I was forwarded an email from a friend this week containing a discussion of John 20:7. That verse
tells us that, when Peter and John ran to the empty tomb after Jesus was raised from the dead, they
found his burial clothes and the “the napkin, that was about his head…wrapped together in a place
by itself” (John 20:7, KJV).
The forwarded email went on to explain that the napkin was folded because Jesus was making an
intentional reference to a Jewish custom where the Master of the house folds his napkin and places
it on his plate to signify that he’s not finished eating; he’s coming back. Get it? According to the
email, Jesus was saying that he’s coming back. My friend wanted to know if this is really what
John 20:7 means.
Loving a good Bible mystery (nerd that I am), I went back and looked at a couple of commentaries.
My verdict? I'm not convinced that this is the point of the folded up head cloth. I couldn't
find any reference on the internet or in my commentaries to this Jewish Master legend.
More than that, I think this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the word that the King James
Version happens to translate "napkin" in John 20:7. The Greek word is soudarion. It comes from
the Latin word sudor which means "to sweat." (Where we get our English word "exude.") A soudarion
is a cloth used to wipe one's face. Not necessarily for food, but for sweat. It's not really a
napkin; it's more like what we would call a handkerchief. Thus, the KJV is the only version that
translates it "napkin". Other translations are cloth (NRSV), face cloth (NAS) and burial cloth
So why does John want us to know that it was "folded"? Probably as evidence that Jesus was
raised from the dead. If Jesus' body was stolen, it is unlikely that the grave robbers would have
stopped to unwrap his body. And they certainly wouldn't have neatly rolled up the burial shroud
and put it back in place.
This just seems more likely than connecting it to an obscure Jewish dining custom for which there
is no evidence. In the end, it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to be encouraged by the fact
that Jesus is returning to us. And it's great news, without or without the strange story of the folded
But what John is telling us is also great news. John wants us to know that Christ is risen! He has
seen it with his own eyes. His body wasn't stolen. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything.
This Sunday, as we read Acts 9 together, we’re going to see just how Jesus’ resurrection changes
one man’s life in a way that will change the world.
—— Robert