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


Nowhere to Hide

Jesus Reached Out

No matter where you run, or how buried you are in work and circumstances, there is no place that God cannot find you. This is a comfort to some, and a fear for others. Don’t add God to your list of fears. When Adam sinned against God, he ran and hid. God called out into the garden and said, “Where are you Adam?” Adam hid because of his sin, but his sin did not hide him from God. God knew exactly where Adam was, just as our parents could always see our foot sticking out or our hair just above the back of the couch. We pretend that we can hide from those that love us the most, but we are only fooling ourselves. God sees us in our sinfulness, our wretchedness, even our busyness, and stills calls to us. He still reaches out His hand. God loves us, even when we sin against Him. God loves you, especially today.

We Cannot Imagine

The Lord Speaks

I’ve got 99 problems, but the Lord is bigger than all of them. Job could have said that (and did by the end of his book). So can we. Why do we appeal to God when we suffer, because we know, without thinking, that the Lord exceeds the extent of our suffering, He is bigger and more powerful than anything we can ask or imagine. No sooner than we conceive a limit for God, He exceeds it. And yet, in our limitedness, our Gini tide, God does not look down with contempt, but with the love of the vastness of His nature. Doesn’t God deserve your attention and respect today?

They Shall Look on Him They Have Pierced

Also, another Scripture says: They will look at the One they pierced. (John 19:37)

The apostle John inserts this remark at the foot of the cross. Only John, of all the disciples, stood at the foot of the cross with Mary, Jesus’ mother, and the other women who followed Jesus. He is actually reciting an Old Testament prophet, Zechariah, one of the post-exilic prophets in the 5th-4th centuries BC.

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the house of David and the residents of Jerusalem, and they will look at Me whom they pierced. They will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly for Him as one weeps for a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10)

This is a sad moment for the followers of Jesus, but something about this “piercing” has always bothered me. Why is “piercing” the operative word here? Certainly when Jesus was crucified, his hands and feet were “pierced” by nails and His side was “pierced” by a spear. And even after His resurrection, the evidence of these “piercings”
are still evident (John 20:25-27). Long after, in Revelation 5:6, Jesus’ appearance is as “a slaughtered lamb” standing in Heaven.  Forever Jesus bears the evidence of his crucifixion, the piercings in his hands and feet and side. But why? Couldn’t Jesus have chosen to rise in a body that doesn’t bear evidence of such trauma?

I believe part of this answer is found in the Law.

But if your slave says to you, ‘I don’t want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your family, and is well off with you, take an awl and pierce through his ear into the door, and he will become your slave for life. Also treat your female slave the same way.  (Deuteronomy 15:16-17)

Slaves who wished to stay with their masters after their term of slavery was up (seven years) were pierced with an awl in their ear. This means in symbol they were physically attached to your house, they belonged to you and your family for life. With our modern conceptions, this may seem a barbaric practice. But a slave, who previously sold himself to pay off debt, may find himself in a much better position serving someone else and their household, than by trying to make his own way. He may have found love and family in this new situation, and accepting the piercing was a permanent reminder of their decision.

Jesus was willing to be pierced as a slave. We had all been sold into slavery as sinners (Romans 6:17) and had no hope of redemption since no one could resist temptation and be free. Sin held us down and trapped us in death, and we have no hope without Jesus. In fact, slavery is a powerful image often employed in the New Testament to illustrate our plight.

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death–that is, the Devil– and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.  (Hebrews 2:14-15)

But how did Jesus take all of our slavery upon Himself? He became a slave and bore the penalty of our sins. He had never sinned Himself, but offered Himself, His perfect sinless life, as payment for our debt. In exchange for His permanent enslavement, He was pierced, according to the Law. Instead of his ear to the doorpost, it was his hands and feet to the cross. As long as He lived, he would bear the payment of our sin.

But wait, Jesus died. Doesn’t that mean He is no longer a slave? Yes. But you see His payment was once for all.

so also the Messiah, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.  (Hebrews 9:28)

Now He is alive, and no longer the slave. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. However, He still bears the marks of our slavery in His own flesh. Those are marks He received not because of necessity, but because of His love for us. Just as the slave gladly received the piercing to continue to be a part of the family, so Jesus accepted the piercing so that we could become part of His.

Interestingly, John again quotes the Zechariah passage above, but more completely in the book of Revelation.

Look! He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, including those who pierced Him. And all the families of the earth will mourn over Him. This is certain. Amen. (Revelation 1:7)

Perhaps all the families will mourn because of the coming judgment, and that is certainly a part of what Revelation is about. But maybe many will mourn, remembering the sacrifice Jesus made for them, because they see the piercings in His hands and feet. They will see the piercings and weep because Jesus paid all of their debt and all they can give is their gratitude. Jesus was “pierced for our transgressions” and still bears the mark of His piercing.


P.S. I want to warn anyone who has ever had a Near Death Experience or talked to someone who has. Many of these people who die in the operating room or under similar circumstances may claim to have seen Jesus, be filled with peace and light and so on. If they have claimed to see Jesus, ask this simple question: Did you see the marks on his hands? Only the true and authentic Jesus bears these marks. That was how He proved Himself to Thomas. Any other Jesus is false cannot be trusted. And beware the false Jesus and his teachings.

Growing Up

All it takes is a seed, and under the right conditions, a mighty plant will soon take its place. But growing righteousness is a careful thing. You must have light front the Son, His truth as your daily diet. You must surround yourself in the right environment, not immersed in the temptations that we easily fall prey to, but making every effort to live unstained by the world. As you grow, you will meet challenges to match your faithfulness. Storms will come that will try to blow you over back into the dirt. But the Master Gardener is there to pick you back up again. He is never far, and sees all your trouble. He wants you to grow, and will do all that you allow Him and maybe a bit more. Be firmly rooted in His soil, grow in His light, and feed faithfully upon His truth. God bless you today.


In the gospels, Jesus walks along the seashore and sees some fishermen mending their nets. Jesus comes to them and announces clearly, “Follow Me!”. They immediately drop what they are doing and follow Him (I have to wonder where they thought they were going). But when you read in context, you find that for Peter, this was his third encounter with Jesus. He was familiar with what Jesus taught, and what Jesus’ purpose was, that is, to preach the coming kingdom. Jesus’ command to follow wasn’t from random stranger, but from a trusted friend. Maybe there is something to that in our modern context. We don’t call people to follow a random stranger they just met, but someone with whom they’ve become acquainted, even befriended. This is discipleship. Discipleship is commitment.

Jesus clearly calls for an answer to his command, “Follow Me.” When He does this, He isn’t suggesting that He is one choice among many for a route to everlasting life. He isn’t suggesting a part-time partnership. He is primary to the plan. It is His blood that atones completely for our sins, and no one else’s. It is He who is the “way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:8) “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Act 4:12, ESV) There is no one else who has the truth. (See John 6:68-69)

You may have trouble believing in a historical Jesus. Yet it has been clear, more than clear, even crystal clear, from historical evidence, personal testimony, and even scientific evidence, that the message of Christianity is absolutely reliable. It has not been proven beyond all possible doubt, but beyond all reasonable doubt. There is still room for faith. But many people: 1) don’t look at the evidence, 2) they base their opinion not on the facts, but on the evidence of their eyes, seeing Christians who fail in their discipleship, 3) they have a prior bias against Christianity anyway, and don’t either care or understand that their eternity is at stake. Therefore, when it comes to Christianity, most people vote “uncommitted”. This is a tragedy.

The Wave of Christianity has moved from through Western culture, continues on through Europe, the Americas, and now is moving through Asia to come full circle. Yet Europe is what is called by sociologists, “post-Christian”. That is to say, they have experienced the tide of the Church, gotten used to it, and now no longer deem it relevant. The Church in Europe is fast becoming a relic of history. The Church in America is still relevant, but its influence is diminishing. Why? Because the influence of the Christ is diminishing in the life of the Christian.

The question is about your commitment. The only way to stem the tide of dismissal and irrelevance is the commitment of everyday Christians. Will you be one to stand in the gap?