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Jesus' Tomb and Folded Facecloths

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This article is written by guest contributor, Aaron Boerst.

John 20:7 gives a specific detail about the “napkin” that was originally placed over the face of Jesus in his burial. What John tells us is that this garment was not cast aside as were the other grave clothes. John’s Gospel account is unique in speaking of this specially folded and set aside cloth:

 “So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 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 20‬:3-7‬)‬‬‬‬‬‬.

Around Easter every year, there is an often-quoted tale of the perceived significance of Jesus’ burial clothes. Namely his burial facecloth.

The story usually goes something like this: 

In order to understand the significance of the folded napkin, you have to understand a little bit about the Hebrew tradition of that day.  The folded napkin had to do with the Master and Servant.  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 aside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table, because the servant knew that the folded napkin meant, “I’m not finished yet.”  The folded napkin meant, “I’m coming back!”

This provocative homiletical illustration is meant to provide Christian hope – or at the least a worthy share on social media. Yet this claim is neither faithful to the Biblical text nor historically accurate.

The table napkin interpretation follows an aristocratic European tradition – not a Hebrew one. Therefore the suggestion that a person in the First Century AD would place a folded dinner napkin on their plate during a meal to signify anything is taken out of context.

But why does John mention the folded cloth? The Greek word that John uses for “napkin” is no dinner napkin at all. “Saudarion” (σουδάριον), corresponds to the Latin equivalent, “sudo,” which means “to sweat.” The word “saudarion” is only used four times in all of Scripture – all coming from the New Testament: Luke 19:20 (with the Parable of the Ten Minas), John 11:44 (when Lazarus was resurrected), John 20:7 (at Jesus’ tomb), and then Acts 19:12 (as Paul performed miracles in Ephesus). In John’s account, the supposed “napkin” is both a sweat cloth to clean and cover a body, as well as a cloth which serves as a burial veil. 

We don’t need extra symbolism as Easter people.

John’s point is to show that Jesus’s tomb was not raided by grave robbers. The folded facecloth of John 20:6 brings comfort to the hearer (or reader) who is as confused as Mary Magdalene who twice repeats: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John‬ 20‬:2‬; 13). While the other Gospel writers boldly proclaim, “He has risen,” John simultaneously announces the resurrection and calms the fears of the moment through his seemingly insignificant detail: Jesus is alive and took the time to leave the tomb orderly. 

That orderly tomb points to Jesus truly being the Living Word that spoke Creation into order and existence. That folded facecloth reminds us of the One who folded up the chaos on Day One, and is now actively un-folding and drawing believers back to him as a result of Easter morning. More than fanciful fables, that orderly tomb is what tells us that Jesus is still in control until he returns. We don’t need extra symbolism as Easter people. If we stick to the Biblical text alone, that will suffice. If a folded face cloth doesn’t do it for you consider these testimonies:

  • “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay” (Matthew‬ 28‬:6‬).‬‬‬‬
  • “He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him” (Mark‬ 16‬:6‬).‬‬‬‬
  • “He is not here but has risen” (Luke‬ 24‬:6).

This article was written by Aaron Boerst. Aaron serves as the pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Wales, Wisconsin. He received his Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 2013, and has served in various ministry settings since. When not hiking or kayaking with his wife Megan, Aaron strives to be an avid outdoorsman finding inspiration in deer, turkey, bear, and pheasant hunting, as well as fishing the Great Lakes.