We’re looking at verses 29-34 of 1 Corinthians 15. Throughout this chapter, Paul has been making his case for a physical resurrection from the dead. One can only surmise that the Corinthians had been seduced by philosophical mystery religions of the area, most of which would have regarded the idea of physical resurrection as absurd, as they considered matter to be evil in its essence. For more on this, look at my post on verses 20-23.
Starting off this block of argument is a possible example of the contamination of the church by one of these mystery religions which had its center in a city across the bay from Corinth. It has been referred to as the “mystery across the bay.”
I understand that this verse concerning “baptism for the dead” has had more than 100 different explanations postulated for it. The best I’ve heard is presented in the Believers’ Bible Commentary, though it, like the others, is educated speculation. I think that a lot of these “huh?” verses have probably similar explanations, and that if the details of history had been better preserved, we would understand them. Much of the ritual law of the Old Testament is likely in this vein.
So, this “Mystery Across the Bay;” so mysterious that, while it is known to have been promoted by Homer and ascribed to by Cicero, Believers Bible Commentary has neglected to provide its name (maybe it’s like the secret handshake–we could tell you, but . . .). Part of the initiation into this cult included ceremonial purification ablutions (washings) in the sea, without which no one could hope to experience eternal bliss. People would perform these ablutions for themselves and also for deceased loved ones. It seems likely that some (the confused ones?) of the Corinthian Christians might have adopted this practice, substituting Christian baptism for the Pagan rites.
So, it’s a guess, but not that much of a stretch. At any rate, Paul uses it as an example of the irrationality of stating disbelief in a resurrection and yet having oneself baptized for the dead.
What is the point, if the dead are not raised? If we have hope in this life only, we should enjoy ourselves as much as possible, because this is all we get.
Paul tells the Corinthians, “You’ve been hanging around with the wrong sort of people.” I don’t for a minute think he meant they should not have friends who were sinners. Jesus had friends who were sinners–He was famous for it.
I think, rather, that the Corinthians in question were taking part in this and other mystery religions. The mysteries did not require that one renounce his basic religion–they were an add-on, an accessory–like a necklace or a purse. They were like a Christian who dabbles in Feng Shui or plays with Tarot cards or attempts to contact the dead or find his familiar spirit.
Paul calls this sort of thing sin. They are easily led astray because they are ignorant about God. Not only are they ignorant of good theology, but, more important, they do not Know God. They are not led by His Spirit. If they were, and were obedient, God could and would warn them to stay away from these foolish practices.
I think it’s way cool how a passage that seems like a non sequitur (such as this one has seemed to me–until now) makes sense when you have one little cultural reference slotted into place and when you pray and expend a little effort thinking about it.
So praise God! The next part of this chapter is a favorite of mine. I hope I can do it justice.