate redemption
and judgment of the souls on earth, in which all men will be judged “in
regard of that that they have done, whether it be good or evil.” He then
continues with this important statement:
For to that end went I down unto the place of Lazarus,
and preached unto the righteous and the prophets, that they might come out of
the rest which is below and come up into that which is above; and I poured out
upon them with my right hand the water (baptism, Eth.)
of life and forgiveness and salvation from all evil, as I have done unto you
and unto them that believe on me.114
The Savior indicates that
his descent and preaching to the righteous dead and the former prophets are
tied to the resurrection. Further, the righteous dead, the former prophets, and
those who are unevangelized, receive the “water of life,” or
baptism—the very thing that brings “salvation from all evil.”
Apparently, this was a central reason for his descent into the
underworld—to provide baptism for the righteous souls there that they
might be judged correctly and “come up into that which is above.”
The gnostic writing the Apocryphon of John (which is a
conversation between the risen Lord and the apostle John written around AD 150) 115 discusses
further the purpose of Christ’s descent. Within the text the divine Forethought 116 reveals to John:
I entered the midst of darkness and the bowels of the
underworld,117 turning to my task. The foundations of chaos shook as
though to fall upon those who dwell in chaos and destroy them. . . .
I hurried back to the root of my light so they might not be destroyed before
their time. . . . I brightened my face with light from the consummation
of their realm and entered the midst of their prison, which is the prison of
the body. I said, Let whoever hears arise from deep sleep.118
The text concludes with Christ meeting a certain person in
the depths, someone who is repentant and ready to be released. Christ then
notes, “I raised and sealed the person in luminous water with Five Seals
that death might not prevail over the person from that moment on.” 119 In a number of separate Sethian writings (the gnostic Christian community or
classification to which the Apocryphon of John is attributed),
the Five Seals referred to are thought to be the “final act of deliverance”
or “a baptismal rite.” 120 Thus the
final saving ordinance that instills life and awakens those who are dead from
their “deep sleep” is the rite of baptism.
The theme of the Five Seals is discussed further in a number
of other texts. The Trimorphic Protennoia (NHC XIII) uses the symbolism in
a way that confirms the interpretation of the Five Seals as some form of
baptismal rite or liturgy.121 Composed sometime in the early to middle
second century AD—and
possibly even included “in a codex that originally contained the long
version of the Apocryphon of John” and On the
Origin of the World 122—it
recounts the three descents of the gnostic savior called Protennoia
(interpreted to be Christ by the gnostic Christians using the work). During one
of the descents, Protennoia describes cleansing a person and providing him with
certain salvific initiations. The text recounts:
[I gave to him] from the Water [of Life, which strips]
him of the Chaos [that is in the] uttermost [darkness] that exists [inside] the
entire [abyss], that is, the thought of [the corporeal] and the psychic. All
these I put on. And I stripped him of it and I put upon him a shining Light,
that is, the knowledge of the Thought of the Fatherhood. And I delivered him to
those who give robes—Yammon, Elasso, Amenai—and they [covered] him
with a robe from the robes of the Light; and I delivered him to the Baptists
and they baptized him—Micheus, Michar, Mn[e]s[i]nous—and they immersed
him in the spring of the [Water] of Life. . . . And I delivered him
to those who glorify—Ariom, Elien, Phariel—and they glorified him
with the glory of the Fatherhood. And those who snatch away snatched
away—Kamaliel [ ]anen,
Samblo, the servants of
great holy Luminaries—and they took
him into the light—[place] of his Fatherhood. And [he received] the Five
Seals from [the Light] of the Mother, Protennoia, and it was [granted] him [to]
partake of [the mystery] of knowledge, and [he became a Light] in Light.123
In the text, the Five Seals are taken in conjunction with
other ceremonial practices that together provide the culminating salvation for
the recipient. Salvation is hence described through “stripping, investing
in a garment of light, robing, spring baptism, enthroning, glorifying and
rapture, followed by reception of the five seals from the Light of the Mother
so that (the recipient) partakes of the mystery of knowledge and becomes a
light in light.” 124 Baptism and the Five Seals
intertwine with other saving rituals to provide salvation for those who are
recipients; one is incomplete without the other. The ordinances mentioned in
the text are reminiscent of temple themes encountered in apocalyptic Jewish
texts centered on themes of ascent and ethereal ritual, where the recipient of
such blessings is normally taken to heaven.125
While introducing the Trimorphic Protennoia, the
translator/commentator declares that “the baptismal rite of the Five Seals
is a mystery of celestial ascent which strips off the psychic and somatic
garments of ignorance, transforming and purifying Protennoia’s members and
clothing them with radiant light.” 126 Further, “the
author’s [of the gnostic texts in question] reference to the recipients of this
rite in the first-person plural and as ‘brethren’ suggests a [Sethian]
community with a well-established tradition of water baptism which has been
spiritualized into a mystery of ascent.” 127
These Sethian gnostics appear to elicit an elaborate liturgy
and doctrine by viewing baptism and celestial ascent as two sides of the same
coin. Indeed, their writings indicate a near obsession with receiving the
saving gnosis and ultimately removing themselves from this world through liturgical rites. In
these texts, then, the celestial ascent appears inseparable from baptism and
the Five Seals.128 Each provides a connecting link and an escape
from the shackles of mortality, allowing the recipient to be reborn.
Interestingly, they extend this doctrine to cover the dead as well, as already
noted in the Apocryphon of John. Thus, the dead who receive the
gnostic salvation will be baptized and receive the accompanying rites and all
things surrounding the Five Seals.
In the Apocryphon of John, immediately prior to the scene
that speaks of the Five Seals and saving the dead, John poses a question that
elicits a curious response from the risen Lord. John asks, “Lord, how can
the soul become younger and return into its mother’s womb, or into the human?” 129 The commentator notes, “Returning to the mother’s womb is also a theme
encountered in John 3:4,” in which a similar inquiry is made by Nicodemus,
“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into
his mother’s womb, and be born?” In responding to the query of Nicodemus,
Christ teaches him, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he
cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). In his response to John
in the gnostic text, the Savior recounts, “You are truly blessed, for you
have understood. This soul will be made to follow another soul in whom the
spirit of life dwells, and she is saved through that one.” 130 The Lord’s phrasing appears to suggest vicarious or proxy salvation in which
the living provide those who are “dead” in some sense with access to
saving grace. The soul, when being reborn, must follow one who is already
living, in whom “life” dwells. To save those souls who need the
opportunity to be reborn, the act must become operative through a living agent.
What could the living do to assist the dead to gain salvation—taking into
account the close parallel between the question asked by Nicodemus and the
question posed in the gnostic text? Given the Lord’s answer to Nicodemus (to be
born of water and of the spirit), it seems the answer would be baptism for the
Another gnostic text, the Pistis Sophia,131 a
discursive writing purporting to contain the instructions of the risen Lord to
his apostles, hints at vicarious baptism for those who die without the
ordinance. In one particularly notable scene, Maria (Mary) poses the question
My Lord, if a good man has
fulfilled all the mysteries, and he has a relative, in a word, he has a man and
that man is an impious one who has committed all the sins which are worthy of
the outer darkness; and he has not repented; or he has completed his number of
cycles in the changes of the body, and that man has done nothing profitable and
has come forth from the body; and we have known of him certainly that he has
sinned and is worthy of the outer darkness; what should we do to him so that we
save him from the punishments of the dragon of the outer darkness, so that he
is returned to a righteous body which will find the mysteries of the Kingdom of
the Light, and become good and go to the height, and inherit the Kingdom of the
Maria is wondering about the status of condemned souls, or
those who have sinned and also lacked the “mysteries” that are given
to the elect. The condemned souls are deceased, for to reach the Kingdom of
Light they must be “returned to a righteous body.” The “mysteries”
to which Maria refers are of great importance in understanding the Lord’s
response. Upon hearing the question, Christ responds:
If you want to return them
from the punishments of the outer darkness and all the judgments, and return
them to a righteous body which will find the mysteries of the light, and go to
the height and inherit the Kingdom of Light—perform the one mystery of
the Ineffable which forgives sins at all times. And when you have finished performing
the mystery, say: “The soul of such and such a man on whom I think in my
heart, when it comes to the place of the punishments of the chambers of the
outer darkness; or when it is in the rest of the punishments of the chambers of
the outer darkness and the rest of the punishments of the dragon: may it be
returned from them all. And when it finishes its number of cycles in the
changes, may it be taken to the presence of the Virgin of Light; and may the
Virgin of the Light seal it with the seal of the Ineffable, and cast it in that
very month into a righteous body which will find the mysteries of the light in
it, and become good, and go to the height and inherit the Kingdom of the Light.
And furthermore, when it has completed the cycles of the changes, may that soul
be taken to the presence of the seven virgins of the light which are in charge
of (lit. over) the baptism. And may they place it (the baptism) upon that soul,
and seal it with the sign of the Kingdom of the Ineffable, and may they take it
to the ranks of the light.” . . . Truly, I say to you: the soul
for which you shall pray, if indeed it is in the dragon of the outer darkness,
it will withdraw its tail out of its mouth, and release that soul.133
The gnostic Christ tells Maria that the soul of an unrepentant
man may reach the Kingdom of Light and be released from the place of
punishments if certain procedures are undertaken in his name, mainly the “mystery
of the Ineffable which forgives sins at all times.” A person on earth is
to perform this mystery as a proxy for the deceased relative or friend; the
living proxy merely thinks of that person while performing the rite and it will
serve to release the person from outer darkness. The significance of this
passage is that a living soul undergoes a certain rite, the mystery of the
Ineffable (perhaps baptism as this rite is connected with forgiveness of sins),
combined with prayer, which directly influences the salvation of a deceased
soul; it is a proxy rite of the clearest nature.
The Shepherd of Hermas teaches that the dead will receive
baptism and hints at proxy work in a manner similar to the Pistis
Sophia. In the apocalyptic visions, Hermas sees the apostles
preaching to the spirits in the underworld. The text states, “They had to
rise through water. . . in order to be made alive. In no other way
could they enter the reign of God, unless they put off the deadliness of their
[first] life. So too, those who had fallen asleep received the seal and
[entered the reign of God]. Before bearing the name of [the Son of] God
. . . a person is dead. But upon receiving the seal, the person puts
aside deadliness and takes on life. So the seal is the water. Into the water
they go down dead and come up alive. The seal was proclaimed to them, and they
profited from it to enter into the reign of God.” 134
In her commentary on this specific verse, Professor Carolyn
Osiek declares that “the association of passing through water with
entering the kingdom of God (v. 2) and receiving the seal is unmistakably a
reference to baptism; . . . the absolute necessity of baptism is
implicit here [the dead included].” 135
However the Shepherd of Hermas is not finished. Having
learned this, he then asks, “Why, sir . . . did the forty stones
rise with them from the depth already having the seal?” He is answered
These are the apostles and teachers who proclaimed the
name of the Son of God, who, having fallen asleep in power and faith of the Son
of God, even proclaimed to those who had previously fallen asleep and gave them
the seal of the proclamation. They descended with them into the water and came
up again, except that these descended alive and came up alive. Because of them,
these others were enlivened and came to know the name of the Son of God.
. . . They [those being baptized] fell asleep in justice and great
purity, except they did not have this seal.136
The dead are given baptism at the
hands of the apostles and teachers. Yet for some reason, the dead who are
baptized and receive life have some forty people rise with them who already
have the seal, or baptism. The wording “descended alive and came up alive”
appears to indicate that these are souls who are already baptized. Could this
be a reference to proxy baptisms? Osiek concludes: “These verses, without
saying so, present a good argument in favor of baptism in the name of the dead,
apparently already an act of piety in first-century Corinth. . . .
here with the pre-Christian dead, the problem is . . . they practiced
virtue in their lives, but had not received baptism. Through the apostles and
teachers, this problem is solved.” 137 The text
is certainly vague enough to allow for the interpretation, and it seems
interesting that the Shepherd of Hermas, a widely used text for early
Christians, would contain such language. This is not conclusive evidence for
vicarious baptisms, yet the texts reviewed indicate that some form of proxy
work is possible and that it is related to the “rebirth” provided
One thing is quite certain, however—nearly all the
texts purporting to contain teachings of Christ concerning salvation for the
dead emphasize that his teachings were closely guarded, reserved only for those
whom the Lord deemed worthy to hear them.138 Indeed, of all the
major themes presented in the texts, this one is quite pervasive. Because of
this discretion, much remains unknown regarding the circulation and general
understanding of these doctrines. Likely, few people had access to the texts
that claim to contain the “hidden” teachings of the resurrected Lord.
Hugh Nibley pointed out that much of Christ’s recorded teachings on important
doctrinal topics—though only a fraction of what he taught 139—remain
shrouded in mystery, 140 particularly Christ’s teachings
concerning salvation for the dead.141 Given this point, we should be
appreciative of what evidence still exists.
From the texts mentioned it seems clear that a belief among
some early Christian communities was that the dead could be saved, perhaps
through vicarious work, and that many of them would receive baptism. The
ultimate question regards form: Were the baptisms to be performed vicariously
by the living on behalf of the dead, as was done historically by the groups
previously mentioned (and as hinted at in some texts)? Or do these texts
purport that baptism is received by the dead only in the afterlife, with no
proxy or living agent involved?
It appears, ultimately, that the Corinthians, or at least
the reference to them in 1 Corinthians 15:29, inspired following
generations of Christians to engage in vicarious ordinance work. In the
remaining section we will set forth evidence showing that such a practice was
performed in ancient Christianity and was more common than one might suppose.
Marcionite and Gnostic Baptisms
for the Dead
A favorite tactic of proxy nihilists is to associate the
practice of vicarious baptism with later heretical groups and by so doing infer
that the Corinthian practice was likewise heretical. One of the most oft-cited
heretical groups is the Marcionites. Born around AD 100, Marcion was raised as a proto-orthodox Christian by
his father. Around AD 140, he
entered Rome and converted many people to his own Christian theology, now quite
distinct from other teachers of the time. It anticipated the teachings of
Gnosticism, with ideas of strict dualism within the universe and that Yahweh
from the Old Testament was a demiurge. Because of Marcion’s success, he became
a marked target for heresiologists (i.e., heretic hunters) of the orthodox
faith,142 both contemporary and those far removed (such as
The Marcionite sect was
completely estranged from proto-orthodox believers and met in their own communities
rather than worship alongside other believers (as did the gnostics). According
to Epiphanius (late fourth century), Marcion and his followers had stretched
into the vast majority of the Christian world: “the sect is still to be
found even now, in Rome and Italy, Egypt and Palestine, Arabia and Syria,
Cyprus and the Thebaid—in Persia too moreover, and in other places.” 143 Because of the widespread presence of the
Marcionites, far more information about Marcion’s own teachings and practices
has survived than that of relatively minor heretics.
One practice that sources attribute to Marcion and his
followers is proxy baptism for the dead. John Chrysostom, in a homily
concerning 1 Corinthians 15:29, states with amusement that the Marcionites
had perverted the expression “baptized for the dead”:
Will ye that I should first mention how they who are
infected with the Marcionite heresy pervert this expression? And I know indeed
that I shall excite much laughter; nevertheless, even on this account most of
all I will mention it that you may the more completely avoid this disease:
viz., when any Catechumen departs among them, having concealed the living man
under the couch of the dead, they approach the corpse and talk with him, and
ask him if he wishes to receive baptism; then when he makes no answer, he that
is concealed underneath saith in his stead that of course he should wish to be
baptized; and so they baptize him instead of the departed, like men jesting
upon the stage. So great power hath the devil over the souls of careless
It appears that as late as the time of Chrysostom (hence the
present tense in his explanation of the Marcionite heresy), perhaps even in the
early fifth century, followers of Marcion were practicing a form of proxy
baptism for the dead. Chrysostom suggests that they would only do baptisms for
deceased catechumens, or those who were interested in baptism but died before
receiving that ordinance. It was thus reserved only for those who were intent
on becoming baptized within the Marcionite community.
Didymus the Blind (writing in the mid-fourth century)
further substantiates this fact but with a slight difference in his description
of the practice, saying, “The Marcionites baptized the living on behalf of
dead unbelievers, not knowing that baptism saves only the person who receives
it.” 145 Didymus writes that Marcionites baptized for the souls of all unbelievers who
had died without baptism, not just for those who were catechumens while yet
alive. These textual discrepancies leave room for interpretation as to the
exact nature of the practice, yet clearly the Marcionites were
practicing such an act as late as the fourth century AD.
If the practice of proxy baptism was fairly widespread in
the Marcionite communities throughout their history, then it would extend
throughout the Near East and into nearly every area where Christian communities
stretched during the first four centuries. Unlike other Christian sects that
would normally worship right along with more “orthodox” believers,
the Marcionites had such a large following that they began to meet outside the
confines of the “proto-orthodox” church, establishing their own
religious communities or congregations. Marcion had so much success with his
teachings 146 that in many areas of Asia Minor they were the “original form of
Christianity and continued for many years to comprise the greatest number of
persons claiming to be Christian (in those areas).” 147
In his work Panarion, Epiphanius of Salamis,
bishop of Cyprus in the late fourth century, mentions baptism for the dead
performed vicariously in parts of Asia and Galatia. In a section entitled Against
Cerinthians, he diverts from his main writing to provide information
about proxy baptisms:
For their school (Cerinthians) reached its height in
this country, I mean Asia, and in Galatia as well. And in these countries I
also heard of a tradition which said that when some of their people died too
soon, without baptism, others would be baptized for them in their names, so
that they would not be punished for rising unbaptized at the resurrection and
become the subjects of the authority that made the world. And the tradition I
heard of says that this is why the same holy apostle said, “if the dead
rise not at all, why are they baptized for them?” 148
It is unclear whether Epiphanius meant the Cerinthian
practice when speaking of baptisms for the dead, though one would assume that
the Cerinthians were practicing the ordinance. Perhaps he was referring to the
Marcionite practice that existed in that area during the time in which he was
writing. Either way, his remarks provide further evidence that throughout Asia,
or what would better be termed Asia Minor, and Galatia, proxy baptisms were
being performed. His inclusion of the phrase subjects of the authority that made the world points to the fact that whether it was Marcionites, Cerinthians, or
others who were performing this work, they were likely gnostics.149
doctrine is that of proxy baptism by angels, a doctrine taught by Theodotus, a
gnostic teacher who wrote in the later second to early third centuries AD. He is quoted by Clement of
Alexandria as teaching that angels would be baptized for the souls of dead men.
Apparently for Theodotus and the Valentinian tradition of Gnosticism, “Baptism
(played) a key role in the salvation of the elect.” 150 Clement quotes Theodotus as saying, “And,
they say, those who are baptized for the dead, these are the Angels who are
baptized for us, so that, as we also possess the NAME, we are not bound by the
Limit and the Cross, and prevented from entering Pleroma.” 151 Theodotus seems to express that salvation for the
elect souls of the dead, whereby they may enter into Pleroma (fulness, light
above this world), is achieved via proxy baptisms performed by angels of heaven.
Although a variation on the current theme, it is important to note the
similarity implicit in this teaching: proxy baptisms are necessary for the
salvation of the dead, and they must be performed by someone who is living
(such as an angel).
Most commentators, though recognizing the fact that the
Marcionites, as well as gnostic Christians,152 performed the rite of
baptism for the dead, dismiss the practice because such groups are considered
heretical sects of Christianity. However, the term heretical is used by
the enemies of these early branches of Christianity: in scholarly work the term
should hold no bearing on the legitimacy of the beliefs of the group nor upon
the historical relevance of their practices. The Marcionite, Cerinthian, and
gnostic beliefs have just as much of a claim on Christian doctrine as do
orthodox views; the only difference between the two is that one lasted far
longer than the other. Simply because later church fathers rejected the
practice in no way indicates that the primitive church or Christ himself
rejected the beliefs concerning proxy ordinances. Too often Christian
commentaries will dismiss baptism for the dead, specifically 1 Corinthians
15:29, because those who practiced the work were judged long after the fact to
be “heretics.” This, according to their reasoning, is sound evidence
that the early Christian church rejected the doctrine. By this same logic one
could surmise that because the Marcionites, and all other “heretical”
sects, practiced faith in Christ, then certainly the primitive church did not
practice such foolish things.
To understand early Christian doctrines, one must analyze
the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, and early Christian literature. Early
Christians didn’t always agree on doctrine. Orthodoxy is the Christian
interpretation that eventually won out. On this basis, orthodoxy cannot claim
to possess Christ’s original teachings:
It is widely thought today that proto-orthodoxy was simply
one of many competing interpretations of Christianity in the early church. It
was neither a self-evident interpretation nor an original apostolic view. The
apostles, for example, did not teach the Nicene Creed or anything like it.
Indeed, as far back as we can trace it, Christianity was remarkably varied in
its theological expressions.153
Whether groups are gnostic, orthodox, Marcionite, or
whatever, one cannot use the term heretical to infer that all their
teachings are incorrect. Rather, to judge whether a doctrine is plausibly
connected with the teachings of Christ, the apostles, and early Christian
theology, it must be based on historical evidence without reference to
antagonistic terms. Such callous proclamations do nothing to help us understand
why certain groups accepted proxy ordinances, or whether it was reasonable for
them to do so under Christian theology of the time.
If, for instance, the Marcionite sect, or some other gnostic
heresy, had outlasted the proto-orthodox religion, then the current view of
Christianity would be quite different. Our view of history, particularly of
Christianity, is tainted by the categories of orthodoxy and heresy. On what
basis do scholars or theologians judge which sects reflect the earliest
teachings of Christ and his apostles concerning posthumous salvation and proxy
ordinances? If it is based solely on the view of the sect that has outlasted
the others, the so-called orthodox view, then methodologically their views are
no more reputable than those of an untrained layperson. Instead, if modern
methodology is to be observed, then it can be quite plausibly asserted that
(1) Corinthian Saints practiced proxy baptisms on behalf of the dead, as
did the Marcionites, and perhaps the Cerinthians and other gnostics, all of
whom belong to Christian groups with claims of Christian doctrines; and that
(2) given the historical nature of the practice,154 especially
its early appearance, proxy baptisms originated in the first century alongside
the Christian faith. Whether the practice was widespread across the Christian
world, or even among the apostles, is in no way clear. Mormons and non-Mormons
alike must affirm that the scant amount of evidence and writings concerning the
practice leaves a gap of information concerning its origin. Perhaps it did
originate in Corinth, and later with Marcion. Yet perhaps the origin of the
practice stems from Christ himself and the teachings of his apostles. If this
were true, then proxy baptism may hold more weight than ever assumed in
determining Christian doctrine of the earliest form.
As has been shown, vicarious work for the deceased was a
relatively common practice across a broad swath of the ancient Roman Empire.
Diverse religious groups practiced various forms of proxy rites intended to
improve the eternal condition of their deceased loved ones in their postmortal
advancement. Given this background, it was quite natural for some first-century
Christians to practice baptisms for the dead, as they faced the quandary of
reconciling the infinite mercy of a loving God with the clearly stated and
universally accepted Christian requirement of baptism for entrance into heaven,
in light of the fact that many of their loved ones had not met this
As historical evidence of the
practice of baptism for the dead in the early Christian church, we submit the
following, presented in detail throughout this article:
1. Both the New Testament and patristic literature apparently identify
baptism as an absolute requisite of any soul desiring entrance into heaven. The
Gospels, the book of Acts, and the Epistles all demonstrate that the Lord and
his apostles actively extended baptism to every repentant soul and called upon
every soul to repent and be baptized.
2. The most common reading of 1 Corinthians 15:29 among modern biblical
scholars is that it, in fact, refers to vicarious baptism for the dead among
the Corinthian saints circa AD 56/57.
3. Early Christian writers, including Tertullian and Ambrosiaster,
acknowledge that 1 Corinthians 15:29 described vicarious baptism for the
dead. Various Christian writers of the next few centuries thereafter also
recognized this as fact, even though some of them denounced it as heresy.
4. Several New Testament passages and a plethora of apocryphal and gnostic
writings support various themes related to vicarious baptism for the dead,
including Christ’s descent into Sheol to preach to the dead, the need for
baptism for the souls in Sheol, the efficacy of proxy work for the dead, and
various forms of vicarious baptism for the dead, both by the living and by
5. The Marcionites, a Christian sect that had a large following throughout
much of the Roman Empire, practiced baptism for the dead from the late second
or early third to the fourth century and possibly into the early fifth century AD. Some gnostic groups likewise
practiced vicarious baptisms for the dead during the same period (but of
shorter duration). They believed their practice continued a rite original to
6. These groups are
labeled heretical today. While the victor writes the history book, which is
true of both Christian and secular history, the victor is only the strongest
combatant, not necessarily the most deserving. The modern methodology of
historical research requires us to examine the historicity of the practices
without the prejudice inherent in labels from one’s enemies.
Granted, the evidence is not watertight, just as there
is a lack of incontrovertible evidence regarding the origins of many Christian
doctrines. The simple fact is that few Christian documents survive from the
first century, and so we should be appreciative and perhaps even surprised at
the amount of attention given to vicarious baptism and related themes by the
But just as the lack of historical evidence is used by proxy
nihilists to question the validity of the doctrine of baptism for the dead, the
lack of historical records could just as well hide the fact that Christ himself
taught this doctrine during his Forty-Day mission, or that baptisms for the
dead were performed in numerous Christian communities, not just Corinth, under
the auspices of the apostles. The fact is that we simply lack the historical
evidence to determine these matters definitively.
Ultimately, every reader must ask: How can I reconcile the
infinite mercy of a loving Heavenly Father with the Lord’s declaration that one
cannot enter heaven without baptism, in light of the fact that millions upon
millions of good, honest individuals have lived their entire lives in various
regions of the world without the opportunity to hear the good news of the
atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Latter-day Saints practice baptism for the dead out of love
for the deceased as they seek to extend to them the salvific gifts of Christ’s
atonement. We recognize that vicarious ordinances can only be efficacious if
the spirit on the other side of the veil accepts the ordinance performed on his
or her behalf. This approach to the salvation of the dead, though not
acceptable to many, demonstrates a selfless dedication of time and effort to
perform potentially saving acts on behalf of the deceased.
In the last part of this
series, we will trace and explore the revelations that restored the doctrine of
the redemption of the dead, including the resumption of vicarious ordinances
for deceased loved ones.
David L. Paulsen is
a professor of philosophy at BYU. Brock M. Mason is an undergraduate at BYU and
is double majoring in philosophy and ancient Near Eastern studies. The authors
gratefully thank Laura Rawlins, Shirley Ricks, Aaron Tress, George Scott, and
James Siebach for their skillful editing and the College of Humanities and the
Maxwell Institute for their generous funding. The authors would also like to
thank Judson Burton who was largely responsible for the exegetical section of
this paper. Thanks also to at least three unnamed reviewers for their careful
critiques of earlier drafts of this paper. The paper is stronger for their
L. Paulsen, Roger D. Cook, and Kendel J. Christensen, “The Harrowing of
Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of
the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19/1 (2010):
56–77. The final part will cover the restoration of the doctrine of the
redemption of the dead.
Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing of Hell,” 57–58.
3. 1 Enoch 90:20–27, where the fallen angels, along with the “seventy shepherds”
(likely wicked kings) are thrown into the “fiery abyss . . . in
the middle of the earth.” Taken from George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C.
Enoch: A New Translation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004),
4. 1 Enoch 90:28–32; the Gentiles are subservient to the exalted Jews, “worshiping
[them] and making petition to them and obeying them in everything.”
However, unlike the fallen angels and the “seventy shepherds,” they
are not cast into the abyss. See further Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 60.
M. Day, The
Apostles’ Creed: An Interpretation for Today (New York:
Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 81. The Apostles Creed, “next to the
Constantinopolitan Creed, [is] the most important confessional formulary in
Christendom.” The specific phrase included in the creed concerning Christ’s
descent into hell “was a commonplace of Christian teaching from the
earliest times. . . . Two broad, often intermingling streams of
interpretation [about the descent] can be distinguished. According to one,
Christ was active during the mysterious three days preaching salvation, or else
administering baptism, to the righteous of the old Covenant,
according to the other, He performed a triumphant act of liberation on their
behalf.” J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (New York:
McKay, 1972), 368, 379, 380, emphasis added. The descent of Christ was an early
teaching of Christianity, and it was viewed, by some, as bringing salvation and
baptism to those unable to achieve it in their own lifetime.
“early Christians” we mean Christians from the first through the
reading,” as these scholars use it, does not mean more than half of
scholars support it but that more scholars support it than any single
8. History of
the Church, 4:231.
in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First
Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 197.
F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew: Introduction, Translation, and
Notes (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 31–32.
11. The Oxford
Bible Commentary, ed. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2001), 851.
Hilary, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Chromatius, see Ancient Christian Commentary on
Scripture: Matthew 1–13 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity,
2001), 50–53. For Cyril of Alexandria, see Ancient Christian Commentary on
Scripture: Luke (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003),
13. Ferguson, Baptism
in the Early Church, 115.
8–16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 1088–89. “Most
scholars agree that 16:9–20 is non-Markan. . . . These verses
are found in the overwhelming majority of manuscripts and in all major
manuscript families and are attested already by Irenaeus (Against
Heresies 3.10.5) in 185 C.E. and
perhaps, even earlier, by Justin (1 Apology 45, around 155 C.E.). But they were almost certainly
not penned by Mark, nor were they the original ending of the Gospel. Matthew
and Luke follow Mark’s narrative closely up to 16:8, whereas beyond it they diverge
radically, suggesting that their version of Mark did not contain anything
subsequent to 16:8. Verses 9–20, moreover, do not exist in our earliest
and best Greek manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both of which terminate
at 16:8, as do the Sinaitic Syriac, about a hundred Armenian manuscripts, the
two oldest Georgian manuscripts (from 897 and 913 C.E.), and all but one manuscript of the Sahidic Coptic.”
15. Irenaeus, Against
16. Justin, First
21–28: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 631.
18. Luz, Matthew
is the only gospel which has anything that can properly be called an ending.
. . . This final paragraph of Matthew’s gospel looks forward to the
continuing work of the Messianic community, making explicit what has already
been hinted elsewhere about a mission to those outside the Old Covenant
community of Israel.” Albright and Mann, Matthew, 361.
20. Ferguson, Baptism
in the Early Church, 276–77.
the law of baptizing has been imposed, and the formula prescribed: ‘Go,’ He
saith, ‘teach the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ The comparison with this law of that
definition, ‘Unless a man have been reborn of water and Spirit, he shall not
enter into the kingdom of the heavens,’ has tied faith to the necessity of
baptism. Accordingly, all thereafter who became believers used to be baptized.”
Baptism 13, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:676, emphasis deleted. It is
further reiterated: “When, however, the prescript is laid down that ‘without
baptism, salvation is attainable by none’ (chiefly on the ground of that
declaration of the Lord, who says, ‘Unless one be born of water, he hath not
life.'” Tertullian, On Baptism 12, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:674–75.
many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true,
. . . [these] are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated
in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For in the name of
God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and
of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also
said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’
Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into
their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and
repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet,
. . . ‘Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings
from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the
widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your
sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as
crimson, I will make them white as snow.'” Justin Martyr, First
Apology 61, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:183.
is he who is born of the Spirit, and is made Spirit, but he who is renewed in
the Spirit of his mind? This certainly is he who is regenerated by water and
the Holy Spirit, since we receive the hope of eternal life through the laver of
regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit. And elsewhere the Apostle Peter
says: ‘Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ For who is he that is
baptized with the Holy Spirit but he who is born again through water and the
Holy Spirit? Therefore the Lord said of the Holy Spirit, Verily, verily, I say
unto thee, except a man be born again by water and the Spirit, he cannot enter
into the kingdom of God. And therefore He declared that we are born of Him in
the latter case, through Whom He said that we were born in the former. This is
the sentence of the Lord; I rest on what is written, not on argument.”
the Holy Spirit 3.10.64, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,
series 2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994),
dipped himself,’ says [the Scripture], ‘seven times in Jordan.’ It was not for
nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his
being baptized, but [it served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in
sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the
Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born
babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water
and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.'” Fragments
from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus 34, in Ante-Nicene
Fathers, 1:574, brackets in original.
unless a man have been baptized and born again, he cannot attain unto the
kingdom of God. In the Gospel according to John: ‘Except a man be born again of
water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. For that which
is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’
Also in the same place: ‘Unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink
His blood, ye shall not have life in you.'” Treatises of Cyprian:
Testimonies 25, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5:542.
in the Gospel our Lord Jesus Christ spoke with His divine voice, saying, ‘Except
a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of
God.’ This is the Spirit which from the beginning was borne over the waters;
for neither can the Spirit operate without the water, nor the water without the
Spirit. Certain people therefore interpret for themselves ill, when they say
that by imposition of the hand they receive the Holy Ghost, and are thus
received, when it is manifest that they ought to be born again in the Catholic
Church by both sacraments. Then indeed they will be able to be sons of God, as
says the apostle: ‘Taking care to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of
peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, as ye have been called in one hope of
your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.’ All these things
speaks the Catholic Church.” The Seventh Council of Carthage under
Cyprian, in Ante-Nicene
Fathers, 5:566. This is an interesting variation on the theme
that baptism is essential for salvation. Here, instead of mentioning the remission
of sins, regeneration, or salvation, as the other authors do, the council
refers to the saints becoming “sons of God” through baptism.
27. Tertullian, On
Baptism 12, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:674–75.
28. Ferguson, Baptism
in the Early Church, 142–45. Ferguson here surveys the
arguments about the meaning and legitimacy of John 3:5, ultimately concluding
that “John 3:5 provides a combination of the ideas of baptism, sonship (new
birth), and the presence of the Holy Spirit” (p. 145).
Hartman, “Baptism,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed.
David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:590, 585.
31. Ferguson, Baptism
in the Early Church, 170.
32. Shepherd of
Hermas, commandment 4.3, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 2:22.
baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons. . . . This
work is variously called grace, and illumination, and perfection, and washing:
washing, by which we cleanse away our sins; grace, by which the penalties
accruing to transgressions are remitted; illumination, by which that holy light
of salvation is beheld, that is, by which we see God clearly.” Further, “we
who are baptized, having wiped off the sins that obscure the light of the
Divine Spirit, have the eye of the spirit free, unimpeded, and full of light,
by which alone we contemplate the Divine, the Holy Spirit flowing down to us
from above.” Clement of Alexandria, The Pegagogue 1.6, in Ante-Nicene
Fathers, 2:215, 216.
second birth, which occurs in baptism, begets sons of God.” Epistle to
Cyprian 74.14, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5:393.
ask that their reproach may be taken away—that is, that they may be
cleansed from their sins: for the reproach is the original sin which is taken
away in baptism, and they begin to be called Christian men.” Victorinus, Commentary
on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John 1.16, in Ante-Nicene
any man receive not Baptism, he hath not salvation; except only Martyrs, who
even without the water receive the kingdom.” Catechetical Lectures 3.10, in Nicene
and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, 7:16.
John 3:5 and baptism: “What he declares is this: ‘Thou sayest that it is
impossible, I say that it is so absolutely possible as to be necessary, and
that it is not even possible otherwise to be saved.'” Homilies on
St. John 25, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, ed. Philip
Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 14:87.
three ways then sins are remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the
greater humility of penance; yet God doth not remit sins but to the baptized.”
to Catechumens on the Creed 7:16, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,
series 1, 3:375. Further, “[According to] apostolic tradition,
. . . the Churches of Christ hold inherently that without Baptism and
participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain
either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal[.] This is the
witness of Scripture too.” Augustine, Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and
the Baptism of Infants 1.24.34, in The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol.
3, trans. William A. Jurgens (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1979), 91.
are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water.
. . . We indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement,
but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in
Jesus in our spirit.” Epistle of Barnabas 11, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:144,
brackets in original.
Tractate I,5, 127, 28–32, in The Nag Hammadi Library in English,
ed. James M. Robinson, trans. Harold W. Attridge and Dieter Mueller (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 99.
41. Gospel of
Philip II,3, 73, 5–8, trans. Wesley W. Isenberg, in Robinson, Nag Hammadi
in the Early Church, 276–77.
43. Ferguson, Baptism
in the Early Church, 854.
Textus Receptus, which stems from Erasmus’s 1516 Greek version of the New
Testament (and ultimately from Theodore Beza’s 1598 Greek New Testament), is
considered by many to be an inferior text and underlies the King James Version
is roughly the translation given by the King James Version of the text. As
noted above, many scholars consider the text underlying the KJV to be inferior.
However, owing to the fact that our general readership is most acquainted with
the King James translation we felt it appropriate to use this translation.
Translations which scholars hold to be more authoritative vary in the way in
which they refer to “the dead” in its final occurrence in the verse.
For example, The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which uses a
standard scholarly Greek text and not the Textus Receptus of the King James
Version, translates the passage thus: “Otherwise, what will those
people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised
at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?”
F. Hull, Baptism
on Account of the Dead (1 Cor 15:29): An Act of Faith in the Resurrection (Atlanta:
Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 8 and 11 n. 14. See Gordon D. Fee, The First
Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 766; and
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “‘Baptized for the Dead’ (1 Cor 15:29): A
Corinthian Slogan?” Revue biblique 88 (1981): 532.
intens. βαπτίζω occurs
in the sense of ‘to immerse’ (trans.) from the time of Hippocrates, in Plato
and esp. in later writers. a. strictly, act.” Albrecht Oepke, “βαπτίζω,”
Dictionary of the New Testament, 1:530.
Over, Beyond; . . . 2. on behalf of; . . . 3. In the Place
of; . . . 4. With Reference to; . . . 5. On Account of. . .
. In all probability the word has the representative sense in Paul’s saying
about baptism for the dead. . . . None of the attempts to escape the theory of
a vicarious baptism in primitive Christianity seems to be wholly successful. If
one thus presupposes that there may be baptism ‘for the dead,’ this implies
that the dead, probably relatives, were un-baptised at death. We thus have a
kind of substitution even if, as one may suppose, the candidate was baptised
for himself as well as with respect to someone who had died unbaptised.”
Harald Riesenfeld, “ὑπὲρ,” in Theological Dictionary of the
Old Testament, 8:507–14, last quotation on 512–13.
the NT νεκρός is used as both noun and adj. As adj., in the sense ‘dead,’ it is used of men,
as of Jesus Christ. . . . νεκρός (mostly as adj.) is also
used fig.” Rudolf Bultmann, “νεκρός,”
Dictionary of the New Testament, 4:893. Both νεκρῶν and νεκροί appear in 15:29. νεκρῶν is used in a genitive sense while νεκροί “are often the dead
in the underworld of whom Christ is the πρωτότοκος”
Purgatorio, c. 6, in Disputationes, vol. 2 (Naples,
1857), 366. Quoted by Bernard M. Foschini in “Those Who Are Baptized
for the Dead,” 1 Cor. 15:29: An Exegetical Historical Dissertation (Worcester,
MA: Heffernan, 1951), 7. Bellarmine cites authors who translate 15:29 in a
similar way. Peter the Venerable (1092–1156) was born in France and was
the abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Clunny. Bellarmine’s remaining two
references are not as clear. However, it seems that in speaking of Dionysius he
is referring to Pope Dionysius, who presided over the church from 259 to 268.
Additionally, in referring to Ephrem, it is most likely that he is speaking of
Ephrem the Syrian (306–373), the venerated theologian of the Syriac
it is important to note that the commonality is not convincing for Catholic
theologians. They see a precedent in praying for other living individuals,
while they see no precedent in being baptized for another living individual. To
them, this is a common-sense extension of a practical and condoned practice,
while baptism finds no such precedence.
Thomas J. Conant, The Meaning and Use of Baptizein: Philologically
and Historically Investigated for the American Bible Union (New
York: American Bible Union, 1868), 101.
53. Conant, Meaning
and Use of Baptizein, 99–100.
54. Hull, Baptism
on Account of the Dead, 97. Importantly, 1 Corinthians 10:2 and
12:13 appear to have a metaphorical meaning. However, Michael Hull and John D.
Reaume affirm that the only way that these uses can be read is in a literal
55. Hull, Baptism
on Account of the Dead, 97.
this analysis essentially refutes any reading which rests upon a metaphorical
reading of baptizō, it
will be beneficial to include another interpretation. We do this merely to
portray the ingenuity which has gone into avoiding a vicarious baptism reading.
According to the interpretation of this verse, βαπτίζω may
refer to the martyrdom of the faithful Christians of Corinth under
persecutions. In this way an appeal is made to a metaphorical reading to
indicate a baptism of blood. Importantly though, our refutation of Bellarmine’s
thesis is sufficient to address all variant readings that rely on a
metaphorical reading of βαπτίζω, for any such readings
cannot come into proper conformity with Pauline literature as a whole.
we will demonstrate, many scholars give an analysis to 15:29 which causes it to
read as ordinary baptism.
D. Reaume, “Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, ‘Baptized for the
Dead,'” Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (1995): 467. The term crux interpretum is Latin for “crossroads of the interpreters.” The term is
used in biblical scholarship for a passage which is nigh unto impossible to
arrive at a consensus as to its proper translation and meaning.
Raeder, “Vikariatstaufe in I Kor. 15:29?” Zeitschrift für die
neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 46 (1956): 256–60, as quoted by
Reaume, in “Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29,” 462.
regards to the final sense Riesenfeld has said that “with various verbs
and expressions ὑπὲρ is used with the gen. of an abstract noun in a final sense: ‘with reference to,’
‘as concerns,’ . . . ‘for the sake of,’ ‘for.'” Riesenfeld, “ὑπὲρ,”
gives this additional remark in his footnotes: “This lack of empirical
confirmation is particularly detrimental to Raeder’s hypothesis since it
involves a phenomenon that, on the face of it, seems intuitively unlikely.
Neither she nor those who share her view provide adequate sociological or
theological justification as to why unbelievers would seek baptism or why the
Corinthian church would allow them to receive it.” Joel R. White, “‘Baptized
on Account of the Dead': The Meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:29 in Its Context,” Journal
of Biblical Literature 116/3 (1997): 492 n. 29.
“‘Baptized on Account of the Dead,'” 492.
to Riesenfeld, “Causally ὑπὲρ is used to denote the cause or reason: ‘on
account of,’ ‘because of.’ In the NT it occurs with verbs and expressions of
suffering, the reference being to Christians who endure hardships because of
their faith.” Riesenfeld, “ὑπὲρ,” 8:514. The
causal reading gives the reason why individuals initially entered into the
“‘Baptized on Account of the Dead,'” 494.
65. Hull, Baptism
on Account of the Dead, 47.
67. Hull, Baptism
on Account of the Dead, 31.
68. Hull, Baptism
on Account of the Dead, 98–101.
“Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead,” 93.
“Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead,” 93.
“Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead,” 93.
“Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead,” 98.
“Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29,” 466.
“Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29,” 466 n. 46.
75. Hull, Baptism
on Account of the Dead, 44. Furthermore, Foschini’s translation also
assumed that the sole purpose of baptism has to do with the afterlife. But Paul
also understands baptism as producing great benefits during one’s mortal life.
We live for Christ, whether it is in this mortal life or in the hereafter. We do
not have to wait for death to become new through baptism.
76. Hull, Baptism
on Account of the Dead, 5.
77. Hull, Baptism
on Account of the Dead, 230. Importantly, Hull goes on to claim that
when the historical context is taken into consideration, 15:29 becomes a “reference
to ordinary baptism, albeit an extraordinary one” (p. 230).
W. Kuck, review of Baptism on Account of the Dead (1 Cor 15:29): An Act of Faith in
the Resurrection, by Michael F. Hull, Religious Studies Review 33/1 (2007): 69.
“Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29,” 457.
F. Orr and James A. Walther, 1 Corinthians: A New Translation (Garden City: Doubleday, 1976), 337.
First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960), 218.
Carr, “Baptism for the Dead” (1 Corinthians XV. 19 [sic]),” Expositor 9 (1901): 371–78.
E. DeMaris, “Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead
(1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights from Archaeology and Anthropology,” Journal of
Biblical Literature 114 (1995): 661–82, 673. However, it is
important to point out, that if DeMaris is referring to the fact that the
practice at Corinth was an anomaly, and so was not widespread during that time
period, then we agree with him. There is nothing that resembles such a practice
in the mid-first century.
Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (London: Routledge, 2004),
146–65. In Gennep’s chapter on funeral rites, he sets forth many rites
which the living must perform on behalf of the dead in order to aid them in
their postmortal journey. He cites from a host of non—Judeo-Christian
V. Martin, “Baptism for the Dead,” Expository Times 54
Theology of Saint Paul, vol. 1, trans. John L. Stoddard
(Westminster, MD: Newman Bookshop, 1927), 137. Prat explains that “there
was danger of believing that in having themselves baptized for the
dead—that is to say, for their advantage—they had had themselves baptized
in the place of the dead, so as to procure for them the effects of baptism; as
if death were not the terminus of the test, and as if the dead could be aided
otherwise than by means of prayer” (p. 137). Prat in this passage gives
voice to an important point, that in the “orthodox” tradition, there
is no precedence of baptisms being performed on behalf of the dead.
Furthermore, the concept of baptisms for the dead is not as easily translatable
as prayers for the dead (since we are capable of praying for another who is
living, and we are not able to be baptized for another that is living).
However, such a defense is based upon the precedence of the “orthodox”
tradition. Those who have rightly or wrongly been branded as heretics in later
centuries, do indeed have a precedence of such a practice, and in light of the
full viability of reading 15:29 as vicarious baptism, their practice does have
possible scriptural support.
87. Tertullian, On
the Resurrection of the Flesh 48, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:581.
Marcion has been tentatively dated to AD 207–208, and certainly after On the
Resurrection of the Flesh, due to the fact that the latter work is
referenced by Tertullian in Against Marcion. See further
Timothy David Barnes, Terullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1971), 55.
89. Tertullian, Against
Marcion 5.10, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:449–50.
A. Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead: Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in
Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001),
Februarian lustrations was a Roman celebration where the dead would be provided
and prayed for, to benefit them beyond the grave.
92. Ambrosiaster is the name
given to an unknown author of a commentary on the epistles of Paul. For many
years scholars supposed that this author was the Orthodox theologian St.
Ambrose. After extensive textual studies, modern studies conclude that this
writer is likely someone else. However, given the history of referring to the
author of these commentaries as “Ambrose,” scholars now prefer to
term the Christian writer as “Ambrosiaster” to distinguish him as the
once supposed “Ambrose” and author of the Pauline commentaries.
93. Ambrosiaster, Commentary
on Paul’s Epistles, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 81.175;
see Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 166.
term apocryphal generally refers to the early Christian writings that are of questionable
authorship or were left out of the New Testament canon for one reason or
another. The term itself means “hidden” or “secret”
writings, though modern scholarship generally uses the term for noncanonical
literature here is meant to include all writings where the resurrected Lord
appears after his crucifixion and provides instruction to certain select
“Baptism,” while commenting on Galatians 3:26–27, mentions that
for Paul, “there is no tension or contradiction to be seen between the two
(faith and baptism). . . . One may say that faith is the subjective
side of the receiving of the gift of salvation, baptism the objective side”
(p. 587). For Paul, it appears, baptism is linked with faith to be saved,
whereas baptism is an outward expression of the inward faith of the believer.
97. Trumbower, Rescue for
the Dead, 37.
H. Elliott, 1 Peter:
A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York:
Doubleday, 2000), 654–68, 730–34.
a fuller treatment of this topic, see Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 56–77.
Peter (London: Oliphants, 1971), 156.
101. Best, 1 Peter,
156–57, references 1 Peter 1:3; 3:10; 4:5, 18; and 5:8 as evidence.
102. Elliott, 1 Peter,
103. Hartman, “Baptism,”
591, explains: “Although baptism is mentioned only once in 1 Peter,
it plays an important role as a basic presupposition for the presentation in
the epistle. In fact, it is so important that scholars have suggested that it
represents (parts of) a baptismal liturgy or a baptismal homily. Even though
such a supposition may go somewhat too far, there is a wide consensus that
1 Peter makes substantial use of ideas associated with baptism.”
104. Not to be
confused with the gnostic work of the same name. This text dates roughly
between AD 100–150; it is
first mentioned by Clement of Alexandria in AD 180. This apocryphal work was considered scripture by Clement but was likely
composed in Egypt by an unknown author.
of Peter 14, translation from the Greek Rainer Fragment, by Dennis
D. Buchholz, Your Eyes Will Be Opened: A Study of the Greek (Ethiopic)
Apocalypse of Peter (Atlanta: Scholars, 1988), 344–45.
106. Buchholz, Your Eyes
Will Be Opened, 348.
107. Buchholz, Your Eyes
Will Be Opened, 348.
R. James, The
Apocryphal New Testament: Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1924), 524.
109. Odes of
Solomon 42:20; see further Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 62–65.
110. J. N. D.
Christian Doctrines (London: Continuum, 2008), 207. Kelly remarks
how the rites of Chrismation became increasingly important and were used more
and more in conjunction with baptism at the beginning of the third
century—although the rite itself existed much earlier. In Chrismation,
the initiate is anointed with sacred oil, known as chrism, while a priest
speaks certain words and performs the sign of the cross. The words repeated
indicate that the initiate will have sealed upon him the gifts of the Holy
Spirit. It is often, though not always, performed with the rite of baptism. It
is still practiced today in orthodox churches, particularly of the East.
Revelation 1:18; Christ has the “keys of hell and of death.”
Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing of Hell,” 62–66.
113. Note Odes of
Solomon 42:11, 14, 17–20, in which Christ descends to Sheol
and creates a “congregation of living (people) . . . and (I,
Christ) placed My name upon their head. Because they are free, and they are
mine.” Though the odes are mainly hymns and poetic in nature, they purport
to be the revelations and teachings of the risen Lord to the odist, hence the
114. Taken from Epistle
of the Apostles, in Montague R. James, trans., The
Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 494, parenthetical explanations
provided by the translator.
115. John D. Turner notes, “The Secret Book of John contains what
purport to be secret teachings revealed by Christ in a postresurrection appearance
to the apostle John the son of Zebedee.” Turner, introduction to the text,
in Nag Hammadi Scriptures, ed. Marvin Meyer (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 104.
116. The divine
Forethought that descends into darkness in the extended ending of the Apocryphon of
John is generally understood to refer to Jesus. The corresponding
footnote by Meyer in Nag Hammadi Scriptures, 131 n. 138, reads
that the “hymn of heavenly Forethought, the divine Mother,” depicts
her “as Savior.” However, “in the present Christianized version
of the Secret
Book of John readers may understand the Savior to be Jesus.”
Waldstein and Frederik Wisse, eds., The Apocryphon of John: Synopsis of Nag
Hammadi Codices II,1; III,1; and IV,1 With BG 8502,2 (Leiden: Brill,
1995), 171. The translation appears thus: “I entered into the midst of
darkness and the inside of Hades. . . . And I entered into the midst
of their prison which is the prison
hears, let him get up from the deep sleep.” Note the translators rendering
the Coptic word for “underworld” as “Hades,” signifying
this is indeed the resting place of the dead.
of John—Hymn of the Savior 30,11–31,25, in Meyer, Nag Hammadi
Scriptures, 131–32. Further, Meyer explains that the phrase to
“arise from deep sleep” is in fact, “the call to awaken”
that “addresses a prototypal sleeper—any person who may awaken to
knowledge and salvation.” In other words, Christ’s descent is a call to
those who are residing in the underworld to receive knowledge (gnosis)
and ultimately salvation—posthumous salvation.
119. Meyer, Nag Hammadi
Scriptures, 132: In some sense, the person, after receiving the
Savior and the “Five Seals,” receives new life and awakens from “deep
sleep,” or receives salvation.
introduction to the text, in Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, 106. He
notes, “Several Sethian treatises present this final act of deliverance as
a baptismal rite (the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, Three Forms of First
Thought, Melchizedek, the Revelation of Adam, Zostrianos, and
usually called the Five Seals (Three Forms of First Thought; the
longer versions of the Secret Book of John; the Holy Book of
the Great Invisible Spirit; and the untitled text of the Bruce
H. B. Logan, “The Mystery of the Five Seals: Gnostic Initiation
Reconsidered,” Vigiliae Christianae 51/2 (1997): 188. This article
investigates the Five Seals in numerous texts.
122. This is
the contention of Yvonne Janssens in the translation/commentary of the text,
contained in La Prôtennoia Trimorphe (Québec: Les Presses de l’Université
Laval, 1978), 2–5.
123. Charles W.
Hedrick, ed., Trimorphic Protennoia 48,5–35, in Nag Hammadi Codices XI, XII, XIII (Leiden: Brill, 1990), 429.
124. Logan, “Mystery
of the Five Seals,” 188.
to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1993), 9–46; this chapter examines the mythic ascent of
Enoch in Enochic literature, his investment with priestly garments, and his
ultimate transfiguration. The entire book focuses on such ascents, where
ritualistic notions are accompanied by transcendent visions into heaven.
126. Nag Hammadi
Codices XI, XII, XIII, 379.
127. Nag Hammadi
Codices XI, XII, XIII, 379.
128. Nag Hammadi
Codices XI, XII, XIII, 379.
Secret Book of John—On Human Destiny,” 25,16–30,11, in Meyer, Nag Hammadi
scholars have interpreted this verse as an indication that the souls of these
men will have some form of reincarnation. Although this is true in one sense,
those who are “saved” through “another soul in whom life dwells”
will no longer receive this reincarnation. Trumbower, in his work Rescue for
the Dead, 111–12, mentions that these verses (and some
preceding it) speak of a “reincarnation for some souls.” He cites as
a source Michael A. Williams, who likewise claims this verse is speaking of
reincarnation. Michael A. Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument
for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1996), 197. Once John poses the question concerning reentering the womb,
a new group (of saved-souls) is meant. The Lord responds: “This soul will
be made to follow another soul in whom the spirit of life dwells, and she is
saved through that one. Then she will not be thrust into flesh again.”
Thus, reincarnation may only apply to those spirits who are not saved,
according to the gnostic text.
131. The text
is roughly dated to AD 250–300 and penned by a gnostic Christian. It is also likely that each of
the four books that comprise the Pistis Sophia were composed by
different people, given the textual variance found in the different texts.
Schmidt, ed., Violet Macdermot, trans., Pistis Sophia—Book III, 128 (Leiden: Brill, 1978), 322–23.
and Macdermot, Pistis Sophia—Book III, 128, 323–24.
134. Similitude 9:16, 2–4, in Carolyn Osiek, Shepherd of Hermas: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 232, brackets in original.
135. Osiek, Shepherd of
136. Similitude 9:16, 5–7, in Osiek, Shepherd of Hermas, 232–33.
137. Osiek, Shepherd of
138. The Gospel of
Thomas records in the prologue, “These are the hidden sayings
that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas the Twin recorded.” Likewise,
of John expresses a similar sentiment in its opening lines: “the
teaching of the Savior, and [the revelation] of the mysteries [and the things] hidden in
silence, things he taught his disciple John.” Meyer, Nag Hammadi
Scriptures, 139, 107. These sayings were considered highly sacred,
and as such were likely not widely circulated in the ancient world. The
teachings contained therein would have been known only by a select few.
139. See John
21:25: “There are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if
they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could
not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” It is interesting that
the apostle John, in composing his own Gospel, notes the scant amount of
information provided concerning the historical Jesus.
Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” in Mormonism
and Early Christianity (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS,
1987), 103–5. Nibley points out the peculiar dearth of information
provided by the apostles for some of the most important of teachings, such as
the “keys of the kingdom,” which, as he explains, likely refers to
salvation for the dead.
141. Nibley, “Baptism
for the Dead,” 103–9. On page 102, Nibley points to an important
discussion allegedly between Clement and Peter as initial evidence. Clement
poses the question, “If the righteous ones whom he finds will participate
and delight in the kingdom of Christ, then those who have died beforehand have
missed out on his kingdom (referring to those who die before the advent of
Christ).” In response, Peter assures him that such a scandal could not
occur and that salvation has been made available to them. He also reminds Clement:
these are “hidden matters, Clement. It is not irksome for me to tell you,
as far as I am permitted to reveal.” Clementine Recognitions 1.52, in
F. Stanley Jones, An Ancient Jewish Christian Source on the History of
Christianity: Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1.27–71 (Atlanta:
Scholars, 1995), 84. It is not clear why these doctrines would require such
secrecy. A number of authors such as Nibley include this teaching as an
esoteric doctrine of Christianity, one that was principally carried on by word
rather than through scripture and one that was preserved only for the most
righteous of Saints. It seems quite clear that traditions like this did exist
in the early church, and the possibility that proxy baptism was included among
this category is quite plausible.
142. Stuart G.
and Practice in the Early Church (London: SPCK, 2005), 45–46.
Hall lists Valentinus and Basilides as other leaders of heretical sects that
spread widely and were the targets of both Eastern and Western criticism of
143. Epiphanius, Panarion:
Against Marcionites 22, in Frank Williams, trans., The Panarion
of Epiphanius of Salamais (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 294.
on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 40, in Nicene and
Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, 12:244.
145. Didymus, Pauline
Commentary from the Greek Church; see Bray, Ancient
Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1 and 2 Corinthians, 166.
146. Justin of
Rome, an apologist for the proto-orthodox church, would recount of Marcion in
the second century that he, “by the aid of the devils, has caused many of
every nation to speak blasphemies.” First Apology 1.26, in Ante-Nicene
147. Bart D.
Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 109.
148. Epiphanius, Panarion: Against
Cerinthians 6,4–5, in Williams, Panarion of Epiphanius, 120
149. Pearson, Ancient
150. Pearson, Ancient
translation based on François Sagnard, trans., Clément D’Alexandrie: Extraits
de Théodote (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1970), 103.
152. It must be
kept in mind that in the earliest centuries, there was no great division
between gnostic Christians and so-called orthodox believers. Ehrman relates, “One
of the striking features of Christian Gnosticism is that it appears to have
operated principally from within existing Christian churches, that Gnostics
considered themselves to be the spiritually elite of these churches, who could
confess the creeds of other Christians, read the Scriptures of other
Christians, partake of baptism and Eucharist with other Christians, but who
believed that they had a deeper, more spiritual, secret understanding of these
creeds, Scriptures, and sacraments. . . . Gnostics were not ‘out
there’ forming their own communities. The Gnostics were ‘in here,’ with us, in
our midst. And you couldn’t tell one simply by looking.” Ehrman, Lost
153. Ehrman, Lost
Mandaeans, a non-Christian group, also practiced baptisms for the dead. The
Mandaeans trace their religious history back to the followers of John the
Baptist and are strict proponents of religious ritualism and ceremonial
cleanliness. They practice not only baptism for the dead, but other saving
rites for the deceased. Once a year, at Panja, these saving rites, “called
the hava ḏ mani, . . . are
performed upon a proxy, who in status, sex, personality, and age closely
resembles the dead person.” Ethel S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: Their
Cults, Customs, Magic Legends, and Folklore (Piscataway, NJ:
Gorgias, 2002), 214. In the ritual, “the proxy descends into the water,
and repeats voicelessly, ‘I, N. son of N. (the name of the dead person) am
baptized with the baptism of Bahram the Great, son of the mighty [ones]. My
baptism shall protect me and cause me to ascend to the summit.’ He submerges
thrice, and on emerging puts on a completely new rasta”
(pp. 215–16). It should be noted that their concepts of the effect
of such rituals is different than Christians would normally infer. Rather than
admitting them solely into the heaven, these rituals are aids in the cosmic
venture of the dead across the universe.