The Holy Grail – myths and legends

  • Question from CM, United Kingdom

    Dear Freelance Theology,
    Is the Holy Grail just a mystic’s wet dream or does it have any basis in truth?

    The Grail myth centres around two main theories – either the Grail was a physical object or, more sensationally, a ‘secret bloodline’ of descendants from Jesus.

    There is some debate about the nature of the object. Usually in the myths that became associated with the Knights of the Round Table in medieval legend, it was a cup or chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or the dish that the meal was served on, or the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood of Christ as he died that Joseph later brought to Glastonbury in England. The Grail was said to have mystical life-giving properties, with those drinking from it gaining immortality or absolution from sin (depending which story you read). This side of the story was popularised in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

    In fact the notion of a life-giving vessel pre-dates the era of Christian myth-making. The ‘Cauldron of Bran’ wherein dead warriors are placed and magically come alive again features in Celtic myths, including the Welsh collection of stories The Mabinogian.

    It would seem that these old Celtic myths resurfaced in Britain and France, were attached to the great romantic stories of Arthur and the Round Table and were worked into stories that had Biblical characters showing up in Western Europe – for example Mary, Martha and Lazarus were connected to Marseilles and Southern France; Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury etc. The monks of Glastonbury seized on the Grail story and their monastery became a massively popular place of pilgrimage as a result.

    The idea that Jesus was romantically involved with Mary Magdalene and fathered a secret child has also been around for centuries. In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death there were occasionally individuals who claimed to be Jesus’ physical descendents. None of them could prove it and most were dismissed as mad.

    The rediscovery of some ‘gnostic gospels’ in recent years (see previous article about The Gospel of Thomas on freelance theology) caused a major stir, especially as in one of them, The Gospel of Phillip, Jesus might be described as kissing Mary Magdalene. This has been used by some feminist scholars to claim a relationship between the two of them and even that Mary Magdalene was the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ in John’s Gospel.

    Many theologians dismiss this idea (for example, see Ruth Edwards, Discovering John, SPCK 2003, pp 24-26 for more), although the interest caused by the film The Last Temptation of Christ and similarly themed books, including Dan Brown’s popular thriller The Da Vinci Code, indicates that the Mary-Jesus love story will continue to capture the imagination of people. The reinterpretation of the Grail myth to fit this story shows just how imaginative some people can be.

    It would seem that certain people with an interest in the sensational are willing to invest a lot of time and effort into discussing the huge body of lore, folk-tales and modern new-age hypotheses surrounding the Grail. However, it seems fantastically unlikely that any of the traditional myths of New Testament characters visting France or England could have happened. Considering the pre-eminence of Jesus’ brother James in the community of Christian believers in Jerusalem, the thought that the early Church would not have embraced Jesus’ child as the son or daughter of the Messiah it also hugely improbable.

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