In 1 Cor 15:29, Paul refers to “those who are baptized for the dead” (οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν).1
Modern scholars often understand this text as clearly referring to the baptism of living individuals as proxies for the departed. Yet before or at the time of 1 Corinthians, there appears to be no evidence for such a practice. A reasonable alternative explanation for proxy baptism’s emergence, therefore, is that the tradition derives from 1 Cor 15:29.
In this way, 1 Cor 15:29 provides an opportunity to see how Paul’s earliest interpreters navigated the conflict between the emergent proxy baptism tradition and others they had inherited.
Responses to this interpretive idea ranged from acceptance to tolerance to rejection.
Among ancient interpreters, the idea of associating proxy baptism with 1 Cor 15:29 appears to have originated with Marcion. All evidence for Marcion’s thought, however, comes through reports about him by his opponents. And this fact complicates reconstruction of his rationale for proxy baptism.
But to the extent that this rationale can be discerned, it hardly arises from anything like a trans-contextual “plain sense” of 1 Cor 15:29. Instead, the interpretation finds elsewhere in Marcion’s thought both general bases and a particular problem that it resolves.
Among the general bases for proxy baptism, one finds Marcion’s strong law-gospel contrast. This contrast legitimates Marcion’s suggestion of two divine powers and his alignment of the material world with the lesser, judgmental power. This alignment then invites Marcion’s followers to hope toward a kind of resurrection in the form of disembodied spirits.
A Particularly Marcionite Problem
Such anthropology seems also to have encouraged Marcionites to avoid whatever involvement possible in the material world. For instance, the more rigorous among them would eschew marriage, sexual intercourse, or both. And according to Tertullian (Marc. 1.29), Marcionites would administer baptism to the living only in cases of virginity, widowhood, celibacy, or divorce.
This restriction would tend to increase the proportion of unbaptized Marcionites by comparison with catholics. And for this problem, the Marcionite proxy baptism rite as described John Chrysostom (Hom. 1 Cor. 40.1–2) provides a ready answer.
That is, the rite allows the benefits of baptism to be conferred on the departed. And the rite allows this conferral even if the departed were unable to satisfy Marcionite restrictions for undergoing baptism while alive.
Ambrosiaster tolerates the idea that 1 Cor 15:29 might refer to proxy baptism. But if it does, he suggests that Paul does not thereby affirm the practice itself. Rather, Paul means to commend the faith that the practice implicitly exhibits toward a bodily resurrection (Comm. 1 Cor. 15:29).
In catena commentary, Rabanus Maurus also cites Ambrosiaster as likening this practice to Jephthah’s ill-fated vow about his daughter (Exp. 1 Cor. 15:29).
The earliest attestation to the rejection of proxy baptism as an interpretation of 1 Cor 15:29 comes from Tertullian, Didymus the Blind, Epiphanius of Salamis, Chrysostom, and Eznik of Kołb.
Among these authors, no two handle 1 Cor 15:29 exactly alike. But amid their diverse approaches, each asserts the catholic tradition’s normativity as a working basis for the discussion.
Thus, along with Ambrosiaster, these authors consider both 1 Cor 15:29 and Paul himself as situated within prior traditions. And these traditions (e.g., coherence with Scripture, catholic practice) rule out proxy baptism.
These dynamics are the subject of my article “Traditional Conflict Management: How Early Interpreters Address Paul’s Reference to Those Baptized for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29).”
There, you’ll find much fuller discussion of the complex interplay between Paul and the conflicting traditions through which his letters have been received, as well as some reflections the interplay between conflict and tradition, whether that conflict occurs within explicitly religious spheres or not.
If you’d like to dive into this topic further, drop your email in the form below, and I’ll send along the full text of the piece.