Journalists Go Wild Over “Holy Grail in Spain” Claim

From the Daily Mail (link added):

Jewel-encrusted goblet found gathering dust in tiny Spanish museum ‘touched the lips of Jesus and is in fact the HOLY GRAIL’ say two historians with evidence to prove it

…The onyx chalice has been sat in the Basilica of San Isidoro in Leon, north Spain, for 1000 years – touted to visitors as a goblet belonging to 11th century Queen Urraca.

But in fact, there is ‘no doubt’ it contains the cup which touched the lips of Jesus Christ, two historians claim.

The Daily Mail appears to be using the expression “no doubt” in a special sense; here’s the Irish Times, which first picked the story up from Spanish media on 28 March:

[Margarita Torres and José Manuel Ortega del Río] admit that the first 400 years of the chalice’s history remain something of a mystery and they cannot say for sure whether this chalice ever actually touched Christ’s lips.

The two authors published a book on the subject last month, entitled Los reyes del Grial; in fact, the phrase “no doubt” refers to their claim that the chalice – known as the Chalice of Doña Urruca, and not actually “gathering dust” – can at least be traced back to Christian veneration in antiquity:

However, they insist there is no doubt that this is the cup that the early Christians revered as the chalice used at the last supper…

[Torres] said the duo had initially been researching the history of some Islamic remains in the Saint Isidore basilica. However, their discovery of two medieval Egyptian documents which mentioned the chalice of Christ caused them to change course.

Those parchments told of how Muslims took the sacred cup from the Christian community in Jerusalem to Cairo. It was then given to an emir in Denia, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, in return for help he gave to Egyptians who were suffering a famine.

Of course, it’s difficult to assess the strength of their argument based on secondary snippets, such as a Reuters report in Spanish. However, the chalice is made from two Roman-era cups, and the old Catholic Encylopedia notes:

In the sixth and seventh centuries pilgrims to Jerusalem were led to believe that the actual chalice was still venerated in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, having within it the sponge which was presented to Our Saviour on Calvary. Curiously enough, while Antoninus of Piacenza refers to it as made of onyx, Adamnan, less than a century later, describes it as a “silver cup holding the measure of a Gallic sextarius and with two opposite handles” 

So it’s possible that some object venerated by Christians in Jerusalem in the early medieval period (not quite “early Christians”) may have been taken by Muslim rulers; but to link this to a specific item in Spain via documents written in Egypt centuries later is somewhat speculative. And why is there no tradition of the chalice in Leon ever having been venerated as a relic, if that’s its true significance?

According to the London Times, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch believes the identification with the Holy Grail to be “idiotic”.

UPDATE: The Daily Mail article comes a mere three months after the paper reported on how Griff Rhys Jones “tracked down a wooden bowl that supposedly works miracles, believed to be the Holy Grail itself, which was until recently kept in a house near Aberystwyth” (H/T @mr_ceebs).

UPDATE 2: Special mention should be given to Good Morning America, which invited archaeologist Robert Cargill onto the show by videolink to discuss the claims… and then cut out all of his debunking! Robert also drew attention to potential “ticket sales around Easter”, another detail GMA didn’t think would be of interest to viewers.

UPDATE 3: The Independent digs into the authors and their publisher, with some help from historian Richard Barber:

“One of the authors looks like a perfectly respectable Spanish medievalist, but I can see she has been publishing one or two more popular books,” Barber says… Margarita Torres has a website that includes a page listing her novelas historicas, which include at least one “swashbuckling adventure”. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but, Barber says: “The fact that she also writes these books means that I don’t think this latest work is entirely serious.”…

Barber, who is more familiar than most with works of this type, now turns his attention to the new book’s publisher. Reino de Cordelia (“Kingdom of Cordelia”) is based in Madrid and otherwise appears to major in comic fiction.

As for the book itself (based on a perusal of a section on the publisher’s website):

“It’s littered with footnotes, which make it look frightfully learned, but there’s something very odd going on,” he says. “No scholar on earth would footnote anything as basic as John, Luke or Judaea. You just don’t do that.”