Question from Sheila Olivieri on 2/29/2008:
This was sent to me by email and I would like to know if the reason they give for the following question is true. "Why did Jesus fold the linen burial cloth after His resurrection?" 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 at the head of that stony coffin. 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 out ran 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* Is 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 was 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! * Thanks for your help, Sheila
Answer by Matthew Bunson on 3/10/2008:
Needless to say, the passage in John 20 has been studied for many centuries by scholars and exegetes. The stress upon the soudarion (or burial clothes) makes obvious in the Gospel that Jesus has truly risen.
The presence of the burial clothes point in part to the earlier resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus, an act that was punctuated by the emergence of Lazarus still clothed as he had been buried. Here, in John 20, Jesus has risen and has chosen to fold the cloth for he is in utter control of death and life. There is thus a unity between the death and resurrection implied in the very disposition of the soudarion.
Now the fact that the soudarion is carefully folded had its own specific purpose. The position or form of the clothes was seen by the early Church especially to support the clear and unmistakable affirmation that the body had not been removed, for had the body been stolen, grave robbers would not have taken the time to unwrap the linens and certainly not have placed the soudarion rolled up neatly in its place. This was the position of St. John Chrysostom, for example (In Jo.Hom. LXXXV 4; PG 59; 465).