For some time, there’s been this discussion going on the internet about how Jesus’ folded burial cloth has some sort of symbolism linked with an old Jewish tradition and has some deeper meaning that we fail to see. Although this discussion has never been proven and is really more of a legend than a fact, we are still intrigued and checked out some different conversations about this topic on the internet. Mainly we found three different takes on it, so let’s dive in and see!
Facts About Jesus’ Burial Cloth
So before we dive into these interpretations, I guess it’s proper to start and distinguish the facts from this legend. The only factual element of this discussion is that St. Peter was the one who went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths along with another disciple. This happened after Mary Magdalene saw that the stone was removed from the tomb, and she ran to inform St. Peter and another disciple. We can verify this in John 20:6-8
“When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. “
The Jewish Tradition
Now, there’s a Jewish tradition of the folded napkin that’s being linked to this legend. This is actually one of the biggest reasons this discussion began because of someone’s link to this particular Jewish tradition.
Citizen-Times talks about the Jewish tradition in-depth and relates the folded napkin or cloth to the relationship of a 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. The servant would not dare touch the table until the master was finished. Now, if the master was finished eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers and mouth, clean his beard, and wad up the 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 finished.” But if the master got up from the table, 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!”
Although we are not quite sure if this tradition actually exists, this take on it is pretty interesting to see. It does give a hopeful message that Jesus will one day come back, but that theme has also been running throughout different events.
Stealing the Body
We found another interpretation of this passage that did not have much to do with the Jewish tradition but had something to do with body robbery during those times. Our Sunday Visitor, Msgr. Charles Pope, discusses their take on this famous legend.
“The most common explanation is that John’s focus on the grave linens serves to emphasize that Jesus’ body was not stolen. Normally, if grave robbers stole a body, they would not expend any effort to remove the linens in which the body was tightly wrapped. Indeed, it was not usually the body they were after. Rather it was the fine linens in which many bodies were wrapped. This is especially true of the face cloth, also called the sudarium…..As for the face cloth, it was usually the most valuable linen of all. But instead of being taken as a thief would likely do, it is carefully folded. St John Chrysostom says of this careful folding, “For a thief would not have been so foolish as to spend so much trouble on a superfluous matter” (“Homilies on John 20:2″).”
Msgr. Charles Pope’s take on this does shed a different perspective on the legend. It did not touch the Jewish tradition mentioned earlier but offers another point of view on what the folded burial cloth meant instead.
Ancient Times Using Napkins?
We noticed that some people did argue that during those times, napkins weren’t really a thing. And that the folding of the burial cloth had nothing to do with a Jewish tradition involving napkins at all. We found this interesting take on the ancient Hebrews using or owning napkins from biblewise.com
“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.”
What Biblewise says is definitely another way to view this legend and tradition. We don’t really know if during those times they would take table setting as the way we do it today, and it can be possible that they used the napkins in a different way than what we are used to. I mean, things change and evolve throughout time.
Our Take on It
It was certainly interesting to see these different interpretations of the folded burial cloth legend. Though we had fun getting to know these new perspectives, there’s one thing that we are sure about. And that is this legend concerning the folding of Jesus’ burial cloth is definitely still a legend. The legend may be heartwarming and touching, but the whole correlation has yet to be verified.
What we’re sure of, though, with or without this particular legend, is that Jesus’ body was definitely not robbed and that He is coming back!