Folded napkin at the Empty Tomb does not mean "I'll be right back"

Folded, not wadded
You may have seen the essay circulating the 'Net that states the folded "napkin" found at the Empty Tomb of Jesus signified what it did at any meal in that culture: Burial of Christit told the waiter (a slave back then) that the person was not finished eating and would be right back. This in contrast to the wadded napkin that signaled the meal was over and that the diner had left for good. The argument is that Jesus folded his napkin to show (drum roll) He's coming back!

Dubious proof of the Second Coming
I find this interpretation dubious in the extreme for the following reasons:

  1. It appears to be dependent on the King James Version's translation of the Greek word soudarion (John 20:7) as “napkin” and then runs with the associations 21st-century culture has with that English word. For soudarion my Greek-English dictionary suggests the renderings "handkerchief, facecloth (used for the dead)." An online Greek-English lexicon defines it: “a handkerchief; a cloth for wiping perspiration from the face and for cleaning the nose and also used in swathing the head of a corpse.”

  2. Renderings of modern English translations: towel (Weymouth), handkerchief (J.B. Phillips), face-cloth (NASB, ESV [without the hyphen]), burial-cloth (NIV), cloth (EVD, NAB, NRSV, WEB), piece of cloth (CEV). Both the KJV and the ASV have “napkin,” but Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language offers five definitions of "napkin," in addition to that associated with eating: “2. a small towel of linen or cotton cloth. 3. Chiefly Brit. a diaper. 4. North Eng. and Scot. a handkerchief. 5. Scot. a kerchief or neckerchief."

  3. A handkerchief-sized piece of cloth could be rendered “napkin” in a context involving a meal, but that is lacking in this case. The immediate context of John 20:7 has nothing to do with a meal, interrupted or otherwise. It is definitely a context of burial in a tomb, where soudarion would refer to a cloth covering the dead person's face or perhaps a bandage-like tie around the top of the head to keep the jaw closed.

  4. Soudarion also occurs in John 11:44, where it describes the face-covering of Lazarus immediately after Jesus restored him to life. Once again, no association with eating is present, only with the burial of a corpse. Lazarus walks out with the soudarion still in place, which means either his face was covered or his jaw was tied up.

  5. A much more likely explanation for the folded napkin is available that suits the immediate and broader context much better. Grave robbers would not bother to fold the napkin. They would be in a hurry and would toss it aside. That it was folded (or rolled up) is one proof that Jesus truly was raised from the dead.

  6. Much better proofs of the return of Christ include the testimony of Jesus Himself in passages such as Matthew 7:21-23; 24:26-31 (but you have to explain vv. 32-35); 24:36-51; 25:19; and 25:31-33. Added to that is the testimony of the angels at His ascension, Acts 1:10-11, and the testimony of Paul, the apostle and prophet, 1 Thessalonians 4:13 - 5:11 and 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10. These are so much more reliable than the speculative and ill-founded folded-napkin argument.

Test claims carefully
We should be careful about uncritically accepting Internet-circulated Bible interpretations, even if they conveniently support our own beliefs, like the truth that Jesus really is coming again. Let’s all commit ourselves to "Going Deeper."

Oh, and if you are interested in HOW to fold napkins, may I recommend Robbie's Kitchen for the fundamentals? Also check out Diana Eng's Origanimals. She folds napkins into the shape of animals, including a bear, a bunny, a peacock, and a snail.

Want to go deeper?

To investigate more about the significance on the "napkin" or "face cloth," consult any good commentary on the Gospel of John (at 20:7). For instance, check out what R. A. Whitacre says.

On the one hand, the text can be understood to mean that at His resurrection, Jesus' glorified body passed through the graveclothes, including the facecloth without disturbing them at all, leaving them as a shell kept in place by the spices administered at the time of interrment. This would certainly constitute strong proof of the resurrection in contrast to the graveclothes being torn and scattered across the floor in disarray, or missing altogether.

On the other hand, if the facecloth was neatly folded, and perhaps the rest of the grave-clothes as well, it suggests that there was no hurry to get away. This is the conclusion most commentators have reached, e.g., William Milligan (Note 9) and B. F. Westcott.

If you want to learn more about the proofs of Christ's resurrection, here are some recommendations:

For purchase:

Charles Foster. The Jesus Inquest: The Case For and Against the Resurrection of the Christ (2007)

William Barclay. We Have Seen the Lord! The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1998)

Lee Strobel. The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection. (1998)

Online Resources:

William Lane Craig. "Contemporary Scholarship & the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1985)

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I was told by my dad about what the
folded knapkin ment in 1978.
That was before the days of the internet.He read it in his studies
while preparing a sermon.    


I just received the internet version and have forwarded it to friends. Only John's Gospel says it was wrapped by itself and I believe since Jesus told them many times he was coming back (maybe just to them for a short period after his death)or maybe he meant the second coming. I believe Jesus knew how the napkin would be interpreted and I believe his intent at folding the napkin meant a lot more than your thoughts on what type cloth it was. Folding it versus just leaving it really means something but to me if if his body had been stolen there would not have been any cothes left behind especially fine linen.    


I agree with you that it means something, but we can be confident that its meaning is not related to table manners. The folded napkin is minor proof that his body wasn't stolen. The main proofs are the resurrection appearances and the dramatic transformation of the apostles from shrinking violets to towering oaks.    

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