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.”


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).


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
their doctrines.
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
Corinthians, 166.
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
Fathers, 1:171.
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.

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