Greek: Ἐπεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν; εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, τί καὶ βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν;
My Translation: Otherwise what will they do, those who are baptized above the dead? If the dead are not raised up why do they baptize above them [some manuscripts "of the dead"]?
KJV: Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
Again, remember that the translations I provide are not meant to be more accurate, but are purposefully stretched nearly to their breaking point in meaning. Usually the KJV translation is fine and I'll tell you when it isn't. I provide these extreme, and admittedly somewhat incorrect, translations in order to give a sense of the range of meaning of the underlying words so that you can get a feel for the "flavor" of the words underlying the English text. So for instance, while I say "above the dead" here and that is technically valid, it is almost certainly not correct and the KJV "for" is the most likely intention.
Update May 2013 This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.
We're In the Same Chapter As Before
The context of this chapter has already been covered in the previous post. But in sum, Paul has been refreshing his Corinthian congregation on his ideas about Jesus's resurrection. The entirety of chapter 15 is about the resurrection. Previously, Paul indicated how Christ's resurrection leads to the resurrection of all those who belong to Christ before the Kingdom of God arrives at the end of the world.
After explaining this, Paul then moves onto why the resurrection of Jesus was necessary. In advance of the coming Kingdom, Jesus had been sent to begin the rule of the Kingdom upon the earth. Only when Jesus was the ruler of all things could the Kingdom arrive. The last obstacle of the present, evil world to be overcome was death, and when Jesus became the master of death, then the dead would rise and the kingdom would arrive.
At this point, Paul turns to asking his Corinthian friends a series of rhetorical questions. If this was not the case, then why are they baptized for the dead? What is the point of anything, if death remains in the world and the dead do not rise? We'll follow this line of questions with the next post, where Paul attempts to respond to the question of what this resurrection will be like (it seems that part of his attention here in chapter 15 was in response to some doubt by some Corinthians about whether the resurrection would occur).
Baptisms In Place of the Dead?
This verse in question is thus one of the rhetorical questions Paul asks in support of his position that a resurrection of the dead was about to take place. This verse has puzzled Christians for centuries. Martin Luther, for instance, believed that Paul was referring to a practice of the Christians to hold their baptisms over tombs as a reminder that Christ's sacrifice overcomes death. Other interpreters felt that Paul was referring to a practice of Christians being baptized before their death, and that Paul was saying that such a baptism, so close to the end of life, would have little effect upon a person unless their life would continue onwards long past that baptism after a resurrection of their body. Many note that Paul in Romans likens baptism to a symbolic representation of the death and resurrection of the Christian and of Christ, and as such he may be referring to baptism "for the dead" as a way of likening regular Christian baptism to death (and thus reinforcing why it would be meaningless to do so if there was no resurrection to follow, which for Paul is represented in baptism when the initiate arises out of the water). And still others feel that Paul was making reference to a practice of baptisms in proxy for deceased persons.
Joseph Smith revealed that God was allowing Mormons to practice proxy baptisms in 1840. In doing so, Smith referenced this verse as part of his explanation for the practice. Some Latter-day Saints will point to the presence of the practice in both the LDS Church and 1 Corinthians 15:29 without making mention of how Smith was aware of the scripture. When this connection is not mentioned, it can often appear that the biblical verse is acting as an independent witness to the validity of the modern Mormon practice. However, the LDS practice almost certainly grew out of Joseph's pondering of the scripture in question, and thus it is not independent from the 1840 revelation.
Distinctive, But Not Mormon
Also, it is important to note what is not said by Paul about the practice. There is no mention of Temples. There is no mention of who these dead are, whether they are the recently deceased members of the community or ancestors. There is no mention of the need for baptism for all humans (one of the driving factors for Mormons to baptize their ancestors is to provide them with an opportunity for baptism that was not available to them during their lives). Paul doesn't even mention who is participating in this practice. He is talking to the Corinthians, but he very purposefully uses the third-person plural "they" in discussing who is participating in the practice. We have no idea who he was referring to: the Corinthians or some other group? Why not say "why are you baptized for the dead" unless the Corinthians were not doing it? Some scholars through history have even speculated that Paul's vagueness about who is involved in this practice might be evidence of his personal disfavor of it, though this is certainly not a widespread idea among most scholars. The only thing that can be determined for sure is that Paul is only using this verse as an example for why Christians believe the resurrection will occur.
The word that matters in this verse is the word ὑπὲρ hupér, *a preposition that carries a range of meanings beginning with "over/above" and extending to "standing in defense of, standing in place of, standing for, for" or even "concerning". It is the source for the English prefix "hyper", which usually means "above". So while Mormons are correct that the meaning can be expressed as a proxy baptism (standing in place of), Luther's speculation also makes grammatical sense (baptized *over the dead). The meaning, however, at the time of Paul most likely would be best translated as "for" or "in place of".
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
This scripture is given so that LDS youth have an example of a uniquely LDS practice that can be shown to have its origin in the Bible. Their interpretation of Paul referring to a practice of "baptism in behalf of the dead" is a valid and correct interpretation, though within the context of the chapter Paul is not making any statement about the validity or necessity of the practice. Instead, Paul is merely stating the existence of it as proof that Christians believe in a resurrection of the dead. Also, there are a number of other viewpoint on this scripture that are also grammatically valid that do not infer the existence of a historical practice of baptizing for the dead the way that modern Mormons do for their ancestors. But it does stand as an example of something uniquely Mormon that can be found within the Bible (because it seems that this scripture is the ultimate origin of the LDS practice, so it shouldn't be too surprising). In the next post we'll see another attempt at finding unique Mormon doctrine within the same chapter that fails completely once viewed within its context, but today this verse is accurate, useful, and a good choice of a verse for a Mormon to know about.