The mysterious ending of Saint John the Theologian
Many sources report that St. John the Theologian (feast day, Sept. 26) was “translated,” i.e. that he was bodily assumed to heaven, like our Most blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary. What are we to believe: was he or was he not “translated” to heaven?
The original source of this pious belief is contained in the Acts of John1, and in many other later apocryphal accounts. Most of these accounts affirm that St. John the Theologian died, but his tomb was found empty, therefore it is assumed that he was taken to heaven. Actually, the Acts have John pray to God to receive his soul, while about his ending it states that his disciples returned where they had left him the previous day, but they “did not find him, except for his sandals,” at which “they remembered what had been said to Peter by the Lord about him: ‘For what does it concern thee if I should wish him to remain until I come?’ And they glorified God for the miracle that had happened.”2
This account does not specifically mention his death, but it implies that although he died, he mysteriously lives on.
In fact, in Ephesus, where he died, Liturgies were celebrated over his tomb, which is still extant. Moreover, the Church has established a second feast in his honor on May 8, commemorating a miraculous dust (called manna by the faithful) that was emanating from his tomb every year for a thousand years—but only on this day.3
On the other hand, there are a few rare icons (like the ones above), which testify to the pious belief of his “lifting up,” as well as hymns, like one by a Theophanis, which partially says in a word play:
Transferred (methistamenon) from earth without withdrawing (afistamenon) from it, but living on and awaiting the awesome Second Coming of the Master.4
There is also a Canon in his honor composed by a “Joseph,” which also hints that the Theologian was “taken away (ἤρθη) from earth” and “now he is in heaven” (en ouranois genomenos).5
The origin of St. John’s “translation” to heaven is based on the “mysterious” words of the Lord to Peter, narrated by the Theologian himself:
“When Peter saw him [“the disciple whom Jesus loved”], he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come what is that to you? Follow me!’ The saying spread abroad among the brethren that his disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’” (John 21:21-23).
But the answer to the question of John’s “translation” is given by himself:
“This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (v. 24).
The Greek Menaion in a note to the word metastasis indicates:
“It would be more suitable to substitute the word “metastasis” with the word “koimisis” (dormition or falling asleep), because the Theologian was not translated, but fell asleep,”6 a term meaning death.
We have historical testimonies of St. John’s death made by early witnesses. Polycrates of Ephesus (fl. c. 130-196) in his letter to Victor of Rome, included in Church History by Eusebius, writes:
“…[I]n Asia [Minor] great luminaries sleep who shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s parousia …such as John, who leant back on the Lord’s breast…he too sleeps in Ephesus.”7
Also, in his brief “Account of the Twelve Apostles,” St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-236) writes:
“John, the brother of James, preaching the word of the gospel in Asia [Minor] …came to Ephesus where he fell asleep in Trajan’s time. The inhabitants of Ephesus sought to find his dead body but it was not found.”8
We can conclude with these words by St. Caesarios (brother of St. Gregory the Theologian):
“There are those who on the pretence of the words, “If it is my will that he remain until I come what is that to you?”, say that John did not experience death, but he was translated (metatethenai). However this is not the truth…Witness the fact that his tomb lies here.”9
If you are interested in the subject you can read some more about it in the following blogs:
- This blog deals with the fate of Moses, Enoch and Elijah. (RC).
- This forum includes several variations of St. John’s ending. (East.C.)
- This forum addresses the issue of his relics.
- This Orthodox blog
- St. John, his tomb, miraculous manna and Basilica
- Additional info in this travelog by John Sanidopoulos
- “Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian,” transl. by M. B. Riddle, Ante-Nicene Fathers 8, pp. 560-64.
- Ibid., p. 564. The biblical reference is to John 21:21-23 (see below). Other later accounts embellish his ending with many details.
- More on this miracle in this post by John Sanidopoulos. See also his other blogs on St. John the Theologian here.
- Fifth Idiomelon from the Lite of his feast, Menaion, edition Fos, p. 287 (my translation). See also Sophia Press, p. 191.
- Ibid., p. 302.
- Edition Fos, 1970, p. 283.
- Hist. Eccl., 3.31.3 (M.20.280B). See also NPNF (5.24.2, p. 242). Together with the Theologian, many “luminaries” who “fell asleep” are mentioned, like Philip the Apostle, Polycarp and others, that is all of whom had died. Note that when Polycrates was born “the traditions of St. John were yet fresh in men's minds” (Wikipedia).
- Ante-Nicene Fathers 5, p. 255. My translation is from the original Greek text found in Great Synaxaristis by M. Laggi, v. 9, p. 554.
- Menaion, p. 301.