Home Media Destroying the Bible verse by verse. . The folding of the grave cloths

. The folding of the grave cloths




I remember on the 29th of March 2015 a lady sharing the info below on a Facebook Group. This was a first for me. Since then I have seen this information posted over and over again on Facebook, and good meaning faithful children of God are sharing this without questioning the accuracy of the information shared. I don’t think it is an issue of gullibility, but simply showing too much faith in anything posted as Christian teaching. And let’s keep in mind the info below does not sound heretical, it actually sounds quite good. That is the reason for this study tonight. The reason I am exposing this one is not because it is dangerous, but because it can open us up to other issues that sound equally innocent and we will believe it. While it is important for us as pastors to reveal Biblical background information to you, to help you understand the Word of God, we need to be careful to swallow generated context, which simply means that we all lived in darkness until some wise person suddenly of late discovered something that nobody ever knew. Now, that in itself is also fine if the sources can be stated and are found to be well researched and accurate. So, what is my issue? Let’s look at the claims made in the cut and paste of this posting.

"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? 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 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!'



So, what do we say about this. Great message, Jesus is saying ‘I’m coming back!’, even though He has not left yet. In a sense Jesus saying to the disciples: “John 14:3 (ESV) 3 And if 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”, was not sufficient for us reading this 2000 years later, but somebody, somehow discovered the true meaning of this grave cloth, and at least now we know that Jesus meant what He said, and He left us a clue.

I am personally as a matter of caution sceptical about any interpretation of Scripture which depends entirely upon knowledge that can only be gained outside of Scripture. The very statement in the opening line is a dead give-away: “I have never noticed this”, and then suddenly you notice this. Then the reference to Hebrew Tradition without reference to any reliable resources. There is so much of this going around nowadays.

I’ve seen a number of variations of this theme, but it basically goes like this: “If you knew this bit of history, or background, or knowledge known only to me and a particular group, then you would understand the “deeper meaning” of what this text is saying”, or “If you only knew the Hebrew or Greek language, then only you would understand what this text is saying.” I did my fair studies in Hebrew and Greek in seminary not only as language studies for four years, but I did the collaborative studies of Hebrew and Greek exegesis as well, including Old and New Testament Background as well as the History of Israel. I also have available close on 30000 books in a very strong Bible Programme on my computer. My basic conviction is that God has given us all we need to understand the Bible – all the necessary information (in the Bible itself), and the Holy Spirit who illuminates it (1 Corinthians 2).  Can a knowledge of the original languages and Bible history be helpful at times?  Yes, of course, and this you see demonstrated Sunday after Sunday in and through expository preaching.  I have demonstrated this clearly in our sermon series on the ‘parable of a loving father’. Context is critical and it enriches the text.

But, are they so essential to an understanding of the Bible, so that only the elite (who possess these abilities and resources) can know what God’s Word means?  No! It simply makes for interesting studies, but the true message and validity of the text is not dependent on this.

The information that has come our way via these postings imply too much for me to accept.  In effect we would conclude this:  For the past 2,000 years the meaning of this text (and of the folded cloth in particular) has been hidden from the eyes of all but those few (Jews) who understand the culture and customs of that day, and therefore can understand what God wanted us to know from this detail. [This assumes that this was a part of the culture and customs of that day – something I am not inclined to accept without verification.]

The “I’m coming back” theme is certainly true, but it does not depend upon folded cloths.  It is clearly taught in many places, and even in conjunction with the Lord’s Table: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (ESV) 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

So, I would be very reluctant to make much, if anything, of this spiritualised interpretation of the folded cloth. To follow this kind of interpretation we must first link this handkerchief/cloth with a table napkin (though the term is never used for a table napkin in the New Testament).   This term is found only in Luke 19:20; John 11:44; 20:7; Acts 19:12, and never of a table napkin. The Greek word here is simply  soudarion {soo-dar'-ee-on}  Meaning: 1) a handkerchief 2) a cloth for wiping perspiration from the face and for cleaning the nose and also used in swathing the head of a corpse.  I can find no examples of a table napkin (regardless of the term employed) being used in the Bible.  Then, we must assume that this folding the napkin ritual was practiced then and understood by all at that time. If that were true there must be some evidence in the various books covering New Testament Background. Then we must wonder why this was not recorded in Scripture for all the uneducated to understand later on.  There could have been a simple statement like: “and the cloth was folded as an indication that He is coming back.”  Bottom line:  It is just too fanciful.


My sense is that most commentators and students of the Bible understand this folded cloth to indicate that the scene in the empty tomb was evidence of a very calm and orderly process, rather than that of a burglarised tomb, from which the body of Jesus was hastily stolen -- from a sealed tomb, guarded by soldiers.

Notice, too, that the emphasis is not just on this face cloth, but also on the cloth in which the body of Jesus was wrapped.  Also, this face cloth was folded and laid in a separate place by itself.  None of this seems to fit the spiritualised interpretation that came our way via Facebook.

I hunted and hunted to see if there is any evidence anywhere. The closest I could get might be that the very source of this story might be an irresponsible reading into the text from the **MISHNAH, quoted below.

MISHNAH. “These are the points [of difference] between beth shammai and beth hillel in relation to a meal. Beth shammai say that the benediction is first said over the day13 and then over the wine, while beth hillel say that the benediction is first said over the wine and then over the day. Beth shammai say that washing the hands precedes the filling of the cup,14 while beth hillel say that the filling of the cup precedes the washing of the hands. Beth shammai say that after wiping his hands with a napkin the diner places it on the table, while beth hillel say that he places it on the cushion.15 beth shammai say that [after the meal] the floor is swept before the washing of the hands,16 while beth hillel say that [the diners] wash their hands and then the floor is swept. Beth shammai say that [the proper order17 is] light, grace, spices, and habdalah, while beth hillel say: light, spices, grace, and habdalah.18 beth shammai say [that the blessing over light concludes with the words], who created the light of the fire, while beth hillel say [that the words are], who is creating the lights of the fire.”


A summary of points of contention between the rabbi disagreements might be addressed as follows:

  1. The napkin issue was over whether the napkin was to be placed on the table or a cushion.
  2. The reference to the napkin's placement was before and during the meal and not afterwards.
  3. The critical discussion concerning the meal's end was whether the final washing of hands preceded or succeeded the sweeping of the floor. It would seem that there is then no significance to where the napkin is at the meal's end. For the Beth Shammai School, the final use of the napkin would be after the floor was swept and, therefore, had no connection with signalling the end of the meal. In any case, there is a 50% chance that the custom followed by Jesus, and his followers was the cushion custom, which would have meant using the table was off-limits.
  4. The dispute involves whether the table or the cushion was more likely to contaminate the napkin during the course of the meal (improper mixing of foods). This information comes from another section of the Mishnah that I have not bothered to copy.
  5. In any case, the Talmud and Mishnah have no obvious support of the custom on which this story is based.

Something else we need to remember is that the Jews did not sit at a table eating in the time of Christ as painted in Leonardo da Vinci’s last supper. They had a small table often simply a block of wood in the middle of the area where they lounged and dined where the food will be placed on, but the diners would recline on sofas or mats. This made feet washing critical as your fellow diner’s feet could be quite close to your face.

In summary, I believe we can concluded that the circulating story about the significance of Jesus folding his burial cloth is at best non-biblical, and at worst a fraudulent attempt to provide a spiritualized meaning to an already clear text.

But never the less, there is Jesus is Alive! He died to save us from our sins and overcame death and arose from the dead. And yes, Jesus is coming back! He will return! But the folded napkin back then may not have any significance. Like I said, God may reveal that purpose one day to us on the true meaning. Not just speculations.

I think one lesson to be learnt by all Facebook users is simply this: Do not believe everything you read on Facebook. The fact that the article claims to be Christian, does not mean that it is accurate or the truth for that matter.

2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV) 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”


**The Mishnah or Mishna (/ˈmɪʃnə/; Hebrew: מִשְׁנָה, "study by repetition"), from the verb shanah שנה, or "to study and review", also "secondary,"[1] is the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions known as the "Oral Torah". It is also the first major work of Rabbinic literature.[2][3] The earliest known copy of the Mishnah has additions, and is contained within a book featuring commentary that was printed in Naples Italy during the late 15th century.[4]

The Mishnah was redacted by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi before his death around 217 CE,[5] in a time when, according to the Talmud, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions of the Pharisees from the Second Temple period (536 BCE – 70 CE) would be forgotten. The majority of the Mishnah is written in Mishnaic Hebrew, while some parts are Aramaic.