Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale

John A. Tvedtnes

Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale

This paper was presented at a symposium held 5 June 1981 in Jerusalem, sponsored by the L.A. Mayer Memorial Museum of Islamic Art and the Israel Ministry of Education and Culture and later published in Special Papers of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 2 (September 1989). The Jerusalem symposium marked the opening of an exhibit of Coptic art at the museum. I was one of two American scholars invited to speak. Other participants came from England, Belgium, Austria and Israel. This paper is admittedly out-of-date, having been succeeded by my more lengthy “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity,” published in Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks, The Temple in Time and Eternity (Provo: FARMS, 1999). The real importance of the earlier study goes beyond its content because it was presented at an international scholarly conference in 1983, where it was warmly received. – John A. Tvedtnes

One of the practices that sets the Coptic Church apart from most of the Christian world is that of proxy baptism for the dead.1 In order to understand the rationale for this ceremony, it is necessary to both establish its antiquity in Christianity and to discuss some of its antecedents in the ancient Egyptian religion.

The earliest reference to the practice is found in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 15:29:

Else what shall they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?

That the practice was considered rare and even aberrant by the fourth century is evidenced by the fact that only the Marcionites of that era are said to have continued such baptisms. Epiphanius describes the Marcionite rite as follows:

In this country–I mean Asia–and even in Galatia, their school flourished eminently and a traditional fact concerning them has reached us, that when any of them had died without baptism, they used to baptize others in their name, lest in the resurrection they should suffer punishment as unbaptized. (Heresies 8:7)

Tertullian also notes the existence of proxy baptisms among the Marcionites and wrote that the practice was based on the passage in 1 Corinthians. Unable to explain the meaning of Paul’s words, he wrote,

Now never mind that practice, whatever it may have been . . . do not suppose that the apostle here indicates some new god as the author and advocate of this [baptism for the dead. His only aim in alluding to it was] that he might all the more firmly insist upon the resurrection of the body… (Against Marcion, Book V, Chap. x)

St. Chrysostom tells of 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 XL on 1 Corinthians 15). But Chrysostom believed that Marcion erred in his interpretation of Paul and that the real referent was the profession of faith in baptism, part of which was, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead.” He notes, “Before baptism we confess our faith `in the resurrection of the dead’, and are baptized in hope of this resurrection.”2

It is true that, in other passages (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. Nevertheless, 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 the latter clearly implies proxy baptism.

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,3 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.4

The monophysitic church of Egypt was not represented at these minor councils and hence did not feel bound to discontinue the practice. To my knowledge, only two Christian congregations have continued to practice proxy baptisms for the dead through the centuries. These are the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran and the Copts of Egypt. Two modern churches–The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and some of the Neo-Apostolic congregations of Europe–have revived the practice during the last century and a half.

The vast majority of Christianity, however, rejected proxy baptism. In some cases, as in the Roman Catholic faith, it was replaced by prayers and masses for the dead. As early as the fourth century, prayers of this nature were known, as evidenced by the Lectures on the Mysteries by Cyril of Jerusalem. He wrote:

I have often heard people ask: What good does it do the departed spirit, whether the person was good or bad in life, to be remembered in prayer? . . . Answer: By doing for them and for ourselves what a loving God requires, we make available the atoning sacrifice which Christ made for our sins.5

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 in order 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.6 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 12:43-46)

In a sense, sacrifice did in ancient Judaism what baptism does in Christianity: it cleansed from sin. Jesus is reported to have said to Nicodemus, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). If, therefore, baptism was so essential to eternal salvation, it is almost inconceivable that early Christianity would not have had a means whereby it could be administered to the righteous who died without having the opportunity to hear of Jesus’ atonement.

In Christianity, the work of salvation for the dead is depicted by Christ’s visit to the spirit world during the three days his body lay in the tomb. First expressed in the New Testament (John 5:25-29; 1 Peter 3:18-21), it is said that “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.”7

Early Christian stories of the descensus 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.”8 Harris saw the 24th Ode of Solomon 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 6, too, we have a stream bringing water to the temple and which brought back from the dead those who were dying.

Baptism of the souls of the dead or of their resurrected bodies is a frequent theme in the descensus stories, many of which come from Egypt. 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, visiting 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.9

The Acta Pilati, in its present form from the fifth century,10 has a later appendage (Part II, The Descent into Hell) that probably predates the first sections.11 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.12

The Gospel of Bartholomew, extant only in Coptic,13 tells of how Siophanes, son of the apostle Thomas, had died. His soul was taken to heaven by Michael, who washed him three times in the Acherusian lake beforehand.14 This lake plays a similar role in other pseudepigraphal works.15 E.g., in the Apocalypse of Moses 37:3, we read that when Adam died, “one of the six-winged seraphim came and carried Adam off to the Lake of Acheron and washed him three times in the presence of God.” He was then conducted to the third heaven (vss. 5-6)

A similar idea is found in the Apocalypse of Peter, known from both Ethiopic and from a 5th century Greek text in the Bodelian 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.”16

Apparently deriving directly from the Apocalypse of Peter is the Apocalypse of Paul, of which there are versions in Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic and Latin. 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.17

Prof. Hugh Nibley has dealt with the subject of baptism for the dead in Coptic pseudepigrapha, notably in the third century document known as Pistis Sophia. This esoteric work, describing the afterworld, notes:

They will all test that soul to find their signs in it, as well as their seals and their baptisms and their anointing. And the virgin of the Light will seal that soul, and the workers will baptize it and give it the spiritual anointing.18

Nibley further notes that the document speaks of how those who remain in the place of testing, the “in-between” place (i.e., the earth) should perform the ordinances of baptism, anointing and sealing for those who died without the opportunity to receive them in this life.19

Another possible reference to baptism for the dead is in the Coptic Gospel of Philip, one of the documents found at Nag Hamadi in 1945. Here, we read that those who are baptized can become the servants of others, freeing them through the work of love that they, too, may enjoy the anointing at the hands of those who have received it.20

The point that Nibley repeated makes in regard to the Coptic pseudepigrapha is that it is not only related to other early Christian literature, but that it is highly dependent upon earlier Egyptian texts. Concerning baptism for the dead, for example, he gives 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 pseudepigraphal literature cited above.21

Viewed in this light, one can see why the Copts, of all the early Christian churches, retained baptism for the dead.22 Some of the factors contributing to the ease with which they accepted this practice are as follows:

  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 the building of rocky tombs.
  2. There was great stress, in ancient Egypt, on the proper performance of rituals, both in the world of the living and in 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 in 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.23 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 the notation 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.24


1 Though there is abundant textual evidence for this practice among early Christians in Egypt, I have, to date, found no documentation for its existence in the modern Coptic Church. Nevertheless, some of my Coptic friends have assured me that it is still practiced in the case of family members who die unbaptized. Cf. also the Coptic story of the girl who was baptized after her death, in S.H. Leeder, Modern Sons of the Pharaohs: A Study of the Manners and Customs of the Copts of Egypt (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918), 101.

2 In the Coptic faith, this is emphasized by the fact that, during baptismal ceremonies for the living, a prayer is offered for the dead. See Cyrille Salib, La Liturgie des Sacraments du Bapt?me et de la Confirmation (translated from the Coptic by Salib, 1968), 88-90.

3 Fifth canon in the list of 41 rather than 36.

4 For the canons and details, see M. l’AbbÈ (Jacques Paul) Migne, Dictionnaire Universel et Complet des Conciles (Paris: Ateliers Catholiques du Petit, 1847), Vol. I, Col. 477, and Rt. Rev. Charles Joseph Hefele, DD, History of the Councils of the Church (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1896), Vol. 2, 397ff.

5 Vs. 10. Cited in Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1975), 282. 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.

6 This is precisely the point made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:29.

7 1 Peter 4:6. Christ’s entry into the spirit prison was made possible by the “keys of hell and of death” which he possessed (Revelation 1:18; cf. 3:7).

8 J. Rendel Harris, The Odes and Psalms of Solomon (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1909), 123.

9 Verse 27. Cited from Montague Rhodes James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), 494.

10 Ibid., 95.

11 Ibid., 177.

12 Ibid., 142-143.

13 First translated in 1910 by W. E. Crum, later by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London: British Museum, 1913), 207-208.

14 James, The Apocryphal New Testament, 185.

15 The lake is alluded to in the Ethiopic book of 1 Adam & Eve: “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, 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 Adam & Eve 1:2?4)

16 Ibid., 518.

17 Ibid., 537-538.

18 Lines 291-292, cited in Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 175.

19 Lines 195-196, cited in Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 277.

20 Ibid., 285-286, referring to Pahor Labib, Coptic Gnostic Papyri in the Coptic Museum at Old Cairo (Cairo, 1956), Vol. I, where we have the photographic facsimile text of 125:9ff (esp. 2631ff) and 126:1ff, cited by Nibley.

21 See Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 93-96.

22 The Mandaeans, who also continue the practice, probably do so because of their heavy reliance on repeated baptisms. They claim to be descended from the disciples of John the Baptist, forcibly removed from Judea by the Romans. See E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq & Iran.

23 These dangers, known from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead” literature, are also noted in Coptic texts dealing with the afterlife.

24 It might be worth further noting that proxy rituals are not unique in the world of ancient Egypt and of 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.

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