What is going on with Jesus’ grave-clothes in John 20?

Here's an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee in 2012.
Here’s an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee in 2012.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, John 20:1-18 sounds like authentic eyewitness testimony. (Keep in mind: critical scholars often speak as if the author of the Fourth Gospel, who isn’t John, they insist, has little interest in historical truth.) This scripture includes oddly specific details, like the footrace between John, the “beloved disciple,” and Peter, for instance, which serve no purpose other than to describe what happened as accurately as possible.

The details about the order in which the two disciples enter the tomb and see the grave-clothes strike me this way, too.

In fact, I read something last week about these grave-clothes that I had never considered before. Don Carson puts it like this in his commentary:

The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Clearly, John perceives these details to be important, but their exact meaning is disputed. Some have thought that the burial cloth still retained the shape of Jesus’ head, and was separated from the strips of linen by a distance equivalent to the length of Jesus’ neck. Others have suggested that owing to the mix of spices separating the layers, even the strips of linen retained the shape they had when Jesus’ body filled them out. Both of these suggestions say more than the text requires. What seems clearest is the contrast with the resurrection of Lazarus (11:44). Lazarus came from the tomb wearing his grave-clothes, the additional burial cloth still wrapped around his head. Jesus’ resurrection body apparently passed through his grave-clothes, spices and all, in much the same way that he later appeared in a locked room (vv. 19, 26).[1]

Jesus passed through the grave-clothes! That makes perfect sense! John would have remembered Lazarus staggering out of the tomb, struggling to remove his linen cloths—and only able to with help. Jesus, by contrast, who has conquered death in a way that Lazarus didn’t (he lived only to die again some day), can miraculously leave them behind.

At least a few scholars I read last week, along with preacher John Piper, all endorse this idea.

As excited as I was to consider this, the study notes in the ESV Study Bible shot it down:

Though it is sometimes suggested otherwise, nothing in the text indicates that Jesus’ body passed through the cloths or that the cloths were lying in the shape of Jesus’ body. The NT elsewhere affirms the real physical materiality of Jesus’ resurrection body (see Matt. 28:9Luke 24:30, 39, 42John 20:17, 20, 27Acts 10:41). Most likely Jesus unwrapped these cloths from his body when he awakened from death and left them behind.

I disagree: First, Jesus’ “real physical materiality” isn’t in question here. Jesus is physical, but he’s more than physical as we understand it. That’s why, as Carson says, Jesus can seemingly walk through locked doors in John 20 and—I would add—vanish from sight, as in the Emmaus story in Luke 24.

Also, the idea that Jesus would miraculously pass through the cloths makes better sense of the fact that John comes to faith, not after seeing that the tomb was empty, but after seeing the grave-clothes inside the empty tomb. Something about what he saw inside was remarkable. If John had merely seen that Jesus had unwrapped the cloths, would it have had the same effect?

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MD: Eerdmans, 1991), 637.

3 thoughts on “What is going on with Jesus’ grave-clothes in John 20?”

  1. what, resurrection not good enough for some people? while I agree with your retelling the supposition of passing thru being more likely than unwrapping, does it matter? HE ROSE from a verified dead state, Romans killed for keeps, to a living state. while still a physical being, a resurrected state would have to be way different. it is telling that head covering was folded, not just heaped. was Jesus a neat freak? couldn’t just leave it, could He? pick up you socks too, Jesus. put them in the hamper. all the way in.

    1. Regardless, I’m sure the contrast with the way Lazarus emerged from the tomb is deliberate on John’s part. I was excited to get a possible explanation for John’s response to the grave-clothes and head covering.

  2. He couldn’t have unwrapped himself. That’s the point. Just as Lasurus could not. It would be impossible for Lazarus to come out on his own accord.

    The manner of binding and wrapping made it impossible to do so. We are talking 100 lbs of myrrh and aloes. This would likely produce a cast when interlaced with strips of linen.
    The three Greek words for glance, look, saw(knew) as Peter and John arrived at the tomb are interesting.

    The angel also told them to look specifically “where he lay”
    Matthew 28.

    John saw(comprehended) and was the first to believe.

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