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April 2, 2024

The Folded Cloth in the Empty Tomb

The Bible cannot be read like a novel. Often buried in the text are little nuggets that shed a whole new light on the narrative.

By Mark W. Fowler

“[Simon Peter] saw the strips of linen lying there as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded upon by itself separate from the linen.” —John 20:7 (NIV Study Bible)

The astute reader knows that the Bible cannot be read like a novel. It must be read with thoughtfulness and deliberation. Often buried in the text are little nuggets that shed a whole new light on the narrative.

Consider that the most momentous event in history — the Resurrection of Christ — would first be witnessed by Mary Magdalene. As a woman, Mary’s word in court and in matters of dispute was less reliable than a man’s. Christ had commanded seven demons to come out of her. Demon possession would have been a serious challenge to her credibility. Finally, she was from Magdala, a place so debauched that its collapse was attributed to licentiousness. There was every reason not to believe her if you were looking for one.

God has frequently come from unexpected places. He had done this before. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” was said of Jesus. And yet, it was Mary who had the honor of first learning that the tomb was empty. This play on circumstances makes one smile. Of all the people we might predict to have that honor, Mary would not likely be on the short list, and yet, here she is. Those who say the Bible is sexist overlook the significance of this.

Jesus’s preaching, teaching, healing, and followers posed a threat to the status quo. It was imperative that this threat be eliminated. Thus, crucifixion must be used to definitively end the movement and the threat. No true king would be killed in this fashion. The authorities ordered the tomb sealed, and guards were placed at the entry to ensure that the body was not stolen. If the body were to come up missing, those who opposed Jesus supposed the disciples would claim He was still alive. As it turned out, even His disciples were initially skeptical.

Mary, arriving first, found an empty tomb. She returned to the other disciples to report this and what she claimed was so nonsensical that none of the other disciples believed her. They went to look for themselves.

It is recorded in John that Simon Peter found the linen burial cloth, including the cloth that had been placed on his head, folded by itself. This detail, as minor as it seems, is of such importance that it puts the entire story in context. In John’s singular account of Jesus’s raising Lazarus from the dead, John specifically mentions that Lazarus came out still in burial cloths.

The fact that the face cloth was undisturbed, or folded neatly and not in disarray, suggests that the body was not stolen (indeed, that cloth was present suggests the same. What grave-robber takes time to remove burial cloths?) This detail, a seemingly insignificant incidental fact, lends the story a degree of credibility. It could and most likely was used to contradict the tale told by the soldiers who were bribed to say the disciples stole the body. It is the kind of thing a detective would use to unravel a lie.

Easter 2024 has come and gone. But the question posed by Easter and its story remains. What is your answer to the most significant question in human history?

Mark W. Fowler is a board-certified physician and former attorney. He can be reached at [email protected].

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