A Question about the Napkin Placed on Jesus Face

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Easter (Passion Week), Jesus


Several readers have asked whether the following story is true.

"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 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?


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; 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. 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!


Several devoted Bible sites have tracked this legend to internet postings beginning around 2007. Some have suggested the story may have originated in an inspired sermon that was given the previous year, though I have not been able to find the original sermon. There is no doubt that the legend is heartwarming and moving. But the questioner has asked whether it is true.

To that end, let's look at it closely. The Greek word translated "napkin" is soudarian. This Greek word only occurs four times in the Bible; two are in John [11:44 and 20:7]. Luke 19:20 and Acts 19:12 are the other occurrences. In the case of John 20:7 the KJV, ASV, and RSV Bibles translate this word as "napkin." Yet other Bibles use a different word: NRSV, NIV, NLT translations simply say "cloth;" NKJV says, "handkerchief;" and the NASV uses "face-cloth." Translations of John 11:44 and Luke 19:20 are similar. The word in Acts is typically translated as "handkerchiefs" throughout.

Does this mean scholars have changed their minds on this word? It is possible, but the word has some Latin derivatives. Sudo means "to sweat" or "to work hard." Sudarium means, "a sweat cloth." It was typically used to wipe the sweat off one's face. Perhaps "burial cloths, facecloths, or handkerchiefs" are better translation choices.

It also begs the question of whether first century Hebrew people used napkins in the way we think of a napkin. It is true that observant Jews would wash their hands before each meal. This was done in part because much of what they ate was "finger food" [i.e. bread, fish] and they did not want to pollute the food they were about to consume. One might expect that they also washed their hands after eating, but this is not well attested. There are no New Testament passages that mention anything about wiping their hands on a cloth after washing. Perhaps they shared a towel for this purpose, but nothing is explicitly stated. So the notion of a well laid-out individual table setting, complete with a napkin, is probably far-fetched.

The other word of interest is that the cloth was "folded." This Greek word is entulisso, which usually has the meaning of twisted or entwined. It is used in only two other places in the Bible, Matt. 27:59 and Luke 23:53. In the case of John 20:7, only a few translations (ESV, NKJV, NLT) translate this as "folded." Most of the others say, "rolled up" or "wrapped up by itself." All the translations of its other uses say, "wrapped." The point in John seems to be that the face cloth was separate from the rest of the grave clothes.

This would have been important for several reasons. First of all, it was positive proof that Jesus had resurrected. Secondly, enemies had not removed his body. No one would steal a body and painstakingly remove all the grave clothes and face cloth. There simply would not have been time to do that. And lastly, unlike Lazarus who emerged from the tomb still wrapped up in his grave clothes, Jesus was completely unencumbered.

And last, but not least, the author of this story claims, "every Jewish boy knew the tradition of the folded napkin."

There is a passage in the Mishnah that does speak of a napkin in relation to a meal. Rabbis Shammai and Hillel disagree about whether hands should be washed before or after the filling of the cup of wine. Shammai stated that "after wiping his hands with a napkin the diner should place the napkin on the table;" Hillel said "he should place it on a cushion." This discussion says nothing about how the napkin is folded (or not) at the end of the meal. The disagreement proceeds to whether or not the floor should be swept before the final washing of hands. Nothing is added about the napkin.

Nor does any commentary, old or new, mention a napkin tradition. Nothing is written about it on Jewish websites. And credible writers have been unsuccessful in having Jewish friends and/or scholars verify that statement.

In short, few Bible translators translate soudarian as napkin; the prevailing word is "cloth or handkerchief." Even fewer Bible translators translate entulisso as folded; the normal phrase is "wrapped up." And there does not seem to be any support for a "folded napkin tradition."

If the point of the little story was to lend credence to Jesus' statement that he would return, there are dozens of New Testament passages where that is clearly stated. Consider this one from John 14:1-3: "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (NRSV). Is that not promise enough? you have any questions related to the Bible, please feel free to email us.