Who Was Translated?

As near as I can tell, Joseph Smith seems to have identified all the men named John in the NT as John the son of Zebedee. And he seems to have also identified those works traditionally associated with someone named John as written by this same John the son of Zebedee.

I am not so much interested in the conflation of these individuals as I am in their fate. The reason this interests me is because of this rather specific prophecy attributed to Jesus in Mark and Matthew (see also the [lack of] parallel in Luke, which moves the incident to the Last Supper and detaches the names).

Taking the story from Mark 10:35-39, we read:

35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come unto him, saying, Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire.

36 And he said unto them, What would ye that I should do for you?

37 They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.

38 But Jesus said unto them, Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?

39 And they said unto him, We can. And Jesus said unto them, Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized:

The most common reading of this prophecy is that the two sons of Zebedee would suffer the same sort of experience in passing from life that Jesus did: both would die a violent death. This does not seem consistent with the idea that John the son of Zebedee was translated.

So I’m interested in learning more about how Joseph Smith really understood the identity of John the Guy Who Was Translated, and his relationship to John the son of Zebedee, who was to suffer a death rather like that of his Master–at least in Mark and Matthew. Does anyone know?

11 Replies to “Who Was Translated?”

  1. Great question. I never even noticed the (apparent) contradiction. And sadly I have no idea what Joseph thought about this. My own guess would be to say that the traditional reading is incorrect and Jesus meant something else.

    Perhaps Jesus meant that they would each do as he did only in different ways. James was the first of the Apostles to be martyred and so followed Christ out of life in that way. John, by being translated, would only feel pain for the sins of the world, which is what I understood from the whole cup idea anyway. Neither is perfect but they could be parallel.

  2. Fox’s Book of Martyrs has John the Beloved being tortured prior to the exile on Patmos. Would this be a way of having John experience the violent and yet still be eventually translated?

  3. I looked at the JST for Mark 10 and Matthew 20, and it appears that Joseph didn’t attempt to resolve the (apparent) contradiction.

    Looking through a number of NT commentaries by LDS authors, I found that only Elder McConkie and Daniel Ludlow (quoting McConkie) addressed this issue.

    McConkie: “As Jesus was baptized by John in Jordan to fulfill all righteousness, so for the same reason would all of the Twelve be baptized in blood, as it were, when the severity of the scourge, and the cruelties of the cross, and the sharpness of the spear fell upon them. James would be slain at Herod’s order and John would be banished to Patmos. The baptism of blood was indeed at their door” (Mortal Messiah 3:314).

    Ludlow: “Elder Bruce R. McConkie has suggested that the phrase ‘to drink of the cup’ is a metaphorical expression meaning, ‘to do the things which my lot in life requires of me,’ while the phrase ‘to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with’ essentially means ‘to follow my course, suffer persecution, be rejected of men, and finally be slain for the truth’s sake'” (Companion to Your Study of the New Testament: The Four Gospels, 144).

    McConkie: “In due course James and John and all the apostles, save Judas, drank of the Lord’s cup and underwent his baptism—all suffered persecution and possibly even martyrdom, with the exception of John who was translated. Zebedee’s son James was slain at Herod’s command” (DNTC 1:566).

  4. Justin,

    Thanks for typing all that in for us. That was very kind of you. As Elder McConkie writes, the metaphor of the cup and baptism are broadly conceived as accepting the fate God has in mind for you, while in this context they definately set James and John up for an experience similar to that of Jesus. It is very interesting that the Synoptics do not know that John’s fate seems to have been markedly different from that of the other disciples in the inner circle.

    John C.,

    Thanks for the reference to Fox. It is indeed very interesting that the early church knew James was martyred, but that John did not suffer the same fate. Tertullian is, I think, the first to note that John died naturally of old age. I’m inclined to wonder if the genesis for the story of John’s immersion in boiling oil had something to do with a felt need to find a more explicit fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy than mere history supplied.

    J. Watkins,

    Thanks, man, for coming around and being encouraging. You’ve given me something to think about and that’s always valuable.

    Anyway, the bottom line seems to be that we still don’t have a record of JS or his contemporaries recognizing the contradiction. This seems somewhat strange to me b/c it had been my impression that while the interpretive readings of the early saints reflected their times, they were quite literate when it came to knowing the stories themselves. Folks seem to have accepted that Jesus’ prophecy WRT to John didn’t come to the expected fruition without much angst.

    Finally, the h-c reading of John 21 does not include a translated John. Instead, it finds that:

    (1) the community associated with the Fourth Gospel was founded around a figure usually called the Beloved Disciple but not associated with John the son of Zebedee. The best book for more info here is John the Son of Zebedee by Alan R. Culpepper. Culpepper goes through all the historical and legendary information associated with John from NT times through the Middle Ages. On grammatical, stylistic, and theological grounds, the author of the Fourth Gospel is not conflated with the author of Revelation.

    (2) This community associated with the Beloved Disciple did have a tradition that Jesus had told the BD that he would live until the 2nd Coming. When the BD died of old age, chapter 21 was added to make it clear that Jesus had not promised that the BD would live until the 2nd coming, but that his fate was not a concern of Peter’s — another one of those “interactions” in the Fourth Gospel that show the relationship between Peter and the BD.

    FWIW, of course…

  5. D&C 7 seems to be Joseph Smith’s reading of John 21:20-23 (the JST leaves the latter alone). (Plus 3 Nephi 28:6-7 and Joseph Smith’s reported June 1831 comment that “John the Revelator [is] among the ten tribes of Israel who had been led away by Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, to prepare them for their return from their long dispersion, to again possess the land of their fathers.”)

  6. I noticed that several LDS commentators (e.g., McConkie) read John 21:20-23 through the lenses of 3 Nephi 28 and teachings of Joseph Smith on translated beings. In short, John would die (as all must die), but, like the Three Nephites, he would not *taste* of death or endure the *pains* of death. Rather, he would pass through a change equivalent to death (going instantaneously from mortality to immortality) by being translated, allowing him to tarry on the earth until the Second Coming. I suppose one could take this idea further by suggesting that John might have suffered a violent death, but he did not taste or endure the pains of death because he was then translated.

  7. Justin,

    You seem to have quite a handle on LDS commentaries, so I would like to ask you a question that is rather OT:

    Are there multiple distinct “threads” of LDS interpretation, or does everything pretty much flow through Elder McConkie – President Joseph F. Smith chain?

    If there are multiple threads, how would you characterize them?

  8. If we follow Philip Barlow’s spectrum set forth in Mormons and the Bible, I’d say that commentaries such as those written by Daniel Ludlow tend to lean toward the conservative literalism exemplified by Joseph Fielding Smith and McConkie (low view of the scholarly enterprise).

    The commentaries by Sidney Sperry are more centrist, as he had training and had more favorable views of biblical scholarship. Still, Barlow points out that Sperry held to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the single authorship of Isaiah. Also Sperry “often prepared either to submerge the conclusions of modern study in favor of the pronouncements of selected Church authorities or to use modern methods to arrive at the predetermined conclusions of those authorities; scholars should defer to prophets” (p. 143). Barlow sees Sperry as the “godfather” of the dominant perspective of those who write about scripture at BYU and in CES.

    The essays in the Studies in Scripture and Sperry Symposium series are uneven in their approaches. Some, such as those by David Wright and David R. Seely, engage biblical scholarship and are more centrist, while other essays lean toward literalism, eschew historical-critical readings, and mainly rely upon Church authorities. I’d put commentaries by Monte Nyman in the latter category, Victor Ludlow more in the former.

    I have’t read them, but the newly published anthologies The Life and Teachings of Jesus (ed. Holzapfel and Wayment) may mark a revived thread to the left of Sperry in that they engage and incorporate recent NT critical scholarship. I don’t know the extent to which they “submerge the conclusions of modern study in favor of the pronouncements of selected Church authorities or to use modern methods to arrive at the predetermined conclusions of those authorities.”

  9. often prepared either to submerge the conclusions of modern study in favor of the pronouncements of selected Church authorities or to use modern methods to arrive at the predetermined conclusions of those authorities; scholars should defer to prophets

    I have some reservations about this, and I wonder if others do as well. There are, in fact, things that scholars must defer to the prophets on. Many things that are very important are not attainable by historical-critical methods.

    But it seems to me that there are also points where some deference is due the scholar’s viewpoint, that is, on certain issues the scholar’s viewpoint should receive some deference for what it is: the best answer or set of potential answers that critical methods can provide.

  10. I see your point. I’m curious to know how Catholic biblical scholars, for example, approach issues such as whether Jesus had siblings. Do they answer the question using historical-critical methods or do they defer to church teachings?

  11. how Catholic biblical scholars

    The Catholics have worked out a way for dealing with these things. I don’t understand all the ins and outs, but the history of the thing can be googled under “Modernist” and “Catholic,” or by starting in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary under “Modernist.”

    Basically, in the first half of the 20th century they came to grips with the matter, assigning “faith and morals” to the church and supporting h-c scholarship on the Bible. My observation is that Catholic theologians have more issues with the heirarchy than the exegetes.

    The example of Jesus’ brothers is not the best one, simply because the word translated “brother” can include a wide range of male relatives in context. Catholics scholars distinguish between virginal conception, which is of tremendous christological import, and virginal birth and perpetual virginity, which have nothing to do with christology and seem to be no big deal. I think the term is Mariology, but it never comes up in exegetical classes because it’s post-NT.

    A better example is the issue of transubstantiation. Of the Catholic exegetes on the faculty of this university (not a college or a seminary), one thinks it “possible” based on the text of 1 Cor 11:17-34. The rest don’t.

    Occasionally, we get seminarians in our classes, if their languages skills are good enough. They sometimes betray a certain enthusiasm. The faculty normally helps them through this; if they resist and persist, their co-religionist classmates can be quite blunt. Evangelicals generally have the toughest time coming to grips with reality, at least around here.

    In my wider socialization, it is considered tacky to enquire after the confessional choice of an exegete before examining his/her work and evaluating it on the merits. It is considered unacceptable to let one’s confessional bias dominate the exegesis, but it is fine to have a confessional preference and to express it respectfully in informal and personal fora.

    For the record, less than half the students in my program are Catholic. Most, but not all of the professors are Catholic, and not all of those are priests or brothers. There are men from many orders as well as diocesan priests. There are no women. I chose a university precisely in order to escape the sort of thing one usually finds at seminaries and small colleges.

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