The Shroud of Jesus in the New Testament
To describe the shroud as a burial cloth, the Evangelists used two terms: ἡ σινδών and τό ὀθόνιον. These are not precise. In Greek, the former means a thin linen or cotton cloth; also, a garment of such fabric, a sail, a banner or figuratively a veil. The second term meant a piece of linen, a linen shawl, linen towels, robes and even bandages. In John’s Gospel, in the description of the arrival of the disciples at the empty tomb, another third term appears: τό σουδάριον, which is translated as sudarium, shawl, bandage, cloth. The term mentioned as first (σινδών) occurs only 10 times in the entire Greek Bible. In the Septuagint it does not refer to burial cloth. It occurs three times in the Book of Judges. This book, which is also a part of the Septuagint, is taken from either the Alexandrian Codex (A) or the Vatican Codex (B). In (A), the term is used twice (Judg 14:12.13) while in (B)—once (Judg 14:12). In this book, σινδών describes the fine thin linen from which tunics were sewn. Samson promised to give it to the one who would solve the riddle posed at the wedding feast with the Philistine woman. He warned, however, that if none of the revellers succeeded, the Philistines would have to give him 30 such garments (this is the second occurrence of the term—Judg 14:13). On the third occasion, σινδών appears in the Book of Proverbs to denote linen cloth made by a brave woman (Prov 31:24).
In the canonical Gospels, the term σινδών occurs six times. It does not always mean the burial cloth made of linen with which Jesus was wrapped for burial. Two occurrences of the word in St Mark’s Gospel refer to the sheet with which a certain young man (presumably the evangelist himself) was wrapped, following those who had captured Jesus in the Garden of Olives (Mark 14:51.52). He may have wanted to know where they would lead the captured Master of Nazareth. Only four occurrences of the term refer to the linen cloth used during Jesus’ burial. In the following chapter, the term occurs twice. First, when the evangelist reports that Joseph of Arimathea purchased the linen cloth, and then when he wrapped Jesus’ body in it (the shroud) and laid it in the tomb (Mark 15:46). Craig A. Evans believes that this was standard funeral procedure in Jerusalem at the time. In Matthew’s Gospel the use of the term σινδών is combined with the term καθαρᾷ, i.e. clean (Matt 27:59). The above-mentioned scholar believes that the remark that the shroud was clean was intended to mitigate the disgrace of Jesus’ ignominious death, or to show the contrast that such a burial was not given to the two villains crucified with Christ. Donald A. Hagner posits that the term “clean shroud” can mean a white shroud, exactly the kind of shroud usually used for burying the dead. This cleanliness or purity, however, should be understood somewhat differently. Krzysztof Pilarczyk points out that “pure” means “unmixed” or pure in the ritual sense: woven on a loom on which only fabrics of plant origin are woven. We are therefore talking about purity in a spiritual and religious sense. The phrase used by Matthew σινδόνι καθαρᾷ belongs to the priestly tradition and also occurs in the Mishnah. The last occurrence of the term σινδών is found in the Gospel according to Luke, which describes that Joseph asked Pilate if he could remove Jesus’ body from the cross and place it in the tomb. Having obtained permission, he wrapped the dead man and laid him in a tomb carved in the rock, where no one had yet been buried (Luke 23:53).
The descriptions of Jesus’ burial are very sparse. The Evangelists imply that the death occurred at the ninth hour of the day (by modern reckoning this corresponds to 3 p.m.). Sunset in late March/early April in Jerusalem occurs around 6 p.m. This is when the day of preparation ended, and the Passover celebrations began. In view of this, Joseph of Arimathea and his companions had only three hours to bury Jesus’ body. According to St Mark’s account, Joseph purchased linen and wrapped the body in it (Mark 14:51). Francis Mickiewicz states that there were three pieces of linen: the shroud, the bands to bind it, and the headscarf. The term “three pieces of linen” is inaccurate because it refers to the bands, of which there may have been a few. It seems more appropriate to use the second term mentioned in the introduction—and always in the plural—ὀθόνιον, or ‘linen.’ It is this word that is used by the Evangelists to refer to the shroud. It is found eight times in the Bible and each time in the plural. This is why it is not translated as shroud, but as linen or linen cloths. In the Septuagint, ὀθόνιον turns up twice: once in the parallel section of the Book of Judges and five times in the New Testament. The word is used twice in the Book of Hosea (2, 7.11) to describe the linen that an unfaithful woman received from her lovers. In verse 2:7, it is mentioned alongside wool, oil and drink among the gifts given by the lovers to this woman. In verse 2:11, the word means flax and wool taken by God from the unfaithful woman to cover her nakedness.
The term ὀθόνιον appears five times in the New Testament. It is used once by Luke (Luke 24:12) and four times by John (John 19:40; John 20:5.6.7). All the occurrences in this part of the Bible refer to the linen used for Christ’s burial. John in 19:40 describes the burial of Jesus, while Luke 24:12 and John 20:5.6.7 refer to post-resurrection events and depict the linen that the disciples saw when they arrived at the empty tomb.
The third term, σουδάριον, occurs four times throughout the Greek Bible and only in the New Testament. In St Luke’s Gospel, it is used in the sense of the sling in which a servant in Jesus’ parable wrapped the money (mine) received from his master (Luke 19:20). In St John’s Gospel it appears twice: the first time to describe the veil with which Lazarus’ head was girded as he emerged from the tomb after Jesus raised him (John 11:44), and the second time to describe what Peter saw in the empty tomb after the Saviour’s resurrection: [he saw] he cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place (John 20:7). Stanisław Mędala assumes that the arrangement of the things that Peter saw testifies to the fact that Christ had indeed risen from the dead and had not been stolen away and, moreover, the resurrection was not merely spiritual, for then the headscarf would have been in its place together with the linen. The fourth occurrence of the term σουδάριον is found in The Acts, in the description of St Paul’s activity in Ephesus, when miracles so great were performed there through his mediation that even when he applied the cloth that he wore to the sick, their health was restored (Acts 19:12).
An exegetical study of the Greek term σουδάριον leads to the conclusion that it is a transcription of the Latin term “sudarium” denoting “handkerchief,” i.e. a piece of cloth used to wipe away perspiration. This is the sense in which the term is used in Luke 19:20 and Acts 19:12. It has not been possible, however, to find in any document earlier than St John’s Gospel that someone used this type of handkerchief at the burial of the deceased. The Talmud prescribes that the head of the deceased be covered. This was also indicated by John when describing the resurrected Lazarus, who had a σουδάριον on his head (John 11:44). Yves Simoens argues that the σουδάριον was used to support the chin so that the mouth of the deceased would not remain open (cf. →Jewish Burial Customs and the Shroud). The biblical scholar Xavier Léon-Dufour, on the other hand, argues that σουδάριον comes from the Aramaic sûdārā, which meant a larger piece of cloth, sash or turban. In the Jerusalem Targum to Exod 34:33–35, this term was used to describe the veil with which Moses covered his radiant face as he descended from Sinai. Therefore, some scholars conclude that the σουδάριον used by John means the same as the σινδών used by the Synoptic Gospels: in this sense it would describe a shroud, a sheet.
The terms found in the Gospels to describe the burial cloths at Jesus’ burial (σινδών and ὀθόνιον) were not used at random; rather, they were chosen very precisely. Josephus Flavius, in reference to the construction of the Holy Tent as a portable dwelling of God, used the term σινδών to describe the linens that covered this portable temple (Ant. III, 110–113). In the same work, the historian used the term discussed here to describe the ceremonial vestments of the priests performing liturgical functions (Ant. III, 153). For Christians of Judaic origin, the word was clearly associated with the high priest’s robe, which he wore when performing liturgical rites after performing the prescribed rites of purification from all sins. The John the Evangelist, on the other hand, in using the term ὀθόνιον, refers to the precious material called “the linen of the king.” In this way, he emphasises the royal nature of Jesus’ sacrifice and his royal burial.
The three terms used by the evangelists to describe burial linen were chosen carefully. They represent a code that was intelligible to people living in the 1st century after Christ in the Jewish milieu; for modern people its meaning is mostly lost.
Many biblical scholars and historians are troubled by the fact that nowhere in the New Testament are there any direct references to the shroud. Larry Stalley is puzzled as to whether the lack of such references is due to the shroud being a later forgery or, on the contrary, whether it was a great treasure for first-century Christians, which they were afraid to write about during the persecution so as not to lose it. In support of his thesis, he cites four biblical texts that may be subtle allusions to the shroud. The first is found in two Synoptics:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you. “He said to them in reply, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here. At the judgment the queen of the south will arise with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here.”(Matt 12:38–42; Luke 11:16.29–32)
The researcher develops this theme by showing how the shroud could be this sign of Jonah foretold by Jesus. He concludes that just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the bowels of a fish, so Jesus was laid in the tomb. Having risen from the dead, he left a sign that provides important confirmation of the Jonah-Jesus typology. In his view, a careful analysis of the texts can give quite important indications identifying the shroud as this sign of Jonah. A second passage indicating that a shroud with traces of Jesus’ passion was known in the 1st century is the following passage from the Letter to the Galatians: O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? (Gal 3:1). This text can be applied to Paul’s teaching. Its effectiveness may have been enhanced by the fact that he showed the Galatians the shroud with the image of Jesus with the marks of his passion. (Stalley, pp. 9–8). The third text is taken by the same scholar from the Letter to the Hebrews: But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption (Heb 9:11–12). Larry Stalley compares the linen of the shroud with the linen of the Tabernacle of the Lord and with the high priest’s vestments. He shows that the typology in the Hebrews corresponds to the truth: what we see on earth is only a picture of what is in heaven. Visible things are a type of spiritual realities. He emphasises that Jesus’ burial cloth has three characteristics corresponding to the high priest’s robe: 1) it was made of fine linen; 2) it was sanctified with sacrificial blood; 3) it was woven with the same weave as the priest’s robe.
The last of the texts that L. Stalley counts as a veiled message attesting to the possession of the Shroud by first-century Christians, treated as a great sanctity and testimony to Christ’s passion, is 1 John 5:5–13, where four verses are most relevant to his argument:
This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood. The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is truth. So, there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are of one accord. If we accept the human testimony, the testimony of God is surely greater. Now the testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son.(1 John 5:6–9)
He notes that God revealed His Son in Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan. During the Passion, Jesus shed His blood for the remission of sins. Reminiscences to these two images of water and blood were given by St John the Evangelist when he testified that blood and water flowed from Jesus’ pierced side. However, these events took place many years before 1 John was written. So why does the author use the present tense in 1 John 5:8–9? L. Stalley believes that the fact that God gave witness to the water and the Blood, here and now, may be a veiled indication that John—the author of the letter—was writing about a Shroud on which the marks of Jesus’ passion were visible, and the addressees could become convinced of Christ’s redemptive passion by looking at the Shroud here and now (at the time of the writing of 1 John).
In addition to these four veiled testimonies to the existence of the Shroud in the community of the first-century Church, Larry Stalley views another text of a similar nature. He analyses the Transfiguration in the wording of Matt 17:1–9. For him, the key point is Jesus’ command given to the witnesses of this event not to tell the story of the Transfiguration until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Why such a strange command? Is it just because the other disciples would not understand and appreciate His message? He states that the reason for this strange prohibition is different. Only after the resurrection would the disciples have a visible trace of Jesus’ passion and death left on the cloth. The Shroud itself in the community of the Church was seen as the sacred tent in which the divine Son was present (cf. Heb 9:11–12). Therefore, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter wants to build tents, but the glory of the Lord shielded them in the form of a cloud and into this spiritual “tent” Moses and Elijah could not enter, only Jesus remained. L. Stalley surmises that the motif of the shroud understood as the Tabernacle of the Lord is one of the important theological concepts of the early Church. It is the shining white robes of Jesus that are significant in the description of the Transfiguration. This points to His high priestly office. It has already been pointed out above that the shroud is also a garment of this kind, as it is woven from the same fine linen as the high priest’s robes.
Arguably, further analysis will reveal more testimony to the fact that the community of the Church in the 1st century possessed the Shroud and regarded it as the greatest treasure attesting to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
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Sources of Images
1. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_wrapping_-_g.battista.JPG (public domain)
2. Fragment of the exhibition “Who is the Man from the Shroud?” at the John Paul II Centre in Krakow. Collection and ownership of the Polish Syndonological Centre in Krakow