Judah Maccabee and Baptism for the Dead
James Scott Trimm
I am writing this blog during Channukah. While studying 2Maccabees, I find this passage about actions Judas Maccabee took on behalf of his men who had been killed in battle:
43 And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachms of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection:
44 For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead.
45 And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin.
(2Maccabees 12:43-45 KJV)
This brings us to a controversial statement by Pual:
And if not, what will those who are immersed do for the dead,
if the dead do not rise? Why are they immersed for the dead?
(1Cor. 15:29 HRV)
In the past I have taught that Paul is here referring to the Jewish practice called TAHARAH, the ceremonial washing of a dead body before burial. In this “baptism for the dead” the deceased is placed on a special board called a “taharah-board” washed and then “baptized” either by immersion in a mikveh or by pouring a continuous stream of nine kavim (usually three buckets).
However, as I have studied it deeper. in the Aramaic, this passage cannot be referring to the TAHARAH ritual. The key word here in the Aramaic is “for” in the phrase “for the dead”. This word in the Aramaic is KH’LAF (חלף) which literally means “on behalf of” or “instead of”. It cannot refer to the TAHARAH because in this ritual, the dead body itself is immersed, and in the ritual described by Paul in the Aramaic, someone else is being immersed on behalf of, or instead of, the dead person.
This brings us to a statement the fourth Century “Church Father” Epiphanius makes about the Cerenthians. The Cerentians were a very early Jewish-Gnostic offshoot from the Nazarenes and Ebionites. In his section on the Cerenthians, Epiphanius writes:
From Asia and Gaul has reached us the account [tradition] of a certain practice, namely that when any die without baptism among them, they baptize others in their place and in their name, so that, rising in the resurrection, they will not have to pay the penalty of having failed to receive baptism, but rather will become subject to the authority of the Creator of the World. For this reason this tradition which has reached us is said to be the very thing to which the Apostle himself refers when he says, “If the dead rise not at all, what shall they do who are baptized for the dead?”
This is especially interesting because In the very next section of Panarion, Epiphanius begins to discuss the Nazarenes (the original Jewish followers of Yeshua) with this opening statement:
“After these [the Cerenthians] come Nazoraeans, who originated at the same time or even before, or in conjunction with them or after them. In any case they were their contemporaries. I cannot say more precisely who succeeded whom. For, as I said, these were contemporary with each other, and had similar notions.”
So the evidence is now very hard to deny:
- In 2 Maccabees 12:43-45 we read of prayers and sacrificial offerings made on behalf of the dead.
- The Aramaic phrase Paul uses in 1Corinthians 15:29 can only refer to immersion on behalf of the dead.
- Epiphanius records that the ancient Nazarenes “had similar notions” to the ancient Cerenthians, that the Cerenthians practiced a ritual whereby “when any die without baptism among them, they baptize others in their place and in their name” and that this very ritual “is said to be the very thing to which the Apostle himself refers” to in 1Corinthians 15:29.
It seems undeniable that the dead must be able to receive some benefit from prayers, sacrificial offerings and even ritual immersions made on their behalf!
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