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Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity

TitleBaptism for the Dead in Early Christianity
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication1999
AuthorsTvedtnes, John A.
EditorParry, Donald W., and Stephen D. Ricks
Book TitleThe Temple in Time and Eternity
PublisherFoundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University
CityProvo, UT
KeywordsBaptism for the Dead; Early Christian History; Early Christianity; Marcion (Early Christian); Spirit World; Vicarious Work

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Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity

John A. Tvedtnes

In a letter written to the twelve apostles in England, dated 19 October 1840, the Prophet Joseph Smith indicated that during a funeral sermon for Seymour Brunson in Nauvoo the previous August, he had introduced the ordinance of baptism for the dead.1 “The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead,” he wrote, “whom they believe would have embraced the Gospel, if they had been privileged with hearing it, and who have received the Gospel in the spirit, through the instrumentality of those who have been commissioned to preach to them while in prison.”2 Though the practice began soon after that time, it was not until September 1842 that the Prophet issued instructions in the form of two letters, which have become Doctrine and Covenants 127 and 128. In the latter, he cited several scriptures to indicate the efficacy of baptism for the dead, including the only Bible passage to specifically mention the subject, 1 Corinthians 15:29. “You may think this order of things to be very particular,” he wrote to the Saints, “but let me tell you that it is only to answer the will of God” (D&C 128:5).

As peculiar as the new practice may have been to the Saints, it was met with incredulity by other Christian groups. The general feeling among Christians then, as now, is that Paul’s mention of those who are “baptized for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29) was enshrouded in mystery. If such a practice ever existed, they believed, it was certainly not part of the Christian church. Since then, much information has come to light from ancient documents that support the idea that some early Christians indeed baptized others by proxy for those who had died unbaptized.

The Marcionites

Two of the early church fathers, Epiphanius (AD 315–403) in Panarion 1.28.6 and Tertullian (AD 145–220) in Against Marcion 5.10, note that the Marcionites, an early Christian group, baptized others in the name of the dead. St. Chrysostom (AD 347–407) tells how, when one of their catechumens died without baptism, the Marcionites 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 (see 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 rite dating from the time of the apostles.

The Marcionites gave a literal interpretation to Paul’s words, “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?” (1 Corinthians 15:29). Tertullian, though acknowledging in one place that the Corinthians practiced proxy baptism (see On the Resurrection of the Flesh 48), declares elsewhere that Paul was referring to baptism of the body, which is subject to death (see Against Marcion 5.10). St. Chrysostom similarly rejected Marcion’s interpretation of Paul and concluded that the apostle’s real referent was the profession of faith in baptism, part of which was, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” (Homily 40 on 1 Corinthians 15). These words, recited before baptism, indicated to Chrysostom that baptism is performed in hope of this resurrection.3

It is true that in other passages (see Romans 6:3–5; Colossians 2:12) Paul spoke of baptism as symbolic of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and of those who wish to follow him into a new life. But despite attempts by some of the early church fathers to give a symbolic meaning only to the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:29, the wording of this verse clearly implies proxy baptism.4

Work for the Dead

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 (fifth in some lists) of the Synod of Hippo, held in 393, declares, “The Eucharist shall not be given to dead bodies, . . . nor baptism conferred upon them.” The ruling was confirmed four years later in the sixth canon of the Third Council of Carthage.5

Some churches not represented at these minor councils did not feel bound to discontinue the practice. Consequently, the Copts of Egypt continued baptisms for the dead.6 The vast majority of Christianity, however, rejected proxy baptism. In some cases—as in the Roman Catholic faith—proxy baptism was replaced by prayers and masses for the dead. As early as the second century, prayers of this nature were known.7 Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Many say, what is a soul profited, which departs from this world either with sins, or without sins, if it be commemorated in the prayer? . . . We, when we offer to Him our supplications for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners, wear no crown, but offer up Christ sacrificed for our sins, propitiating our merciful God for them as well as for ourselves.”8

The same philosophy appears to have existed in some Jewish circles. The earliest reference to the idea is from the history of the Hasmonaeans. Following the battle of Marisa in 163 BC, it was discovered that each of the Jewish soldiers killed in the fight had been guilty of concealing pagan idols beneath his clothing. In order to atone for their wrong, Judas Maccabaeus collected money from the survivors to purchase sacrificial animals for their comrades.

And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachmas of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection: for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead.9 And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin. (2 Maccabees 12:43–45 KJV)

In a sense, sacrifice did in ancient Judaism what baptism does in Christianity: it cleansed from sin. Since Jesus declared that baptism is essential for salvation (see John 3:5–7) and that he later went into the spirit world to bring the message of salvation to those who had not received it in mortality (see 1 Peter 3:18–21; 4:6; compare John 5:25–29), it seems reasonable to expect that the Lord would have provided a means for those who died without hearing the gospel to receive this sacred ordinance.

Christ’s Visit to the Spirit World

Latter-day Saints have always understood baptism for the dead to be related to Christ’s visit to the spirit world during the three days that his body lay in the tomb. Peter wrote that Christ was “quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” (1 Peter 3:18–20; compare John 5:25–29). He then added, “for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6).10 It was Peter’s words that President Joseph F. Smith was contemplating when he received a vision explaining how Christ organized the righteous spirits to teach those who had not heard and accepted the gospel on earth (see D&C 138:10).

In the Shepherd of Hermas, a mid-second-century composition widely read in the early Christian church,11 Hermas’s angelic guide tells him that the apostles and teachers who fall asleep (die) faithful in Christ preach to others who have died, then go down into the water with them to give them the seal, a term usually referring to baptism (see Similitude 9:16). The passage is cited by Clement of Alexandria in Stromata 2.9 and again in Stromata 6.6, where he notes that not only Jesus, but his apostles, too, taught the dead in Hades. This is a point made in Doctrine and Covenants 138:29–32.

A number of early Christian documents speak of Christ’s “descent” into hell, the realm of the dead.12 That it was a matter of faith is indicated by its inclusion as the fifth article in the Apostles’ Creed. Two second-century writers, speaking of Christ’s preaching to the dead, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah a prophecy, not found in our current versions of that book, that the Lord would descend to preach salvation to the dead.13 Ignatius, a late first-century Christian leader, wrote that Christ had visited and taught the prophets in the spirit and raised them from the dead (see Epistle to the Magnesians 9). The second-century Christian theologians Hippolytus (see Treatise on Christ and Anti-Christ) and Origen (see Against Celsus 2.43) also noted that Christ preached to the dead.

Early Christian stories of the descent of Christ into hell are virtually unanimous in noting the joy felt by the righteous dead when they learned of Jesus’ baptism. Of this, J. Rendel Harris wrote, “In the earliest times, the Baptism of Christ was the occasion of His triumph over Hades.”14 Harris saw Ode of Solomon 24 as connecting baptism (note the mention of the dove over Jesus’ head) with anointing and the deliverance of the dead (i.e., resurrection). In Ode of Solomon 6:8–18, too, we have a stream that brings water to the temple and brings back from the dead those who are dying. Ode of Solomon 42:15–17 depicts the dead running to Christ to plead that he open the door and free them.

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 Epistle of the Apostles, known from a complete Ethiopic version, a fragmentary fifth-century Latin manuscript (now in Vienna) and a fourth- or fifth-century mutilated Coptic manuscript in Cairo, is an example. It places the following words in the mouth of Jesus as he visits with his apostles after the resurrection:

For to that end went I down unto the place of Lazarus, and preached unto the righteous and the prophets, that they might come out of the rest which is below and come up into that which is above; and I poured out upon them with my right hand the water [baptism, Ethiopic text] of life and forgiveness and salvation from all evil, as I have done unto you and unto them that believe on me.15

In the Ethiopic document known as the Testament of Our Lord and Our Savior Jesus Christ 38–39, Jesus tells his apostles, “For this reason I descended and conversed with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with your fathers the prophets, and I announced to them, in Sheol, the rest in the heavens where they shall come. With my right hand, I gave them the baptism of life, pardon and remission of all sin, as I did for you, and (as I shall do) hereafter for those who shall believe in me.” He then tells them that he who believes “shall come out of the prison and will be delivered from chains, from punishment and from the fire,” to which the apostles respond, “O Lord, you have truly given us joy and rest, for because of their faith and their confidence, you have announced to our fathers and to the prophets; also for us and for all (who believe in you).”16

The fifth-century Acts of Pilate has a later appendage (Part II, The Descent into Hell) that probably predates the first sections. It tells how, when Christ descended into hell, he removed therefrom the spirits of the righteous and of the repentant. The latter were then baptized in the Jordan River (see Acts of Pilate 4:2; 6).17 A Mandaean text has Adam, apparently after his death, ascending “to the House of Life; they (the uthras [angels]) washed him in the [heavenly] Jordan and protected him. They washed him and protected him in the Jordan; they placed their right hand on him. They baptized him with their baptism.”18 The Irish Death of Adam 40–41 also has the angels immersing the soul of Adam in the stream before bringing it to God.19 The Armenian Penitence of Adam 42 has Adam baptized in the Jordan River only after the resurrection.20

The Sacred Lake or River

The Gospel of Bartholomew informs us that when Siôphanes, son of the apostle Thomas, died, his soul was taken by Michael, who washed him three times in the Acherusian lake.21 This lake plays a similar role in other pseudepigraphic works.22 In Apocalypse of Moses 37:3–6,23 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 and then conducted him to the third heaven.

A similar idea is found in the fifth-century Apocalypse of Peter, known from both an Ethiopic text and a fifth-century Greek text in the Bodleian Library. A portion of the Greek version was also found at Akhmim and is now called the Gizeh Manuscript. Though the latter breaks off before the others, the original text reads of the judgment day, when men are brought before God and receive a baptism in the “field of Akrosja.”24

Apparently deriving directly from the Apocalypse of Peter is the Apocalypse of Paul, of which Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Latin versions exist. In the story, Paul is taken by an angel and shown a lake situated before the heavenly city:

And I said unto the angel: What is this? and he said unto me: This is the lake Acherusa where is the city of Christ: but not every man is suffered to enter into that city: for this is the way that leadeth unto God, and if any be a fornicator or ungodly, and turn and repent and bear fruits meet for repentance, first when he cometh out of the body he is brought and worshippeth God, and then by the commandment of the Lord he is delivered unto Michael the angel, and he washeth him in the lake Acherusa and so bringeth him into the city of Christ with them that have done no sin.25

In some pseudepigraphic works, a river of heavenly fire replaces the lake. Thus, in Chronicles of Jerahmeel 52:7, Moses saw a river of fire during his heavenly vision. The river of fire issuing from beneath a throne is described in Daniel 7:10 and 1 Enoch 14:18–20. In Revelation 22:1–2, it is a crystalline river of water that flows from beneath the throne, similar to the fountain of righteousness at the throne in 1 Enoch 48:1–2. Heavenly rivers of fire are also mentioned in 1 Enoch 17:4–6; 71:2; and 3 Enoch 22B:3–4; 33:3–5; 36:1–2; 37:1–2; 42:6–7; 47:1–2. Abraham also saw fire in his heavenly vision (see Apocalypse of Abraham 17:1; 18:1–8, 12–13). An encomium on John the Baptist, falsely attributed to St. Chrysostom, cites an apocalypse by James, the brother of Christ, in which the Savior tells the apostles that John the Baptist lives in the third heaven and ferries those who honor him on earth across a river of fire in a golden boat.26 The mention of John the Baptist would relate the river of fire to the ordinance of baptism.

In 1 Enoch 14:19–23, we read that streams of fire come out from beneath the throne of God while flaming fire surrounds him, making it impossible for mortals and all but the highest rank of angels to approach. Montague R. James noted that an old Latin homily on the ten virgins says that the river of fire, according to the Apocalypse of Peter, keeps the ungodly out of the kingdom of God.27 Similar ideas are found in various pseudepigraphic works. Enoch saw that sinners who denied the Lord were dragged off, unable to remain in the presence of God “because of the plague which proceeds forth from the Lord of the Spirits” (1 Enoch 41:2).28 Isaac reportedly saw the river of fire which, he noted, allowed the righteous to pass but burned the wicked; he also saw angels of fire who punished the wicked in the depths of the river (see Testament of Isaac 5:21–29). The Ethiopic text of Apocalypse of Peter similarly notes that, after floods of fire have been let loose on the wicked and destroy the earth, men appear before the judgment throne and enter into a river of fire, where the righteous survive but the wicked are tormented by angels, go into darkness, and are punished eternally in fire.

The story is paralleled by the second book of the Sibylline Oracles, in which we read that a river of fire will flow from heaven to destroy the earth (see Sibylline Oracles 2:196–213), after which comes the resurrection, when all men will pass through a river of fire where the righteous are saved but the wicked suffer (see Sibylline Oracles 2:252–86; in the Greek version of 3 Baruch 2:1, we read that no one is able to cross the heavenly river). Angels remove the wicked for punishment (see Sibylline Oracles 2:286–308) and then remove the righteous from the fiery river and reward them by placing them beside the Acherusian lake (see Sibylline Oracles 2:313–18, 330–38). This idea may be behind both the statement in Sirach (Wisdom of Ben Sira) 15:16–17 that the Lord places fire and water, life and death before man, and the declaration in Genesis 14:35 JST that “the sons of God should be tried so as by fire.” (In the Book of Mormon, compare 2 Nephi 30:10: “the wicked will he destroy; and he will spare his people, yea, even if it so be that he must destroy the wicked by fire.”) In one of the Nag Hammadi texts, angels descend to rescue the righteous from the fire sent to destroy the earth and bring them to heaven (see Apocalypse of Adam V, 5, 75.9–76.6).29 Compare Zechariah 3:2, where the high priest Joshua is termed “a brand plucked out of the fire.”

Similar imagery is found in the medieval Jewish text known as Sepher ha-Razim, which speaks of troops of angels who “immerse themselves in rivers of purity. And wrap themselves in garments of white fire.”30 Another medieval Jewish text, the Zohar, frequently refers to the fiery stream of Daniel 7:10 in similar terms. Thus, Zohar Exodus 210a, speaking of “the heavenly dew,” says, “it is in that dew that the souls bathe and recuperate after their previous immersion in the Nehar dinur (river of fire) for purification.”31 Zohar Exodus 210b, speaking of “the soul that quits this dark world,” says,

the souls sit there by that river that flows out of Eden; they find rest there whilst clad in the ethereal garments. Without those garments they would not be able to endure the dazzling light around them; but protected by this covering they are in comfort and drink their fill of that radiance without being overwhelmed by it. It is the river which renders the souls fit and able to feast on and to enjoy that radiance.32

Zohar Exodus 211b indicates that

The souls of men before ascending into Paradise are immersed in that “river of fire,” where they are purged without being consumed. . . . Yet let it not be thought from this that the soul undergoes no penance. For, indeed, woe to the soul that has to endure a strange fire, although it thereby be purged and made white; and still more, woe to the soul which is greatly defiled, for that soul will have to pass twice through the fire in order to come out pure and white. . . . A second ordeal has to be undergone by the soul on its passage from Lower Paradise to Upper Paradise; for whilst in Lower Paradise it is not yet entirely purged of the materialities of this world, so as to be fit to ascend on high. They thus pass it through that “river of fire” from which it emerges completely purified and so comes before the presence of the Sovereign of the universe beatified in every aspect.33

A similar statement is found in Zohar Numbers 159b: “The spirit has to be cleansed in the ‘stream of fire’ to receive its punishment, and then it enters the terrestrial Garden of Eden, and it is furnished with a robe of light resembling its appearance in this world.”34

Zohar Exodus 239b says that the wood used for the fire on the altar represented “the ‘fiery stream’ (n’har di-nur), the place where the ‘unstable’ (spirits) have to pass through the burning fire and be deprived of their power.”35 Zohar Leviticus 53a declares:

When a man is on the point of leaving this world, his soul suffers many chastisements along with his body before they separate. Nor does the soul actually leave him until the Shekinah shows herself to him, and then the soul goes out in joy and love to meet the Shekinah. If he is righteous, he cleaves and attaches himself to her. But if not, then the Shekinah departs, and the soul is left behind, mourning for its separation from the body, like a cat which is driven away from the fire. Afterwards both are punished by the hand of Dumah. The body is punished in the grave and the soul in the fire of Gehinnom for the appointed period. When this is completed, she rises from Gehinnom purified of her guilt like iron purified in the fire, and she is carried up to the lower Garden of Eden, where she is cleansed in the waters of Paradise and perfumed with its spices, and there she remains till the time comes for her to depart from the abode of the righteous. Then she is carried up stage after stage until she is brought near like a sacrifice to the altar . . . to the angelic Priest above.36

That baptism was intended by these passages is evidenced by Zohar Numbers 205a, which explains 1 Samuel 2:6 by saying, “As for the words ‘He bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up,’ this means that He takes that spirit of holiness down to Sheol and there baptizes it to purify it, after which it ascends to its rightful place in the Garden of Eden.”37

In Zohar Numbers 220b, there is even a hint that others can help bring salvation to the dead:

A man who does not labour with his “might” in this world to bring it into “work and device and knowledge and wisdom,” will eventually enter into Gehinnom, where there is no work nor device nor knowledge nor wisdom. For all men go down to Sheol, but they come up again at once, save those sinners who never harboured thoughts of repentance, and who go down and do not come up. Even the completely righteous go down there, but they only go down in order to bring up certain sinners from there, to wit, those who thought of repenting in this world, but were not able to do so in time before they departed from it. The righteous go down and bring these up.38

Coptic Baptism for the Dead

Among the ancient documents that mention baptism for the dead, a large preponderance were written in Coptic, the latest form of the Egyptian language.39 Though no longer spoken, Coptic remains the liturgical language of the Coptic Church of Egypt. Though there is abundant textual evidence for this practice among early Christians in Egypt, some of my Coptic friends assure me that it is still practiced in the case of family members who die unbaptized. To date, I have found only one modern story of an Egyptian girl who was baptized by proxy after her death.40

It is likely that the Egyptians more readily accepted baptism for the dead because of earlier pagan practices prevalent in that country. Hugh Nibley noted that the Coptic pseudepigrapha is not only related to other early Christian literature but is also highly dependent on earlier Egyptian texts. Concerning baptism for the dead, for example, he gave many references to water purification in ancient Egypt, both for the living and the dead. Indeed, washing in water was essential to the resurrection from the dead in ancient Egypt, just as is baptism in the pseudepigraphic literature.41

With this in mind, we can suggest some of the factors that contributed to the ease with which the Christianized Egyptians accepted baptism for the dead:

  1. The general Egyptian view of the dead was that they continued to live on in spirit form, hopeful of the resurrection of the body. Great care was therefore taken to preserve the body through embalming and incarcerating in rocky tombs.
  2. There was great stress in ancient Egypt on the proper performance of rituals, in both the world of the living and the world of the dead. Even where the deceased had not lived a praiseworthy life, it was typical to ascribe to him righteousness and to deny any wrongdoing on his part. Lest his heart and other facets of his being betray him to the gods sitting in judgment on his spirit, magic rituals and talismans were employed to ensure his safe passage into the worlds of glory.
  3. Initiation, including water purification, was already extant in both earth life and the mortuary rituals preceding burial. This was readily identified with Christian baptism for both living and dead.
  4. The great honor and respect shown toward one’s ancestors in ancient Egypt was reflected in the building and maintenance of mortuary temples, where food and drink were brought for the spirit of the deceased and where rituals necessary for safe passage through the dangers of the afterlife were performed.42 With such an attitude toward one’s progenitors, it is little wonder that the Christianized Egyptians were happy to carry on the practice of proxy ordinances for those who had gone before.

To these, we could add that gnosticism was common to both the Marcionites and to the early Christians of Egypt. With its heavy dependence on initiatory ceremonies, there was bound to be an attempt on the part of the gnostic movement to impart these blessings to their honored dead.43

One of the most important Coptic documents for a study of baptism for the dead is the Pistis Sophia, a gnostic document thought to date to the second century AD. In Pistis Sophia 146 we read that certain types of sinners, such as robbers, thieves, and arrogant persons, are saved by being chastised, and are then led to a body of water that becomes a seething fire to purify them. In the following chapter we find that the soul of an unbaptized righteous person is brought by angels to God, chastised, and then brought to the same body of water that becomes a seething, purifying fire, after which the individual inherits the light (Pistis Sophia 147).

An even more significant passage is found in Pistis Sophia 128, where we read that Mary asked the resurrected Christ,

If a good man has fulfilled all the mysteries [ordinances], and he has a relative, in a word, he has a man and that man is an impious one who . . . has come forth from the body; and we have known of him . . . what should we do to him so that we save him from the punishments of the dragon of the outer darkness, so that he is returned to a righteous body which will find the mysteries of the Kingdom of the Light, and become good and go to the height, and inherit the Kingdom of the Light?

Jesus responded,

If you want to return them from the punishments of the outer darkness and all the judgments, and return them to a righteous body which will find the mysteries of the light, and go to the height and inherit the Kingdom of the Light—perform the one mystery of the Ineffable which forgives sins at all times [i.e., baptism]. And when you have finished performing the mystery, say: “The soul of such and such a man on whom I think in my heart, . . . may it be taken to the presence of the Virgin of the Light; and may the Virgin of the Light seal it with the seal of the Ineffable, and cast it in that very month into a righteous body which will find the mysteries of the light in it, and become good, and go to the height and inherit the Kingdom of the Light. And furthermore, when it has completed the cycles of the changes, may that soul be taken to the presence of the seven virgins of the light which are in charge of the baptism. And may they place it (the baptism) upon that soul, and seal it with the sign of the Kingdom of the Ineffable, and may they take it to the ranks of the light.”44

Christ then explained that if the person has not been completely faithful, the soul is turned over to Yew or Jeu, who proves him and then leads him to the seven virgins of the light for baptism and passage through the veil into the Treasury of the Light (see Pistis Sophia 130).

Baptism for the Dead in Ethiopic Documents

Christianity spread from Egypt into Ethiopia, where the Abyssinian church was founded. There has been much Egyptian influence in Ethiopia, including influence from pre-Christian Egyptian practices, especially those associated with rites performed for the dead.45 It is therefore not surprising to see baptism for the dead mentioned in Ethiopic documents.

In the medieval Book of the Mysteries of the Heavens and the Earth, we find God sending the archangel Michael into Sheol (hell) to rescue a man taken there by demons. He searched three times, each time bringing out some of the wicked before finding the man he was seeking.

And the number of those [souls] who through that man escaped from Sheol was five hundred and forty-six thousand. And some of these were heathen. And the angels said, “this thing is terrifying.”

And our Lord saith in the Gospel, “He who believeth and who is baptized shall be saved, but he who believeth not shall be damned” (Mark xvi. 16). How then was it possible for these [souls] to escape? And thee, O son of man, hast thou heard that some of the heathen have been saved? [No doubt thou hast], but they did not enter the Garden (Paradise) without being baptized, for Michael baptized them, and they shone with splendour like the son. And the Holy Abbâ (Father) marvelled, and said, “Amânû’êl hath the power to do everything.”46

The same text, after mentioning “the Prophets and the sons of the Prophets, who have not found completely the baptism of life,” speaks of the “two companies of prophets,”47 evidently referring to those who are dead, in these terms:

They ascend out of Sheol and they settle themselves to rest in the Tabernacle. Now this taketh place on Sabbath days. Similarly among Christians, there are some who have been (or, who are) sinners, and in whom there is little of the grape; these shall not be repulsed. [Those who have received] a little of the grape are those who have received the Faith, that is to say the seal of baptism. Such shall not be destroyed.48

In the first section of the Ethiopic Lefafa Sedek (“bandlet of righteousness”), Mary tells Christ she is afraid for her soul and those of her parents, siblings, and her ancestor David and then asks, “And now, tell me, O my Son, clearly and certainly, by what means these are to be saved from this devouring fire.” Jesus then goes on to tell her about the magical text that can be written and buried with the dead.49 In a later section, the text cites the Prayer of the Virgin Mary on Behalf of the Apostle Matyas in Parthia regarding a petition, “by means of it those who are fettered in the bonds of Satan, and are in captivity to him, shall be set free.”50


Though most Christians stopped baptizing for the dead in the early centuries after Christ, documentary evidence makes it clear that the practice was known in various parts of the Mediterranean world and that it found ready acceptance in such areas as Egypt. The ordinance is especially attested in pseudepigraphic texts whose authorship is open to question; nevertheless, from their geographical distribution it seems that these documents were widely circulated among early Christian groups and therefore contain doctrines with which those Christians were familiar.


  1. For earlier studies of baptism for the dead, see Hugh W. Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” Improvement Era, December 1948–April 1949, reprinted as chapter 4, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987), 100–167; Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975), 93–96, 277, 282, 285–86; John A. Tvedtnes, “Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale,” Special Papers of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, no. 2, September 1989; and John A. Tvedtnes, “Proxy Baptism,” Ensign, February 1977, 86.
  2. History of the Church, 4:231.
  3. In the Coptic Church, which still recognizes baptism for the dead, this is emphasized by the fact that during baptismal ceremonies for the living, a prayer is offered for the dead. See Cyrille Salib, trans., La liturgie des sacrements du baptême et de la confirmation (Cairo: El Kateb El-Arabi, 1968), 88–90.
  4. For a recent study by a non-LDS scholar, see Richard E. Maris, “Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights from Archaeology and Anthropology,” Journal of Biblical Literature 114/4 (1995): 661–82.
  5. For the canons and details, see J.-P. Migne, ed., Dictionnaire universel et complet des conciles, Première encyclopédie théologique, vol. 13 (Paris: Ateliers Catholiques, 1847), 1:477, and Charles J. Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church (Edinburgh: Clark, 1896), 2:397–402.
  6. A non-Christian group, the Mandaeans, also practices baptism for the dead. See the following, translated by E. S. Drower: The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: Their Cults, Customs, Magic Legends, and Folklore (1937; reprint, Leiden: Brill, 1962), 44, 46, 90, 129–30, 132, 198, 214–22; Diwan Abatur or Progress through the Purgatories (Vatican: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1950), 22; The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans (Leiden: Brill, 1959), 10; A Pair of Nasoraean Commentaries (Two Priestly Documents) (Leiden: Brill, 1963), 39; The Thousand and Twelve Questions (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1960), 13, 143, 150, 223–26, 262–64, 272; and The Secret Adam: A Study of Nasoraean Gnosis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 51, 73–75, 79, 94. The Mandaeans probably continue the practice because of their heavy reliance on repeated baptisms. They also perform other rites for the dead. One Mandaean text even notes that the fallen angels, after judgment has been pronounced on them, “shall be baptized in the Jordan of the powerful, first Life.” Robert Haardt, Gnosis: Character and Testimony, trans. J. F. Hendry (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 396. A Syriac Orthodox priest recently told me that his church still recognizes baptism for the dead, but I have not yet received the promised documentation to support that claim.
  7. Prayers for the dead are mentioned in Arnobius, Against the Heathen 4.36; Apostolic Constitutions 8.12, 41; and Tertullian, On Monagamy 10. For a translation of an Ethiopic prayer for the dead, see E. A. Wallis Budge, The Bandlet of Righteousness: An Ethiopian Book of the Dead (London: Luzac, 1929), 12. Budge adds that “in the same Anaphora, which is attributed to Saint Basil, a prayer is made on behalf of those who pray for the dead, and who make offerings to them” (ibid.).
  8. Catechetical Lectures 23:10, trans. Edward H. Gifford, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (1894; reprint, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 7:154–55. With such a philosophy, it is strange that Cyril did not make the transition to performing rites such as baptism for the dead, since, in Christianity, these too make available the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
  9. This is precisely the point made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:29.
  10. Christ’s entry into the spirit prison was made possible by the “keys of hell and of death,” which he possessed (Revelation 1:18; compare 3:7).
  11. The earliest mention of the Shepherd of Hermas (or Pastor of Hermas) is from the mid-second century AD. Some early Christian fathers placed it on a par with other New Testament books.
  12. Among these are Melito of Sardis (ca. 160–177), Homily on the Passion, and Tertullian (ca. 145–220), A Treatise on the Soul 55.1 am indebted to Matthew Roper for bringing some of these to my attention.
  13. These were Justin Martyr (ca. 110–165), Dialogue with Trypho 72, and Irenaeus (ca. 120–202), Against Heresies 3:20; 4:22.
  14. J. Rendel Harris, The Odes and Psalms of Solomon (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1909), 123. Again, I am indebted to Matthew Roper for this reference.
  15. Epistle of the Apostles 27, cited from Montague R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (1924; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 494.
  16. Author’s translation from Louis Guerrier and Sylvain Grébaut, trans., Le Testament en Galilée de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1912), Patrologia Orientalis, 9:209–10. In another Ethiopic text, Christ descends into Sheol and brings out his chosen ones, sending them to the garden (paradise) under the leadership of Demas, one of the thieves crucified with him. They are stopped at the gates by the seraphim and cherubim, who do not allow them passage until Demas showed them the writing Christ had given him, written in Christ’s own blood. See E. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Mysteries of the Heavens and the Earth and Other Works of Bakhayla Mîkâ’êl (Zôsîmâs) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935), 135–37.
  17. In one of the Chenoboskion documents (Coptic gnostic books found in an earthen jar in Egypt in 1945), The Apocryphon of John, the “celestial power” (the gnostic Celestial Mother, rather than Jesus) describes her descent into hell, saying that on her third descent, she awoke Adam and sealed him with light and water so death could no longer have power over him (see The Apocryphon of John 30:32–31:25).
  18. Werner Foerster, Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts, trans. R. McL. Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 2:259.
  19. See Máire Herbert and Martin McNamara, eds., Irish Biblical Apocrypha (Edinburgh: Clark, 1989), 15.
  20. See Michael E. Stone, trans., The Penitence of Adam (Louvain: Catholic University, 1981), 11. My thanks to Matthew Roper for bringing the Irish and Armenian texts to my attention.
  21. See E. A. Wallis Budge, ed., Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, Coptic Texts, vol. 3 (1913; reprint, New York: AMS, 1977), 207–8.
  22. The lake is alluded to in the Ethiopic Conflict of Adam and Eve I, 1:2–3, in S. C. Malan, The Book of Adam and Eve, Also Called the Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan (Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1882), 1–2:

And to the north [of the garden] there is a sea of water, clear and pure to the taste, like unto nothing else; so that, through the clearness thereof, one may look into the depths of the earth. And when a man washes himself in it, he becomes clean of the cleanness thereof, and white of its whiteness—even if he were dark. And God created that sea of His own good pleasure, for He knew what would come of the man He should make; so that after he had left the garden, on account of his transgression, men should be born in the earth, from among whom righteous ones should die, whose souls God would raise at the last day; when they should return to their flesh; should bathe in the water of that sea, and all of them repent of [their] sins.

  1. Called The Life of Adam and Eve (Apocalypse) in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 2:259.
  2. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, 518.
  3. Apocalypse of Paul 22, in ibid., 537–38.
  4. See James, The Apocryphal New Testament, 37.
  5. See ibid., 507.
  6. 1 Enoch, trans. E. Isaac, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:32.
  7. See James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), 282.
  8. Michael A. Morgan, trans., Sepher ha-Razim, The Book of the Mysteries (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983), 83.
  9. Maurice Simon and Paul P. Levertoff, trans., The Zohar (New York: Bennet, 1958), 4:214.
  10. Ibid., 4:216.
  11. Ibid., 4:218–20.
  12. Maurice Simon and Harry Sperling, The Zohar (New York: Bennet, 1958), 5:226.
  13. Simon and Levertoff, The Zohar, 4:315.
  14. Simon and Sperling, The Zohar, 5:26.
  15. Ibid., 5:304–5.
  16. Ibid., 5:328–29.
  17. Coptic means “Egyptian.” The Coptic language was written using the Greek alphabet with the addition of several symbols from Egyptian demotic to represent sounds not present in Greek.
  18. See S. H. Leeder, Modern Sons of the Pharaohs: A Study of the Manners and Customs of the Copts of Egypt (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1918), 101.
  19. See Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 93–96. I reiterated the point in my “Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale.”
  20. These dangers, known from the Egyptian Book of the Dead literature, are also noted in Coptic texts dealing with the afterlife.
  21. It might be worth further noting that proxy rituals are not unique in the worlds of ancient Egypt and early Christianity. Rites performed for one’s ancestors are found throughout the world. Even in Islam, it is possible to perform the hajj by proxy, provided that the proxy has himself already made the pilgrimage in his own behalf. See Gaye Strathearn and Brian M. Hauglid, “The Great Mosque and Its Ka’ba as an Islamic Temple Complex in Light of Lundquist’s Typology of Ancient Near Eastern Temples,” in this volume, page 290.
  22. Violet MacDermot, trans., Pistis Sophia, ed. Carl Schmidt (Leiden: Brill, 1978), 322–24.
  23. For a discussion and a sample text, see Budge, Bandlet of Righteousness.
  24. Budge, Book of the Mysteries of the Heavens and the Earth, 23–24.
  25. Ibid., 60, 61.
  26. Ibid., 61.
  27. Budge, Bandlet of Righteousness, 62.
  28. Ibid., 99.

Scripture Reference

1 Corinthians 15:29