Question: Is there anything symbolic about Jesus folding the “napkin” which was over his face in the tomb?

Here is the story as it floats around the internet. The response is below.


Why Did Jesus Fold the Napkin?

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 separate from the grave clothes.

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
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!'

He is Coming Back!




The problems with this reconstruction are multiple.  First, note that no ancient text is cited in support of this interpretation.  It is hard to prove a negative (that no such text exists), but I have never read any ancient material that even remotely resembles the details given in the historical reconstruction suggested below.  Second, napkins were not common in the ancient world, and as late as the middle ages, people were still wiping their hands and mouths with leftover BREAD.  Third, the Greek verb of the original means “rolled up,” not “folded up,” which would not communicate the same information that a folded napkin does on modern tables.  Fourth, there were no “tables” or (insinuated) chairs such as exist today that were used to eat meals in Jesus’ day.  The Greek gospels are perfectly clear in their choice of verbs to describe meals.  The participants RECLINED—they ate in a semi-prone posture with their heads pointed toward a very short (approximately one foot high), long, “u”-shaped food tray called a triklinium.  These are mentioned in many places in ancient literature and have been discovered by archeologists in places like Masada, Israel.  Fifth, neither Jesus, nor His closest followers, nor most of His other contemporaries were wealthy enough to afford household servants who could wait upon them hand and foot as though they were royalty.  Therefore, to dip into the life of aristocracy for symbolism to communicate to commoners is not typical of Jesus and perhaps would even be seen as a slap in the face (note, for example, the nature of the preponderance of images evoked in Jesus’ parables—they are almost exclusively snapshots from the lives of average citizens).  Sixth, it was not common for the average villager to keep “Jewish boys” as servants/slaves.  This is not only because of the burdensome expense, but also because the Law of Moses required that slaves be manumitted (released from servitude) every seven years (Exod. 21:2; Lev. 25:39-41; Deut. 15:12).  Seventh and perhaps most detrimental to the historical reconstruction suggested below is the unlikelihood that symbols would be shared between burial contexts and dining contexts.  This is because ritual IMPURITY exuded from the former, whereas ritual purity is required of the latter.  We would accuse the user of “mixing metaphors” in poor taste if this was tried today.


Rather than an accurate portrayal of ancient near eastern realities, the reconstruction described below sounds more like an act in a medieval passion play reenactment in western Europe.  Therefore, what appears to be a meaning-filled and exciting interpretation has actually distorted reality and created anachronisms that in turn generate more problems than they solve.  All kinds of interpretative and applicational problems arise when we attempt to interpret ancient texts in light of more recent practices, customs, and word usage.  The present case is no exception.  The solution is to let ancient texts speak from their own perspective rather than superimposing our world, culture, and language upon them.  This indeed is the only way to consistently arrive at the intended meaning of the biblical authors, and THEY are the ones operating under infallible divine inspiration, not US.


The real meaning of the details in John is unclear.  It is possible that John was not attaching ANY symbolic meaning to his description, but was simply accurately reporting the details as he as an eyewitness had observed them.  However, this in itself is quite valuable, and should not be quickly passed over.  The details are not given in the other three gospels, and we can conclude that such vivid details validate the claim that the gospel writer was indeed an eyewitness.  This, in turn, provides a strong argument for the historical reliability and authority of the entire book of John. 


It is also possible to observe that the details simply make sense in the physical world in which we live.  That the grave clothes were separate and not as orderly would make perfect sense if Jesus’ hands and arms were tightly bound and had to be removed with some difficulty (remember that Lazarus needed help removing his grave-clothes, John 11:44).  However, once the hands and arms were free, He could remove His own face-cloth with greater ease and control. 


Finally, it is possible that the condition of the face-cloth is intended by John to demonstrate the God-controlled  and orderly nature of a resurrection that occurred in normal stages.  As He acted at creation and at the resurrection, so He will act toward us, and this we can count on.  That God works in orderly, consistent, and usually predictable ways is an encouragement to those who look to Him to be “the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebs. 13:8).  Further, the consistency and orderliness of God also serves as a challenge to those of us to seek to serve Him because He has called us to imitate and reflect these and other aspects of His nature to those within our sphere of influence in order that they might observe His power that has changed us, see His true nature, and ultimately be drawn to Him to receive forgiveness, cleansing, new life, and a restoration of relationship with Him.


W.E. Nunnally, Ph.D.

Professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins

Evangel University