The Atheist Filmmaker and the Shroud of Turin

“In order to understand the complexity and wonder of the Shroud you simply have to open your eyes and your heart. It will speak to you.”

David Rolfe
David Rolfe (photo: Photo credit: /

David Rolfe is today one of the foremost British experts on the Turin Shroud. He is also one the most enthusiastic proponents of the Shroud’s authenticity. That mysterious cloth has not only become part of his life: it changed it.

In 1976, Rolfe was working as an independent documentary filmmaker in London. He invited film proposals and then found himself swamped with responses. They were “mostly,” he says “very uninspiring.” However, having invited the submissions, he felt under obligation to look through the correspondence he was receiving.

One summer evening in his office overlooking the rooftops of Soho, the London district that is the center of the British film industry, he remembers yet again reaching for the pile of submissions. As he lifted up a sheaf of paper a picture tumbled out. The picture was of the photographic negative of the face on the Turin Shroud. “I had never seen it before or even been aware of the Shroud’s existence,” he says. Then he noticed that there was an additional picture. It was of the body that is on both sides of the Shroud. Notes accompanied the pictures from an historian, Ian Wilson.

Wilson was to author the later groundbreaking book: The Turin Shroud (1978). This work sparked interest and debate about the Shroud in the English-speaking world as never before. Wilson’s then notes to the filmmaker began to detail what he claimed to be the Shroud’s history as well as documenting the new research into the Shroud, both archaeological and scientific.

Rolfe knew none of this. He was an atheist. Unmoved by any of the religious implications of the images at which he was looking, he says what struck him was “that this negative image was on a 4-metre linen cloth at least as old as the Middle Ages.” The documentary filmmaker was suddenly engaged: he felt “there had to be a story worth investigating here!”

Rolfe says there then followed “three separate adventures”: “Firstly, raising the money to make the film, secondly, actually making it and thirdly, getting it seen around the world.” During these “adventures” Rolfe says he “found God.” He had been baptized an Anglican and returned to the faith of his parents. His finished film was to be called The Silent Witness (1978). It would go on to win a BAFTA and many other international film awards.

The Silent Witness is an intriguing mix of history, archaeology, New Testament research, NASA 3-D imaging, alongside the then most up-to-date study of pollens found on the distinctive and intricate weave of the linen. Throughout the film there is a dramatic voice-over by the actor, Kenneth More; it ends in a crescendo that asks, demands even, “Who is he?” Even now, many years later, that ending still sends a chill down the spine, and for believers, then as now, has a deeper resonance than merely the identity of the figure on the Shroud.

“Making [that] film truly changed my life,” Rolfe said. But his cinematic interest in the Shroud did not finish there: “I made two more films on the subject and was asked by Turin to make their own film, which has now been the official film for the past two Shroud expositions.”

It is his most recent 2015 film, A Grave Injustice, in which the matter of the 1988 carbon dating is tackled head on. Rolfe postulates that the carbon dating tests carried out in 1988 were seriously flawed. In this film, he takes the audience through all the controls that were initially set in place for the tests to proceed in a rigorously scientific way. He then goes on to show how every one of them was disregarded. Furthermore, he demonstrates how knowledge of the Shroud and its fabric has grown significantly in the intervening 30 years. This is especially relevant when considering the samples taken for the 1988 tests and the real suspicion that the area they came from was an amended or patched part of the Shroud, and, therefore, almost certainly, dated from the medieval period when the relic was known to be exhibited.

Today Rolfe remains convinced of the Shroud’s authenticity as the burial shroud of Our Lord. “The subjective evidence is obvious to anyone who simply takes the time to look at it with an open mind and just take it in,” claims Rolfe. “Of course, you do have to know at least the bare bones about the impact Jesus made on those who knew him, his message, mission and the Passion. The Shroud,” he proposes, “is an ingenious, miraculous summation of all [that]. The nakedness [of the image of the body], unthinkable to a forger, along with the absence of any artifact or symbol that would allow any one sect to claim it as an ‘exclusive’ is all part of that.”

Rolfe said, “In order to understand the complexity and wonder of the Shroud you simply have to open your eyes and your heart. It will speak to you.” Despite what the 1988 test scientists claimed — that the Shroud was a medieval forgery — Rolfe points to the great many who have and who still make pilgrimage to Turin to see the Shroud each year. He says that these pilgrims pay no attention to the 1988 test claims. In light of the new claims that those 1988 tests were unreliable, Rolfe added, “And, guess what — it turns out [the pilgrims] were right all along.”