Around Easter every year, this little tale surfaces in various places on social media about the importance of Jesus folding the cloth that was about his head (John 20:1–10). The story goes something like this:
In order to understand the significance of the folded napkin, we need 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.
The servant would not dare touch the table until the master was finished. Now if the master was finished eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers and mouth, clean his beard, and wad up the 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, 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!”
Let us be reminded daily during this post-Easter season, Jesus Christ is “Not Finished.” He is coming back for his faithful servants within his Church.https://www.citizen-times.com/story/life/2017/04/21/devotional-why-did-jesus-fold-napkin-tomb/100612470/ as one example.
A couple of things should catch the attention of a discerning reader of Scripture. John does not make this interpretation but rather leaves the incident for his readers to ponder. And, secondly, the tomb of Jesus was not a dining table and Jesus’s burial cloth was not a napkin. This so-called tradition of setting aside the napkin to indicate the master would be coming back simply does not exist in Jewish tradition. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The author of the Gospel of John had a very different reason for telling this story and reading the text of the Gospel of John carefully brings this to the forefront. Here is the text:
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)John 20:3–9 NIV2011
John (the other disciple) had reached the tomb first, and it was John who made the correct logical deduction as to why the garments were there. “He saw and believed,” to which the narrative adds “They did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”
For the Gospel writer, the deduction was logical and natural. The burial garments pointed to one clear fact: Jesus had risen from the dead (and this was in accordance with Scripture). The author makes no extended metaphorical application to a napkin on the table. They are what they are purported to be: burial garments without a corpse.
Just to cover the topic fully, let’s start with the particular words used for the materials in the text.
The word for the cloth that covered the body of Jesus is othonion (ὀθόνιον), which means cloth or cloth wrapping, generally of linen. In the context of John, we are speaking of burial wrappings.
The more important term in this conversation is soudarion (σουδάριον), which refers to a facecloth often used for wiping away perspiration. Interestingly, this is a word borrowed from the Latin (sudairium) which was, in fact, used for wiping the face of sweat. Conveniently, it would be comparable in size to what we today call a napkin. More problematic is the participle describing the cloth which was set apart from the larger linen cloth. John describes it as being “wrapped around,” even, twisted or rolled. “Folded” is not the meaning of this word (though a few newer translations goes in that direction). Louw and Nida in their lexicon underscore the meaning as “to enclose an object by winding something about or around it — ‘to wrap, to bandage.’” or “to cause something to be in the shape of a roll — ‘to roll up, to make into a roll.” So in the end, the cloth was not folded, but still retained the shape of being wrapped around something. The KJV has it right with “wrapped together.”
Now, the move from a head cloth in a tomb to a napkin on the table is unwarranted because there is no such Jewish tradition as so stated in the urban legend.
I have located only one reference to a napkin at the table in Jewish lore. In the Mishnah, a compilation of Jewish tradition, some of which goes back to the first century, a text (Berakhot 8:2–4) recounts the disagreement between Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel over whether one’s hands should be washed before or after the filling of the cup at dinner. Shammai prefers that the napkin should be placed on the table after the hands had been washed; Hillel thinks the napkin should be placed on a cushion. Next, in the debate, follows a discussion about whether the floor should be swept before the final washing of hands.
To reiterate, no tradition regarding a folded napkin every Jewish boy would know ever existed. Unfortunately, as heart-warming as it may be, the folded napkin tradition was completely fabricated or stitched together out of thin air.