The word “sudarium” doesn't appear in the translations of the Bible into English, although it appears in the dictionaries of this language. It is a Latin word, used for a cloth to dry perspiration in the face, and is translated into “napkin” or “handkerchief” in most of the English Bibles.
In the Greek text of the New Testament, the cloth placed around the head of the Lord Jesus when He was placed in the tomb, and was left by Him when resurrecting, not “lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself” (John 20:7) is called “soudarion”.
The simple description made by John has intrigued a lot of people through time, he having been an eyewitness, the “other disciple” in his report, and he declares in the following verse that he saw and believed. We know that he saw, but why did he believe when he saw that scene inside of the tomb? Would there be some special significance in the disposition of the sudarium, which he doesn't explain?
The fact that no other reference is made in the Bible to the cloths left by the Lord in the grave, has allowed the appearance of legends, particularly in the Middle Ages, in which special value is given to two pieces of cloth, spotted with blood, that are said to be the same ones, with spiritual and healing virtues. They have been kept as relics until now, known as the shrouds of Turin and of Oviedo.
Recently a supposed explanation was circulated amongst us, according to which the fact that the sudarion was found folded together in a place by itself, would be an illustration of Christ's temporary absence that had been understood by John. Among the Jews it would be customary for a person at a dining table to leave his napkin folded by his plate during a temporary absence, so that his plate was not removed. In some translations into English sudarion is translated into napkin, explaining the parallel, but those disciples didn't use this language…
Without needing to stretch out the imagination so much, there is another theory that is still accepted and taught: that the Lord Jesus, when resurrecting with a transformed and glorious body, in heavenly garments, was careful to arrange the cloths properly to give us an example of order, without hurrying to leave the grave. John would have noticed the Master's characteristics which he knew so well, and had no more doubts that He had risen again.
How many times, through lack of attention, do we make up suppositions giving free rein to fancy, on biblical facts that seem intriguing to us. If a supposition seems to be probable, we spread it around. This is how some of them, scraped and polished, eventually enter folklore as if they were right and proven facts.
However, we find in John's report all the reality, without need for conjectures:
The unequivocal proof of the resurrection: the disposition of the linen cloths and sudarium was exactly as it would be if they were suddenly emptied of the body inside them, which was transformed into a substance unknown by us, something material and at the same time ethereal with which the Lord Jesus appeared to His disciples later. The cloths (of linen imbibed with a hundred pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes, a gum that sealed the fabric) and the sudarium remained exactly as they were before, wrapped and separate but flat and empty. If the body had been taken by the disciples (or others) while the soldiers slept, as the priests divulged, it would be most unlikely that they undressed it first, and, even if they had, the cloths would hardly have been arranged properly again as they were found. Nor would it make sense, because they would be in a great hurry so as to avoid being caught in the act.
The reality that the apostles saw: John says that as yet they (the disciples, Peter and John) did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. They were not credulous or naive, much on the contrary, they often demonstrated their incredulity. They loved their Master, and agreed that He was the Messiah, but they didn't take a lot of things seriously, including the need for His death and much less still His resurrection. But now, seeing the empty grave and the cloths there still intact where the body had lain, John had faith in the resurrection, without yet having seen the resurrected Messiah.
The importance of not only seeing, but also of noticing and understanding, and so knowing. In the Greek original this is clearer, because three different words are used in verses 5 to 8, all translated as "seeing" in English:
When John stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there, the word is noticed and understood. He made an inspection, and he noticed.
Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, the Greek word is theomai (origin of our theater), so he simply looked at the show before him, without giving bill of his/her meaning.
When John went in also, he saw and believed. It means that he knew, so he knew and believed.
Peter only looked, and he didn't notice to understand, to know and finally to believe. It became necessary for the Lord Jesus to appear personally before him shortly after in order for him to believe.
Let us always follow the example of John as we study the Word of God. It just is not enough to read, it is necessary to notice what it is about, to understand the message and, knowing it, to have faith in its teaching. Let us not stray into useless conjectures.