Understanding the customs of first-century Israel can help believers and skeptics understand the biblical account. We can miss the significance of simple things in the Bible by not knowing the customs of that time. One of those is the folded napkin.
In John 20:3-9, Peter came to the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed. As he entered the tomb, he saw strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. “The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen” (verse 6).
In the days of Jesus, Hebrew tradition required that when the dinner table was set for the master, the servant or host would wait until the master finished his meal. The servant or host would not touch anything until they were sure the master was done. The master would indicate that by taking the napkin, wiping his fingers and mouth, and cleaning his beard. He would then wad up the soiled napkin and toss it on the table. The wadded napkin meant, “I’m done.” The host or servant could then clear the table.
If the master got up from the table to relieve himself or to greet a guest, he would fold the napkin and lay it beside his plate. The folded napkin meant, “I am coming back, don’t touch anything.” This custom was carefully followed and well-known in Jesus’ day.
The fact that the napkin that had been around Jesus’ head was folded left a clear message to Peter, “I’m coming back.” Peter was still struggling with the events of the crucifixion (see verse 9), but he couldn’t miss the clear symbol of the folded napkin. The fact that John mentions it shows its importance. This is just one example of how much we miss if we don’t understand the customs that surrounded the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
— John N. Clayton © 2023