Socrates, Paul, and Baptism for the Dead

“Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” 1 Cor 15:29

Here is a notoriously difficult verse. There are two reasons for its difficulty: 1) “There is no historical or biblical precedent for such baptism,” and (more importantly) 2) Paul mentions a clearly unbiblical practice “without apparent disapproval.”[1] Gordon Fee states that “at least forty different solutions have been suggested.” However, most of these propose interpretations that do not match the straightforward meaning: some are being baptized vicariously for those who have already died. Whatever they were actually doing (which Fee says cannot be known), “what is certain is how the text functions in the argument . . . those actions are a contradiction to the position that there is no resurrection of the dead (v. 12).”[2]

The very same week I began to study this passage, I also started reading Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates. The introduction includes a discussion of the persuasive strategies of Socrates. One strategy is called elenchus. “It is a tool for the exposure of problems with beliefs and inconsistencies in sets of beliefs rather than for demonstrating what is true and what is false.”[3] Based on observations of Paul’s argumentation and rhetoric, it is reasonable to assume that Paul would use such a strategy. For the sake of this argument, Paul ignores the fact that being baptized for the dead is a bad idea and demonstrates that those who claim there is no resurrection have an inconsistent set of beliefs. This possibility is supported by Paul’s unusual use of third person (usually 2nd person in such a context, cf. v. 12) and its clear contrast to the first person in the next verse. He certainly keeps his distance from this practice. He goes on to demonstrate that his own actions only make sense if the dead are raised, and therefore are consistent with his claim about the resurrection (vv. 30-32).

Paul assumes that one’s worldview should be internally consistent. I’m sure than none of us want to contradict ourselves. Although we may have theological consistency, it is possible we have not thought through the implications of our faith for other parts of a worldview – economics, philosophy, politics, sociology, etc. It is not uncommon to find people with a biblical theology and an unbiblical political position. More to Paul’s point in this passage is the consistency of our faith and practice. Are our daily actions and lifestyle habits consistent with our professed faith? If not, it is appropriate to ask whether we believe it at all (James 2:18-26).

[1] Fee, 1 Corinthians, 764.

[2] Fee, 1 Corinthians, 763.

[3] Introduction to The Last Days of Socrates, xv.