The news media has been a-buzz this week over a new book claiming that the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, is in a museum in the city of Leon, Spain. Both the research and speculation have been interesting, albeit in a Dan Brown sort of way. Less interesting has been the criticism from those who dispute the existence of this object.
No serious historian disputes that Jesus Christ lived in Judea in the 1st Century A.D. The events of the Last Supper which He celebrated with His disciples are recalled not only by the Gospel writers, but even earlier by St. Paul, in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, where he describes what he has been told about the Last Supper by the Apostles in Jerusalem. Some sort of drinking vessel was passed around the table by Jesus, and all present were invited to drink from it.
The form that vessel took is entirely open to debate, because there are no descriptions of it in the Bible, nor are we told what happened to it after the meal was over. Perhaps it was unremarkable to look at, and was just cleared away with the rest of the dirty dishes that evening. There is a famous scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy has to pick from a range of different styles of cups and chalices. Choosing the most simple version, he comments, “This looks like the cup of a carpenter,” as the basis for making his (correct) selection.
However while that assumption seems logical at first, further consideration reveals that Indy has no real basis for that assertion. Jesus and the Apostles were not at home in Galilee when they celebrated the Last Supper during Passover. Instead, they were in the upper room of someone else’s home in the city of Jerusalem. We have no way of knowing how plain or fancy the cup that He passed around was.
Admittedly, there are all kinds of fairy tales surrounding what happened to this object. In the French and English-speaking world, such stories usually involve King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. However the fact that the object became cloaked in legend, does not mean that the object itself did not exist. Nor for that matter does it mean that the object does not exist today.
There are many claimants to the title of “The” Holy Grail. My money is still on the cup currently housed in the Cathedral of Valencia, and not just because I’m half-Catalan. The central drinking cup of that chalice is an agate drinking bowl probably from Egypt, now surrounded by later, medieval mountings, and which has been dated to around 50 B.C. That seems a reasonably plausible choice for a special-occasion drinking vessel, used on Passover in the 1st century A.D., in a Near Eastern city like Jerusalem.
Of course, there’s no way to know for sure whether any one of the extant vessels claiming the title of “Holy Grail” was used by Jesus. This latest theory about the cup in Leon is simply a theory, as interesting a theory as it may be. What we do know for certain is that every time a chalice is used for the celebration of Mass, it becomes, in effect, the Holy Grail. Jesus’ gift of Himself through the institution of the Eucharist that night is far more important than the existence of any one, historical object, no matter how closely associated with Jesus that object may be.