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 his Jewish New Testament Commentary, David Stern says of this verse only:
A controversial verse with uncertain significance.; this is the only reference in the New Testament to such a practice.
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 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!
One of the purposes of immersion (“baptism) from a Jewish perspective is that of becoming a proselyte Jew (this is not the same thing as “salvation”. We know from Exodus 12:43-49 that all members of the Assembly of Israel are required to eat the Passover lamb, but that no uncircumcised males may eat it. And we know from Acts 15 that some uncircumcised males are saved. Therefore, as a function of logic, being saved cannot be the same thing as becoming part of the Assembly of Israel.
A person wanting to become part of the Assembly of Israel must first learn the Torah, thus they are in the synagogues studying Moses each Sabbath, and keeping certain minimum standards while they learn (this is what Acts 15 is about). The process for conversion to Orthodox Judaism today is as follows:
“The convert undergoes a period of instruction…. Orthodoxy demands circumcision for males… The postulant is then given time to recover. Both males and females have to undergo submersion in a Mikvah… ” (The Complete Book of Jewish Observance; Leo Trepp; p. 252)
There is a discussion in the Talmud about at what point in time a proselyte is considered a Jew. The conclusion was that it was at the time of the ritual immersion, not at the time of the circumcision. because if it was at circumcision, we would have no rule for women. As we read in the Talmud:
Our Rabbis taught: ‘If a proselyte was circumcised but had not performed the prescribed ritual ablution, R. Eliezer said, ‘Behold he is a proper proselyte; for so we find that our forefathers were circumcised and had not performed ritual ablution’. If he performed the prescribed ablution but had not been circumcised, R. Joshua said, ‘Behold he is a proper proselyte; for so we find that the mothers had performed ritual ablution but had not been circumcised’. The Sages, however, said, ‘Whether he had performed ritual ablution but had not been circumcised or whether he had been circumcised but had not performed the prescribed ritual ablution, he is not a proper proselyte, unless he has been circumcised and has also performed the prescribed ritual ablution.
So a male would get circumcised and then wait for their circumcision to heal before undergoing ritual immersion. It was not until after that point, that they were regarded as part of the Assembly of Israel.
It stands to reason that a person could die before their circumcision was healed (perhaps even from a wound infection). It appears that the ancient Nazarene halacha allowed another person to undergo the ritual immersion on their behalf so that person would be resurrected as part of the Assembly of Israel, not simply as a saved gentile.
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