What is the meaning of the folded napkin found in the tomb of Jesus? I received an Internet forward that says it was a message that Jesus will return. Any truth to this?
This question arises from the “Folded Napkin” story that circulates on the Internet, especially around the time of Easter. It’s about the cloth that was wrapped around Jesus’ head and was found in the empty tomb.
Is there a hidden message in the folded napkin story?
Read the Internet forwarded story in its entirety. Then we’ll look at how it compares to Scripture to determine it’s validity.
“The Folded Napkin”
Why did Jesus fold the linen burial cloth after His resurrection? I never noticed this….
The Gospel of John (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!”
Is the story true?
The simple answer is, no. The story does not have biblical or historical support to suggest it is true. In fact there is much reasoning to conclude that it is simply a fabricated story to support the fact that Jesus will return. This was likely contrived by the “Let’s Help God Society” (not a real group, but you know what I mean), as a way to justify our belief of the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s look at why this story is untrue and why it is damaging, so you will understand why you should not forward this if it arrives in your inbox.
Translation Variances – the Napkin/Face Cloth
Only the King James Version uses the word “napkin” to describe the fabric face cloth. Note that the Internet story tells of a “folded napkin” and yet the KJV says the napkin was “wrapped,” not folded.
John 20:7 And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.
The Greek word, soudarion, translated “napkin” in the KJV, is translated as handkerchief in the NKJV, and face/grave cloth in ESV, NASB, and others. The Greek word is defined in the Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible as:
soudarion, soo-dar’-ee-on; of Lat. or.; a sudarium (sweat-cloth), i.e. towel (for wiping the perspiration from the face, or binding the face of a corpse):–handkerchief, napkin.
The word soudarion used in John 20:7 is clearly meant to be understood as a burial cloth. There is nothing to imply that this was a table napkin. The only way to get the word “napkin” from the text is to utilize the King James translation of the word sourdarion and it must be understood that in 1611 England the word napkin did not refer to a table napkin. It referred to a piece of cloth for wrapping. Even in the UK today, a nappy (shortened form of napkin) refers to a folded cloth diaper for a baby, not a table napkin. A cloth table napkin is called a serviette in England. So the KJV’s 1611 word “napkin” means a cloth or towel.
Additionally, the word soudarion appears three other times, none of which indicates table use:
When Jesus resurrected Lazarus, he came forth from the tomb with his face wrapped with a soudarion (KJV, napkin: John 11:44)
The slave whose master gave him a pound hid it wrapped in a soudarion (KJV, napkin: Luke 19:20)
Paul’s handkerchiefs (soudariion) that were brought to the sick and had power to heal and exorcise demons (Acts 19:12).
Translation Variances – Wrapped or Folded
Was the cloth around Jesus’ face wrapped or folded? The KJV uses the word wrapped, not folded. The NKJV uses the word folded, but with the word handkerchief not napkin.
John 20:7 (NKJV) and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself.
The ESV uses folded, and the NASB uses rolled. Neither uses the word napkin but instead use face cloth.
John 20:7 (ESV) and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.
John 20:7 (NASB) and the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.
The Greek word translated in various ways as “wrapped” (KJV), “folded” (NKJV, ESV) and “rolled” (NASB) is:
1794. entulisso, en-too-lis’-so; from G1722 and tulisso (to twist; prob. akin to G1507); to entwine, i.e. wind up in:–wrap in (together).
Most clearly indicated from the context is that the face cloth was wrapped around Jesus‘ head, because in another passage where it clearly speaks of folding fabric a different Greek word is used:
Hebrews 1:12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold [Greek word, helisso] them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.
The Greek word helisso is only found in this one verse. It is properly translated as “fold” in reference to folding a garment. Futhermore, the word entulisso (used in reference to the cloth around Jesus’ head) is consistently translated “wrapped” in all translations in theses verses:
Matthew 27:59 And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped [entulisso] it in a clean linen cloth
Luke 23:53 And he took it down, and wrapped [entulisso] it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid.
It’s clear to see that several English translations must be combined in order to get a folded table napkin for the story that circulates around the Internet.
A simple and literal reading of biblical texts tell us that the napkin/face cloth was wrapped around the head of Jesus when His body was prepared for burial by Joseph and Nicodemus (John 19:38-40). Jesus’ body was then laid in the tomb (John 19:41-42) and, when the disciples saw the grave cloths, the napkin/face cloth was found “wrapped (entulisso) together in a place by itself” (John 20:7)— meaning, it was found where it was last placed in the tomb, the place where Jesus’ head lay. It remained there “wrapped together” but empty, “in a place by itself”— meaning, separate from the cloth that wrapped the body.
The word wrapped tells us that the napkin was never unwrapped and removed from Jesus’ head. Jesus’ body was raised from the tomb by the Holy Spirit and the grave clothes simply remained where his body had been laid, intact, still wrapped as they had been around His body.
If Jesus had removed the napkin (face cloth) and then folded it, the same Greek word used in Hebrews 1:12 (helisso) would have been used in the gospel account instead of entulisso (wrapped). The story that claims Jesus rose from the dead and folded the face cloth, to leave a message telling that He would return, is simply fabricated (pun intended). It is not biblically supported.
It appears that whoever wrote this story used several different translations to contrive a folded napkin. If that is not enough to discredit this urban legend that circulates around the Internet, this should wrap it up (pun intended).
Historical Support Missing
The people in Israel at the time of Christ did not use table napkins. They used their hands to eat and they would use a piece of bread to wipe their greasy fingers and their mouth. They would then drop the piece of bread on the floor for the dogs to consume (see Mark 7:28). Greek writings and plays also offer historical evidence that bread was used to wipe the hands and mouth after eating. Table napkins originated in ancient Rome and the earliest English references for the use of table napkins as a European practice are found around 1385-1385 AD.
Another “Let’s Help God” Story
If the translation variances and the unreliable claims of a table napkin custom are not enough to persuade that “The Folded Napkin” Internet forward is not true, then here’s another version that will cast further doubt. This Internet forward offers another “spin” on the folded napkin story. It also is an amusing, but untrue and unbiblical, story.
During Jesus’ time there was one way a carpenter let the contractor know a job was finished. A signature, so to speak.
Imagine a hot afternoon in Galilee. Jesus has completed the final pieces of a job he has worked on for several days. The hair of his strong forearms is matted with sawdust and sweat. His face is shiny with heat. He takes a final–and welcome–drink of cool water from a leather bag.
Then, standing to the side of his work, he pours water over his face and chest, splashing it over his arms to clean himself before his journey home. With a nearby towel, he pats his face and arms dry.
Finally, Jesus folds the towel neatly in half, and then folds it in half again. He sets it on the finished work and walks away. Later, whoever arrives to inspect the work will see the towel and understand its simple message. The work is finished.
Christ’s disciples, of course, knew this carpenter’s tradition. On a Sunday of sorrow, three years after Jesus had set aside his carpenter tools, Peter will crouch to look into an empty tomb and see only the linens that the risen Lord has left behind.
A smile will cross Peter’s face as his sorrow is replaced by hope, for he will see the wrap that had covered Jesus’ face. It has been folded in half, then folded in half again and left neatly on the floor of the tomb.
Peter understands. The carpenter has left behind a simple message. It is finished.
We don’t need a “folded napkin” story to tell us that Jesus is returning or a “folded towel” story to tell us that “it is finished.” We have Jesus’ word that His atoning sacrifice was sufficient to pay the penalty for our sins and that it was finished on the cross. We also know that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies and promises of His first coming and will also fulfill those of His second coming. Jesus will return again (John 14:1-4, Titus 2:13, Revelation 19:11).
Jesus said, “It is finished.”
Jesus said, “I will come again.”
That settles it. We believe it.
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Do not be anxious about anything. (Phil 4:6)
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must rightly remember who is in control. Our God is sovereign over all things, including COVID-19. As Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) said, “The sovereignty of God is a soft pillow on which weary people lay their heads.”
Remember also God’s gracious promise, and that it is true and He is faithful to keep it: Hebrews 13:5 …”I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” The next verse remind us of the power that comes in trusting God and how we can live: Hebrews 13:6 So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man [or COVID-19] shall do to me.
God loves us, and in Christ we find confidence and calm in times of uncertainty and trouble. When we trust in God, fear is replaced with faith, stress is replaced with strength, anxiety is gone and hope abounds, problems become opportunities, and we are able to receive the blessings God has for us in the midst of difficult circumstances. Turn to Jesus. He will lead you to the still waters and give rest for your troubled soul.
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast…Hebrews 6:19
Be Ready Always...
to give a reason for the Hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15). When you can’t share the gospel with your words, share it by leaving tracts that tell people about God's grace.
When leaving a tract, always be diligent to pray about the short gospel message. Pray that it be found by someone who is in need of Jesus’ saving grace, and pray that the person will have a tender heart and open ears to receive the gift Jesus desires to give them.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, even a small tract can help in turning a broken sinner from darkness to light.
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