Over the past year several subscribers have asked if I can verify a popular internet explanation of the folded “napkin” that Peter and another disciple saw in Jesus’ vacant tomb (John 20:7). The anonymous email describes the purported first-century Jewish practice of a master who temporarily leaves the meal but neatly folds his dinner napkin to signal his servant that he is coming back. The email concludes that Jesus folded his “napkin” as a subtle promise to his followers that he also would return.
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When the King James Version was translated in 1611, the English word “napkin” designated any large rectangular piece of cloth such as a neckerchief or handkerchief. (In England today, a baby diaper is still a “nappie.”) The American Standard and Revised Standard versions simply retained the KJV’s word. In fact, the word “napkin” here is misleading in modern English.
The Greek word is soudarion, borrowed from the Latin sudarium. In the first-century Roman world, this was a large piece of cloth used as a head-dress, sweat-cloth (see Acts 19:11-12), burial cloth to cover the face or to tie shut the jaws (John 11:44; John 20:7) or for wrapping in general (Luke 19:20). Modern versions of John 20:7 call it a “cloth” (NCV, NRSV), “piece of cloth” (CEV), “face cloth” (ESV, NASB), “burial cloth” NIV), “wrapping” (HCSB), “kerchief” (MSG) and “handkerchief” (Darby, NKJV).
Nothing is said of Peter’s reaction but the scene in the tomb stimulated the other disciple’s faith (John 20:8). Perhaps it was the empty burial shroud and separate head-cloth lying in place, as if Jesus had dematerialized out of them leaving them undisturbed. Perhaps it was the orderly arrangement of the burial cloths — not the condition one would expect to find if grave-robbers had stolen Jesus’ body.
The internet story is affirming and poignant but unsustainable and finally unnecessary. More than once, Jesus clearly promised his followers that he would return to them — both in the Holy Spirit (John 14:18-20) and in person at the end (John 14:3). We do not need a folded face-cloth to tell us that. Besides, if there is any one place to which Jesus certainly will never return, that place is surely a dead man’s tomb.