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Is there a significance to Jesus folding the linen burial cloth after His resurrection?

I am skeptical about any interpretation of Scripture which depends entirely upon knowledge that can only be gained outside of Scripture.  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 a particular group, then you would understand the “deeper meaning” of what this text is saying.”  I am even opposed to those who say, “If you only knew the Hebrew or Greek language, then you would understand what this text is saying.”  (I majored in Hebrew in seminary, and took more than the required Greek courses.)  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.  Are they so essential to an understanding of the Bible, so that only the elite (who possess these abilities) can know what God’s Word means?  No!

The information that has come your way would 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 thus 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 same sort of reasoning takes place (in my opinion) when Jewish Christians perform the Passover Seder.  They take the rituals, orally preserved, but not recorded in Scripture, and read “deeper” meaning into them.  I believe that the remembrance of the Lord’s Table is perhaps the high point of the week for the Christian, and I don’t believe that God has left us with only oral tradition to grasp the meaning of this important celebration. 

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:

223 “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, 24 and after 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, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:23-36).

So, I would be very reluctant to make much, if anything, of this spiritualized 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.  I do not recall any 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.  Then we must wonder why this was not recorded in Scripture for all the uninitiated to understand later on.  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 burglarized 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 spiritualized interpretation that came your way.
 
The source of this story might be 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 disagreement might be addressed as follows:
  • The napkin issue was over whether the napkin was to be placed on the table or a cushion.
  • The reference to the napkin's placement was before and during the meal and not afterwards.
  • 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 signaling 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.
  • The dispute involves whether the table or the cushion was a more likely to contaminate of 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.
  • In any case, the Talmud and Mishnah have no obvious support of the custom on which this story is based.

In summary, I believe we can concluded that the circuating story about the sigificance 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.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Scripture Twisting, Cultural Issues, False Teachers