Question from a JP reader:
Do you know anything about the following Hebrew tradition?
John 20:7 tells us that the napkin that 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. Is that significant? Absolutely!
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. 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, folded his napkin, and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table because the servant knew that the folded napkin meant, “I’m not finished yet.” The folded napkin meant, “I’m coming back!”
He (the master, Jesus) is coming back! Hallelujah!
David Bivin responds:
Like an urban legend, such fanciful notions spread rapidly across the Internet, one author copying the words of another, but altering the text slightly and sometimes adding to it. (Try, for instance, a Google search for “napkin over the face of Jesus.”) Apparently, none of the perpetuators of this hoax offers any evidence for such assertions. None cites a biblical or rabbinic source. To the readers, it sounds good, it feels good, and so it must be true.
The word translated “napkin” or “face cloth” in some translations of John 20:7, σουδάριον (soudarion), is a Latin loanword, sudarium (see the entry σουδάριον in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.) It was a small cloth corresponding to the rabbinic מִטְפַּחַת (miṭpaḥat), our modern “handkerchief.” In the New Testament the Greek word soudarion appears three other times: at Jesus’ command, Lazarus came forth from his tomb, his face wrapped with a soudarion (John 11:44); the slave whom his master entrusted with a mna hid it wrapped in a soudarion (Luke 19:20); and the handkerchiefs that were carried from Paul’s body, which contained the power to heal the sick and exorcize demons, were soudaria (the plural of soudarion) (Acts 19:12).
The questions that come to mind upon hearing the explanation of “the folded napkin and the slave” are:
- Were napkins used in first-century Israel, that is, after a meal did people wipe their hands on a cloth to clean them?
- Washing of the hands before a meal was mandatory according to rabbinic injunction, but after washing their hands, did people dry them with a cloth? Apparently, there is no early rabbinic source that discusses how the hands were dried after washing them. The folding of the napkin as a sign that a dinner guest was finished may be good European custom, but it appears this custom was unknown in the land of Israel in the time of Jesus.
I suspect that after washing his hands Jesus didn’t dry them on his sleeve or another part of his garment. He probably wouldn’t have wanted to dry his hands on anything, since while eating he used his fingers as spoon and fork. Apparently, the Greeks of old also used their hands for eating, since there are no ancient Greek words for “fork” and “spoon.”
True, if first-century Jewish residents of the land of Israel used table napkins, and if there were such a custom as described, and if the handkerchief mentioned in John 20:7 were a table napkin, and if the Greek word entetyligmenon meant “having been folded” rather than “having been wrapped up,” then we might be able to swallow this. I would guess that the detailed description of this supposed custom is an invention triggered in someone’s fertile mind by the archaic KJV translation, “napkin.”