Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun οθονη (othone) describes an item of silky fine linen. It probably derives from the Hebrew noun אטון ('etun), which is used only once in the Bible (Proverbs 7:16) and appears to have been a generic term for a kind of costly linen that was typically Egyptian. This word in turn is thought to be a transliteration of a similar Egyptian term, but in Hebrew it also looks like it relates to the verb אטט ('atat), to whisper, and the adverb אט ('at), softly or gently.
In Homer this word occurs always in plural to describe fine clothes in general, and frequently the fineries of wealthy women, which suggests that this word described proverbial softness (as opposed to the roughness of common wool or leather). Later authors used this word to describe the sails of ships, which suggests that it also emphasized the striking visual qualities of the material: shiny white sails against the blue sea, or the gently flowing gowns of flamboyant ladies.
Ships, ladies and royalty are of course all out of reach, or should be avoided by commoners, lest the latter be made to suffer for their insolent advances. The poet Empedocles uniquely ascribed "silky linen" membranes to the eye's pupil, which appears to describe the iris, "pierced through with wondrous passages". This "apple of the eye" was also proverbial for the body's most sensitive spot, whose touch was to be diligently avoided (Psalm 17:8, Zechariah 2:8).
In the New Testament, our noun οθονη (othone) is reserved to describe the great "sheet" that Peter saw in a vision (Acts 10:11 and 11:5 only). A sheet like that would normally grace the shoulders of royalty and perhaps their furniture, but Peter's sheet contains all kinds of vile animals, which rather reminds of the gold ring in the nose of a pig (Proverbs 11:22), or superior wine served to guests who are already drunk (John 2:10).
The form of Greek in which the New Testament was written was called Koine, from the adjective κοινος (koinos), meaning common or profane, the polar opposite of αγιος (agios), which means specific, holy, refined, specialized and single-purpose. The sheet full of animals is contrasted by the empty burial wrappings of Jesus (see οθονιον, othonion, below), which in turn revisits the story of the ram that replaced Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:13).
Our English words text, technology and textile derive from the same root as the noun τεκτων (tekton), which describes Jesus' earthly profession, namely that of assembler or joiner: one who weaves or connects together (Mark 6:3). The contrast formed by Peter's big-sheet and Jesus' little-sheets also brings to mind the edible little-book held by the angel who took his stand on both land and sea (Revelation 10:2, see Jeremiah 15:16 and Ezekiel 2:8-3:3). This reminds both of the sand on the sea shore (Genesis 22:17) and the name Javan, which means Mud (and is the Hebrew name for Greece).
The sheet's four corners, like the earth's four corners, make it an altar (compare Exodus 20:24-25 and 1 Kings 6:7 to Ezekiel 43:15, Daniel 8:8 and Zechariah 1:18). The gathering of animals obviously relates to Noah's Ark first, and then to Adam's naming of the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). As we discuss in our article on κοσμος (kosmos), meaning world, from certain angles, these stories are also about the formation of human consciousness, language and the alphabet (see our article on YHWH).
From this noun derives:
- The noun οθονιον (othonion), which is a diminutive of the previous and so means little item of linen: a piece of cloth. In the classics, this word was also used to describe bandages, but our word's pedigree strongly suggests that these bandages had originated as flags or markers to indicate a sore spot, and potentially a source of contagion; in either case, a spot to be avoided.
In the New Testament, our word occurs solely to describe the wrappings of dead people, who obviously don't need bandages, but have become unclean and can't be touched (Numbers 19:11, Leviticus 5:2). Dead people's wrappings warned the living, but also allowed a mourner to touch or embrace his loved one without actually touching a corpse.
Our noun occurs 5 times, see full concordance, and only in descriptions of Jesus' burial wrappings. Both Luke and John emphasize that Peter found Jesus' wrappings without Jesus in them, which suggests that Jesus was now walking around as wholly naked as Adam and Eve once had (Genesis 3:10-11), and could thus in theory be wholly touched if he could only be found. This story also clearly connects Jesus' empty tomb with the sheet full of animals, which Peter would later see in his vision: see οθονη (othone), above.