Baptism for the Dead – Oxford Bible Commentary & Krister Stendahl

It finally came! I got my copy of The Oxford Bible Commentary in the mail today. When I am browsing through a bible commentary for the first time I always am curious to see how they interpret 1 Cor 15:29, a controversial passage which Mormons like me believe support baptism for the dead. Here is what the Oxford scholars have to say about it:

The reference to baptism ‘on behalf of the dead’ (v. 29) has been the subject of multiple interpretations (some of which construe the Greek quite differently). It probably refers to a rite in which a few Corinthian believers underwent a vicarious baptism in the place of those (believers?) who had died either unbaptized or ‘improperly’ baptized. [1 Cor] 1:12-17 suggests that some Corinthians regarded baptism by certain figures as of great significance, and they may have wished to make up for a ‘lack’ in the case of those who were baptized by different leaders or in a different way. Paul does not condemn such a practice, and he is willing to use it to show that the Corinthians themselves entertain hopes for an existence beyohnd death.

The Oxford Bible Commentary, ed. John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 2001. pg. 1131.

Here is some interesting commentary by renown biblical scholar Krister Stendahl:

A practice of vicarious baptism for the dead (for example among the Marcionites, A.D. 150) was known and seen as heretical by the ancient commentators. Thus they interpreted Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:29so as not to lend support to such practices or to any theology implicit in it. Through the ages their interpretations have persisted and multiplied (B. M. Foschini reports and evaluates forty distinct explanations of this verse). Most of the Greek fathers understood “the dead” to refer to one’s own body; others have interpreted the verse as referring to pagans seeking baptism “for the sake of joining” lost Christian relatives. Still others have suggested different sentence structures: “Otherwise what will they achieve who are being baptized? Something merely for their dead bodies?”

Once the theological pressures from later possible developments of practice and doctrine are felt less constricting, the text seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the Church of vicarious baptism for the dead. This is the view of most contemporary critical exegetes.

More can be read about the ancient Christian origin of this practice on this page at FAIR.

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2 comments on “Baptism for the Dead – Oxford Bible Commentary & Krister Stendahl

  1. Jeremy says:

    While I was on my mission in Ecuador, I encountered a Catholic Bible (Biblia Latinoamericana – written specifically for the Central and South American areas) that had footnotes to 1Cor 15:29 that supported our belief. The footnotes were appraently written by the clergy from the above-mentioned areas, and supposed to be “for” these people. Without having my journal in front of me to dictate exactly what it said, the FN explained that baptism for the dead was practiced in the early Church but was later replaced by such ordinances as praying for the dead, etc.

    On a separate note, the Bible also included the Apocrypha, Esdras in particular, which has that scathing section about worshipping idols – the reference that illustrates perfectly the Saint processions commonly seen in South American Catholic communities. I can’t tell you how many times I had to bring that up when there were some typical unsupported arguments by some investigators.

  2. James says:

    Thanks Jeremy.
    I served my mission in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I also saw a footnote similar to the one you mentioned in a Catholic bible down there!

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