The Folded Napkin Legend

This is one of those "urban legends" we hear about now and then, such as the idea that the head of Proctor and Gamble went on Oprah to pledge his allegiance to Satanism. It goes like this:

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....

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!

Three readers had asked me about this over the period preceding Easter, so it seemed like a good idea to say a few words on it. What are the problems?

  1. It's hard to countenance the idea that a burial cloth was used as a napkin for a place setting -- or vice versa.
  2. As far as I can find, napkins as we know them were not yet invented at the time of Jesus. To wipe your hands or mouth, you used either a piece of bread or else a tablecloth. There were small cloths available, but these were used for wiping your brow.
  3. There's no evidence for any such "custom" as described. No citation is given to support that it existed, and I certainly have never seen it referenced in any scholarly work.
  4. The word used for "folded" is the same one used to describe how Joseph "folded" Jesus into his burial shroud. Rather than reflecting a neat fold, it would simply reflect that the cloth had fallen into place neatly after Jesus' resurrection (as opposed to being tossed aside somehow, as say, thieves might do).

That leaves enough questions open to say that we can take this story with a grain of salt -- table salt, most likely.

All I have left to ask then is this: Was that napkin made by Proctor and Gamble?