Evidence #127 | December 18, 2020

John's Translation

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The Book of Mormon indicates that John the Apostle was translated so that he would not taste of death. Some early Christian traditions also held this view.

John’s Translation Reported in the Book of Mormon

When the resurrected Savior visited the people of Nephi, he chose twelve disciples to minister to them, just as he had chosen twelve apostles to lead his Church in the Old World. Before his departure, he asked each of the twelve New World disciples what they desired. Nine asked to “speedily come unto thee in [His] kingdom” once their mortal ministries were completed (3 Nephi 28:2). Three, however, expressed the unusual desire that they might be able to continue their sacred ministry. Jesus responded, “ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me.” He then gave them the following blessing:

For ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven. And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but then I shall come in my glory ye shall be changed in the twinkling of ana eye from mortality to immortality; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father. And again, ye shall not have pain while ye shall dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow save it be for the sins of the world; and all this will I do because of the things which ye have desired of me, for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand. (3 Nephi 28:7–9)

Christ with Three Nephite Disciples by Gary L. Kapp.

Johns Translation Reported in the New Testament

Several New Testament passages indicate that John would remain upon the earth until the Savior returned in glory. Jesus told the apostles, “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom (Matthew 16:27–28; see also Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27).

In the last chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus admonished Peter to feed his sheep and prophesied of his future martyrdom. Peter then, referring to John, asked, “Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me.” The narrator added, “Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? (John 21:21–23).

Jesus explains, "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death" (Matthew 16:28). Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The passage indicates that some early Christians believed that John would not die, a conclusion that the writer wanted to correct. He did affirm, however, that Jesus promised John was to tarry until he came again. Even after the time of the apostles, Christians were puzzled by the passage and wondered what it might mean.

The Doctrine of Translation

The Book of Mormon and other Latter-day revelations, such as Doctrine and Covenants 7:1–8, provide clarification to these New Testament passages. Jesus did not say that the three would not die, but that they would not “taste of death” or “endure the pains of death” and would “live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men” until Jesus returned in glory. They would remain to bring souls to Christ until that day when the three would be changed from “mortality to immortality” (3 Nephi 28:7–8).

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “the doctrine of translation obtains deliverance from the tortures and sufferings of the body but their existence will prolong as to their labors and toils of the ministry before they can enter into so great a rest and glory.”1 He further explained, “Translated bodies cannot enter into rest until they have undergone a change equivalent to death.”2

The early Christian apologist Tertullian held a similar view. He believed that while some prophets were translated, they did not escape death. “Enoch no doubt was translated, and so was Elijah; nor did they experience death; it was postponed, (and only postponed,) most certainly.” He believed that those prophets would die after completing future missions.3

Johns Translation Reported in Early Christian Sources 

Allegoric wood engraving featuring Tertullian, by André Thevet (Lyons, 1584).

Mormon described the unsuccessful efforts by those who persecuted the Church of Christ to kill the three disciples of Jesus. They were imprisoned, cast into deep pits, furnaces of fire, or dens of wild animals, but were delivered by the power of God (3 Nephi 28:19–22; 4 Nephi 1:30–33).

Some early Christian sources indicate that the Apostle John encountered similar challenges. Tertullian stated that during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, John “was first plunged unhurt, into boiling oil” before he was exiled to the island of Patmos.4 Another story says that he was made to drink poison, but miraculously survived.5 Hyppolytus, a writer from the late second and early third century, claimed that John lived until the time of the Emperor Trajan and was thought to have died at Ephesus, but reported “his remains were sought for, but could not be found.”6 

The apocryphal Acts of John, believed to date to the second century AD, contains conflicting reports about John’s death. A pit was dug. John then lays down, prays, and gives up the ghost.7 A variant ending of the text indicates that he “had not died but been transported.”8 A mysterious fountain appears, and only his sandals remain.9 In yet another variation, the earth around his burial spot shakes from time to time and emits dust, showing that he was not dead, but only sleeping.10 These conflicting accounts suggest that there was an air of mystery and uncertainty about John’s fate.

Perhaps the most explicit non-canonical account comes from the Coptic Discourse on the Abbaton, a fourth century text from Egypt. This text purports to give some of the teachings of the resurrected Jesus to his apostles, including the following statement to John:

And as for thee, O My Beloved John, thou shalt not die until the thrones have been prepared on the Day of Resurrection, because the thrones of glory shall come down from heaven, and ye shall sit upon them, and I will sit in your midst. All the saints shall see the honour which I will pay unto thee, O My beloved John. I will command Abbaton, the Angel of Death, to come unto thee on that day, and he shall not be in any form that will terrify thee, but he shall come unto thee in the form of a gentle man, with a face like unto that of Michael, and he shall take away thy soul and bring it unto Me. Thy body shall not be in the tomb for ever, neither shall the earth rest upon it forever. All the saints shall marvel at thee because thou shalt not be judged until thou judgest them. Thou shalt be dead for three and a half hours, lying upon thy throne, and all creation shall see thee. I will make thy soul to return to thy body, and thou shalt rise up and array thyself in apparel of glory, like unto that of one who hath stood up in the marriage chamber.11

This text, not translated into English until 1914, demonstrates even more concretely and vividly that some early Christians believed John would not taste death until the Savior returned in glory to judge the world.


Together, biblical passages and early Christian sources lend support to the Book of Mormon’s assertion that John the Apostle was translated. As seen in the account from the Discourse on the Abbaton, some of this evidence was not available to Joseph Smith in 1829.

Thomas W. MacKay, “Early Christian Millenarianist Interpretation of the Two Witnesses in John’s Apocalypse 11:3–13,” in By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh Nibley, 2 vols., ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 1:222–331.

3 Nephi 28;7–93 Nephi 28:19–224 Nephi 1:30–33

3 Nephi 28;7–9

3 Nephi 28:19–22

4 Nephi 1:30–33

  • 1 Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991), 42.
  • 2 Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 77. On John’s future missionary labors, see Revelation 10:8–11; Doctrine and Covenants 77:14.
  • 3 Tertullian, “A Treatise on the Soul,” 50, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed., Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 3:227–228. He states that some Christians in his day held that John “would remain alive until the coming of the Lord” but personally rejected that view. For the early view that Enoch and Elijah would return to fight the Anti-Christ, see Thomas W. MacKay, “Early Christian Millenarianist Interpretation of the Two Witnesses in John’s Apocalypse 11:3–13,” in By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh Nibley, 2 vols., ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 1:222–331.
  • 4 Tertullian, “On Prescription Against Heretics,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:200.
  • 5 “Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian About His Exile and Departure, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 8:561.
  • 6 Hyppolytus, “On the Twelve Apostles,” 3, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5:255. A similar statement was made concerning Alma the Younger, who was also likely translated: “And it came to pass that he was never heard of more; as to his death or burial we know not of.” (Alma 45:18).
  • 7 Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, eds., New Testament Apocrypha, trans., R, McL. Wilson (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1965), 2:258.
  • 8 Hennecke and Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 2:258.
  • 9 “Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian About His Exile and Departure,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 8:564.
  • 10 Hennecke and Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 2:258.
  • 11 E. A. Wallis Budge, ed., Coptic Martyrdoms in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London: Oxford University Press, 1914), 492–493.
John's Translation
Book of Mormon

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