Q: I have received various emails that purport to answer the question “Why did Jesus fold the napkin?” referring to the linen burial cloth after His resurrection (John 20:7). The “answer” is a Hebrew tradition regarding a Master and Servant including some variation of the following:
“... Now if the master was done eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers and mouth with that napkin and toss it on to 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 knew that the folded napkin meant, 'I'm not finished yet.' The folded napkin meant, 'I'm coming back!'”
Is there any truth to this supposed tradition?
A: To answer your question bluntly, there has never been such a tradition I know of where folding the napkin neatly meant that the person that did so was coming back. This is one of many so called “Jewish Roots” that has no reality in history or in any Jewish writings I have read or have known of. It would be great if some of these people would simply list their source material but when they teach these things they never seem to be able to provide the source they got it from and usually they are repeating what they heard someone else saying.
Furthermore, the outer grave clothes were “not just thrown aside” because the Bible clearly says that the grave clothes were still rolled up showing that the resurrection occurred right through the grave clothes and therefore there is not need to be unwrapped in the same way as the grave clothes of Lazarus had to be unwrapped. Both the grave clothes and the napkin were quite neat but had nothing to do with any issue of Him coming back.
He will indeed someday come back but it has nothing to do with the folded napkin.