It is only after the Crucifixion that the story of the Holy Grail begins. According to legend, both at the Crucifixion and afterwards, when the body is taken down and moved to Joseph’s new tomb, certain individuals are present to gather blood from Jesus’ body in one or more containers. One may question why this was done, or question the historical validity of this action. In fact, it was indeed the tradition that all of the blood that could be collected from the body would have been gathered to be interred with the body because the blood was itself sacred. As a result, if one considers the scene of a crucified Jew, any blood that spilled on the ground would have been scooped up and collected, as well as any blood that was on the cross, (and potentially the cross piece itself), would have been collected and placed in the tomb. When we remember what the Bible states about how Jesus’ body was prepared for entombment, we recall that it had to be done in a hurry due to the Sabbath which was rapidly approaching. Therefore, the blood that issued from all the body’s wounds would have been collected in a container, usually by a family member from their family dwelling.
Since Jesus was basically away from home, and his only real family was his followers, (and possibly Joseph of Arimathea), this meant the vessel used would have come from someplace nearby and somewhat associated with Jesus. Recalling the story of the Passion, the Last Supper was where Jesus had last had a “family meal” before his arrest, trial, and execution. Therefore, adding all of these variables together, we see a scene of Jesus’ followers, male and female, participating in the act of collecting His blood in containers either from the location of the Last Supper, belonging to Joseph of Arimathea (set aside as grave goods for himself), or both.
Although his explanation does a good job of explaining the notion that the Holy Grail was a cup from the Last Supper, it does not however account for another part of the Crucifixion story. If we recall, some days later after the Sabbath was over, a group of women went to the tomb to finish preparing the body in the fashion of 1st century Hebrew funerary tradition. Upon their arrival, they discovered the empty tomb, and the rest, as they say, is history. It is commonly thought that one of these women to participate in the final preparation was Mary Magdalene.
Her role in the Grail story is important, but not for the reason that her name has become so important in the Grail legend in modern times. Approximately a week prior to the crucifixion, Jesus was the guest of honor at a dinner at the house of Mary’s sister, Martha. This is the dinner at which the now famous scene of Mary bathing Jesus’ feet with oil and drying it with her hair became famous. It is said that Mary broke open a costly box of alabaster containing one pound of an oil called spikenard, derived from a plant which grows only in the East, and was used as a luxury item throughout Rome and the Near East. That an individual, who has been seen as such a lowly creature in the past, has in her possession such costly oils is somewhat an oxymoron, leading some to believe that Mary was not a poor servant at all, but from a family that was quite wealthy.
When one examines the tradition of the “pound of nard” in the Bible historically and archeologically, it leads to an interesting set of facts. The pound box of this costly oil likely came in the form of a box which was itself not made of alabaster, but was a box that contained a pound of nard in several smaller vessels known as alabasters or alabastron. Although many were actually made from alabaster, they could have been made from any semi-precious stone available in the region at the time, or from glass for which Rome has become somewhat well known.
This is an alabastron made of actual alabaster — a type of onyx.
This is an alabastron made of glass, (notice how the patterns in the glass mimic the striations in the alabaster version above.)
As you can see here, there are many sizes and shapes of alabastron in addition to the variation of materials from which they can be manufactured.
Mary Magdalene has become known as the “Woman with the Alabaster Jar”, thus demonstrating the notion that she owned and used these vessels. However, if you accept the idea that the box of nard was actually a box containing a pound’s worth of these vessels, would that mean that one alabastron would have contained a pound of oil? That would have made for a pretty large vessel while most alabastron were relatively small, containing only a few ounces each. Further investigation into the “pound” of nard also yields an interesting point. In 1st century Hebrew terms, such items were measure in weight instead of volume, and a pound would have been 12 ounces, not the modern 16 ounces. Therefore one may wonder, how many of these vessels were there in the box?
Considering the weight of this oil, (excluding the jar of course), we’re left with the options of 4 or 6 vials that would contain the requisite 12 ounces. Going with the smallest number, that would mean that the pound would have consisted of 4 vials filled with 3 ounces of oil. Since human nature tends toward the ease of even numbers, I tend away from this notion. Therefore, the only other option would be having 6 vials containing 2 ounces each. I favor this idea for two reasons. First, although there’s only an ounce difference in each vessel between the two scenarios, one vial containing 3 ounces by weight of oil would have been again fairly large, although not extravagantly so. Second, if I were a merchant, I would plan for the contingency that people might not afford or would not want larger quantities of such an expensive item, and would sell more packages of smaller quantities. Therefore, a fairly well off individual would be able to buy a pound box of 6 alabastron while someone making a sacrifice for a special occasion, such as a family burial, might only desire to purchase one or two.
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