White categorizes four kinds of interpretations when it comes to 1 Corinthians 15:29, a quadruple, four-headed option.1 Taken by itself, some use this passage to try to assert what is necessary should be vicarious baptisms for corpses (the dead). But there are also three other options.
- Positions that take the statement at face value.
- Views that apply non-substantive senses for the term (των νεκρον)
- Ones with alternate meanings for the preposition ‘ὐπερ’
- Others that take Βαπτιζω in a non-literal sense.
So, we have to address these four aspects of the text in order to properly address it.
(1) The first problem is, in the state of the discourse, Paul must be speaking against people who denied resurrection. Why would people who deny resurrection (particularly even Christ’s), be practicing a ritual which baptized the dead? (489). Baptism is quite literally modelled upon resurrection — So, such is possible, I suppose, but strangely improbable.
(2) The second tries to translate the phrase as follows, “Otherwise, what do those hope to achieve who are baptized for their dying bodies?” (491) Again, however, if they are baptized “for their dying bodies”, how does this correlate to people who deny the resurrection?
(3) This third one is actually linked to Martin Luther, who supposes the Corinthians are baptizing people by sprinkling or pouring water over their graves based upon the preposition uper. Supposedly however, (i) the syntactical discussion does not weigh in Luther’s favor, (ii) it honestly is entirely historical conjecture, with no known historical evidence.
(4) ‘Baptized’ could be understood as ‘those being destroyed’ (492), which actually matches some classical Greek usages. However, little can help us revert to the classical usage outside its normal, biblical sense.
So, what is the solution. We are to take ‘baptized’ literally, in accordance with its literal sense, apostolic sufferings must be the point of Paul’s concern, uper is to be taken causally, and ‘the dead’ should be taken metaphorically, as ‘the dead apostles‘. Then, olos is to be applied to nekron – ‘the truly dead persons’, who are the apostles.
The hypothetical accusation is, “if the apostles have not been raised, what hope is there for us?”
“Otherwise, what will those do who are being baptized on account of the dead [the dead figuratively, meaning the apostles]. Because if those who are truly dead are not being raised, why are people being baptized on account of them [that is, the apostles]?
This also explains why Paul keeps emphasizing he is in danger – because he is like the apostles, many of whom have suffered and died for Christ literally at this point in time.
All together, it appears best to take ‘the dead’ to mean the ‘dead apostles’, or even if you rather ‘the dead disciples’, basically those who have previously already died for Christ in a historical context and circumstance, not ‘the dead’ abstractly.