Did JESUS “Fold” the “Napkin”?

Ok, so this one isn’t mine. I found it in my archives, but I thought it would be helpful to illustrate an important point. Just because we read something in an English translation doesn’t mean we can read it back into the original context. This thing makes the rounds every year around Easter. Thought you might be better equipped with this information.

And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. (John 20:7)


Why Did Jesus Fold the Napkin?

This is one I can honestly say I have never seen circulating in the emails so; if it touches you forward it.

Why did Jesus fold the linen burial cloth after His resurrection? I never noticed this …..

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 at the head of that stony coffin.

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 out ran Peter and got there first. He stopped 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 finished.” 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.”

The Message in the Neatly Folded Napkin in Jesus’ Tomb – Fiction!1

Summary of the eRumor:

According to this forwarded email, the head covering over the body of Jesus Christ 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 Jesus was saying he was coming back.

The Truth:

There are a couple of problems with this eRumor. One is the translation or interpretation of the Bible verse quoted. The other is the alleged Jewish custom referenced in the story.

The Verse

The eRumor is based on whether the cloth was a “napkin” and was “folded” in the empty tomb of Jesus.

The story is based on the account of Jesus’ 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.”

We checked seven of the most respected translations of the Bible to 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). The Greek word is saudarion, which comes from a Latin word for “sweat.” It connotes, for example, a towel for wiping sweat. It is used in the Greek for a towel or cloth, but not specifically a table napkin.

The other key word is “folded.” Was the burial cloth or 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).

The Greek word is “entulisso,” which is from words that may mean to twist or to entwine.

The bottom line is that there is not agreement that it was a table napkin and not agreement that it was neatly folded in any meaningful way. The main meaning of John 20:7 is to convey that the cloth, which was placed over Jesus head or face at burial, was separate from the rest of his grave clothes.

The Story

We have checked numerous Bible study sources and have found nothing about this alleged Jewish custom of the folded napkins. We did not find any Bible scholars who have used this story and illustration about the meaning of the folded napkin.

Additionally we talked with a Jewish rabbi friend of TruthOrFiction.com’s who has been a life-long Orthodox Jew, a Jewish scholar, and lives in Jerusalem, Israel, and he said he’d never heard of it

The only references to this story that we found are from Internet postings and emails that seem to have originated in 2007.

.Updated 1/28/08

The Deductions:2

Well, Aunt Erma, it turns out that there are good reasons why you’ve never heard of this tradition.

I find historical/cultural traditions- particularly Jewish ones- of great interest and value. Yet, they are apparently made up at alarming rates. So, I wanted to verify this story. It turns out that I did.

There are several problems with this story. Separately, perhaps they could be overlooked. Compiled together, the story lacks even a hint of authenticity.

The KJV rendering of John 20:7 reads,

John 20:7 (KJV)

7 And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.

The more modern NIV reads,

John 20:7 (NIV)

7 as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.

One says “burial cloth” while the other says “napkin.” One says “wrapped” while the other says “folded.” These types of variances in English translations are clues that further study on an original language term is needed.

1- Like many are, this idea is falsely based on a western application of an English term: in this case, the term, “napkin” in the text. When English speakers use that term, we’re thinking Wendy’s drive-thru. Using the English understanding of that term, a scenario was obviously invented. The underlying Greek term is soudarion, which is defined as a piece of cloth used for one of two purposes in the East: to wipe sweat off the face or to cover the face of the dead. As such, no self-respecting Jew would EVER use such an article at a meal setting (it would be either unclean or in the least thought of as unclean), and thus no such mental association would ever be made between the soudarion (or lit. “sweat-cloth”) and a dinner napkin. It would be tantamount to modern day people associating a diaper with a napkin. Only a few (older) translation use the term “napkin” for this reason. It is a technically proper translation, but gives a western reader the wrong impression. More modern translations use other terms, such as “burial cloth” (NIV), “face-cloth” (NASB), “handkerchief” (NKJV), etc.

2- The second problem is with the term “folded,” also necessary to the postulated cultural reference of folding a napkin at the dinner table. That underlying Greek term is entylisso, which is a compilation of two terms, en (meaning “at a primary fixed position” – or “at,” “in,” “among,” etc.) and heilisso, meaning “twisted” or “coiled.” While “folded” is again a technically accurate translation, it conjures up the idea of the creasing and flattening out of an article. In fact, it is more akin to the wadding up and throwing aside (used in the supposed practice of the master leaving the table) than an intentional folding and creasing. This issue may could be explained away if it were not for the problems with the term soudarion. But, coupled together, it’s just another hole in the cheese. Entylisso gives no clear indication that the face-cloth was folded in an intentional way, but rather that it was somehow handled and distorted as being discarded separately from the grave clothes.

3- I have a sizeable arsenal of Jewish background resources. I searched them all to find a reference to this practice and could not find it. Afterward, I set off in research online. Surely you can’t believe everything you read online (as this email demonstrates) but I thought it worth a try to find a legitimate biblical scholar who may have referenced the custom. As it turned out, I found only one Jewish scholar (David Bivin of The Jewish Perspective) who had referenced this custom (of folding the napkin at the dinner table) and he did so in response to this very email. His answer? “There is no historical or cultural documentation which supports claims of this assertion.”

Sadly, you can find this reference in numerous online sermons by pastors who should know better than to randomly quote a tradition they learned of in an email from Aunt Erma.

. . .

Make no mistake: Jesus is returning. But, not because someone had the creative ability to fabricate this outlandish email. He is returning because scripture says he will.

1 http://www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/f/folded-napkin.htm

2 http://www.returningking.com/?p=78

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I've been in ministry in the Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ for 20+ years. Finished my doctorate in Biblical Studies in 2015. Serve today as a Hospital Chaplain.

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