Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Napkin Myth is going around again....grrr

The email you get will say

Why Did JESUS Fold the Napkin? 

And it claims:

'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."

That much of the claims about the "napkin" are true. But that's all.


It further claims:
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 were 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 finished.."

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!"

No, the story is not true. It's fluffy and nice sounding, but not a bit about the napkin is true except that the burial head covering, τὸ σουδάριον, [translated with the unfortunate word "napkin"] was found folded separately from the rest of the burial clothes.

There is no recorded tradition about folding an eating cloth. The originator of this may have meant well, but he or she lied--er, made it up, er--fabricated the story out of whole cloth along with the fake tradition.

What is funny is that while the word "napkin" has to do with an eating towel or paper in American English, the British, Aussies, and New Zealanders usually use the word for what we call diapers. In previous generations the Brits and their cousins used the word "napkin" for a head covering and handkerchief, and further back for a small table-cloth. This last bit is where American English diverged and kept the implication of a cloth used at the table.

The Greek word τὸ σουδάριον, according to my Liddell and Scott (Abridged) means a "face cloth" and was used to wipe sweat away or to cover a dead person's face.

It only is used in 4 passages:


Luke 19:20 where in Jesus' parable an unfaithful servant hides his talent in a piece of cloth.

John 11:44 about Lazarus' grave coverings: 44 He that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave-clothes; and his face was bound about with a "napkin." Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.

John 20:7 --the verse in this internet rumor.

and Acts 19:12 where people would touch Paul with small pieces of cloth in hopes of a miracle.

The nearest thing I can find in Greek to our table "napkin" is
ἀπομαγδαλία ἀπομάσσω

the crumb or inside of the loaf, on which the Greeks wiped their hands at dinner, and then threw it to the dogs, dog's meat, Ar.

Liddell and Scott. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1889.
But that word is not used in the New Testament.

The Romans used a cloth for wiping up sweat. They borrowed the Greek word τὸ σουδάριον into Latin as sudarium. But that wasn't ever used as a word for the cloth covering a face at burial.

The etymology is this:
SUDARIUM a linen handkerchief, carried in the hand or in the sinus, answering to our pocket-handkerchief, but primarily intended, as the word implies, to wipe the sweat from the brow or face (Quint. Inst. 6.3, 60; 11.3, 148). It was a comparatively modern introduction, when fine linen came into use at Rome, which may be placed in the time of Cicero (Cic. Ver. 5.56, 146; Hehn, Kulturpflanzen, 146): with this agree the mention of the sudarium being used by Vatinius (Quintil. l.c.) and the sudaria Saetaba (of Spanish linen) spoken of by Catullus (12, 14; 25, 7). The word is borrowed by Hellenistic writers as σουδάριον (Luke 19.20), for which Pollux (7.71) says that the older names were ἡμιτύβιον (Aristoph. Pl. 729) and καψιδρώτιον. The later name at Rome was orarium (Vopisc. Aurel. 48), and other less common names are found, such as facitergium, manupiarium.
Besides its use for wiping the face, it was worn round the neck (Petron. 67; Suet. Nero 51), and was in the later period (as orarium) waved in the circus to signify applause (Vopisc. l.c., cf. κατασείειν ταὶς ὀθόναις ἐν θεάτροις: Euseb. Hist. Eccl. 7.30), for which the lappet of the toga had formerly served (Ov. Am. 3.2, 74). Göll (Becker-Göll, Gallus, 3.268) denies that it was used to wipe the nose, which operation, he says, was performed in “the most primitive fashion.” It is difficult to prove or disprove this as a universal rule; and the passage which he cites from Mart. 7.37 is capable of either interpretation. The word emungo may imply the use of a handkerchief or the hand alone, the latter probably in Plautus, and certainly in Anth. Pal. 7.134, D. L. 4.46: but it may be questioned whether the use of the pocket-handkerchief was not coming in under the Empire, and the passage in Auct. ad Herenn. 4.54, 67, seems to imply this even for the late Republic: that it was so in the time of Arnobius is clear from the etymology of the word mucinium, which (2.23) he uses as=orarium.
Basically, none of these were "table napkins."

Please don't pass this myth around. Focus on what God's Word says, Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! We don't need to follow any cleverly invented myths made by men. God's Word is sufficient.

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