Jesus died on the cross on Friday at 3 p.m. The Jewish holy day of the Sabbath would begin in three hours. Jewish law forbade the washing of a dead body on the Sabbath.
Moreover, the bodies of those executed by crucifixion had to
be buried on the same day. They could not remain on the cross
overnight. Thus, when Jesus died, there remained but three hours
in which to prepare and carry out His burial.
Before this could be done, Joseph of Arimathea had to go to the
fortress of Antonia, secure Pilate’s permission to take
Jesus’ body, and then return to Golgotha with the Roman
centurion, whose duty it was to certify Jesus’ death. There
would be no time to wash the body. The process would take too
long if performed according to the complex rules of the law. The
burial had to take place before the start of the Sabbath.
The Gospel tells us that in this Joseph of Arimathea was aided
by Nicodemus, who brought with him about one hundred pounds of
myrrh and aloe. They took the body of Christ and wrapped it in
linen cloths with the spices, as required by the Jewish burial
custom. “Now in the place where he was crucified there was
a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been
laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb
was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.” (Jn. 19:41-42)
Early in the morning of the first day after the Sabbath (Sunday),
the apostles Peter and John learned from Mary Magdalene that Jesus’
body was no longer in the grave. They ran to the tomb, but John
reached it first. On bending down, he saw the linen cloths lying
on the ground, but he did not go inside. Then Simon approached
the tomb. He entered and saw the cloths and the napkin which had
wrapped His head. It was not lying with the linen cloths but “rolled
up in a place by itself”. Then the disciple, who had reached
the tomb first, also entered the tomb. “He saw and he believed.”
(Jn. 20: 3-8)
John believed in the Resurrection the moment he saw the cloths
in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped. The cloths were intact.
Their disposition indicated that nobody could have unwrapped and
removed the body, and that the body had, in some mysterious way,
“passed through” the material.
The evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus’
body was wrapped in a linen cloth (sindon). Luke claims that Peter
saw “cloths” (othonia) in the tomb, but he does not
mention the napkin. John, on the other hand, mentions “cloths”
(othonia) and the “wrapping” (enteligmenon) which
had covered Jesus’ body. Thus, there were in the tomb cloths
of unspecified use as well as a napkin (in Greek: soudarion).
According to Italian scientist Gino Zaninotti, the Greek term
“soudarion” comes from the Aramaic word “sodara”,
which denotes a “linen cloth” of various uses and
sizes. Jesus’ body was wrapped in a length of cloth (or
napkin) over 4 yards long and 1 yard wide. This napkin (“sodara”)
covered the head and the whole body. One half of it lay under
the body, while the other half was wrapped over the top of it.
The body, thus covered, was also bound by two strips of cloth
running perpendicular to the main “sodara”. The head
and the feet were not covered by the perpendicular strips.
After the resurrected body “passed through” the burial
cloths, they fell to the ground, for there was nothing to support
them. Only the napkin (“sodara”), which had covered
the entire body, kept its shape because the dried blood and sweat
had stiffened it, and also because it was separate from the perpendicular
strips. Thus, Professor Zaninotti makes sense of that obscure
sentence in John’s account of the Resurrection: “Simon
Peter [having entered the tomb] saw the napkin (‘sodara’),
which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but
rolled up in a place by itself” (Jn 20:7).
The sight of the those burial cloths, from which Jesus’
body had mysteriously “vanished”, was compelling enough
to enable John to believe in the Resurrection, even though he
had not yet seen the resurrected Christ.