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Monday, April 7, 2014

Spain’s New ‘Holy Grail’: Jesus Couldn’t Afford That Kind of Bling


Two historians claim they’ve identified the legendary cup—a relic made of gold and precious stones. But where’d a poor carpenter get that kind of money?

This week news emerged that two Spanish historians have identified the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank the night before he died. And wouldn’t you know it, they found the darned thing right before Easter, too! This is more than just your average Christian relic. According to some later legends, it was also used to catch the blood that flowed from his side at the crucifixion and bestows immortality on those who drank from it.

The cup was “discovered” at a museum—on display—at the San Isidro Basilica León in northwestern Spain by Margarita Torres and José Manuel Ortega del Rio, who published the results of their study in the recently released book Kings of the Grail.
So it was in a museum this whole time? How convenient. No tombs? No Nazis? I guess it doesn’t always have to be snakes. Indiana Jones must be pissed.
Or he would be if this were actually the Grail.

The first problem here is the cup’s provenance. The historians involved have traced the cup back to King Fernando I of Spain (1037-1065). According to a manuscript found at the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the cup of Christ was a peace offering given to Fernando by the emir of a Muslim kingdom in medieval Spain. The emir had apparently received the cup as a gift for his assistance during a famine in Egypt.
Jesus may be, as the book’s title implies, a religious “king,” but he didn’t have the personal resources of a Roman emperor or Russian oligarch.
The difficulty? The documents claiming that the cup came from Jerusalem were written in 1037 CE, more than a thousand years after the object that they verify. Before that the trail runs cold. More important, the 11th century was the height of the relic trade, a period in which every nobleman, monarch, and bishop was willing to pay top dollar for religious relics associated with Jesus.
You don’t have to be an economist to know either that demand creates supply or that high value objects are particularly susceptible to forgery. There were hundreds of cups claiming to be the Holy Grail during this period, and the savvy relic trader was not above forging a letter as a guarantee of authenticity to set his product apart. As far as credibility goes, they may as well have picked this up on eBay.

Arguably the bigger issue is the cup’s appearance. As any fan of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade knows, Jesus would have used a simple carpenter’s cup. Like all dramatic reenactments, Indiana Jones has some minor historical flaws, but it certainly got that right. Archeological excavations have yielded many examples of ancient Israelite cups and they are made of cheap durable fabrics.

By contrast this cup is made of gold, onyx, precious stones, and the stone agate. The cup was welded together from two other goblets and the top agate part is, according to the historians, the portion that originally belonged to Jesus. The jewels are later additions. Immortality-bequeathing chalices didn’t cut it in the medieval period, apparently; it needed to be bling.

Even if you strip off the precious metals the cup is still too fancy. Agate was widely used to carve high-value objects like signets and cylinder seals in the ancient Near East. The historian Pliny the Elder describes owning agate cups as a sign of wealth and luxury. The imperial biographer Suetonius tells us that, of all of the riches of Alexandria, the emperor Augustus kept only a single agate cup. The emperor Nero—known for his debauchery apparently collected the things. 
In 66 C.E., when one of Nero’s contemporaries, Petronius, realized that he was about to be executed by the emperor and planned to commit suicide, his final act was to smash an agate ladle worth 300,000 sesterces rather than allow Nero to get his hands on it. To put that in perspective: male laborers living in Republican Rome made about 3 sesterces a day. While agate could likely be acquired much more cheaply, aristocratic Romans were serious about their agate.
We can imagine a wealthy late-antique Christian being duped into thinking this was the cup of Christ. But it seems unbelievable that Jesus—an itinerant carpenter who lacked a steady income—could have come into possession of such a thing. Jesus may be, as the book’s title implies, a religious “king,” but he didn’t have the personal resources of a Roman emperor or Russian oligarch.

If Jesus had had this kind of money and chose to spend it on some tricked-out stemware rather than, say, food, clothing, or housing, then we really need to stop taking financial advice from this guy.
For those whose minds are still not made up, there’s one surefire way to determine if this is the real thing. Shoot Sean Connery in the stomach and see how things turn out.*

*Do not actually do this. Use someone already in need of medical attention.



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