The Last Supper

The famous painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo DaVinci has become almost as synonymous with Christianity as the image of Jesus hanging crucified from the Cross. In a moment when the first tenants of the Christian faith were being instituted, the Passover meal that Jesus shared with His disciples which we now call the Last Supper is full of important imagery, symbolism, and actions that were themselves sacred. From the perspective of the Grail story, this is the point at which the Grail as a relic was "born". However, we will see that this is not necessarily the case. It would play an important part in creating a holy relic from a simple object found in a 1st century Jewish home, but at its heart, the Holy Grail is a vessel which contained the blood of Christ following the Crucifixion. The Grail as the Cup of the Last Supper is only one aspect of the legend. As any Christian today will tell you, the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and the Eucharist are deeply embedded in the faith, it is also a perfect illustration of the Holy Grail as both an archeological relic and as an object of veneration.

To understand the differences between the Holy Grail as a funerary item and as the cup of the Eucharist, we must first closely examine not only what the Last Supper would have been like, but also the 1st century Hebrew funerary rites that would have taken place following the removal of Christ's body from the Cross. Let us first understand the meal that became known as the Last Supper.

The Passover, or Seder meal was, and still is, one of the most sacred rituals of the Hebrew faith. To remember the time of Egyptian captivity under Pharaoh and their eventual release, the Jewish people would reenact the events leading up to the final plague brought forth by God upon Egypt — the time when death fell upon the land, taking their first born sons, and how the spirit of death was said to pass over the homes of the Jewish people who would mark their doors with lamb's blood. They would remember this time and the Exodus that followed by having an annual feast in which they would eat unleavened bread, (flat bread containing no yeast), the bitter herbs as those used during the years wandering through the desert, and the drinking of unfermented wine. This was not only a mean of extreme importance, it was a mean demanding extreme purity. The could be no sign of fermentation of any kind, hence the unleavened bread, in which a bacterial process like fermentation causes the bread to rise thanks to the yeast it normally contained. For the same reason, they would not drink fermented wine as they would during normal meals, (although by modern standards, it would be something closer to a spiced "wine cooler", containing much less alcohol than wine today). As such, they had to be very careful with the food and implements used during this meal. Special food was purchased for this ritual meal, and kept apart from their standard food stores lest it become unintentionally leavened, or otherwise tainted by "ritually unclean" items.

The dinnerware used for this meal would have been different as well. Although some standard vessels were used, the ritual foods of the Passover were usually kept in special containers and presented in special, ritual vessels which, depending on the wealth of the household, may have only been used a few times in the course of the year. You might say this was akin to "grandma's fine bone china", only with a more revered undertone. Because of this distinction of purity, some of the vessels themselves were likely made of special materials, or else purchased new for this occasion. Vessels could not be made of porous wood, as they may have absorbed residue from "unclean" foods. Similarly, vessels containing liquid had to be of a special kind. It could not be made of gold or silver as they could have been made from coins used in Roman temples or otherwise for "pagan" purposes. They could not be made of glass as they may have been formed from glass reclaimed from broken vessels used for other ritually unclean purposes. Pretty much anything made from a material that might have been reformed from a previous vessel or object was not safe to use for this meal, nor could it be made from anything that might absorb any substance left behind from a previous use. Therefore, the only thing that was 100% safe was a purpose-built vessel created from "living rock", or stone that had been newly mined and made into its current form. Only then could they be sure it had never been used in an "unclean" fashion. This of course assumes the owners of the house could afford such finery. In many cases, a newly thrown clay cup or bowl would have to suffice. However to discover which form the Holy Grail as the cup from the Last Supper would have taken, we will need to look at the site of the Last Supper as best we can understand it.


Madaba_map

This is the floor mosaic in the Byzantine church of Saint George at Madaba, Jordan — known as the Madaba Map. Among other things, this map represents Old Jerusalem, dating from the 6th century.

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This illustration better shows the specific buildings seen in the Madaba Map. The map is dated in part by the inclusion of the Nea Church which was dedicated on November 20, 542. On this map, you can see the Cenacle marked on the far right side of the map adjacent to a building called "Hagia Sion", or "Holy Zion Church". This is the Zion Church in Jerusalem commonly known as the "Church of the Apostles" — an early Christian church and synagogue used by the early church in Jerusalem.

cenacle

This is the highest resolution picture I could find of the room in Jerusalem called the "Cenacle", the Room of the Last Supper. Obviously not a room built in the 1st century. This is a medieval room built by the Crusaders during their time occupying Jerusalem. Below are some good illustrations of the Crusader church of St. Mary, the Cenacle, and a very good small picture of the parts of the Cenacle thought to be remains of the 1st century building. As you can see in the above picture, portions of the wall believed to date from the 1st century are kept intact and exposed for visitors to see.

censtmarycensyn



As fascinating as all this 1st century and medieval archeology and history may be, this all says nothing about what kind of house this was, or what manner of people lived there during the time of this famous Passover meal. There have been many theories posited regarding whose house it was, and who served as the host to Jesus and his disciples. One theory is that this was the house of Mark or his relatives, others say it was some relatives of Mary Magdalene. Whatever the case may be, what is most widely thought is that this was a house of some wealth. This was the "Upper Room" remember — something that not every person in 1st century Jerusalem could claim to possess. Very often merchants would have their shop in the lower floors and live upstairs. In any case, there is some evidence pointing to this house where the Last Supper was held being a dwelling of some stature.

It is commonly thought that Jesus and His disciples were poor and would have only used, had, and had access to poor things. This is simply not the case. While Jesus and His followers chose to live a nomadic life, they did carry some money, and frequently visited the houses of some fairly well-to-do people, such as the story of Jesus dining in the home of the Pharisee. Such is the case with the Last Supper. Jerusalem has the greatest city in the 1st century Hebrew world. As such, many of the houses contained within it were likely not the mud brick, thatch, and livestock area that was common in other areas. It should also be noted that this place became the disciples "base of operations" after the Passover meal of the Last Supper. It was here they retreated after the Crucifixion, here they gathered after the Resurrection, and here that they formed their earliest church in Jerusalem. If this was not the official home of one of the disciples or one of Jesus's supporters, it soon became their home in the times to follow. In that sense, the Holy Grail as a funerary object can be further investigated.

In the 1st century, it was the custom to collect the blood that flowed from the body of the deceased and inter it with the body in a tomb, because the blood was seen as the seat of the soul, and thereby sacred. This would usually be done by a family member or someone closed to the deceased. Usually, the body was brought to the family home where it would be laid out, washed, rubbed with oils, and wrapped in cloth along with flowers and fragrant herbs. In the case with the body of Jesus, time constraints were such that thing had to be done a little differently. The Sabbath was fast approaching, and preparations had to be done in a hurry, because it was forbidden to touch a dead body during the Sabbath. Therefore, the body was quickly moved to the tomb in which it would be lain, and the preparations were done as quickly as possible there. Blood was likely collected at the cross, but the majority of any blood collected to be entombed with the body would have been done in the tomb itself.


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The Bible speaks of Mary, John, and other followers being present at the foot of the Cross. This is one time when Christ's blood may have been collected.

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The second time that blood would have been collected was when His body was taken down from the cross. In the painting above, note the small urn or Jar held by the woman standing above Mary.

jesusinshroud
After the body was taken from the cross, it was wrapped in a cloth with another cloth used to cover His face. It was then put inside a "new" tomb with a rolling cover stone such as that shown below. A "new" tomb simply meant a tomb in which no body had previously been lain to decompose. This process is further discussed below.

tomb


tombniches

When the body of a 1st century Hebrew was to be buried, it would first be wrapped in a cloth as mentioned above, and placed in an enclosed tomb to decompose for a year. At that time, the family would reenter the tomb to collect the bones and place them in an "ossuary" box such as those shown below. This box would then be sealed and placed inside a niche in the wall of a family tomb such as that shown above.

ossuaries


One might think that it is here, inside the tomb, that the Holy Grail as a vessel containing the blood of Jesus was truly born. However this is not the case. The Grail as a relic of Christ's Passion began at a meal in the house of Martha, Mary Magdalene's sister, in the town of Bethany a few days before the Last Supper.

We have heard the story before, mostly as a story of love and devotion, but let us now hear it as an account from which we can draw some information we can use in our investigation of the Grail legend. The story says that Jesus was sitting as a meal set at Martha's house. He was reclined with his disciples, when in walks Mary holding a box containing a pound of a costly oil called Nard, or Spikenard. She proceeds to break open the box and pour some of the oil onto His feet, washing them, and, according to the story, wiping them dry with her hair. In other accounts in the Bible, this happens at the meal in the house of the Pharisee as mentioned before, but in either case, the account of Mary and the oil is the same. The point at which this becomes a matter of importance to our investigation of the Grail is when Mary is rebuked by Judas for using the oil instead of selling it to care for the poor. It is here, in John 12:8, when Jesus says the following:


Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of my burial…


Here, Jesus states the true use of these oils. This was a one pound box of perfumed oils that were to be used during the preparation of a body for entombment. Let us now skip ahead a bit in the Bible to a time shortly after the Crucifixion where this box of oil reappears.

Matthew 28:1 states, "After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb." After this, the account is given of the tomb being found empty, leading to the revelation by Mary that Jesus had risen from the tomb as He had told them before His death. None of them believed her, and some went to see for themselves. Looking at the same account, this time given in the book of Luke 24:1, we see the following:

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.


It is later told in verse 10 that these women were in fact Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others who were with them at the tomb who told this account to the disciples. When the others said they did not believe the account given by the group of women, it was Peter who ran out to the tomb to see for himself — a fact which will become important in later discussion.

The box of costly spices and oils that was mentioned in John 12:8 are here again seen at the tomb following the Resurrection when the group of women were returning to the tomb to complete the anointment of the body for its customary year period spent in the closed tomb. However, when they found it empty, they likely left the remainder of the oil behind until they, along with Peter returned to the tomb, finding the body of Jesus missing. How does this tie together with the Grail as a funerary object? Recall the vessel from the Upper Room used to collect His blood and which was set inside the tomb with the body.



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