Saturday, May 11, 2013

A note on 1 Cor. 15:29 "Baptized for the dead"

English: folio 150 recto of the codex, with th...
Folio 150 recto of codex of the beginning of 1st Corinthians (Wikipedia)
The Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:29 concerning those “baptized for the dead” (οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν; τί καὶ βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν) has remained an enigmatic puzzle for scholars since the patristic era. Is the phrase a metaphor of some kind, or is Paul describing an esoteric custom of baptism by proxy in the Corinthian church? Marcionites and Mormons have had no trouble appropriating the verse for heretical purposes, but evangelical scholars have remained stumped over this verse dubbed one of the most difficult in the New Testament.[1]

In the last forty years, scholars have come to an exegetical impasse on the verse, frustrated by a lack of consensus. Fresh approaches have slowed to a trickle, and
an uncomfortable agnosticism has settled over the verse in question.[4] Richard DeMaris laments: “To date no satisfactory explanation of the practice described in 1 Cor 15:29 has appeared.”[5] Fee throws up his hands, “No one knows in fact what was going on. The best one can do in terms of particulars is point out what appear to be the more viable options, but finally admit to ignorance.”[6] The Apostle Peter notes that though inspired, Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16 NIV). Undoubtedly this verse is a fine example of Peter's complaint.

Perhaps the answer is not found in an historical/cultural approach. Perhaps the answer is found in a text-critical approach, specifically the transmission of the text. First Corinthians 15:29 is only a small part of Paul’s argument on behalf of bodily resurrection of believers, and verse 29, some believe, may simply show the incoherence of a certain religious practice predicated on resurrection while at the same time denying its existence.[7]  
Since in the autographs and early manuscripts there were no accent marks, punctuation, or chapter and verse divisions, we understand the non-canonical nature of these helps as they were added after the composition of the original manuscript. Could it be that punctuation added by a later redactor has muddled the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:29?

In Nestle’s 20th edition Greek New Testament, the critical apparatus at the bottom of the page indicates an alternate punctuation placing the question marks after βαπτιζόμενοι, νεκρῶν, βαπτίζονται, and νεκρῶν (Byzantine)/αὐτῶν (Alexandrian).[8] Therefore, with different punctuation the text might read, “Otherwise what will those do who are being baptized? Join the dead (who believed in the resurrection)? If dead persons are not actually raised, why then are they being baptized? In order to be like those dead who believed (in resurrection, i.e., fools)?” 

This reading seems stronger to me since it brings out Paul’s frustration with those who denied the resurrection and places it in context with the foregoing and following text. The staccato courtroom-style questioning follows closely Paul’s emotional style in pressing important issues to the fore. The Semitic parallelism in the questions mirrors both rabbinic halaka and Paul’s signature use of sarcasm, a strong characteristic in both the Corinthian letters. It seems that St. John Chrysostom would agree with this conclusion.[9]

[1] F. W. Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 371; Simon J. Kistemacher: “Verse 29 remains a mystery”, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 560.
 [2] Such as Martin Luther’s solution that the Corinthian Christians were being baptized over the graves of their dead relatives in order to assure their entrance into paradise.
 [3] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 762; and Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 276 n. 120; Martin R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies (Franklin:, 1886), 1 Cor 15:29.
[4] Stern will not even look into it but says simply, “A controversial verse with uncertain significance; this is the only reference in the New Testament to such a practice.” David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 6th ed., 1999), 488.
[5] Richard E. DeMaris, “Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights from Archaeology and Anthropology” (Journal of Biblical Literature, 114.4, Winter 1995), 661.
 [6] Fee, First Corinthians, 763. 
[7] John D. Reaume, “Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, ‘Baptized for the Dead,’” Bibliotheca Sacra 152.608 (October-December 1995), p. 467.
[8] D. Eberhard Nestle, Novum Testamentum Graece, 20th ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1950), 453.