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 23/12/15)
Most commentators, though recognizing the fact that the Marcionites, as well as gnostic Christians,152 performed the rite of baptism for the dead, dismiss the practice because such groups are considered heretical sects of Christianity. However, the term heretical is used by the enemies of these early branches of Christianity: in scholarly work the term should hold no bearing on the legitimacy of the beliefs of the group nor upon the historical relevance of their practices. The Marcionite, Cerinthian, and gnostic beliefs have just as much of a claim on Christian doctrine as do orthodox views; the only difference between the two is that one lasted far longer than the other. Simply because later church fathers rejected the practice in no way indicates that the primitive church or Christ himself rejected the beliefs concerning proxy ordinances.
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.” This, according to their reasoning, is sound evidence that the early Christian church rejected the doctrine. By this same logic one could surmise that because the Marcionites, and all other “heretical” sects, practiced faith in Christ, then certainly the primitive church did not practice such foolish things. To understand early Christian doctrines, one must analyze the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, and early Christian literature. Early Christians didn’t always agree on doctrine. Orthodoxy is the Christian interpretation that eventually won out. On this basis, orthodoxy cannot claim to possess Christ’s original teachings: It is widely thought today that protoorthodoxy was simply one of many competing interpretations of Christianity in the early church. It was neither a self-evident interpretation nor an original apostolic view. The apostles, for example, did not teach the Nicene Creed or anything like it. Indeed, as far back as we can trace it, Christianity was remarkably varied in its theological expressions.153 Whether groups are gnostic, orthodox, Marcionite, or whatever, one cannot use the term heretical to infer that all their teachings are incorrect. Rather, to judge whether a doctrine is plausibly connected with the teachings of Christ, the apostles, and early Christian theology, it must be based on historical evidence without reference to antagonistic terms. Such callous proclamations do nothing to help us understand why certain groups accepted proxy ordinances, or whether it was reasonable for them to do so under Christian theology of the time.
If, for instance, the Marcionite sect, or some other gnostic heresy, had outlasted the proto orthodox religion, then the current view of Christianity would be quite different. Our view of history, particularly of Christianity, is tainted by the categories of orthodoxy and heresy. On what basis do scholars or theologians judge which sects reflect the earliest teachings of Christ and his apostles concerning posthumous salvation and proxy ordinances? If it is based solely on the view of the sect that has outlasted the others, the so-called orthodox view, then methodologically their views are no more reputable than those of an untrained layperson. Instead, if modern methodology is to be observed, then it can be quite plausibly asserted that (1) Corinthian Saints practiced proxy baptisms on behalf of the dead, as did the Marcionites, and perhaps the Cerinthians and other gnostics, all of whom belong to Christian groups with claims of Christian doctrines; and that (2) given the historical nature of the practice,154 especially its early appearance, proxy baptisms originated in the first century alongside the Christian faith. Whether the practice was widespread across the Christian world, or even among the apostles, is in no way clear.
Mormons and non-Mormons alike must affirm that the scant amount of evidence and writings concerning the practice leaves a gap of information concerning its origin. Perhaps it did originate in Corinth, and later with Marcion. Yet perhaps the origin of the practice stems from Christ himself and the teachings of his apostles. If this were true, then proxy baptism may hold more weight than ever assumed in determining Christian doctrine of the earliest form. Conclusions As has been shown, vicarious work for the deceased was a relatively common practice across a broad swath of the ancient Roman Empire. Diverse religious groups practiced various forms of proxy rites intended to improve the eternal condition of their deceased loved ones in their postmortal advancement. Given this background, it was quite natural for some first-century Christians to practice baptisms for the dead, as they faced the quandary of reconciling the infinite mercy of a loving God with the clearly stated and universally accepted Christian requirement of baptism for entrance into heaven, in light of the fact that many of their loved ones had not met this requirement. journal of the Book of Mormon and other restoration scripture 43 As historical evidence of the practice of baptism for the dead in the early Christian church, we submit the following, presented in detail throughout this article:
1. Both the New Testament and patristic literature apparently identify baptism as an absolute requisite of any soul desiring entrance into heaven. The Gospels, the book of Acts, and the Epistles all demonstrate that the Lord and his apostles actively extended baptism to every repentant soul and called upon every soul to repent and be baptized.
2. The most common reading of 1 Corinthians 15:29 among modern biblical scholars is that it, in fact, refers to vicarious baptism for the dead among the Corinthian saints circa ad 56/57.
3. Early Christian writers, including Tertullian and Ambrosiaster, acknowledge that 1 Corinthians 15:29 described vicarious baptism for the dead. Various Christian writers of the next few centuries thereafter also recognized this as fact, even though some of them denounced it as heresy.
4. Several New Testament passages and a plethora of apocryphal and gnostic writings support various themes related to vicarious baptism for the dead, including Christ’s descent into Sheol to preach to the dead, the need for baptism for the souls in Sheol, the efficacy of proxy work for the dead, and various forms of vicarious baptism for the dead, both by the living and by angels.
5. The Marcionites, a Christian sect that had a large following throughout much of the Roman Empire, practiced baptism for the dead from the late second or early third to the fourth century and possibly into the early fifth century ad. Some gnostic groups likewise practiced vicarious baptisms for the dead during the same period (but of shorter duration). They believed their practice continued a rite original to Christian belief.
6. These groups are labeled heretical today. While the victor writes the history book, which is true of both Christian and secular history, the victor is only the strongest combatant, not necessarily the most deserving. The modern methodology of historical research requires us to examine the historicity of the practices without the prejudice inherent in labels from one’s enemies.
Granted, the evidence is not watertight, just as there is a lack of incontrovertible evidence regarding the origins of many Christian doctrines. The simple fact is that few Christian documents survive from the first century, and so we should be appreciative and perhaps even surprised at the amount of attention given to vicarious baptism and related themes by the ancient writers. But just as the lack of historical evidence is used by proxy nihilists to question the validity of the doctrine of baptism for the dead, the lack of historical records could just as well hide the fact that Christ himself taught this doctrine during his Forty-Day mission, or that baptisms for the dead were performed in numerous Christian communities, not just Corinth, under the auspices of the apostles. The fact is that we simply lack the historical evidence to determine these matters definitively. Ultimately, every reader must ask:
How can I reconcile the infinite mercy of a loving Heavenly Father with the Lord’s declaration that one cannot enter heaven without baptism, in light of the fact that millions upon millions of good, honest individuals have lived their entire lives in various regions of the world without the opportunity to hear the good news of the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ? Latter-day Saints practice baptism for the dead out of love for the deceased as they seek to extend to them the salvific gifts of Christ’s atonement. We recognize that vicarious ordinances can only be efficacious if the spirit on the other side of the veil accepts the ordinance performed on his or her behalf. This approach to the salvation of the dead, though not acceptable to many, demonstrates a selfless dedication of time and effort to perform potentially saving acts on behalf of the deceased.
In the last part of this series, we will trace and explore the revelations that restored the doctrine of the redemption of the dead, including the resumption of vicarious ordinances for deceased loved ones.
David L. Paulsen, and Brock M. Mason
152. It must be kept in mind that in the earliest centuries, there was no great division between gnostic Christians and socalled orthodox believers. Ehrman relates, “One of the striking features of Christian Gnosticism is that it appears to have operated principally from within existing Christian churches, that Gnostics considered themselves to be the spiritually elite of these churches, who could confess the creeds of other Christians, read the Scriptures of other Christians, partake of baptism and Eucharist with other Christians, but who believed that they had a deeper, more spiritual, secret understanding of these creeds, Scriptures, and sacraments. . . . Gnostics were not ‘out there’ forming their own communities. The Gnostics were ‘in here,’ with us, in our midst. And you couldn’t tell one simply by looking.” Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 126.
153. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 176.
154. The Mandaeans, a non-Christian group, also practiced baptisms for the dead. The Mandaeans trace their religious history back to the followers of John the Baptist and are strict proponents of religious ritualism and ceremonial cleanliness. They practice not only baptism for the dead, but other saving rites for the deceased. Once a year, at Panja, these saving rites, “called the hava ḏ mani, . . . are performed upon a proxy, who in status, sex, personality, and age closely resembles the dead person.” Ethel S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: Their Cults, Customs, Magic Legends, and Folklore (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2002), 214. In the ritual, “the proxy descends into the water, and repeats voicelessly, ‘I, N. son of N. (the name of the dead person) am baptized with the baptism of Bahram the Great, son of the mighty [ones]. My baptism shall protect me and cause me to ascend to the summit.’ He submerges thrice, and on emerging puts on a completely new rasta” (pp. 215–16). It should be noted that their concepts of the effect of such rituals is different than Christians would normally infer. Rather than admitting them solely into the heaven, these rituals are aids in the cosmic venture of the dead across the universe.