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.

38 Comment(s)

  1. Why did Jesus fold the cloth then? Was He being just neat and tidy? I can’t help but wonder about the significance. Maybe we’re just not supposed to know right now. ???

    Briana | Apr 10, 2009 | Reply

  2. I am not convinced that there was any intentionality to the “folding” of the cloth. Again, Entylisso indicates a dis-orderly bunching of the cloth rather than an orderly one. It is likely more akin to the wadding up and tossing aside of the cloth than something intentional. At best, Entylisso refers to a twisting of the cloth, still yet a far cry from a methodical and intentional folding. It seems more like someone throwing aside a piece of trash. To that end, being that it was a burial cloth (rather than a dinner napkin) the significane may well have been “I won’t be needing this any more” as it was tossed aside.

    Jeff Kluttz | Apr 11, 2009 | Reply

  3. Thank you so much for this article.
    I too, found myself wanting to know more about the authenticity of this story and attempted to research it online. I’m not adept as you are in relating the meaning in the original language to Jewish customs, so your explanations were truly of value to me and I’m so glad you posted this article. (I’d been searching over a year now)

    Why did Jesus set it aside separate
    from the burial cloth? Can’t wait to ask him some day over coffee and doughnuts :-)

    Annette | Jan 25, 2010 | Reply

  4. The grace through faith website offered this reason as to why Jesus may have folded the cloth:

    ohn didn’t explain the meaning of the folded napkin in his gospel (John 20:7) Personally I believe the Lord folded the napkin to show that His departure was an orderly and voluntary act. It was proof that the tomb had not been robbed and His body had not been stolen, as some later claimed.

    Annette | Jan 25, 2010 | Reply

  5. QUOTE: “His departure was an orderly and voluntary act. It was proof that the tomb had not been robbed and His body had not been stolen, as some later claimed”

    That is actually a good argument. As noted, it is not a biblical argument- but is a good one that very well may have some weight.

    Jeff Kluttz | Jan 26, 2010 | Reply

  6. According to Jewish tradition, which by the way still goes on today, when a Jewish male is buried his Prayer Shawl (Tallit) is used to wrap the the head where the face is showing. The other disciple, which is John, KNEW every little detail of The Lord’s habits. When men attended the Synogogue, each man left his Tallit there. Since all the Tallit looked the same, the only way a man could distinguish his from all the others was the way it was folded.

    For example, I KNOW how my wfie signs her name. If given a sheet of paper, and have a group of people “sign” my wife’s name thw ay she signs it. I would be able to pick our her “signature”!!! Why, you might ask. Well, I’ve spent X amount of years with my wife, and I’d RECOGNIZE her signature!!!

    John immediately KNEW Jesus had risen…………all because John recognized our Lord’s “SIGNATURE”!!!!!

    Carl | Mar 4, 2010 | Reply

  7. I saw that e-mail and was intrigued as many others. Yes – I thought about using it in a sermon but needed to research “this tradition” before using it. I did not come across anything close to the e-mail tradition. I was so glad I ran across your post. I thank you very much.

    Clarence | Mar 5, 2010 | Reply

  8. Sirs,
    Jesus said that He would only give one sign to the scribes and Pharises and that would be the sign of Jonah Matthew 12verses 38 to 41
    God bless,
    Love in Him,
    Alan

    Alan Buxton | Apr 12, 2010 | Reply

  9. I agree with you. I have some additional comments at http://www.rickmalm.com
    I think you’ll find it interesting.
    Check it out.

    Rick Malm | Apr 19, 2010 | Reply

  10. The question is, did anyone in jesus’ day use cloth napkins. Lazarus sitting at the gate of the richman’s estate, longed for the bread that dinner guests wiped their mouths and hands on and threw under the table to the waiting house dogs. So I have heard.

    Jack W. Worth | Mar 5, 2011 | Reply

  11. I am here because I am trying to find some substantiation of what I heard. I was told it was a tradition of ‘carpenters’ of that day. When a job was finished and the persons ordering the work were not present, the carpenter would fold and leave behind the handkerchief he used to wipe his brow. This was the equivalent of passing a self-imposed “final inspection and a certificate of completion”, as they did not have building inspectors then. This signaled that the job was done.

    jeffery Cory | Apr 11, 2011 | Reply

  12. The reason I believe Jesus folded the cloth was to further help his followers know that His body was not stolen in the night by anyone and that His rising had occurred and that He “being alive” folded the cloth to say I am alive and have risen. If his body was stolen who would of even cared to fold or place his burial cloth next to the other pieces of linen. They would of been just left on the floor especially His facial cloth.

    Lucia Fox | Apr 11, 2011 | Reply

  13. Thanks I think is also in line with the truth considering Jesus was a carpenter. I think this is very good, thanks for sharing.

    Lucia Fox | Apr 11, 2011 | Reply

  14. If anyone has a comment or desire to investigate this further and/or has found some addition information, please, feel free to contact me directly:
    jefferycory@yahoo.com
    Thank You and God Bless

    jeffery Cory | Apr 13, 2011 | Reply

  15. When lazarus came forth didn’t jesus tell them to take the napkin off his face?

    johnny | Apr 22, 2011 | Reply

  16. No – He said loose him and let him go. As far as the napkin is concerned, King James is the only one that says “Napkin”. All other versions say “strips of linen” “grave cloth” or just cloth.

    Clarence | Apr 22, 2011 | Reply

  17. Thanks! The Spirit said to search this out before sharing it today with others. Glad I did and grateful for your article, please keep exposing the truth (or fiction) of such articles!
    God bless!

    Chance | Apr 24, 2011 | Reply

  18. All these well meaning comments, still it all boils down to – Only God knows! :)

    Corliss | May 12, 2011 | Reply

  19. Yes, he said Jonah’s sign would be his sign, however remember what he finished saying – as Jonah was in the belly of the whale, so the son of man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights (paraphrased, if you’ll excuse me): therefore he DID tie this in to what happened at the TOMB.

    thanks,

    SW

    steve wentworth | May 15, 2011 | Reply

  20. I’ve actually heard this story the other way around. I never saw it online but someone told me about it. They said that when the person/master enjoyed the meal, he tossed the napkin on the table signifying he would eat there again. However, if it was a horrible meal/experience, he would fold it up signifying he would never return there again. So the translation I got was that Jesus will never go through that horrible experience he had and die for us again. His work on the cross is a one time eternal deal. I was in shock and awe when I heard it and thought it was the coolest/scariest thing ever. You know these things but when you hear them in a different perspective it really hits home. Anyway, now that I’ve checked up on it, it appears to not have a solid backing. Either way, true or not, let’s not forget there are truths that come out of it. Jesus IS coming back and he will NEVER die for us again, he said “It is finished” and that’s what it is. One day in heaven if we don’t find out before then, we can ask Jesus what the “folded napkin” was about. God bless.

    Ajani | Aug 1, 2011 | Reply

  21. I really appreciate this information. When I read the e-mail, I thought, “How cool is this … to share at Easter.” but something told me to find out more and I am glad I found your research.

    Toni | Sep 3, 2011 | Reply

  22. If you rolled that huge stone away, wouldn’t you wipe off your sweat and throw the rag aside?

    Liesa P | Dec 25, 2011 | Reply

  23. Fascinating-thank you!It strikes me that after Jesus was resurrected He was recognised in different ways by His disciples. The two on the road to Emmaus recognised him in the breaking of the bread; Mary Magdalen recognised Him when He spoke her name; John ‘saw and believed’. I wonder if it was in the way Jesus that left the cloths that John recognised Him?

    Hilary | Dec 27, 2011 | Reply

  24. Angels rolled the stone away, not Jesus

    Linda | Mar 27, 2012 | Reply

  25. Like you and so many others I received an email regarding Jesus and the folding of his napkin (The cloth placed on his face) upon his resurrection. I found it interesting that many articles that I found on the internet; spent more time trying to down play what the cloth was called in the variances in English translations from the original text.

    If only version calls it a napkin then it does not seem to matter much to me. The more important issue for me was what the folding of a napkin could advocate. Now you and a few other articles believe that there is no proof that a folded napkin has a historical Hebrew meaning of the master’s intent to return to the table. But I have not been able to find anything that proves that it was not a custom of another group of people, say like maybe the Roman’s.

    In your statement above you state: “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.”

    Did you ever consider that this passage was written so the generation of today? Maybe it was written so that today’s children of GOD will believe that our Lord will return.

    The meaning of a folded napkin what does it mean? “

    When looking at proper etiquette there are slightly different thoughts on what to do with your napkin if you are planning to return to the take and are not finished. If you must get up and leave the table before you are through “According to Real Simple magazine writer Kerri Westenberg, if you need to leave the table, place your napkin loosely folded to the left of your place setting. After Dinner – Place your napkin anywhere on the table when you have finished eating and get up to leave.”

    Every time I see this passed around again I find it fascinating and I am moved at the thought of it. And why is that? It is because our god it an all powering GOD, that knows the past – present – future. Every passage in the Bible has a meaning and we may only be able to ever fully understand their true meaning when we sit at the foot of our Lord and he tells us what he preordained and what he wanted us to get from that passage.

    Just my thoughts on the subject as we come to Maundy Thursday.

    God Bless, JF

    Jaime Franco | Apr 5, 2012 | Reply

  26. I appreciate your comments, Jaime. I also appreciate that this is a truly moving story. Honestly, I would be perfectly content to have discovered it to be true.
    However, the fact that something is a good or useful illustration does not make it true, of course. For example, I find the genuine sorrow and repentance of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” very moving- yet I know it is a fabrication woven for entertainment purposes. While we can certainly learn from it – it is not God’s Word. That is what is at stake here; the preservation of the truth of God’s Word. As such, we do not have the privilege of christening something as biblically valid just because it is moving or makes a good point. What is at issue here is that we proclaim it “what God has spoken” when we acknowledge it as what is meant by a biblical passage. That’s a very strong position to take on an email story that was never seen until 2,000 years after Christ!
    As to your question of whether this biblical text may have been written uniquely that people today could interpret it (at the exclusion of people to whom it was originally written), that is simply not how scripture is interpreted. Ever.
    There are several issues with this approach. First, that would mean that God’s word means something different at all times. This “contextualization” approach is at great issue in the modern church. It causes people to redefine virtually every truth spoken in scripture. People today think differently about marriage, for example, than did the ancient Jewish people. When we see that Joseph “was engaged” to Mary and “sought to divorce her quietly” when he discovered she was with child, today’s culture can’t even rectify that. We can only understand what such things mean in light of the culture to whom it was written. (Betrothal was a legal process that required divorcement – even though the wedding ceremony had not yet taken place.) If we begin injecting our own culture’s understanding into what was written, then we get a very wrong understanding.
    Secondly, this approach would mean that God’s Word is user-friendly. If it means something different to every culture, then it means something different to every person. The pantheist believes that God is in everything. Can he thus understand Jesus’ words “no man can come to the father except through me” to mean that the reader can come to God through the worship of a rock? Obviously this is not how to interpret the scripture. Neither is it how to interpret any document. Interpretation – as a rule – requires the establishment of the context in which it was written – not the context in which it is later read. We know full well that when Jesus said “I am with you always” he did not mean that he was following us on Facebook; as our own culture may interpret such a statement.
    I realize these are tongue-in-cheek examples, but I want to make it as clear as possible that biblical interpretation is not the same as the interpretation of a poem or song. We do not study scripture to see “what we can get out of it” but to find “what God has said.” It is critical that we never inject meaning into something that was originally not found.
    In conclusion, I do believe that God speaks to us today in his Word. It was indeed written to all people for all times. But, what was written was written within the context of the times, places and people to whom it was originally penned. We cannot approach scripture as true when we inject every whim of 21st century sentiment into the text.
    Even if we could, however, this would still not be an argument for the folded napkin meaning what this email author claims; for he has maintained that his argument is based on an ancient custom – not a new one. To that end, the author of this email utterly fails to establish his premise; for apparently no one else on earth but he seems to know of this ancient custom. In “internet world” – that spells hoax; no matter how well-written or moving it may be.

    Jeff Kluttz | Apr 5, 2012 | Reply

  27. could it be that the napkin be the sign of his next coming

    Tyler Noel | Apr 8, 2012 | Reply

  28. Jesus didn’t roll that stone away because He wanted out. He could have walked through it. It rolled away so that we could know that He had risen..

    barbara | Apr 10, 2012 | Reply

  29. I’ve been a Christian who believes in the entire Bible. It is sad to me that I would have to qualify “Christian”. In the Bible, there are actually only 3 places (I believe) where the word Christian is used. They are used by people who REFER to people who believe in Jesus, as Christians. But Christians, themselves, refer to themselves as disciples. Of Jesus, of course. Anyway, I digress. I actually want to say “thank you” for researching this topic. When I first heard it – by a Pastor – I was enthralled. However, before I repeated it to anybody – I also did research and came up with nothing. That makes me so very sad. God does NOT need PEOPLE to “help Him out”. When people do that, and it is discovered that what was said to “help” God out was not correct – then people naturally want to throw out the entire Bible because they don’t know what to believe. I mean, people’s mindsets are “if you can’t believe a Pastor, who CAN you believe”. They conclude that Christians are just a bunch of ignoramus’s or liars. Again…thank you for acknowledging that this “folded napkin” thing – as nice as it sounds – is not an accurate statement that can be verified. God Bless You!

    Alacia

    Alacia "Shay" Edward | Apr 12, 2012 | Reply

  30. @ Carl (4 March)
    Your explanation makes the the most sense to me. An entire verse is dedicated to pointing out the fact of the folded garment. Jesus would very likely have been buried wrappeed in his Tallit (John 19:40 says He was buried “in accordance with Jewish burial customs”)
    I just love the idea that John would have reconised the way that Jesus had folded his Tallit. What a clue to leave !? Anyway, I also look forward to discussing this with Jesus over coffe and doughnuts.
    Mervyn (Merv the Serve) Reed

    Mervyn Reed | Apr 17, 2012 | Reply

  31. Wow! What I find fascinating is that this generation of Believers are inspired, curious and spiritually exhililared over this sweet little detail that John was inspired to leave. How wonderful is THIS…that those who love the Master are scouring Scripture like never before…directed & enthusiatic because of the Spirit…to KNOW the Lord better. The overiding issue is not what kind of cloth it wa or exactly its treatment by the Lord. What makes Him smile is that we’re seeking Him…longing to unearth the truth so we can more completely embrace this sacred event. We are no more complacent. We’re no longer content to rest on our religious laurels. We ache to be blessed w the Mind of Christ, enjoy the minute mysteries. We want to truly “get it” and be filled with the wonder of it all. Such desire is from the throne room itself. Our heary thanks to the Triune for inspiring us in such ways. How He loves us. And since we DO care so much about this itsy bitsy detail, someday He’ll share its significance with us. I think He’s getting a kick out of the fact that in this, the beginning of the 21st century, we proclaim that He is “all that” and unfathomably more. How sweet is our Father?!.?! YIKES!

    Lilysong | Apr 30, 2012 | Reply

  32. i come from an Italian background and I seem to remember that when you enjoyed your meal experience you scrunched up your napkin but if you didn’t enjoy it you folded it up indicating I dont want this experience again, I won’t be back. Angel

    Angelina reddy | Aug 10, 2012 | Reply

  33. Of course, you are not going to find any reference to the folding of the napkin as a custom, because it wasn’t. It was a courtesy. You’re not going to find that in a Handbook of Jewish Customs. It was a customary agreement between master and servant so the servant would not upset the master and get beaten. Did all masters do it? Probably not. But enough of them used the practice enough that it made it’s way down through time into our legends that we use today. Much like the histories of almost all ancient civilizations have made their way into our knowledge, by word of mouth.

    Rob S | Feb 12, 2013 | Reply

  34. I have to respectfully disagree, Rob. We learn the nuances of ancient civilizations from their (or other ancient) written documentation and archaeology. While traditions do get handed down from generation to generation, there is no current tradition of this sort to trace backward in Jewish culture. If there were, perhaps there would be an argument. But even then, surely someone over the past 2,000 years would have written it down in some referential context. Yet, we can only find this tradition in post- 2000 AD internet lore. It simply does not exist otherwise. I would be interested to know if anyone can find a reference to this ‘tradition’ that even dates back more than a dozen years or so.

    I agree that the story is heart warming. But, it is so just as any other fictional story can be written to be so. We must be very careful as Christians that our story not be clouded with that which is unverifiable – from scripture, of first importance – but secondarily from some trustworthy source of either written or archaeological truth. Otherwise our testimony becomes slowly inundated with myth and indecipherable from reality. Jesus will return. Of this I have no doubt. But it is because he said he would – which we have written confirmation dating almost back to his very day on. We do not need to fabricate new and heart-warming traditions that attempt to inject themselves into the preserved narrative. Such action is a sure path to the degradation of the authenticity of the testimony of the church for the future.

    Best wishes.

    Jeff Kluttz | Feb 12, 2013 | Reply

  35. Thank you so much for clearing this up. I have received this e-mail several times and didn’t get the same impression from reading it in scripture. Since I don’t know the Jewish traditions I had no way of knowing if there was anything to the story or now.

    Joyce | Mar 23, 2013 | Reply

  36. Hi Jeff,
    Thanks so much for this conclusive research. Unfortunately I swallowed this line some time ago and used it once to teach. Not until this Easter was I doing any further research on this topic of the napkin when I came across your work.
    I consider myself reprimanded for being moronic! Ouch! I won’t touch that one again, and will be more careful and suspicious of what I read online. And of course, will also repent to the ones I unthinkingly let this loose on!
    May God’s grace be on our preaching, to be diligent, honest and true!

    Tony | Apr 1, 2013 | Reply

  37. Thanks Jeff, i’ll forward this link to the person who sent me the email. Your article is well done and researched! 2013 and it’s still going around =( come on folks research~ Please

    lively4Jesus | Apr 2, 2013 | Reply

  38. Thanks, Lively!

    Jeff Kluttz | Apr 2, 2013 | Reply

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