Posted by: mattcolvin | October 17, 2006

Baptism for the Dead — Explained?


Reposted from Fragmenta:

“εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, τί καὶ βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν;” – 1 Cor. 15:29

James Rogers’ article Biblical Horizons article on “baptism for the dead” in 1 Cor. 15 was linked by Alastair on his blog. Rogers suggests that the “baptism” in question is the washing away of defilement contracted by contact with a corpse, and that the phrase should be translated “baptism on account of the dead”. That translation is certainly possible, and the OT connection with Numbers 19 is welcome.

I commented that Jordan [sic. — I should have said Rogers] appears silent on the internal logic of the very verse he is attempting to explain. That is, granting the high plausibility of “baptism because of the dead” as the correct translation, and granting the reference to Leviticus, the question remains: Why would this baptism prove that the dead are raised?

The logic would have to be something like this, I suppose: “If the dead are not raised, then their corpses cannot defile, and no one would need to be baptized after contact with them. But as it is, the dead are raised, and those who touch corpses must be cleansed.”

Which raises the question: why should the ability of a corpse to defile those who touch it be dependent on its resurrectibility?

Further: is it not also defiling to touch, say, a piece of roadkill? But the Jews did not believe that dead animals would be resurrected.

In what follows, I’d like to suggest a likely avenue for providing the missing parts of this argument.
A possibility presents itself, to be confirmed or dismissed by reference to Jewish sources: Given that the Sadducees were the losing side, and that it was the Pharisees’ religion that own out and became Rabbinic Judaism, it seems likely that we could find a Talmudic discussion of just why it is that a corpse defiles, and for how long.

After all, the Rabbis quibble over just when a loaf of bread may be considered “cooked” — lest you still be in the act of cooking it after the Sabbath has begun. (One answer: when the side of the loaf nearest the oven wall is crusted over.) Likewise, they sliced and diced marital intercourse, quibbling over just when virginity is lost — even positing an absurd scenario whereby a couple in the middle of consummating their marriage is interrupted by another man who tries to give the bride a gift (thereby marrying her). The point is that the Rabbis, rather like Zeno among the Greeks, cannot abide the processes that God has created, and must have a series of punctiliarly defined boundaries: “Before this moment, she is a virgin; after that, she is not.” “Before this, the bread is uncooked; after, it is baked.”

So it stands to reason that the Rabbis might also discuss the problem of a decomposing corpse: if a man is killed by a lion, and his corpse left to decompose, there will come a time when it is indistinguishible from the soil on which it lies. Soil does not defile. So how are we to insist that the corpse still does? Men shall all “return to the ground from which you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” So might the Pharisees argue: “You Sadducees have no reason to consider corpses unclean, since they will eventually become mere dust anyway. But we Pharisees have a reason: the corpse, be it ground up as fine as meal, will be resurrected someday.”

Daube, in his article on “Disgrace” (CWDD vol. 1, p. 618f) has the following useful note:

“In New Testament times it was widely — though by no means universally — held that the dead would rise in the shape in which they were buried. God might subsequently heal any wounds, abolish any flaws; but to begin with, the original figures would reappear. Moreover, in popular belief at least, the bones played a particular part: a person whose skeleton was damaged might not be able to rise at all. The curse “may his bones be ground” must be understood on this basis, maybe also the death of Judas according to Acts — by ‘bursting asunder.’ …

Of course, most Rabbis stood above such superstitions. For them, God simply had the power to bring the dead back to life… Still, the problem was not easy. We come across compromise solutions, such as that by Joshua ben Hananiah — about AD 100 — who held that a tiny part of the spine was indestructible and would be used by God for raising the dead (Leviticus Rabba on 15:1).”

I don’t have access to any ancient Jewish commentaries on the Pentateuch’s sections dealing with uncleanness (The Siphre, the Numbers Rabba, and the Leviticus Rabba might be potential sources), but I would expect that the Jews considered the question somewhere: “Is there any point at which a corpse is sufficiently decomposed that it no longer imparts uncleanness?” And if they did, I expect that someone gave an answer appealing to the future resurrection of the corpse as that which distinguishes it from the soil around it, so that it would still be a distict and defiling entity, and those who touch it would require a cleansing baptism.

If there is such a conception, it might well underlie Paul’s enthymeme in 1 Cor. 15:29. Certainly, it would give him an intelligible argument. I note especially the adverb ὅλως, “altogether” or “entirely” in Paul’s conditional clause: if we stress it, we may compare his argument to the opinion of Joshua ben Hananiah quoted by Daube above. That is, “If the dead are entirely not raised — sc. if decomposition means that there is nothing to resurrect, as the Sadducees might say — then why are they [Jews] baptized on account of them?” Of course, we need not attribute to Paul the crass physicalism of Joshua ben Hananiah.

(It is true, of course, that ὅλως in this verse might be better translated, “If the dead really aren’t raised…” The adverb is used in this sense in 5:1 of the same letter.)

If I could find corroborating evidence in Jewish sources, this pericope would be an excellent example of Halakah shedding light on the Paul’s writings for us. Not exactly Biblical Horizons’ cup of tea, I suppose. More like Marcus Bockmuehl or David Daube.

I personally think there is a lot of this sort of thing in the New Testament, but Christians don’t bother to find it out or see it — partly because of a false, Lutheranizing hermeneutic (exploded by K. Stendahl and still more by Sanders, Wright, and Dunn); partly because of the obscurity and inaccessibility of the Talmud and Judaica to readers who don’t know Hebrew.

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