If baptism for the dead is a "suppressed" Christian doctrine dating from the apostolic age, why did Paul use the pronoun "they" instead of the personal "we" or "ye" when referring to the practice? In the same light, if the apostatized Christian church is responsible for stopping the practice, and is also guilty of removing "many plain and precious things" from the Bible, and Paul's reference refers to a Christian group baptizing for the dead, why then did this reference remain in the Bible, especially in a chapter devoted solely to doctrinal arguments for the resurrection?
Response: by John A. Tvedtnes
That Paul was not condemning the practice of baptism for the dead is evidenced by the fact that he cites it as evidence for the resurrection, as is clear from a full quote of the verse: "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?" Clearly, the practice would have been foolish if there were no resurrection. That Paul was not referring to some ancient Babylonian or Gnostic practice is evidenced by the fact that his audience must have been acquainted with the practice. It makes little sense for an apostle to cite a pagan practice as evidence for the resurrection. This point was made in a recent article by Richard E. DeMaris, a non-LDS scholar at Valparaiso University, in his article, "Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights from Archaeology and Anthropology," Journal of Biblical Literature 114/4 (Winter 1995).
The Greek original of 1 Corinthians 15:29 does not use the pronoun "they." It says, "Otherwise, what will do the ones being baptized for the dead?" The text uses a passive participle form, "the being baptized [ones]," used as a substantive (where it is usually accompanied by the definite article). Participles reflect gender, number and case, but not person. Hence, there is no third person plural ("they") in the Greek original. Placing stress on the pronoun supplied by the English Bible translators for flow in English distorts Paul's meaning. The passage, being devoid of reference to person, does not exclude the Christians as the ones who performed the rite, as the critics have claimed.
Two of the early church fathers, Epiphanius (A.D. 315-403), in Heresies 8.7, and Tertullian (A.D. 145-220), in Against Marcion 5.10, note that the Marcionites, a Christian group outside mainstream Christianity (like the Latter-day Saints) baptized others in the name of the dead. St. Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) tells how the Marcionites, when one of their catechumens died without baptism, would place a living person under the dead man's bed and ask whether he desired to be baptized. The living person would respond in the affirmative and was then baptized as a proxy for the deceased (Homily 40 on 1 Corinthians 15). Some dismiss this evidence on the grounds that the Marcionites were heretics. Latter-day Saints, believing that the great apostasy was already well under way by Marcion's time and that no Christian group then possessed the full truth, see the practice as a remnant of an earlier practice dating from the time of the apostles. Since baptism is essential for salvation (John 3:5-7) and that Christ went into the spirit world to bring the message of salvation to those who had not received it in mortality (1 Peter 3:18-21; 4:6; cf. John 3:25-29), it seems reasonable to expect that the Lord would have provided a means for the dead who had not heard the gospel to receive this sacred ordinance. Moreover, there is a precedent in one of the books of the Apocrypha, 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, where we read that Judas Maccabaeus, the Jewish high priest and ruler, offered sacrifices to atone for the sins of some of his dead soldiers.
That baptism for the dead was indeed practiced in some orthodox Christian circles is indicated by the decisions of two late fourth century councils. The fourth canon of the Synod of Hippo, held in 393, declares, "The Eucharist shall not be given to dead bodies, nor baptism conferred upon them" (fifth canon in the list of 41 rather than 36.). The ruling was confirmed four years later in the sixth canon of the Third Council of Carthage. Churches not represented at these minor council did not feel bound to discontinue the practice. Consequently, the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran and the Copts of Egypt continued baptisms for the dead while, in some churches, it was replaced by prayers and masses for the dead.
In early Christianity, Jesus' baptism was often seen as the pivotal moment in his victory over the grave, while the baptismal waters are said to deliver the dead (Odes of Solomon 6, 24). The baptism of the souls of the dead or of their resurrected bodies is a frequent theme in the stories of Christ's descent into the spirit world. The fifth-century Epistle of the Apostles 27 has the resurrected Jesus telling his apostles how he baptized the dead with water. Another fifth-century document, the Acts of Pilate, has an appendage (Part II, The Descent into Hell) that tells how, when Christ descended into hell, he removed therefrom the spirits of the righteous and of the repentant, after which they were then baptized in the Jordan River.
The Gospel of Bartholomew informs us that when Siophanes, son of the apostle Thomas, died, his soul was taken by Michael, who washed him three times in the Acherusian lake. This lake plays a similar role in other pseudepigraphal works. In Apocalypse of Moses 37:3-6, we read that when Adam died, a seraph carried him off to the Lake of Acheron and washed him three times in the presence of God, then conducted him to the third heaven. The fifth-century Apocalypse of Peter also speaks of men being brought before God and being baptized in the "field of Akrosja." The same story is repeated in the Apocalypse of Paul, where we read that no man can enter the heavenly city unless his soul is first baptized in the lake Acherusa. Pistis Sophia (lines 291-2) also speaks of the baptism of the souls of the dead and notes that those who remain on earth should perform the ordinances of baptism, anointing and sealing for those who died without the opportunity to receive them in this life (lines 195-6).
While the authorship of these pseudepigraphic works is open to question, it is certain that they were widely circulated among early Christian groups and therefore contain doctrines with which those Christians were familiar.
For more information, see John A. Tvedtnes, "Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity," in Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks, The Temple in Time and Eternity (Provo: FARMS, 1999). See also, John A. Tvedtnes's review of, Wilson, Luke P., "Does the Bible Teach Salvation for the Dead? A Survey of the Evidence" and "Did Jesus Establish Baptism for the Dead?" in FARMS Review of Books, Volume 10, Number 2 (1998) :184-199.