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How We Translate Makes a Difference

How We Translate Makes a Difference:

In the First Letter to the Corinthians, an obscure verse (15:29) makes reference to a supposedly arcane practice among early Christians, the so-called “baptism for the dead.” Wikipedia has an excellent survey and analysis of this so-called ‘baptism,’ including references to early Christian writers and how they interpreted the verse, ( Mormons still practice this form of proxy or vicarious baptism, since they follow the translation of the King James Version, which seems to imply such a thing:

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?

This is a classic example of a translation that creates something out of nothing. It is even more remarkable that this translation has been repeated for centuries in one form or another, perpetuating a belief in a nonexistent practice. Consider the following.

The Revised Standard Version:

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Or the New American Standard Bible (purportedly the most literal):

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?

(Note that both of the above versions do not even translate the final word of the verse, νεκρῶν, because they already assume the practice of vicarious baptism on behalf of the deceased.)

Now admittedly, the Greek is difficult to decipher – remember, there is no punctuation in the original (not even spaces between the words!). But what should not be difficult to understand is that Paul’s meaning would have been intelligible to his audience. If this was a reference to some esoteric practice of the early Christians, why does it not appear anywhere else? And why do early Christian writers have such varying explanations of it?

The answer is in how you choose to punctuate and translate the verse, and with an appreciation for how dynamic and rhetorical Paul can be. Here is the verse in the original, with the words separated out:

Επεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται τί καὶ βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν

Now consider this alternate translation, with the words matched below:

Otherwise, why will they do it, those who receive baptism? For the sake of their own corpses? If the dead do not rise at all, why are they baptized? For the sake of their dead bodies?

Otherwise (Επεὶ), why will they do [it] (τί ποιήσουσιν), those who receive baptism (οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι)? For the sake of their own corpses (ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν)? If the dead do not rise at all (εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται), why are they baptized (τί καὶ βαπτίζονται)? For the sake of their dead bodies (ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν)?

The difference is how you translate the Greek, nekros, νεκρός. Its most basic meaning is a dead body, a corpse (see entry in Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Clarendon Press, 1996), pg. 1165). By translating it so in the first and third instance, the argument of the verse becomes immediately clear. There is no point to being baptized, if it is only the shedding of our “mortal coil” – one’s eventual future as a corpse – that is being baptized. We are not baptized for the sake of mortality, but for immortality – for infinite life. Thus, this verse lies in perfect counterpoint to the preceding verses (15:12-28), some of the most powerful affirmations of the resurrection in the New Testament.

How we translate really does make a difference. Next time, why the verses used to advocate women covering their heads in church are so misunderstood…

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