by Al Maxey

Issue #558 ------- December 7, 2012
In a sense, knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows:
for details are swallowed up in principles. The
habit of the active utilization of well-understood
principles is the final possession of wisdom.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

Mystery of the "Folded Napkin"
In-Depth Reflective Analysis of John 20:7

"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance" (John 20:1). As Mary and our Lord's closest disciples were about to learn: He was risen! The grave could not hold Him; He had conquered death. At first, however, Mary assumed a much different scenario, believing someone, for some unknown purpose, had removed the body of Jesus from the tomb. "She came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!'" (vs. 2). Indeed, this was one of the reasons that the tomb was sealed and under guard: the fear that the body might be stolen and some story thereafter concocted that would incite the multitudes who had followed Jesus. After He was placed in the tomb, "the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 'Sir,' they said, 'we remember that while He was still alive that deceiver said, "After three days I will rise again." So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, His disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that He has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.' 'Take a guard,' Pilate answered. 'Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.' So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard" (Matt. 27:62-66). These nefarious plans were all for naught, however. The seal was broken, the stone removed, the Redeemer raised. Nevertheless, the religious leaders, following the resurrection, "gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, 'You are to say, "His disciples came during the night and stole Him away while we were asleep." If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.' So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed" (Matt. 28:12-15).

When Peter and John (who, most scholars agree, was "the other disciple") heard the excited report of Mary Magdalene, they rushed to the tomb. John "outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there, but did not go in" (John 20:4-5). John looked into the tomb, but did not enter. The Greek word used here for "look" is blepo, "which denotes simple sight" [Dr. Alvah Hovey, An American Commentary on the NT, p. 396], as distinguished from a deeper perception of that which is seen by the eyes. In other words, John's eyes saw what was before him, but he didn't yet fully grasp "how to interpret the phenomenon" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 189]. Peter, on the other hand, when he got to the scene, went immediately into the tomb, and "he saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen" (John 20:6-7, NIV). Peter "saw" -- this is the Greek word theoreo, meaning "to gaze upon, contemplate, consider; to view with interest and attention; to come to a knowledge of" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 194]. It was a "closer and more careful, vivid, and instructive gaze" than that of John [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, pt. 2, p. 465]. John glanced at the scene; Peter gazed at it. "The bolder Peter is rewarded with bright evidence of what had happened" [Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1076]. "The change of word seems to have been intentional. Peter's survey of the tomb was more searching and exact than that of John" [Dr. Hovey, p. 396].

"Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes" (John 20:8-10). Like Peter, John now "saw" -- which resulted in belief. This is yet a third Greek word employed in this passage: eidov (a form of horao), meaning "to perceive; to observe with understanding." We see a powerful progression here from seeing to scrutinizing and contemplating to understanding, which then results in belief. Peter and John were still struggling with the events of the past few days, and their faith was not yet firm, as they still had questions and doubts, but they could not deny the reality of what was before their eyes: Jesus was not just away, He was arisen! There was something in the scene before them that convicted them of this truth: not just an empty tomb, but something to do with the burial garments, proclaimed a powerful, convincing message of resurrection. It is this I would like for us to reflect upon in this issue of Reflections. What exactly was the message of the garments they found within the tomb of our Lord that morning of the first day of the week?

With regard to the burial "clothes" of our Lord, there were two different parts. First, we find the "strips of linen" (NIV) that were used to wrap the body of Jesus. The practice at that time was to take a number of strips of cloth and wrap the body with these strips, binding it up much like a mummy. "Aromatic spices were strewn between the layers of linen, and these layers, one wound over the other, were numerous, so that all those spices could be held between them" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 1342]. This would have greatly limited the movement of the body (although few expected a dead body to actually move). We see this in the coming forth from the tomb of Lazarus. When he came out, "his hands and feet were wrapped with strips of linen, and he had a cloth around his face." Therefore, Jesus said, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go" (John 11:44). Second, as noted in the account of the resurrection of Lazarus, there was, in addition to the body wrappings, a covering for the face/head. The Greek word used for this item is soudarion, and it is used in both John 11:44 and 20:7. It denoted "a headcovering for the dead" [The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 1372]. It was a "piece of cloth, a yard or so square" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 226], that was used to wrap around the head of the deceased: a head shroud. A picture of just such a head cloth can be seen in the accompanying picture.

When Peter, and then later John, entered the tomb they found something intriguing about these burial garments: something so utterly astounding that it erased their doubts and established their faith in our Lord's resurrection from the dead. They "saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen" (John 20:7, NIV). Now, you and I, as we read this statement, may not find much to astound us. But, most translations have not really captured, in their English rendering of the text, what Peter and John were beholding and perceiving in that tomb. Indeed, in some translations, the wording is even misleading. For example, there are a few versions where the face/head wrap is referred to as a "napkin" (King James Version, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, Young's Literal Translation, New English Bible). These are major translations that have greatly influenced our religious language. Another unfortunate rendering of the Greek term is "handkerchief" (New King James Version, Darby Translation, the modern translation by J. B. Phillips, and even the version by Hugo McCord). Most versions, however, simply render the Greek term as "the wrapping" or "the cloth." The words "napkin" and "handkerchief" leave the wrong impression in our minds, and can lead to some strange interpretations (such as the "eRumor" making the rounds on the Internet in which a "folded napkin at the dinner table" is supposed to convey to a servant that the master is coming back -- well, there was no such Jewish custom in that day; such "dinner napkins" were not even used, and a number of Orthodox Jewish rabbis and scholars in Jerusalem, when questioned about this, stated they had never even heard of such a thing).

This was not a "napkin" or "handkerchief," but rather a large cloth that was wrapped around the head of the deceased. Some translators also did not serve their readers well by translating the Greek word entulisso as "folded" (New International Version, Darby Translation, English Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, New Century Version, New King James Version, New Living Translation, and a few others). Most translations have "wrapped up" or "rolled up." The Greek word entulisso only appears three times in the NT (Matt. 27:59; Luke 23:53; John 20:7). The word itself means "to roll up; to wrap together" [Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, p. 219]. "It implies that the cloth had been wound around the head into the shape of a sphere and not folded flat like a table napkin. In the NT this word is used only in the description of Jesus' entombment" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 189]. Thus, the text is actually suggesting that what Peter and John saw was NOT a "folded napkin," but rather the head shroud still in its "wrapped up" condition, only with no head in it. The same was the case with the burial linens. They were there, still "lying in place" as they had been, with the head wrap separate from the body wrap, but the body was gone.

"Unfortunately, neither the Authorized Version nor the Revised Version gives the exact translation of the Greek text. The literal rendering of the passage makes it clear that the cloth which had been placed about Christ's head before burial was discovered by the two disciples lying where His head had been, in the undisturbed form of a coiled or twisted head-wrapper ... just as if His head had somehow slipped out of it. This rendering of the passage is confirmed by the impression made upon the two disciples by what they witnessed on entering the tomb. It is said that they 'saw and believed' -- saw something, that is, which persuaded them so completely that their Master was risen from the dead that their doubts were immediately resolved" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 227]. Dr. H. A. Ironside concurs: "They saw the linen cloths just as they had been wrapped around the body, like the shell of the chrysalis after the butterfly has emerged. The cloths were there, but the body had gone!" [Addresses on the Gospel of John, p. 861]. "This means the headcloth still retained the shape that the contour of Jesus' head had given it, and that it was still separated from the other wrappings by a space that suggested the distance between the neck of the deceased and the upper chest, where the wrappings of the body would have begun" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 188].

The primary point of this physical testimony was to thwart the lie that was going to be spread abroad that the body of Jesus had been stolen (either by His disciples or unnamed others). Because guards were posted at the tomb, and the entrance was sealed, even if robbers managed to distract the guards, they would still have to snatch the body in haste and make off with it, which would not allow them time to leave the burial wrappings in such a condition. Indeed, they would most likely steal the body fully wrapped, rather than carefully unwrap it, remove the body, then rewrap the linen pieces to its previous shape, making off with a nude corpse. It wouldn't make any sense, nor would they have the time. If they did choose to remove the burial wrappings, it would have been done in haste, and the cloths would be strewn about the tomb. This was not the case. Clearly the hand of God was involved for the body to be gone and the wrappings to be preserved in this condition, and given the fact that the tomb was sealed and guarded. Peter and John took in the whole scene ... and believed! He was risen! "The grave clothes were left as if Jesus had passed right through them. The headpiece was still rolled up in the shape of a head, and it was at about the right distance from the wrappings that had enveloped Jesus' body. A grave robber couldn't possibly have made off with Jesus' body and left the linens as if they were still shaped around it" [footnote in the Life Application Bible, p. 1926]. As Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll rightly observes, in The Expositor's Greek Testament, "Had the authorities or anyone else taken the body, they would have taken it as it was" [vol. 1, p. 862]. Matthew Henry's point is well-taken: "Anyone would rather choose to carry a dead body in its clothes than naked" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].

Thus, the condition of burial garments "became the fullest proofs against the lie of the chief priests: that the body had been stolen away by the disciples. If the body had been stolen away, those who took it would not have stopped to strip the clothes from it, and to wrap them up" again [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 656]. "Peter must have been wondering why the grave clothes were left in this position if the body had been stolen. A robber would not have left them in good order. He would have stripped the body completely, leaving the clothing in a disorderly heap; or he would have taken the body, grave clothes and all" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 188]. These linen wrappings, and the condition in which they found them, convinced Peter and John "that this was no violent grave robbery or the grave clothes would have been tossed in a heap or carried off with the body. The careful arrangement impressed the sensitive apostles with the marvelous truth that their Lord had risen from the dead" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 373].

I'll let Dr. Lenski sum up what we find in this passage, and the marvelous truth it proclaimed to Peter and John ... and us: "They lay just as they had been wound about the limbs and the body, only the body was no longer in them. ... No human being wrapped round and round with bands like this could possibly slip out of them without greatly disturbing them. They would have to be unwound, or cut through, or cut and stripped off. They would thus, if removed, lie strewn around in disorder or heaped in a pile. ... If the body had been desecrated in the tomb by hostile hands, this kind of evidence would appear. But hostile hands would have carried off the body as it was, wrappings and all, to get it away as soon as possible and to abuse it later and elsewhere. But here the linen bands were. Both their presence and their undisturbed condition spoke volumes. Here, indeed, was a sign to behold. It corroborated what the women had told Peter and John on the way out to the tomb: Jesus was risen from the dead!" [The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 1342].

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

Great message, Al ("Breaking Free of Fear" -- Reflections #556). Don't you find it strange that some people place "rules" over all else, while Jesus was more concerned with our hearts, which motivate us to acts of appreciation? Our love for God for giving us the opportunity to live forever in bliss should motivate us to share the message of life with others. Isn't it sad how many are paralyzed by the "rules and regulations of group worship," while ignoring our individual responsibility to teach the lost? And many are surprised that our brotherhood is shrinking?!! Will we ever wake up?! How does one get our "leaders" to begin loving the lost? I wish I knew.

From a Reader in Missouri:

Great words on "playing it safe" (Reflections #556). The very people who use that argument may be violating their own rule by condemning what God has not. Jesus had a few words to say about those who restricted what He hasn't, and those who place needless burdens upon others. Hardly "safe," by any measure. "Playing it safe," as applied by these legalists, either germinates from, or results in, another idiom: "Ignorance is bliss." Keep it up, brother!

From a Minister in Australia:

Thanks, Al, for your study titled "The Faith and Fangs Debate" (Reflections #557). I liked it. In fact, I intend to use an excerpt or two in this Sunday's bulletin -- with the source (you) credited. Are you okay with that?

From a Reader in California:

Al, I couldn't disagree with you more on this article! Well, okay, thirty years ago, when I was shackled by legalism, that would have been my response to your article "The Faith and Fangs Debate." Good thoughts, brother. I appreciate you taking the time to address this topic. Blessings, my friend!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, it's one thing to point out the heretical nature of vampires and goblins, but the Tooth Fairy?!! Come on, man, get a life! EVERYBODY knows the Tooth Fairy is REAL. Goodness, man! The next thing you'll be talking about is Dr. Seuss and his little monkey men! (LOL) I wonder if there is any greater appeal to the imagination, and affront to reality, than saying the universe, and everything in it, was created in six 24-hour "days." Ooops!! Sorry ... sacred cow!!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

"The Faith and Fangs Debate" was an excellent article. Although I was not raised in the Church of Christ, I had some very conservative views. I can remember the first time the preacher, who baptized me, asked if I wanted to go to a movie with his wife and him on a Sunday afternoon. I was shocked! Of course, back in that day, you didn't even mow your lawn on Sunday. I can remember that going for a drive in your automobile on Sunday was considered "breaking the Sabbath" if you went too far. Traditions are wonderful, if they don't reach the level of the divine!

From a Minister in California:

It has been a long time since I have responded to a Reflections article. I found this one ("The Faith and Fangs Debate") most interesting and commendable. I'm surely with you all the way. I love to read controversial material and perspectives that differ from my own. What better way to learn how people are thinking. That doesn't mean that I buy everything I read, but I do learn a lot. The truth, as you aptly noted, is that "it seems some people are never happy unless they're attacking something or someone." And such it will always be. And here we are back to those pesky Pharisees again. It's fun to jerk their chain now and again, and I suspect Jesus may well have enjoyed having some fun at their expense now and again. I believe you did that with this one. I love it!! Carry on, bro.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

"The Faith and Fangs Debate" is a very logical, thoughtful and practical lesson long overdue for every Christian. Yes, I liked to play Bridge and do card tricks when I was a teenager (thanks to my uncle). However, my grandmother opposed cards in every form, believing them to be "tools of the devil." So, I knew better than to ever show my cards in her presence. As you noted, this was done out of love and respect for her, knowing her father succumbed to the temptation of gambling with cards (and the hurt it caused her family). Again, you have shown, with love and common sense, that Christians can enjoy life without going over the edge. Thanks for "calling a spade a spade" (wink).

From a Doctor in Kentucky:

Wonderful article, Al ("The Faith and Fangs Debate"). I could not have said it better. Oh, I so wish you were here in -------. You will get nailed by some for this -- you always do, don't you?! -- but someone has to give the reasoned reply. That would be YOU! What some don't realize is that the main characters in the Twilight series did NOT drink blood. In fact, that whole family stood out from the rest because of their refusal to drink human blood. They had a respect for human life. A very positive message of restraint and value for human life. NONE of the biblical texts some have used in an attempt to condemn the Twilight series are truly applicable to sitting in a theater watching a fantasy movie. They have to be pulled from the context to even be used as a tool to condemn anything. And those who decide to use these "out of context tools" soon find themselves in the position of facing their own inconsistencies. As you said, and this is one of the more telling lines in your article, one that reflects our churches and the individual Christians that make up these churches, "We pick and choose; condemning here, condoning there ... and the inconsistency is noted by a watching world."

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