Jesus and the Folded Napkin (email) Examined

Many of us have received an email concerning Jesus’ folding of his napkin upon his resurrection.  As a pastor, I’ve received it dozens of times, myself.  At first, I – like many people- found the story fascinating and was actually moved at the thought of it.  But, a bit of internet wisdom compelled me to investigate further. 

The Email

The email heading asks this question, “Why Did Jesus Fold the Napkin?”  And, the answer (with some variations, of course) is contained in the text below, a condensed version of the original email, usually beginning with: “I’VE NEVER HEARD OF THIS!!!”

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
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!’

The Deductions:

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.

Next week:  “Ask and you shall receive: How Bill Gates will return to you $.50 for every email you send out.”

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.

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