The descent of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (or Church of the Resurrection as it is also known) each Holy Saturday is a magnificent and highly venerated event that has been taking place for more than one and a half millennia. Each year, at noon on Holy Saturday, a light descends on the tomb of Jesus, the Holy Sepulchre, and ignites the vigil lamp (the holy oil lamp) in the tomb’s interior, while at the same time a blue incandescence from the same light diffuses throughout the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, illuminating the entire area and spontaneously igniting other lamps and candles around the church.
This event has been recorded for at least seventeen centuries. The historical testimonies referring to it and presented in this work amount to seventy, and they describe in detail the rite of the Holy Fire during the period between the fourth and sixteenth centuries.
All these testimonies describe, in an impressively unanimous manner, a fire or light that miraculously descends from the sky before the waiting crowd and lights a lamp inside the empty tomb of Jesus. At the same time, that very light emerges and surfaces from within the rock of the tomb.
This light is identified with the supernatural light that radiated inside the tomb of Jesus during his resurrection. The Holy Light appeared for the first time during the resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the evening of Holy Saturday though it was the Sunday of Easter according to the calendar, most likely on the date of 5 April AD 33.1 Today, two millennia later, the same light continues to appear at the same place: inside the tomb of Jesus but also outside it, during the service of Holy Saturday.
The author of this book has been present at the service a total of fifteen times. During the first of these, in April 1998, while standing in a very dark area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, exactly under Golgotha, when the Holy Fire appeared he saw a bluish white incandescence diffuse over the space and a candle held by a pilgrim ignited spontaneously before his eyes.
Certainly, the fact that a candle lights of its own accord is subject to different interpretations that depend on the personal judgment and faith of each person. Well-intentioned disbelief in extraordinary “supernatural” phenomena is necessary and in complete agreement with the command of John the Evangelist that prompts us to “test the spirits, to see whether they are from God.”2 However, in the case of the Holy Light it is an event that is not extraordinary or temporary, but has unfailingly been repeated for seventeen centuries, in a manner that is historically recorded.
For many the appearance of the Holy Light every Holy Saturday at the tomb of Jesus is a true miracle. For others it is not. Opinions diverge and they are all respected. This work does not aim at convincing anyone of the validity of the miracle, nor to impose one opinion. The purpose of this study is to present all the facts and testimonies that come to us from the distant past, but also from the present age, so that each reader can assess the miracle on his or her own. The attempt at a scientific approach to the entire matter is also of notable significance. Measurements of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum performed around the tomb of Jesus on Holy Saturday 2008 by the Russian physicist Andrey Volkov are of particular interest and are presented in a special section in the middle of the book.
Two chapters in this book are dedicated to two likewise important topics, in which we will look at: first, the matter concerning the authenticity of the present tomb of Jesus; and second, the examining of the original appearance of the tomb in its natural surroundings in the year AD 33. Combining the wealth of historical data and archeological findings—and primarily the results of the research excavation inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which lasted about three decades—the author created a series of reconstructions of Jesus’ tomb and Golgotha (as it appeared in AD 33), which are presented in a special chapter in the second half of the book. As for the central portion of this book, it is essentially a fascinating journey in time which takes place through the narratives and testimonies of dozens of travelers, chroniclers, Crusaders, Christian pilgrims and Muslim historians who either experienced the miracle of the Holy Fire first hand, or were informed of it by other eyewitnesses.
The narratives of all these people constitute the core of the present work. They give us the ability to travel in our minds many centuries back and to trace the unfamiliar aspects of the most splendid celebration of Christianity: that of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the descent of the Holy Fire.
According to the Greek cleric Niketas (10th c.) and the Persian physician al-Masihi (10th c.) the Holy Fire began appearing in the days of Jesus, immediately after his ascension, every Holy Saturday without fail through the passage of the centuries.
The Arab historian al-Masudi and three Armenian historians—Kirakos, Symeon Lehatsi and Grigor Daranagetsi—date the start of the miracle a bit later and mention that the Holy Fire began appearing while the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was being built, in AD 326–36.The three Armenian historians all maintain that the first individual in history to experience the miracle of the Holy Fire was St Gregory the Illuminator, around the year 330.
Three centuries later, after the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Persians in 614, we find the first clear historical report of the celestial light that descends on the tomb of Jesus. At that time, there was not yet a special service or ceremony. The Holy Fire would appear by itself, without any particular invocations being made by the patriarch of the city. The service started to emerge about one and a half centuries later—probably in the second half of the eighth century—though definitely before the year 800, as the Pontificale of Poitiers indicates.
It was decided that this work should include only the most important older testimonies which cover the period from the fourth century to the end of the sixteenth century. In the past, numerous scholars studied some of these testimonies. Among those worthy of mention are Johann L. von Mosheim3 (1736), Gustav Klameth4 (1913), Ignaty Kratchkovsky5 (1914), Archimandrite Kallistos Miliaras6 (1934), Marius Canard7 (1955), Otto Meinardus8 (1962), Francis Peters9 (1985), and Bishop Auxentios of Photiki10 (1999). The research by Mosheim is impressive for its era, the work of Kratchkovsky is particularly valuable as it includes much Arabic material, and the study of Miliaras is also admirable and praiseworthy.
However, despite the important monographs and articles by the aforementioned scholars, the number of testimonies they include is relatively small, seeing as around forty accounts have never been recorded. Furthermore, most of these works do not include the original texts (Latin, Arabic and Greek to mention only a few), but only translations, and there is also no reference to the manuscripts from which the texts originate.
Before collecting the various testimonies, I could not have imagined the multitude and significance of the narratives that have remained forgotten until now. In order to make this more understandable, it is worth mentioning that for the year 1101 alone—the only year in history when the Holy Fire did not appear on Holy Saturday (but the day after)—there are nine chroniclers who describe the most impressive events of that year. However, their narratives were never included in any literary work.
These nine chroniclers include five Frenchmen, one German, one Englishman, one Italian and one Armenian, and their descriptions are of supreme significance, as each narrative validates and corroborates the authenticity of the other. In essence, we “see” the events through the eyes of the chroniclers.
Many of the narratives are so analytical and detailed that they mentally transport us to the location where the event takes place. Of great interest are also the testimonies of prominent Arabs and Persians, and especially those of Ibn al-Qass and al-Biruni. These are of great importance as they come from Muslims, whose religion contravenes the acceptance of the miracle.
Also impressive is the fact that in some of the accounts the Muslims of Jerusalem, even though of a different faith, participated in the thousands in the ritual of the Holy Fire, accepted the authenticity of the miracle, and transferred the light with great reverence to their mosques and homes where they kept it burning throughout the entire year.
Modern testimonies have been excluded from this work, aside from certain special cases, because the book’s purpose is not to be exhaustive across time, and the space required for such an endeavor would be enormous.
My first contact with the testimonies in general gave rise to many questions and doubts with regard to their credibility and authenticity. The only way to evaluate their validity was through searching all their original sources, namely the valuable manuscripts in which they are recorded as well as their first editions.
The purpose of this work is not the simple citing of certain narratives and certain names, but the scientific presentation of all important testimonies, the complete recording of the original texts and their translations, and the presentation of a full bibliography.
Also deemed essential was the citation of the actual manuscripts in which the most important narratives are contained. These manuscripts are found scattered in some of the largest libraries of the world and their collation was a particularly complex and time consuming process. To cite them, however, was deemed necessary so as to clear any doubts concerning the validity of the narratives, and so that the reader could have some form of contact with the original sources of the texts.
In order to fulfill this purpose, it was essential that I not only visit many large libraries, but also smaller ones in search of manuscripts and hard-to-find editions. I would like to thank the management and staff of these libraries for their contribution to the completion of my research, and more specifically the British Library, the National Library of France, Ilaria Ciolli at the Vatican Library, Petra Gebeschus at Staadbibliothek in Berlin, Dr. Wolfgang-Valentin Ikas at Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, Dr. Silvia Uhlemann at the Library of the University of Darmstadt, Alexander Rosenstock at the Library of Ulm in Germany, Bishop Aristarchos at the Patriarchal Library in Jerusalem, Pierre-Jacques Lamblin at the Library of the city of Douai in France, and Erdem Selçuk at the Beyazit Library in Istanbul.
Twenty-one valuable manuscripts from the above libraries, with the narratives on the Holy Fire, will be encountered in the pages to follow. Before going on, however, to the central part of the book, which is comprised of these narratives, it would be useful to take just a brief look at the history of the founding of the Church of Jerusalem.
1. The crucifixion of Jesus took place on a Friday, on the eve of the Jewish Passover, while the ruler of Judea was Pontius Pilate (AD 26–36). During this ten year period the eve of Passover coincided with a Friday only twice: on 7 April in the year AD 30 and 3 April in the year AD 33. Therefore there are only two possible dates for the day of the crucifixion. The Evangelist Luke mentions that the activity of John the Baptist began in the 15th year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius, namely during the period between 19 August 28 and 19 August 29. This means that the public activity of Jesus, which follows approximately one year later, begins in AD 29–30. And because the public activity of Jesus lasted approximately three years, the only possible date for his crucifixion is 3 April and for his resurrection, 5 April in the year 33. Many Byzantine writers—such as John Philoponus, George Cedrenus, George Syncellus, but other sources as well (The Acts of Pilate)—also state that the crucifixion of Jesus took place during the 19th year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius, namely in AD 33. The exact date of the crucifixion, 3 April AD 33 (Julian calendar), was first astronomically calculated in the year 1267 by the English philosopher Roger Bacon, in his work Opus majus, vol. 1, p. 209: “iii nonas Aprilis... anno xxxiii ab incarnatione.”
2. “But do not trust any and every spirit, my friends; test the spirits, to see whether they are from God, for among those who have gone out into the world there are many prophets falsely inspired” (First Letter of John 4:1–3, trans. Oxford 1961; here and elsewhere).
3. J.L. von Mosheim, De Lumine Sancti Sepulchri Commentatio, Helmstadt 1736.
4. G. Klameth, Das Karsamstagsfeuerwunder der heiligen Grabeskirche, Vienna 1913.
5. I.J. Krachkovsky, “Blagodatnyj ogon po rasskazy al-Biruni i drugich musul’manskich pisatelej X–XIII vekov” [Holy Fire according to the narrative of al-Biruni and other Muslim writers of the X–XIII c.], Christianskij Vostok 3 (1915), pp. 235–38.
6. K. Miliaras, Historical Study of the Holy Fire, Jerusalem 1934.
7. Μ. Canard, “La destruction de l'Église de la Résurrection par le Сalife Hakim et l’histoire de la descente du Feu Sacré,” Byzantion 35 (1955), pp. 16–43.
8. O. Meinardus, “The Ceremony of the Holy Fire in the Middle Ages and To-day,” BSAC 16 (1961–62), pp. 242–53.
9. F.E. Peters, Jerusalem: the Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims, and Prophets, Princeton 1985.
10. Bishop Auxentios of Photiki, “The Paschal Fire in Jerusalem: A Study of the Rite of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” Berkeley, California 1999.