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Unfolding the Truth: The Folded Napkin in Jesus' Tomb - Separating Myth from Reality, John 20:7 by Terry Harman

Updated: May 13

The tomb of Jesus with graveclothes
The Open Tomb of Jesus by Sculptor and Artist Hector M. "Rooster" Marin © 2010

The Origin of the Napkin Myth

Every year around Easter Sunday the internet and social media come alive with a fanciful story about one of the proofs of the resurrection of Jesus and his return at the second coming. It is not my custom to argue theological doctrines whether it be Christian or Jewish.


However, I am concerned when a story such as "The Folded Napkin" is supposedly validated by "Hebrew tradition," or "Jewish customs" that cannot be verified or is just not true. None of the articles I read cites a biblical or rabbinic source for the "Jewish tradition" of the meaning behind folding a napkin. When people read this story or hear it repeated in a sermon, it sounds good and it feels good, so it must be true.


The folded napkin hoax has no basis in the gospel of John, Jewish tradition, or "Hebrew roots." First, let's read what John has to say about the "folded napkin." Second, let's examine various versions of the napkin theory.


The Biblical Account of the Napkin

1 Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went away again to their own homes. (NKJV John 20:1-10)


The folded napkin or facecloth of Jesus
Empty Graveclothes and Folded Napkin photo by Terry Harman © 2010

Only the New King James Version and the English Standard Versions of the Bibles mention a "folded napkin." Other English translations generally use the phrase "wrapped together," or "rolled up" not folded. Although both the NKJV and ESV use the word napkin, neither has in mind what we might call a "dinner napkin." This piece of cloth (soudarion) has a different purpose when it is mentioned in the Bible.


The Greek Facecloth

The Greek text uses the word soudarion. Thayer informs us that σουδάριον or σουδαριου, τό are derived from the Latin word sudarium, from sudor, sweat; and may be translated as 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. (1)


The NKJV or ESV use of the old English word "napkin" is not the problem. The problem as we will learn is what the napkin signifies in modern preaching. This comment will annoy some of my preacher friends who repeat this story every Easter. Let's turn from the scripture to the variations of the myth.


The folded napkin or facecloth of Jesus
The Folded Facecloth or Napkin of John 20:7 photo by Terry Harman © 2010

Variations of the Myth

There are two variations of the folded napkin myth. One involves a carpenter hired to do carpentry work at someone's house. "Custom" dictated the carpenter to be fed a meal as part of his payment. Both are purported to reveal a "hidden message" in the folded napkin.


Here I will borrow the version offered in a blog post. (2) This one uses the master and the servant to reveal the hidden message behind the napkin.


John 20:7 tells us that the napkin that 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 at the head of that stony coffin. Is that significant? Absolutely!


To understand the significance of the folded napkin, you have to understand a little bit about the 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.


If the master was 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, folded his napkin, and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table because the servant knew that the folded napkin meant, “I’m not finished yet.” The folded napkin meant, “I’m coming back!” He (the master, Jesus) is coming back! Hallelujah!


The Problems with the Napkin Myth

Durinbg biblical times people ate with their fingers as do people in many cultures today. The use of napkins, spoons, and forks to eat is a modern accommodation not known in Israel when the gospel was written. How did they clean their fingers? Certainly they did not wipe their hands on the clothes the way I did as a kid.


The use of folded napkins as we use them today is a later custom of the wealthy, not found during the biblical period when the gospel stories were told or written. The use of cloth towels by the Greeks and the Romans may have originated in the second century.


Bread was first used by the Greeks for wiping hands at a meal. "The first napkins were edible pieces of soft dough, which were often fed to the dogs after a meal."


"Centuries before the widespread use of paper napkins, soft pieces of dough were cut into small pieces, rolled, and then kneaded at the table before being used to wipe people’s fingers and hands after eating."


"This dough was called apomagdalia, which refers to the doughy bread inside the crusts, also known as 'the crumb." Eventually, the practice evolved, and diners used sliced pieces of bread to clean their hands." (3)


Immediately my mind wanders to the story in Mark 7: 27-28 regarding the woman's statement to Jesus about feeding the dogs bread crumbs under the table.


But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs.


Concluding Observations

Stories that offer "secret" or "hidden meanings" in a single word or verse in the Bible must be taken with a grain of salt. Such stories stir our emotions when told by a gifted stroy-teller. We feel good but that feeling may be misleading.


Faith or beliefs cannot be founded on emotions alone. Is there a message in the "folded," "rolled up," or "wrapped together" face cloth? Yes there is a message or a point being made by John's detail that the cloth was rolled up, folded, or wrapped up.


A simple reading of John 20:7 regardless of what English phrase is used is this. The cloth used to cover the face of Jesus was wrapped up and set apart from the rest of the grave clothes. "The handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself" (v.7). Is this an literary device or indication that the grave had not been robbed and Jesus' body had not been hastily removed by his disciples?


The graveclothes of Jesus
The Folded Facecloth or Napkin of John 20:7 photo by Terry Harman © 2010

Matthew 28:11-15 states the Jewish authorities were concerned about Jesus' followers convincing others that Jesus was raised from the dead. Therefore, a bribe was offered to diswade this belief.


Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day. (KJV)


There is one difficulty with offering the soldiers a bribe to report the body of Jesus was stolen. Pilate ordered the soldier to seal and guard the tomb.


Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch. Matthew 27:64-66 KJV


It was the soldiers' responsibility upon death to ensure the body was not stolen. If they did receive a bribe and did report the story to their superiors it would have been short-lived. The folded napkin story is a good one but it is not true! You must decide for yourself.


My Suggestion

If you want to write a blog post, teach a Sunday School class, or preach a sermon on the Second Coming of Jesus, then use verses found in the New Testament, not a made-up story about Hebrew tradition or Jewish culture. This story is akin to the internet sensation about a rope tied to the High Priest's ankle on the Day of Atonement. For that one just read Leviticus 16. Only the four white linen garments worn on Yom Kippur when the High Priest went beyond the veil into the Holy of Holies.


That being said, is there something that the disciples "saw" regarding the grave clothes left behind on the limestone slab? Is there some evidence within the text of John 20:3-9 that convinced Peter and John that Jesus was raised from the dead and the body had not been stolen by thieves? John uses a wordplay with the English words "saw" and "look" that is often glanced over when reading the story of Jesus and the tomb. I will try and post this within a week.


References

(1) Thayer, Joseph Henry. σουδάριον. THAYER'S GREEK LEXICON, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2006, 2011 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission. BibleSoft.com. Accessed March 16, 2024.


(2) Bivin, David N. "Christ’s Linen Napkin (John 20:7): Is it significant that the napkin that had been around Jesus’ head when he was buried was found in the empty tomb folded?" Jerusalem Perspective, https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/3878/. Accessed March 16, 2024.



Hector M. "Rooster" Marin

Hector is a friend and fellow prop maker. "Rooster" brings to life my thoughts and drawings. Together we build the teaching props you see throughout my blogs and videos. My skill set is limited to certain mediums. Hector's skills are unlimited. When my creative juices are low and I can only imagine it, Hector creates it. He is one of "My brothers from another mother!"

The Tabernacle Man
Tabernacle Man and "Rooster"
golden calf Exodus 32
The golden calf and Ram god of Egypt teaching props

Goliath and the Tabernacle Man
Terry and Goliath at City Church Chicago 2011
Goliath
The creation of Goliath in 2010

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Guest
Mar 20
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Folded napkin blog excellent read! Love these teaching’s really great!

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Guest
Mar 19
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Hi Terry, I have to admit some of your posts are so intriguing and often inspiring that I wish I could have a copy for reference! Keep up the great work, I am grateful, and I praise the Lord for your work. I would contribute, but my resources are very limited.😊 Germany

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Guest
Mar 19
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Rooster is a master!

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