To The Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews

Cecil N. Wright

Doctrine of Baptisms
"Baptized for the Dead"
Chapter 6:2

This is to discuss a question asked as to whether Chapter 6:2 was intended to include "baptized for the dead" (1 Cor.15:29). While it may not have been intended for that purpose, it is not inappropriate for us to discuss that in connection with it.

Because v.30 introduces another argument of the same sort (that continues through v.32), or else, as thought by some, may even be a part of the same argument, we shall give both together, though directing most of our attention to v.29.

  Scripture Text (ASV)

29 Else what shall they do that are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? 30 why do we also stand in jeopardy every hour?

This is what is called an argument ad hominem -- that is, to the man -- exposing, in this case, an inconsistency between practice and fact if there is no resurrection of the dead.

It makes it obvious (1) that some persons somewhere, if not in Corinth (where it would nearly have to be for an ad hominem argument to be effective against error there), were being "baptized for the dead," whatever that means; (2) that the writer took for granted that his readers were acquainted with that fact; also (3) that it was not a general practice, for those engaged in it were designated as "they", which seems also to exclude the writer. Yet (4) no condemnation is expressed, which seems a little strange if it was wrong, and especially so if there were cases of it at Corinth, since the general purpose of the Epistle was to correct moral, spiritual, and doctrinal aberrations in the church there.

While Paul's original readers would have understood the historical setting for his argument without any further elaboration on his part, we today do not have that advantage. And lack of it, plus the flexibility of the word translated "for" in the expression "for the dead," has spawned almost endless theories (between 30 and 40), some obviously false, others more nearly tenable, but none conclusive or completely decisive.

So the best we can do seems to be (1) to notice the most practical ones for our consideration, with whatever comments seem in order, and likewise (2) to call attention to uses of the Greek word huper, also transliterated hyper, and translated "for" in the expression "baptized for the dead" -- which we shall do in reverse order.

In its literal sense huper means over or above or beyond. But in the New Testament, and likewise in the LXX, it occurs only in non-literal senses.

Huper in the New Testament

Huper has 160 occurrences in the New Testament. In 134 of these it occurs with words in the genitive case, including our text; and in 104 it is translated "for" in the KJV; in 12, "of"; in 8, ‘for" (one's) sake"; in 3, "on (one's) behalf; in 2, "in (one's) stead"; in 5, miscellaneous -- one each of the following: "on (one's) part (Mk.9:40); "concerning" (Rom.9:27); "toward" (2 Cor.7:7); "in the behalf of" (Phil. 1:29a); "by" (2 Thess.2:1).

Huper with the accusative case occurs 20 times, translated "above" 12 times; "more than," 3 times; "than," 2 times; "beyond," once (2 Cor.8:3); "to" once (2 Cor.12:13); "over," once (Eph.1:22).

Huper as an adverb occurs 6 times, translated "very chiefest" 2 times; "more," once (2 Cor.11:23); "exceeding abundantly," once (Eph.3:20b); "exceedingly," once (1 Thess.3:10); "very highly," once (1 Thess.5:13).

Huper with the genitive, as defined by Arndt & Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: (a). for, in behalf of, for the sake of someone or something: (b). With genitive of the thing, in order to do whatever is under consideration for it; (c). In the place of, instead of, in the name of. (Sometimes this merges with on behalf of, for the sake of.); (d). To denote the MOVING CAUSE or the REASON,* because of, for the sake of, for; (e). above and beyond is possible in huper tes eudokias (Phil.2:13); (f). About, concerning (about equivalent to peri, and frequently interchanges in MSS).

Huper with the accusative: in the sense of excelling, surpassing, over and above, beyond, more than.

Huper as an adverb: more (2 Cor.11:23). (See translations above.)

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* Thayer likewise: "4. Of the IMPELLING or MOVING CAUSE; on account of, for the sake of, any person or thing."

Selected Interpretations

1. Baptism of Proxies in Behalf of Dead Persons. "The only tenable explanation is that there existed amongst some of the Christians at Corinth the practice of baptizing a living Christian in the stead of some convert who had died before that sacrament had been administered to him. Such a practice existed among the Marcionites in the second century [Marcion flourished about 144 A.D.], and still earlier amongst a sect called Cerinthians [Cerinthus flourished about 100 A.D.]. The idea evidently was that whatever benefit flowed from baptism might thus be vicariously secured for the deceased Christian. St. Chrysostom [died 407 A.D.] gives the following description of it: -- ‘After a catechumen (i.e., one prepared for baptism, but not actually baptized) was dead, they hid a living man under the bed of the deceased; then coming to the bed of the dead man they spake to him, and he making no answer, the other replied in his stead, and so they baptized the "living for the dead."' Does St. Paul then, by what he here says, sanction the superstitious practice? Certainly not. He carefully separates himself from the Corinthians, to whom he immediately addresses himself, from those who adopted the custom. He no longer uses the first or second person; it is ‘they' throughout this passage. It is no proof to others; it is simply the argumentum ad hominem. Those who do that, and disbelieve a resurrection, refute themselves. This custom possibly sprang up amongst the Jewish converts, who had been accustomed to something similar in their own faith. If a Jew died without having been purified from some ceremonial uncleanness, some living person had the necessary ablution performed on them [sic], and the dead were so accounted clean." (Ellicott's Commentary on the whole Bible, late 19th century A.D.)

"‘If the dead rise not at all, what shall they do that are baptized for the dead?' (ver.29) -- an inquiry of which the Corinthians no doubt felt the full force, but which is rather lost upon us because we do not know what it means. . . .

"The plain meaning of the words, however, seems to point to a vicarious baptism, in which a living friend received baptism as a proxy for a person who had died without baptism. . . . Then, as now, it sometimes happened that on the approach of death the thoughts of unbelieving persons were strongly turned towards the Christian faith, but before baptism could be administered death cut down the intending Christian. Baptism was generally postponed until youth or even middle life, was passed, in order that a large number of sins might be washed away in baptism, or that fewer might stain the soul after it. But naturally miscalculations sometimes occurred, and sudden death anticipated a long delayed baptism. In such cases friends of the deceased derived consolation from vicarious baptism. Some one who was persuaded of the faith of the departed answered for him and was baptized in his stead." (W. Robertson Nicoll, ed., The Expositor's Bible, early 20th century A.D.)

NOTE: However plausible, a great deal of supposition is involved in the above quotations. Particularly it is not known whether it later grew out of his writing, as believed by many. For the flexibility of the word "for" (huper) by no means limits the linguistic possibilities or probabilities to proxy baptism.

2. Baptism of Living Converts to be United with Christ. "Some understand of our Savior himself. Why are persons baptized in the name of the dead Savior, a Savior who remains among the dead, if the dead rise not? But it is, I believe, an instance perfectly singular for hoi nekron to mean more than one dead person; it is a signification which the words have nowhere else." (Matthew Henry's Commentary, first half of 18th century A.D.)

NOTE: The foregoing phrase, referred to by Matthew Henry and translated "the dead," is plural, not singular, in the Greek text, which he is saying makes it most unlikely to refer to Christ -- and surely correctly so.

3. Baptism of Living Converts to be United with Christ and the Christian Dead. "If the dead are not raised, why then are these converts buried in baptism on their account, or with a view to them? Rom.6:3-11 makes Paul's meaning in this passage very plain. The dead are a class of whom Christ is the head and firstfruits unto resurrection. By baptism we symbolically unite ourselves with that class, and so with Christ, and we do this because of the hope that we shall be raised with that class through the power of Christ (Rom.6:5). But if the dead are not raised at all, then why should converts be united with them by a symbolic burial? Why should they be baptized on their account, or with reference to them? If there is no resurrection, baptism, which symbolizes it, is meaningless. Commentators belonging to churches which have substituted sprinkling for baptism make sad havoc of this passage. Having lost sight of the symbolic meaning of baptism -- that of a union of a convert with the dead and buried Christ as their head and firstfruits unto life -- they are at a loss to know how to interpret the apostle's words, and in despair assert that Christians were in the habit of being baptized vicariously for their friends who died without baptism. Long after Paul wrote, a similar misunderstanding of this passage led the followers both of Marcion and Cerinthus to practice such vicarious baptisms; but the practice grew out of Paul's words, instead of his words being called forth by the practice." (McGarvey and Pendleton, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, published 1916, but written through Romans 8 before July 16, 1908.

NOTE: Rom.6:3-11 does speak of our being in baptism "united with (Christ) in the likeness of his death" and "shall be in the likeness of his resurrection." But it does not mention the Christian dead, who would be "they" or "them" (third person) -- only "we" or "our" (first person, embracing all who are "baptized into Christ") and "him," "his," or "Christ" (third person, not the dead also who are in Christ -- to whom we do not sustain quite the same relationship as that with Christ being discussed in Romans). Such being the case, it is difficult to see how the Roman passage makes "very plain" the meaning of "baptized for the dead" in 1 Cor.15:29-30, where Paul speaks of "we" (himself and others in his category) as distinguished from "they" of another category (who are "baptized for the dead"). Thus he seems to make himself not to have been "baptized for the dead" in the sense of the latter passage, whereas, according to McGarvey and Pendleton, he was thus baptized - a flat contradiction.

4. Baptism of Converts with a View to the Resurrection of the Dead. "The Greek expositors took it to be about the dead (huper in the sense of peri as often as in 2 Cor.1:6) since baptism is a burial and a resurrection (Rom.6:2-6)." (Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 1931.)

"The Greek expositors regarded the words the dead as equivalent to the resurrection of the dead, and the baptism as a manifestation of belief in the doctrine of the resurrection." (Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 1890.)

NOTE: If by "the dead" Paul meant "the resurrection of the dead," why does he seem to exclude himself from those so believing -- saying "what shall they do" that are baptized for the dead?" instead of "what shall we do?"

5. Baptism of Converts in Hope of the Resurrection of the Dead. "The purpose, scope, and connection will admit of but one meaning - If the dead rise not, what shall they do who are baptized in hope of the resurrection? . . . .

"In view of their dying they are baptized in order to their well-being after death. If they are not raised from the dead, why are they baptized to fit them for the resurrection?"

  "[There is no doubt that the allusion is to some act performed in expectation of future benefit for themselves (emphasis added), which would be lost if the dead did not rise. And the view given here suits the argument and agrees with the context. Foreseeing that faith would cost them the loss of all things, perhaps of life itself, not a few persons, in being baptized, did so, virtually saying with the apostle, ‘We who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus; sake.' (2 Cor.4:11.) The meaning then is: What is to become of those who on being baptized do so knowing that it may prove their death warrant, if the dead rise not?]" (Lipscomb and Shepherd, 1 Corinthians, 1935.)

  NOTE: This is close akin to No.4 above, but more recent exegetes. The first two paragraphs are by David Lipscomb, and the paragraph in brackets is by J. W. Shepherd. While what Lipscomb says is properly descriptive of all thoughtful converts, and what Shepherd says is further descriptive, and no doubt properly so, of most if not all converts conscious of risking their lives by being baptized into Christ, that within itself is not proof of being Paul's meaning. And it does not seem to be, since he appears to be excluding himself from those he had in mind and was describing.

  6. Baptism of New Coverts to Take the Place of Christians Recently Martyred. "Else if it [resurrection of the dead] were not so, what should they do who are baptized in token of their embracing the Christian faith in the room of the dead, who have just fallen in the cause of Christ, but are yet supported by a succession of new converts, who immediately offer themselves to fill their place, as ranks of soldiers that advance to the combat in the room of their companions, who have just been slain in their sight? If the doctrine I oppose be true, and the dead are not raised at all, why are they nevertheless thus baptized in the room of the dead, as cheerfully ready, at the peril of their lives, to keep up the cause of Jesus in the world? And indeed, how could my conduct be accounted for in any other light, but supposing we act with a steady and governing view to this great principle and this glorious hope? Why otherwise are we every hour exposed to so much danger in the service of a Master from whom it is evident we have no secular rewards to expect?" (Philip Doddridge, The Family Expositor, 15th Edition, 1845.)

  NOTE: The word huper would lend itself to this interpretation, linguistically. But we have no evidence of a historical context to support such as an ad hominem argument at Corinth at or before the time of 1 Corinthians, or anywhere else on such a large scale till later, when it came to be said that the blood of the martyrs was the "seed of the kingdom."

  Paul does, however, make the ad hominem argument with reference to himself as mentioned above -- but seemingly not for the purpose including himself among those he spoke of as being "baptized for the dead," as seems implied above -- for he spoke of them as "they" rather than "we."

  Nevertheless, because of the nature of his mission, he was himself in danger of death every day. Later, in 2 Cor.1:8-11, and again in 11:23-33, he describes his dangers and sufferings. The Book of Acts also details a great deal of such (9:22-25,28-30); 14:19-20; 19:23-41; 21:27-36) -- and the actual martyrdom of Stephen (7:54-60) and of the apostle James (12:1-2) -- but no widespread martyrdoms as yet, and none at all documented for Corinth.

  7. Baptism Because of Persons No Longer Living. "Paul is referring rather to a much commoner, indeed a normal experience, that the death of Christians leads to the conversion of survivors, who in the first instance ‘for the sake of the dead' (the beloved dead), and in hope of reunion, turn to Christ -- e.g., when a dying mother wins her son by the appeal, ‘Meet me in heaven!' Such appeals, and their frequent salutary effect, give strong and touching evidence of faith in the resurrection; some recent example of the kind may have suggested this reference. Paul designates such converts "baptized for the dead," since Baptism seals the new believer and commits him to the Christian life, with all its losses and hazards. The hope of future blessedness, allying itself with family affections and friendship, was one of the most powerful factors in the spread of Christianity . . . . The hope on which these baptisms rest will be stultified, without a resurrection; it will betray them (Rom.5:5)." (G.G. Findlay, The Expositor's Greek Testament, ed., W. Robertson Nicoll, early 20th century A.D.)

  NOTE: This fits precisely one of the definitions of huper with the genitive -- namely, "to denote the moving cause or the reason because of, for the sake of, for" (Arndt & Gingrich); "of the impelling or moving cause; on account of, for the sake of, any person or thing" (Thayer).

  In most instances of conversion to and baptism into Christ, some other person or persons have been the chief intermediate and moving cause. And in some instances said person or persons have died before the occurrence of the baptism itself. In such a case, whatever the details may be, the convert has in a very real sense been baptized because of, or on account of, said person or persons. Whether or not this was Paul's meaning, we cannot know for certain. But it very well could have been -- which this writer cannot say with equal confidence of any other interpretation known to him.

 Conclusion

  Whether being "baptized for the dead" came within the intended scope of the "teaching of baptisms" mentioned in Heb.6:2, it surely did not include a condoning of proxy or vicarious baptism for the dead, as practiced by some heretical sects in early Christian centuries and by Mormons in our own day. For the scriptures make it clear that each is to be judged and rewarded according to his works (Matt.16:27; Rev.2:23; 20:12,13; 22:12) -- and by works done by each in the body (2 Cor.5:10) -- not after death, nor in the body of another.