1 Corinthians 15:29 represents a category of Scripture that I often call “Passover Passages.” These are the difficult and uncomfortable passages that trouble people so much that they are tempted to simply “pass over” them without taking the time to fully understand them or apply them to life. For some, this would include parts of the Old Testament and much of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (especially the part about gouging out an eye or amputating a hand, if they “cause you to sin”).
While the understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:29 may not be a high priority for most people, it does represent a mystery and a challenge for many students of the Bible, myself included. In addition, it has been a source of no little consternation for all of church history. As one author wrote, “To date no satisfactory explanation of the practice described in 1 Corinthians 15:29 has appeared, though not for lack of trying.”1 Another scholar has noted that “…throughout the centuries over forty readings have been offered to explain 15:29.” He adds “In fact, many scholars, even after considering an array of alternatives and expressing their dissatisfaction therewith, simply shake their heads in frustration and admit ignorance as to how 15:29 ought to be read."2
Part of the problem is that there is no known context for understanding this passage: it seems to stand alone. Most efforts at explaining it attempt to find some sort of scriptural or historical setting, but ultimately fail to produce any satisfactory results.
Nevertheless, I propose to take a fresh look at this challenging passage by presenting the following points:
- In the Bible “baptism” often refers to something other than the ordinance or sacrament of Holy Baptism.
- In this passage the Apostle Paul is not referring to Christian baptism but to a different practice also known as "baptism."
- In this passage Paul is referring to a known historical practice of the Jews, using it to illustrate his argument in favor of the Resurrection.
- While this passage is usually translated to suggest that people were being baptized for the dead, it can also be understood in the sense that they were doing baptisms (that is, purification rites) as part of the traditional burial customs of the Jews.
These points, taken together, provide a plausible scriptural, cultural, and historical context for the understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:29.
When it comes to theology, Biblical3 scholars rightly insist that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). But the ideas presented here are not new; the pieces of the puzzle have always been there. What is new is the ability to easily access information about things that were previously unknown or misunderstood. But now, thanks to a chance encounter with a part of Jewish culture and tradition that I had previously been unaware of, and advances in information technology, this is no longer a “pass over” passage for me. It has now become a bold statement of the power and reality of the hope of the Resurrection.
It is my prayer that you will also find this to be helpful and enlightening.
 DeMaris, Richard, “Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead” in Journal of Biblical Literature 114/4 (1995), p. 661
 Hull, Michael, Baptism on Account of the Dead (1 Cor 15:29): An Act of Faith in the Resurrection, Society of Biblical Literature, 2005, p. 8
 By “Biblical,” I mean the understanding found in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Biblical theology should not be subjected to nor supplanted by doubt, opinion, religious tradition, or extra-biblical revelation.
Copyright © 2022, Robert D. Claiborne