Twelfth-century baptistery in St. Barthélemy, Liège, Belgium. Scala /Art Resource, NY.
Too often Christian commentaries will dismiss baptism for the dead, specifically 1 Corinthians 15:29, because those who
practiced the work were judged long after the fact to be “heretics.”
(BEING CONTINUED FROM 16/03/15)
Marcionite and Gnostic Baptisms for the Dead
A favorite tactic of proxy nihilists is to associate the practice of vicarious baptism with later heretical groups and by so doing infer that the Corinthian practice was likewise heretical. One of the most
oft-cited heretical groups is the Marcionites. Born around ad 100, Marcion was raised as a protoorthodox Christian by his father. Around ad 140,he entered Rome and converted many people to his own Christian theology, now quite distinct from other teachers of the time. It anticipated the teachings of Gnosticism, with ideas of strict dualism within the universe and that Yahweh from the Old Testament was a demiurge. Because of Marcion’s success, he became a marked target for heresiologists
(i.e., heretic hunters) of the orthodox faith,142 both contemporary and those far removed (such as Epiphanius).
The Marcionite sect was completely estranged from proto-orthodox believers and met in their own communities rather than worship alongside other believers (as did the gnostics). According to Epiphanius (late fourth century), Marcion and his followers
had stretched into the vast majority of the Christian world: “the sect is still to be found even now, in Rome and Italy, Egypt and Palestine, Arabia and Syria,Cyprus and the Thebaid—in Persia too moreover,and in other places.” 143 Because of the widespread
presence of the Marcionites, far more information about Marcion’s own teachings and practices has survived than that of relatively minor heretics.
One practice that sources attribute to Marcion and his followers is proxy baptism for the dead.
John Chrysostom, in a homily concerning 1 Corinthians15:29, states with amusement that the Marcionites had perverted the expression “baptized for the dead”:
Will ye that I should first mention how they who are infected with the Marcionite heresy pervert this expression? And I know indeed that I shall excite much laughter; nevertheless,even on this account most of all I will mention it that you may the more completely avoid this disease: viz., when any Catechumen departs among them, having concealed the living man under the couch of the dead, they approach the corpse and talk with him, and ask him if he wishes to receive baptism; then when he makes
no answer, he that is concealed underneath saith in his stead that of course he should wish to be baptized; and so they baptize him instead of the departed, like men jesting upon the stage.
So great power hath the devil over the souls of careless sinners.144
It appears that as late as the time of Chrysostom (hence the present tense in his explanation of the Marcionite heresy), perhaps even in the early fifth century, followers of Marcion were practicing a form of proxy baptism for the dead. Chrysostom suggests that they would only do baptisms for deceased catechumens, or those who were interested in baptism but died before receiving that ordinance.
It was thus reserved only for those who were intent on becoming baptized within the Marcionite community.
Didymus the Blind (writing in the mid-fourth century) further substantiates this fact but with a slight difference in his description of the practice,saying, “The Marcionites baptized the living on behalf of dead unbelievers, not knowing that baptism saves only the person who receives it.” 145 Didymus writes that Marcionites baptized for the souls of all unbelievers who had died without baptism,not just for those who were catechumens while yet alive. These textual discrepancies leave room for interpretation as to the exact nature of the practice,yet clearly the Marcionites were practicing such an act as late as the fourth century ad.
If the practice of proxy baptism was fairly widespread in the Marcionite communities throughout their history, then it would extend throughout the Near East and into nearly every area where Christian communities stretched during the first four
centuries. Unlike other Christian sects that would normally worship right along with more “orthodox” believers, the Marcionites had such a large following that they began to meet outside the confines of the “proto-orthodox” church, establishing their own
religious communities or congregations. Marcion had so much success with his teachings 146 that in many areas of Asia Minor they were the “original form of Christianity and continued for many years to comprise the greatest number of persons claiming
to be Christian (in those areas).” 147
In his work Panarion, Epiphanius of Salamis,bishop of Cyprus in the late fourth century, mentions baptism for the dead performed vicariously in parts of Asia and Galatia. In a section entitled Against Cerinthians, he diverts from his main writing to provide information about proxy baptisms:
For their school (Cerinthians) reached its height in this country, I mean Asia, and in Galatia as well. And in these countries I also heard of a tradition which said that when some of their people died too soon,without baptism, others would be baptized for them in their names, so that they would not be punished for rising unbaptized at the resurrection and become the subjects of the
authority that made the world. And the tradition I heard of says that this is why the same holy apostle said, “if the dead rise not at all, why are they baptized for them?” 148
It is unclear whether Epiphanius meant the Cerinthian practice when speaking of baptisms for the dead,
though one would assume that the Cerinthians were practicing the ordinance. Perhaps he was referring to the Marcionite practice that existed in that area during the time in which he was writing. Either way, his remarks provide further evidence that throughout Asia, or what would better be termed Asia Minor, and Galatia, proxy baptisms were being performed. His inclusion of the phrase subjects of the authority that made the world points to the fact that whether it was Marcionites, Cerinthians, or others who were performing this work, they were likely gnostics.149
Another interesting doctrine is that of proxy baptism by angels, a doctrine taught by Theodotus,
a gnostic teacher who wrote in the later second to early third centuries ad. He is quoted by Clement of Alexandria as teaching that angels would be baptized for the souls of dead men. Apparently for Theodotus and the Valentinian tradition of Gnosticism,
“Baptism (played) a key role in the salvation of the elect.” 150 Clement quotes Theodotus as saying,
“And, they say, those who are baptized for the dead,these are the Angels who are baptized for us, so that,
as we also possess the NAME, we are not bound by the Limit and the Cross, and prevented from entering Pleroma.” 151 Theodotus seems to express that salvation for the elect souls of the dead, whereby they may enter into Pleroma (fulness, light above this world), is achieved via proxy baptisms performed by angels of heaven. Although a variation on the current theme,
it is important to note the similarity implicit in this teaching: proxy baptisms are necessary for the salvation of the dead, and they must be performed by someone who is living (such as an angel).
(TO BE CONTINUED)
David L. Paulsen, and Brock M. Mason
142. Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (London: SPCK, 2005), 45–46. Hall lists Valentinus and
Basilides as other leaders of heretical sects that spread widely and were the targets of both Eastern and Western criticism of
143. Epiphanius, Panarion: Against Marcionites 22, in Frank Williams, trans., The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamais
(Leiden: Brill, 2009), 294.
144. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 40, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1,
145. Didymus, Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church; see Bray, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1 and 2
146. Justin of Rome, an apologist for the proto-orthodox church,would recount of Marcion in the second century that he,
“by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies.” First Apology 1.26, in Ante-Nicene
147. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2003), 109.
148. Epiphanius, Panarion: Against Cerinthians 6,4–5, in Williams,Panarion of Epiphanius, 120 n. 137.
149. Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 12–13.
150. Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 166.
151. Authors’ translation based on François Sagnard, trans., Clément D’Alexandrie: Extraits de Théodote (Paris: Les Editions
du Cerf, 1970), 103.