Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Finding the Holy Grail: Part One, What was the Holy Grail?

  The Quest for the Holy Grail has captured people’s imaginations for centuries. It was the subject of the third Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In that movie, Dr. Jones locates the original Grail amidst dozens of more attractive and extravagant chalices because of his assumption that Jesus, a simple carpenter from Galilee, would not have used a cup of gold encrusted with jewels. 

The search for the Holy Grail has tended to focus on enigmatic clues contained in various medieval legends. 

But in this post I will demonstrate that key evidence from the New Testament itself and other ancient sources can tell us everything we need to know about what the original grail probably was and also where the Holy Grail may be found today. 

Now, before I go any further, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian. I actually believe in Jesus and the institution of the Eucharist, the event that created what is known as the Holy Grail. I am also a PhD scholar of ancient languages and literature. And in the interest of scholarly integrity, I will be giving you full references to everything I assert, so that you can confirm the accuracy of my claims. 

The Grail in the New Testament 

In all of the New Testament references to the cup Jesus used when he instituted the Eucharist, (the Synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and St. Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians), the object in question is called a poterion (ποτήριον; Matthew 26:27, Mark 14:23, Luke 22:17, 1 Cor 11:25). 

Now the word poterion itself tells us absolutely nothing about the shape and composition of the item in question. For instance, in Matthew 10:42, Jesus uses that word when describing a cup of cold water (ποτήριον ψυχροῦ).  This would seem to make a poterion a fairly ordinary vessel. On the other hand, the word poterion translates the Hebrew word kos in Genesis 40:11, when the cup in question was the Pharaoh of Egypt’s own drinking glass. It’s safe to assume he drank from something a bit more elegant than that cup of cold water. 

In Classical Greek itself, poterion is a relatively rare word and denotes a drinking vessel within a primarily religious context. For instance, Herodotus describes, among the religious customs of the Egyptians, that: 

They drink from cups of bronze (ek chalkeon poterion; ἐκ χαλκέων ποτηρίων), which they clean out daily;
Herototus, Histories 2.37.1 

Elsewhere Herodotus describes, among the possessions of Maeandrius: 

...cups both silver and gold (poteria argurea te kai chrusea) ; ποτήρια ἀργύρεά τε καὶ χρύσεα) 
Herototus, Histories 3.148.1 

While there did exist earthenware poteria, they were apparently for only common use and even potentially held a social stigma. Note the following quote: 

But let us pass on the subject of earthenware cups (τὰ κεράμεα ποτήρια); for Ctesias says, “Among the Persians, the one whom the King dishonors uses earthenware cups.” 
Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 11.464a 

The Poterion of Jesus 

On the night in which he was betrayed, according to the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover meal together. And during that event “Jesus took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” 
(Mark 14:23-24)

Some clues from the New Testament tell us more about what the poterion used that night was like.  First off, notice that it is apparently large enough for him to give it to 12 men and each of them to have a drink from it. Now, granted, they may have taken just a tiny sip, but, even so, this can not have been a small glass or cup. 

As I said earlier, the word poterion itself will not tell us what it was made of. But the available evidence from ancient times allows us to make a very good guess. And the first question to consider is, where did that particular poterion come from? 

Jesus had told his disciples that they would meet a man and he would lead them to “a large upper room, furnished, ready." (ἀνάγαιον μέγα ἐστρωμένον ἕτοιμον) Mark 14:15. 

This strongly implies that the poterion was already on the table when they arrived. It, along with the other dishes, was provided by whomever it was that prepared the large upper room for this Passover dinner. 

Jesus and his disciples did not celebrate a Passover Seder as we know it today. The Passover Seder evolved over time following the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the Passover Seder certainly preserves elements and traditions that would have been current in the Passover meal celebrated by Jesus. Passover implements can be earthenware, glass, or metal. But there is a strong tendency, if one’s budget allows it, to prefer the use of silver. This preference may derive from the Silver Cup (
גביע הכסף ) of the Patriarch Joseph, described in Genesis 44. The ancient preference for silver is also in keeping with the principle known as Hiddur Mitzvah, The Beautifying of the Commandment. In other words, while an earthenware vessel is permitted, a silver vessel is preferred when possible to provide the rituals with dignity. The source text supporting this idea is Exodus 15:2, zeh eli, ve-anvehu. This is my God and I will beautify him. In other words, if I have the means to fulfill the commandments and also infuse them with aesthetic beauty and dignity, I should do so. 

Description of the Grail 

My conclusion is as follows. The man who furnished and prepared that large upper room knew it was for Jesus and his disciples. And he would have furnished it with his best implements. And for the reasons I just explained, that cup was very probably made of silver. We will never know one hundred percent, but the available evidence from the New Testament and other ancient sources allows us with some confidence to describe that original poterion as a silver goblet comparable in size to a traditional Kiddush cup still used today at a Passover Seder. 

In my next post, I will demonstrate that evidence from the New Testament and other ancient sources tells us definitively where the early Church believed the Holy Grail could be found.

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