The notes in the NAB didn’t much help; I checked a Protestant NIV to see what they had to say – they didn’t even touch on it. The verse reads, “Otherwise, what will people accomplish by having themselves baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they having themselves baptized for them?” Even in context, I cannot place its meaning. Any guesses? Anybody know? The language of, “they/them” doesn’t much help, either…
Hancock Bible Commentary
Ver. 29. Who are baptized for the dead. He still brings other proofs of the resurrection. This is a hard place, and the words are differently expounded. 1. Several late interpreters understand a metaphorical baptism, and that to be baptized for the dead, is to undertake self-denials, mortifications, and works of penance, in hopes of a happy resurrection; and this exposition agrees with what follows, of being exposed to dangers every hour, of dying daily, &c. But if this had been the apostle’s meaning, he would rather have said, Who baptize themselves. Besides, this exposition is not so much as mentioned in any of the ancient interpreters. 2. Some think that St. Paul tells the Corinthians that they ought not to question the resurrection of the dead, who had a custom among them, if any one died without baptism, to baptize another that was living for him; and this they did, fancying that such a baptism would be profitable to the dead person, in order to a happy resurrection. Tertullian mentions this custom in one or two places, and also St. Chrysostom on this place. But it does not seem probable that St. Paul would bring any argument of the resurrection from a custom which he himself could not approve, nor was ever approved in the Church. 3. St. Chrysostom and the Greek interpreters, who generally follow him, expound these words, who are baptized for the dead, as if it were the same as to say, who receive baptism with hopes that they themselves, and all the dead, will rise again; and therefore make a profession, when they are baptized, that they believe the resurrection. So that St. Paul here brings this proof among others, that they who have been made Christians, and continue Christians, cannot call in question the resurrection, which they professed to believe in their creed at their baptism, the creed being always repeated before they were baptized. 4. Others, by being baptized for the dead, understand those who begged and called for baptism when they were in danger of death, and would by no means go out of this world without being baptized, hoping thereby to have a happy resurrection of their bodies; so that to be baptized for the dead is the same as on the account of the state of the dead, which they were entering into. See St. Epiphanius, hær. viii. p. 144. Edit Petavii. (Witham) Some think the apostle here alludes to a ceremony then in use: but others, more probably, to the prayers and penitential labours performed by the primitive Christians for the souls of the faithful departed: or to the baptism of afflictions and sufferings undergone for sinners spiritually dead. (Challoner)
The NAVARRE Bible Commentary…the Christian belief in the Resurrection of the dead.
Thank you, richardeekw.
Perhaps this also helps. It is by St. Thomas Aquinas. Full link here (you might have to reload the page a few times…I kept getting server errors)*951. – Having shown the resurrection of the dead from the resurrection of Christ, the Apostle then shows the resurrection of the dead from the life of the saints. In regard to this he does two things: first, he proves his proposition; secondly, he adds an admonition (v. 33). He proves his proposition by leading to three incongruities: first, it is incongruous that men’s devotion to baptism be frustrated; secondly, that the laborers of the saints would be frustrated (v. 30); thirdly, that there would be given the occasion to enjoy pleasure (v. 32b). In regard to the first he does two things: first, he presents the first incongruity; secondly, he explains it (v. 29b).
– First, therefore, he says: I have said that the dead rise, otherwise, namely, if there is not resurrection of the dead, as we preach, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead. This can be understood in two ways: in one way so that by “dead” the works of sin are understood. They are dead, because they lack the life of grace and lead to death: “The blood of Christ will purify your conscience from dead works” (Heb 9:14). And according to this the words are plain. What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? i.e., for washing away their sins, if they are not to have the life of grace? In another way, because some at that time wanted men to be baptized: first, in order that they might obtain for themselves the remission of sins; and they were baptized again for some dead relative, so that he too would be freed from sins after death. And according to this the text reads: what do people mean by being baptized for the dead, namely, their relatives, for whose salvation they were baptized, if there is no resurrection of the dead. But they can be commended in something, namely, in the fact that they seemed to have faith in the resurrection. But in something they can be reprehended, in the fact that they believed that one can be baptized for another.
– But then there is a question: If one’s prayers profit another, why not his baptism? To this there are two answers: one is that works performed by the living do profit the dead on account of the union of charity and faith. And therefore, they benefit only those who die with charity and faith. Hence, neither prayer nor the baptism of the living profit unbelievers; yet prayer can help those in purgatory. Another answer and better is that good works help the dead not only in virtue of charity but also from the intention of the one who performs them. Just as if I should say the psalter for someone who is in purgatory and was bound to say it to satisfy for him, it will be profitable indeed as to satisfying only for the one for whom I say it. It must be said according to this that baptism has no value from our intention but from the intention of Christ. But the intention of Christ is that baptism should benefit those who are baptized in the faith of Christ.
– Then he explains that incongruity, saying: If the dead are not raised at all. And this explanation seems to agree more with the second explanation given above. As if to say: Why are they baptized for them, i.e., for the dead, if they do not rise. But if it is explained according to the first explanation, then it can be said: if the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf, i.e., for their sins, since they are not forgiven.*
MarcoPolo gave the most explicit explanation from St. Thomas, which obviously you can not go wrong there! And the Haydock commentary was also quoted, which is reliable and faithful! But here is an alternative from Theodoret of Cyrus, who I happen to have high regard for also.
Theodoret of Cyrus says this in his commentary
“The Baptized person, he is saying, is buried with the Lord so that, having shared death, they may also become sharers in the resurrection. But if the body is dead and does not rise, why on earth are they baptized?”
Theodoret seems to be saying that if the resurrection does not occur, the sybolism of death, burial and rising in the ritual of baptism is flawed and the rite futile.
But St. John Chrysostom seems to be a wtiness to a practice of baptizing deceased catechumens.
The question “why do They”, the word “They” places the practice outside the church.
Reply to Objection 4. According to a gloss this passage may be expounded in two ways. First, thus: “If the dead rise not again, nor did Christ rise again, why are they baptized for them? i.e. for sins, since they are not pardoned if Christ rose not again, because in Baptism not only Christ’s passion but also His resurrection operates, for the latter is in a sense the cause of our spiritual resurrection.” Secondly, thus: There have been some misguided persons who were baptized for those who had departed this life without baptism, thinking that this would profit them: and according to this explanation the Apostle is speaking, in the above words, merely according to the opinion of certain persons.