Is it true? The Napkin in the Tomb?
Why did Jesus fold the linen burial cloth after His resurrection?
The Gospel of John (20:7) tells us that the napkin, which was placed over the face of Jesus, was not just thrown aside like the grave clothes. The Bible takes an entire verse to tell us that the napkin was neatly folded, and was placed separate from the grave clothes.
Early Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, 'They have taken the Lord's body out of the tomb, and I don't know where they have put him!' Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb to see.. The other disciple outran Peter and got there first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen cloth lying there, but he didn't go in.
Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus' head was folded up and lying to the side.
Was that important? Absolutely! Is it really significant? Yes!
In order to understand the significance of the folded napkin, you have to understand a little bit about Hebrew tradition of that day. The folded napkin had to do with the Master and Servant, and every Jewish boy knew this tradition.
When the servant set the dinner table for the master, he made sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted it.. The table was furnished perfectly, and then the servant would wait, just out of sight, until the master had finished eating, and the servant would not dare touch that table, until the master was finished. Now, if the master were done eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers, his mouth, and clean his beard, and would wad up that napkin and toss it onto the table.
The servant would then know to clear the table. For in those days, the wadded napkin meant, 'I'm done'. But if the master got up from the table, and folded his napkin, and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table, because...........
The folded napkin meant, 'I'm coming back!' HE'S COMING BACK!!!!
This is a neat story but its most likely a made up one.
The head covering over the body of Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah in the grave was a neatly “folded napkin.” It goes on to say that among Jews of the time, a master would let his servants know whether he was finished eating or coming back to the table by the way he left his napkin. If he tossed it aside, he was finished. If he folded it, he was not finished and would return. The hidden message in the story is that by laying his “napkin” aside and neatly folded meant Yeshua was saying he was coming back and he did after spending three days and three nights in the tomb, fulfilling the prophesy of Jonah in Matt 12:40.
So could this be true? It sounds awesome and to some it gives them chills? But is it the truth?
There are a couple of problems with this claim. One is the translation of the Bible verse quoted and the other are the alleged Jewish customs referenced in the story.
The claim is based on that the cloth was a “napkin” and was “folded” in the empty tomb of Yeshua. The story is based on the account of the resurrection in John 20:7. Here is how that verse is translated in one of the most widely-used versions of the Bible, the King James Version:
“and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.” (*notice the text does not say 'folded' = first red flag).
After checking seven respected bible versions lets see how the translators handled this verse.
Three of them translated the cloth as a “napkin” (King James, American Standard, Revised Standard Version). Others translated it as a “burial cloth” (New International Version), a “handkerchief” (The New King James Version), or a “face-cloth” (New American Standard Bible). So lets look at some definitions.
The word is saudarion and it is used in the Greek for a towel or cloth, but not specifically a table napkin. Matter of fact Strong's Concordance states that saudarion, G4676, has a few definitions and its meaning is dependent upon the context of the passage as is with all Hebrew words.
1. a handkerchief
2. cloth for wiping perspiration from the face and for cleaning the nose; also a cloth used in swathing the head of a corpse
Strong's goes on to say "σουδάριον soudárion, soo-dar'-ee-on; of Latin origin; a sudarium (sweat-cloth), i.e. towel (for wiping the perspiration from the face, or binding the face of a corpse):"
Thayer's Greek Lexicon states "σουδάριον, σουδαριου, τό (a Latin word, sudarium, from sudor, sweat; cf. Buttmann, 18 (16)), a handkerchief, i. e. a cloth for wiping the perspiration from the face and for cleaning the nose: Luke 19:20; Acts 19:12; also used in swathing the head of a corpse (A. V. napkin), John 11:44; John 20:7. (Cf. BB. DD., under the word). So it seems that this cloth was used not as a napkin but one used to swath the head of a corpse.
The other word in this claim is “folded.” Was the napkin left folded in the tomb?
Two of the translations used the word “folded” (New International Version, New King James Version). Others translated the word as “rolled up” (New American Standard Bible, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version), or “wrapped together” (King James Version).
Strong's defines the word entylisso G1794 "ἐντυλίσσω entylíssō, en-too-lis'-so; from G1722 and τυλίσσω tylíssō (to twist; probably akin to G1507); to entwine, i.e. wind up in:—wrap in (together)."
Thayer's Greek Lexicon states "ἐντυλίσσω: 1 aorist ἐνετύλιξα; perfect passive participle ἐντετυλιγμενος; to roll in, wrap in: τινα σινδόνι, Matthew 27:59 (ἐν σινδόνι Tr (ἐν) σινδόνι WH); Luke 23:53; Ev. Nicod. c. 11 at the end, to roll up, wrap together: passive John 20:7. (Aristophanes, Plutarch, 692; nub. 987; Athen. 3, p. 106f.)"
So we see that the 'napkin' (which was not a napkin) was most likely not folded according to the definitions we looked at. Matter of fact, this same word is used in Matt 27:59 "And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped G1794 it in a clean linen cloth" and Luke 23:53 "And he took it down, and wrapped G1794 it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid." So its clear that this burial cloth was wrapped instead of folded, disproving the claim it was folded.
After checking numerous Bible and historical resources there is nothing mentioned about this alleged Jewish custom of the folded napkins. I can’t even find a reference stating “a master would let his servants know whether he was finished eating or coming back to the table by the way he left his napkin. If he tossed it aside, he was finished. If he folded it, he was not finished and would return” (if anyone has some references for this I would love to see them). With that being said, I can’t find any Bible scholars who have used this story and illustration about the meaning of the folded napkin, and I cannot find it in any secular references from the 1st century. We also have to look at the burial procedures of the 1st century as well. Interestingly enough, I cannot find anything pointing to the fact that a common item such as a table napkin that one would clean out one’s nose or anything else would be allowed in a burial chamber. That leaves the other definition that this cloth was a head wrapping cloth and not a napkin. I also cannot believe and the text does not support this claim about a napkin; It just was not done by anyone, especially by Nicodemus, a high ranking Jewish religious leader, would stray from current practices of burial by adding such a cloth (and nothing in scripture supports this either).
The only references to this story that we found are from Internet postings and emails that seem to have originated in 2007.