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Has there been any scientific investigation into the nature of Holy Fire, to either clearly debunk it or be determined inconclusive (thus allowing for a margin of plausibility)?

Patriarch Diodoros of Jerusalem has described the process of the coming down of the fire as follows:

I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees. Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries and, having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the color may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn. I have never had my beard burnt in all the 16 years I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire. The light is of a different consistency than normal fire that burns in an oil lamp.

At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church.

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Anything that occurs with such regularity is, in my opinion, either a fraud or a natural phenomenon. –  crasic Jun 6 '11 at 6:43
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Does the Wikipedia article, and its numerous sources, leave any reasonable doubt that it’s a fraud? –  Konrad Rudolph Jun 6 '11 at 9:28
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In 1238, Pope Gregory IX denounced the Holy Fire as a fraud. And as we know, the Pope is the infallible representative of God, this must be true. –  Lennart Regebro Jun 6 '11 at 9:35
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@Lennart The pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, not always. –  Fabian Jun 6 '11 at 10:34
    
Okay, you provide a statement from a Patriarch of Jerusalem. Where is the more modern evidence and the impartial observers? I do assure you that it will be impossible to refute everything said by people long ago. –  David Thornley Jun 7 '11 at 2:23

2 Answers 2

White phosphorus will spontaniously combust when exposed to air.

I'm reasonably sure that this video of somebody demonstrating candles lighting themselves is a demonstration of this. I assume he is trying to debunk holy fire, but as I have no sound here I don't know exactly what is being said.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iR6zNTcE_k8

Back to more scientific evidence I present the following link:

http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Phosphorus

Specifically

When exposed to air it ignites spontaneously, burning to form white fumes of phosphorus pentoxide, P2O5. Because of its toxicity and pyrophoric nature, phosphorus is stored underwater. Contact with the skin may cause burns. White phosphorus is phosphorescent (i.e., glows without emitting heat).

Now I don't know if Holy Fire gives off the same flame colour as phosphorus, but I would suggest that if the fire changes from one form to another that would be consistent with phosphorus being used to ignite a candle and when it has burnt out, the lit wick reverting to normal flame colour.

In summary, there are no known studies that perform experiments on Holy Fire that I am aware of. However the act of spontanious conbustion is known to exist and we can replicate the effects of Holy Fire quite easily using Phosphorus. With this in mind I would suggest a hoax.

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The priest is supposed to be searched before going into the chamber to ensure he has no means of creating fire though. I know that it is quite possible for him to conceal something about his person so well that it is not found, however that results in the risk of being found out at some point. With Phosphorus the illusion can be prepped in advance with no risk of ever being caught out during the search to check if he has means to create fire. –  Ardesco Jun 6 '11 at 9:50
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According to the wiki page "Before entering the Tomb of Christ, the patriarch is examined by Jewish Israeli authorities to prove that he does not carry technical means to light the fire. This investigation used to be carried out by Muslim Turkish Ottoman soldiers." Two groups of people who on the face of it would appear to have no real reason to perpetuate the myth. I'm not disagreeing that there are lots of ways to do this, I'm just providing one option that is quite plausible and also has the wow factor so that if it is ever seem by a layman they would think something divine is happening –  Ardesco Jun 6 '11 at 10:18
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@Luvieere I have said there are no known studies performed on Holy Fire. I have then also given a possible scientific explanation for Holy Fire based on its description. What more could I have done? –  Ardesco Jun 6 '11 at 12:51
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@Ardesco: But they are nothing like the fire you get from phosphorous. Your speculations doesn't add anything, and only detract from your answer. –  Lennart Regebro Jun 6 '11 at 13:06
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My answer boils down to: "No there aren't any scientific studies on actual 'Holy Fire'. These is however this material which can perform spontaneous combustion in air so a reasonable option is that they are using it to light candles". Yes it is speculative because there are no studies on Holy Fire, however with the evidence available (which is anecdotal anyway) it is a plausible explanation backed by science (as would be 'The priest has a lighter hidden up his jacksie and made the rest up'). Any speculations I have made in the comments are no more or less valid than yours. –  Ardesco Jun 6 '11 at 14:34

Since the alleged miracle of the Holy Fire is a very complex issue, please allow me to leave a link to an extensive related article right here. The article was originally written by me in Greek and translated by the greek atheists for the english version of their blog: "The “Holy Light” of Jerusalem debunked"

For those who speak or understand German, there's more stuff on my German-language blog.

In addition to the links I posted above, I thought it might be useful to summarize some facts concerning the alleged miracle:

  • Until the middle of the 8th century century, the ceremony of the holy fire was in no way linked to any miracle. Not a single earlier source mentions or implies a light descending from heaven.

KALOKYRIS, Konstandinos: Το αρχιτεκτονικό συγκρότημα τού Ναού της Αναστάσεως Ιεροσολύμων και το θέμα του Αγίου Φωτός (english: The building complex of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalemin and the issue of the Holy fire). Thessaloniki, University Studio Press, 1999, p. 164–169.

  • The same applies to the prayer recited by the patriarch: not a single word in it mentions or in any way implies a light being sent down by God. The only request we can find is that the flame which the patriarch humbly and piously lights in rememberance of Jesus, may be filled up with His Holy Grace and bless the faithful. No lights coming down from heaven, no candles ignitiing spontaneously, no nothing.

KALOKYRIS, 1999, p. 222–228.

Online: http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/the-holy-light-of-jerusalem-debunked/#contents04

The full prayer text can also be found on the website of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, BUT: two crucial parts of the translation are highly misleading:

a. English translation:

So with happy heart and spiritual joy, on this most blessed Saturday, Your most salvific mysteries which You divinely executed on earth and under the earth we celebrate, and we remember You, the exhilarating and appealing light which You divinely shone in the underworld, we celebrate the appearance of the light, Your congenial divine appearance to us.

And here is what the greek text really says:

So with happy heart and spiritual joy, on this most blessed Saturday, Your most salvific mysteries which You divinely executed on earth and under the earth we celebrate, and in rememberance of You, the exhilarating and appealing light which divinely shone in the underworld, we create appearance of light, re-enacting Your congenial divine appearance to us.

b. English translation:

By this, having received with piety, from this, Your light-bearing Tomb we offer it to those believing in You, the true light and ask and supplicate Most Holy Despota that You make this a gift of sanctification and full of Your every divine grace through the grace of your Most Holy and light- bearing Tomb.

Greek original:

By this, we receive with piety from the everlasting light, which is constantly burning on this light-bearing Tomb of Yours and we offer it to those believing in You, the true light and ask and supplicate Most Holy Despota that You make this a gift of sanctification and full of Your every divine grace through the grace of your Most Holy and light-bearing Tomb.

  • No body search is performed on the patriarch! The removal of his outer vestments is just a part of the ritual expressing humility.

KALOKYRIS, 1999, p. 219.

Also: YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3z-NBUyklf8 . User: davidtlig: Miracle of the Holy Fire, Jerusalem 2008, 04.04.2010, 0:29–1:25 (03.07.2011).

YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzDaVyWEjtQ . User: Photoplay1999: ΑΓΙΟ ΦΩΣ- holy light (Orthodox easter) Jerusalem. Grizes Zones, PART 1/2. 17.04.2009: 5:16-5:40 (03.07.2011). (In this video, Archbishop Aristarhos of Constantina and Elder Chief Secretary of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, verifies that no body search is performed.)

According to the website of the Jerusalem Patriarchate though:

Following the Holy litany the Patriarch stands in front of the door of the Holy Edicule, removes his ceremonial vestments and waits with his sticharion (white robe), epitrahilion (stole) and his belt. The heterodox examine the Patriarch to ensure he has nothing on Him that could arouse or draw suspicion [...]

And of cource, that is a lie.

  • In 1995, just a few days before the locum tenens of the Patriarchal throne, Metropolitan Cornelius of Petra, received the Holy Fire in the place of patriarch Irenaeus, he declared in a television interview that the holy fire is a natural light, lit by the patriarch from the Sanctuary Lamp! And then came the big shock: “The miracle is the prayer that hallows the light”. (The light which supposedely comes from heaven!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzDaVyWEjtQ (5:16-5:40, 7:03-7:15).

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Welcome to Skeptics, if you want to provide additional information later on you can edit your own answers. I've integrated the content from your second answer into the first for you. It would also be great if you could provide references for the facts in your list. –  Fabian Jul 3 '11 at 14:30
    
@Fabian: Sorry for the ommitance. The post I linked to, you see, contains extensive footnotes and references, and since I was in a rush I didn't bother to mention the sources. But there's no problem, I'm gonna to do it right now. –  Kostas Jul 3 '11 at 19:37
    
@Fabian: I would like to provide some additional information on the prayer text, but I'm afraid that if I intergrated it in my first answer, it might be overlooked. Should I edit a new answer or post a comment here instead? –  Kostas Jul 4 '11 at 15:19
    
@Kostas, please edit it in. The question will be brought to the top of the "active questions" on the front page so people will find the changes. (That's how I noticed you had commented here.) If you like, post a comment pointing out the edit. –  Oddthinking Jul 4 '11 at 16:16
    
The additional information have just been edited, thank you. –  Kostas Jul 4 '11 at 17:35

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