Re: 1 Corinthians 15:29 (fwd)

From: Bruce Terry (
Date: Wed Nov 22 1995 - 11:47:25 EST

On Tue, 21 Nov 1995, Daniel Hedrick forwarded a comment on I Cor. 15:29 by
someone named Watson which reads in part:

>The verse, taken in context, allows us to arrive at two firm conclusions:
> First: The Corinthian Saints were practicing Baptism for the dead.
> Second: Baptism for the dead is a true and correct principle of
>the Gospel.

I.e., the Mormon Gospel

>The first conclusion is arrived at in the following manner: Paul is
>attempting to prove to the Corinthian Saints the reality of the
>literal resurrection from the dead. He essentially states "There must
>be a resurrection from the dead. Why would they be baptized for the
>dead if there is no resurrection?" There has been a great controversy
>over who "they" are, but there is no reason for question. Let's bring
>Paul up to our day, and imagine that he were trying to convince you that
>there is to be a literal resurrection. What if Paul were to say to you,
>"There must be a resurrection from the dead, else why would the Jehovah's
>Witnesses baptize for the dead if there were no resurrection?" You would
>undoubtedly reply "Stupid, stupid, stupid argument, Paul. Who cares what
>the Jehovah's Witnesses do or do not do, and what might that have to do
>with what I should or should not believe?" Anyone claiming that the "they"
>in 1Cor 15:29 refers to anyone other than the Corinthian Saints Paul is
>addressing is at the same time claiming that Paul is a complete idiot.
>The only way Paul's argument can carry any weight at all is if it is the
>Corinthian Saints he is addressing who are being baptized for the dead.

Watson here makes a good point, that Paul's argument must make some kind of
sense to the Corinthians. He overstates it, however, in claiming that it can
only make sense if the "they" spoken of are the Corinthians addressed. It is
enough that those baptized hUPER the dead be some that the Corinthians respect,
or at least not disdain.

Further, there is a problem with Watson's claim: it is not usual for Paul to
refer to the Corinthians using a *third* person plural form!

Instead, we find:
inclusive of all the addressees
1) forms of hUMEIS "you" (1:3,4,10; 3:1; 4:14; 5:1; 9:1,2; 10:1; 11:2; 12:1;
                          15:1; 16:1; etc. [the examples could be multipled])
2) second person plural verb ending "you" (6:11; 7:1; 11:17; 14:1; etc.)
   These first two account by far and away for the greatest number of cases.

inclusive of addressees and Paul
3) forms of hHMEIS "we" (8:6)
4) first person plural verb ending "we" (8:1,4)

some of the addressees
5) TINES EN hUMIN "some among you" (15:12)
6) TINES "some" (6:11; 8:7)

hypothetical or indefinite one of the addressees
7) TIS ADELFOS "any brother" (5:11)
8) TIS hMWN "any of you" (6:1)
9) forms of TIS "someone, anyone" (5:1; 7:36; 8:2; 11:16; 15:35)
10) second person singular verb ending "thou" (7:28)

in the statement of general principles (which could apply to the Corinthians)
11) third person singular forms (6:16; 7:1,17,20,39; etc.).

The third person plural is used for all the Corinthians in three notable
exceptions: 1) in the initial address (1:2); 2) in the vocative plural, such as
ADELFOI "brothers" and AGAPHTOI "beloved"; and 3) in the distributional term
MELH "members" as used in chapter 12.

The third person plural is used for subclasses within the Corinthians church:
TOIS AGAMOIS "to the unmarried" (7:8)
TAIS CHRAIS "to the widows" (7:8)
TOIS EME ANAKRINOUSIN "to those examining me" (9:3)
Examples of subclasses could be multiplied, especially in chapter 7

>From this, it is possible that "those baptized hUPER the dead" could refer to
a subclass of individuals within the Corinthian church.

Note however that in the examples of third person plural forms given, the
individuals mentioned in the subclasses could be from outside the Corinthian
congregation as well as within it. Individuals both inside and outside that
church or from either inside or outside it might want to question Paul's
apostleship (cf. 9:3).

>The second point is easily determined because Paul is an Apostle of
>the Lord Jesus Christ, and a preacher of righteousness. Satan and his
>minions can, and often do, intertwine their falsehoods with strands of
>truth in order to make their lies and misconceptions more palatable.
>Satan teaches some truth when it suits his purposes. On the other
>hand, Christ and his followers may not use falsehoods in order to
>promulgate truth. In other words, Paul cannot say to himself, "This
>is a false principle, but they believe it, therefore I will make use
>of it and argue as though it were true in order to win the point."

Watson may *say* that Paul cannot do this, but this is precisely what he does
do in I Cor. 8 and 9. In those chapters he is arguing that one should not go
up to an idol's temple to share in a meal. For the sake of argument, he
assumes his opponents' viewpoint. In chapter 8 he assumes that "an idol has
no real existence," therefore there is nothing wrong *in itself* in eating in
an idol's temple (he repudiates this in chapter 10, causing confusion for some
exegetes); then he shows that even this causes problems for a weaker brother.
In chapter 9 he assumes that the Corinthians had a right to eat whereever they
wanted to; but then he gives his own example as someone who has given up his
rights for the sake of the gospel. Because Paul does not make it clear that he
is making these assumptions only temporarily for the sake of argument, there
have been theories that chapter 8 and chapter 10 were parts of two separate
letters, or that Paul changed his mind while writing this letter, and that
chapter 9 is really an excursis on the validity of his apostleship because he
is contradicting the decision of the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. Some may
berate Paul for following this line of argumentation that Watson says he should
not and that has been the cause of confusion to scholars, but it was perfectly
appropriate in Greek style. Demetrius refers to Theophrastus as his authority
"that not all possible points should be punctiliously and tediously elaborated,
but some should be left to the comprehension and inference of the hearer" (_On
Style_ 4; Loeb Classical Library sec. 222). For more information on this see
my book _A Discourse Analysis of First Corinthians_, pp. 46-47.

>As to what the principle of baptism for the dead entails, there is
>little question about that either, and honest Protestant and Catholic
>scholars, even though they have no clue to why it was going on, admit
>it. For example, W.J. Conybeare and J.S. Howson in their classic
>*The Life and Epistles of St. Paul* have the following to say about
>1Cor 15:29:
> "The only meaning which the Greek seems to admit here is a reference
>to the practice of submitting to baptism instead of some person who
>had died unbaptized.


>[Conybeare and Howson, *The Life and Epistles of St Paul* pp 412-413, note 7.]

Conybeare and Howson are wrong in saying that understanding hUPER as referring
to benefit is the only meaning which the Greek can allow. hUPER can mean a
number of things. It is true that the most common meaning of hUPER is to
express benefit to the object, and therefore most scholars have so understood
it; the RSV goes so far as to translate hUPER in 15:29 as "on behalf of." I
freely admit that this is its meaning in II Macc. 12:44, where Judus prays
hUPER the dead in his army (although the text does not say that God heard his
prayer and accepted his sacrifice, only that he did this because he believed
in the resurrection).

While something similar to this may have been practiced by some at Corinth in
regards to baptism, there is another explanation that fits the evidence equally
well. Another common meaning of hUPER has to do with taking its object as
indirect cause. Paul uses hUPER in this sense in I Cor. 10:30, where the RSV
translates it "because of." The literal meaning of hUPER is "over," and even
the English word "over" can take this metaphorical sense as in "No use crying
over spilt milk." Sometimes in English "over" and "for" are synonyms, as in:
"He mourned over his dead wife for six months" and "He mourned for his dead
wife for six months."

I realize that I am not following scholarly consensus when I suggest that I
favor the latter explanation rather than the former. But my reason is that
there is no historical evidence that vicarious baptism was ever practiced as
early as the first century A.D.; to say that I Cor. 15:29 is an example is to
beg the question. On the other hand, it is not especially difficult to find
examples of people who have converted to Christianity following the death of
a loved one because they wanted to be with that person for eternity. The
Greek admits of such a meaning and it is part of the human experience.

My main point here is not that hUPER means "on account of" but that it does
not *have to* mean "on behalf of." In English one has to translate it some
way, but the way that it is translated to a large extent determines how readers
of the English Bible will understand it. For this reason I have avoided in
this post translating it as either "baptized for the dead" or "baptized over
the dead." To do so is to prejudice the case.

Bruce Terry E-MAIL:
Box 8426, ACU Station Phone: 915/674-3759
Abilene, Texas 79699 Fax: 915/674-3769

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