Nazarene Space

What is Baptism for the Dead?
James Scott Trimm

There has been many questions in the movement as of late about “Baptism for the Dead”.  The practice is mentioned only once in the Ketuvim Netzarim, where the KJV (translating from the Greek) reads:

Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead,
if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
(1Cor. 15:29 KJV)

And the Hebraic Root Version (translating from the Aramaic) reads:

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)

What is this baptism for the dead Paul speaks of?

Proxy Baptism for the Dead in Mormonism and the Levitical Writings

House of Aaron founder Maurice Glendenning claimed to have received revelations from Elijah speaking of proxy Baptism for the Dead, a doctrine whereby a living person is baptized by proxy on behalf of a dead person:

11 Verily I do say unto you that if you are of the living doing work for the dead, you shall have more than they, else what can you give unto them? Therefore I do say unto you that they seek not that which they have but that which they have not.
12 Therefore, O inhabitants of Zion, repent and obey the commandments of God that your labors may be of worth; for the dead cannot receive from you that which you have not to give.
13 If you obey not the commandments of God, then the dead seek not your labors; and they are not received by them.
(L.W. 182:11-13; Book of Elias 179:11-13)

For behold, even now the dead seek the work of those unto whom it has been appointed; and if you do this thing, that which is purple shall become scarlet unto them—even unto the blood of Christ.
(L..W. 183:7; Book of Elias 176:7)

Levitical Writings 320 (Discipleship Book 5) is titled “Proxy Baptism” and deals with when proxy baptisms can and cannot be performed for the dead. For example:

No child shall be by proxy who has not, had he lived, reached the age of eight years.
(L.W. 320:3; Discipleship Book 5:3)

In truth this doctrine of proxy baptism for the dead did not truly come from YHWH through Elijah, but from Glendenning’s background in the Mormon Church.

The Mormon doctrine of proxy baptism for the dead is rooted in supposed revelations which Mormon founder Joseph Smith claimed to have received (D&C 124:28-36, 127:5-10; 128).

Proxy baptism for the dead is predicated upon the belief that baptism is essential to salvation.

Mormonism teaches the following four steps of individual salvation:

“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
(LDS Articles of Faith 3-4)

Likewise the House of Aaron gives the same four steps for salvation (which they have retained from their Mormon roots):

Remedy for sin -- We believe salvation is available to all men through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, acceptance of His atoning sacrifice, repentance of sin, baptism for the remission of sin, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.  (1Corinthians 6:9-11, John 3, esp. 3:16-21, Acts 2:38, 1John 5:1-5)
(House of Aaron “Beliefs” as given on the House of Aaron Website)

Those who teach baptism for the dead teach a sort of “second chance” salvation in the afterlife.  Since these disembodied souls cannot meet the requirement of baptism in water, a living person must undergo baptism by proxy on their behalf.

Mormon’s have created some controversy in recent years for proxy baptizing Jews who died in the holocaust as Mormons through this ritual, and proxy baptizing Adolf Hitler as a Mormon and sealing (marrying) him by proxy to his mistress Evan Von Braun in the afterlife.

Proxy Baptism for the Dead Among Ancient Apostates

There were also some ancient apostate groups which practiced some form of a proxy baptism form the dead in ancient times. 

Epiphanius writes of the  Gnostic Cerenthians:

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?"
(Panarion 1.28.6). 

The Marcionites also practiced this proxy Baptism for the dead (Tertullian (AD 145–220) in Against Marcion 5.10).  St. Chrysostom (AD 347–407) tells how, when one of their catechumens died without baptism, the Marcionites would place a living person under the dead man's bed and ask whether he desired to be baptized. The living person would respond in the affirmative and was then baptized as a proxy for the deceased (see Homily 40 on 1 Corinthians 15).

Tertullian also writes:

I don't believe that the Apostle was giving his approval to the practice, but rather signifying that those who practised it thereby indicated their belief in a physical resurrection, being foolishly [vane] baptized for the dead. . . . For elsewhere he speaks of only one baptism. Therefore to baptize "for the dead" means to baptize for bodies; for the body, as we have demonstrated, is really dead.
(Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem (Against Marcion) 5, 10, in PL 2:495.)

According to Tertullian, this proxy baptism for the dead was a heresy and orthodox Christians understood Paul to be speaking not of a proxy baptism, but of the baptism of a dead body itself.

Baptism for actual dead bodies was in fact practiced by some early Christians as indicated by the decisions of two late fourth-century councils. The fourth canon (fifth in some lists) of the Synod of Hippo, held in 393, declares: "The Eucharist shall not be given to dead bodies, . . . nor baptism conferred upon them." The ruling was confirmed four years later in the sixth canon of the Third Council of Carthage.  (For the canons and details, see J.-P. Migne, ed., Dictionnaire universel et complet des conciles, Première encyclopédie théologique, vol. 13 (Paris: Ateliers Catholiques, 1847), 1:477, and Charles J. Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church (Edinburgh: Clark, 1896), 2:397–402.)

Baptism for the Dead in Judaism

To properly understand what Paul refers to we must understand that the original followers of Yeshua were not Mormons, they were not Marcionites or Cerenthians, they were not even gentile Christians, they were a sect of Jews known as Nazarene Judaism.

Now there is indeed a practice in Judaism of baptism for the dead.  It is not the proxy baptism for the dead of the House of Aaron, Mormons and ancient apostates.

Paul is referring here 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 “ṭaharah-board” washed and then “baptized” either by immersion in a mikveh or by pouring a continuous stream of 9 kavim (usually 3 buckets).  ”.  Of course the soul has departed from the body, so the body is baptized for the soul which is no longer within it.

The ritual of TAHARAH is performed because even the dead are entitled to some degree of ritual purity.  In 1Corinthinas 15 Paul is arguing in favor of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and in doing so Paul points out that this ritual of “baptism for the dead” would be pointless “if the dead rise not at all”.  The TAHARAH ritual would not be performed if there was to be no physical resurrection.

The ritual of “Baptism for the Dead” is a great example of a teaching in the so-called “New Testament” which can only be properly understood in light of the Jewish background of these books, and which has been terribly misunderstood producing false doctrines.

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James Trimm
Worldwide Nazarene Assembly of Elohim


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Comment by David Brigham on July 14, 2013 at 7:45am

Briljant exposé! Indeed, seeing that the context is about bodily ressurection, the saying cannot be about spiritual salvation. 


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