Discussing Jesus in depth; interview with David Rolfe
David Rolfe is a producer/director with an international BAFTA-winning career including 10 years with ITV (LWT) and, subsequently, BBC, RAI (Italy) and Discovery. Responsible for major network programmes featuring leading figures from every walk of life, prime ministers and royalty. As senior partner at the Performance Group, pioneered the development of management coaching through Performance Consultants and took it from start up to major supplier. Recently created a guide to creating a memoir: www.memoir.services.
He has directed several films about Shroud of Turin (two are available at the bottom of this post).
To check his filmography, click here!
How did you become interested in the Shroud of Turin and what moved you to make the documentary, The Silent Witness, that became such an important film?
Well, you have to remember that it was 1976 and, like a lot of people outside the Catholic word, I had never heard about the Shroud of Turin and not all Catholics had heard of it either. The Age of Enlightenment had brought with it a heightened scepticism of anything that purported to be a relic. I had recently graduated from the London Film School and was desperately trying to find a good subject for a meaty film that would take me to the next stage of my career. I advertised and was deluged with material, and scripts people had written years ago. Because I had advertised for it I felt an obligation to go through it all and it took me quite a few days. The last thing that I picked up was a bundle of papers that were sent to me by someone I had never heard of called Ian Wilson.
Ian was/is an historian who had written about the Shroud of Turin as the possible source of what we now recognise as the traditional image of Christ – The Pantocrator. This image dates back to the sixth century and coincides with arrival in Constantinople of the image of Edessa, also known as the Mandylion. This had a reputed provenance back to 1st Century Palestine and was described as an image of Jesus “Made without hands”.Though usually depicted as a portrait it was also sometimes described as bearing a full-length figure. Wilson made the link between the Shroud and the Mandylion. He also traced a link between the Mandylion’s disappearance from Constantinople during the 4th Crusade and the appearance of the Shroud 150 years later in France.
I had never seen the face of the Shroud but as well as a film maker I was also a photographer. In those pre-digital days photography involved developing positive images from negatives. So, when I realised the image on the Shroud was a negative image, over 14 feet in length and of uniform intensity, and centuries old, I knew I had a fascinating film on my hands. That was confirmed spectacularly when, in the course of making the film, it was discovered that the image was also encoded with 3 dimensional information.
I was not religious at all, in fact I was staunchly atheist – I had a young daughter and I would not have her Christened for example, and I was just interested as a phenomenon and wanted to find out what the answer to it was. It took me a long time to raise the money. The BBC said no one is going to be interested in relics and only had two channels in those days, ITV and BBC, I went to both of them and they both said ‘No one is interested in relics’ and any way in those days they made all their programmes internally. Eventually Ian Wilson put me in touch with a Salesian Priest, called Father Peter Rinaldi. He was then just outside New York, in Port Chester and he had a Parish there, he was an altar boy in Turin and like a lot of Italian seminarians he had been sent to America when he had qualified and he been sent to the parish of Port Chester.
As he had been an altar boy in the Cathedral in Turin he knew about the Shroud, and he had started the Holy Shroud Guild of America. It consisted of him, a Redemptorist Priest (Rev. Adam Otterbein) and the people in his own Parish. They built a small shrine to the Shroud in his church. I wrote to Father Peter telling him I had this interesting material and I would like to make a film about the Shroud. Did he have any ideas about where I might be able to find some funds?
He said: “Come and see me”. At that time jumping on a plane to go to America was a quite big thing to do, especially as I was young (24), married and I had a young child. Anyway, I found enough money to get to New York and it was an amazing experience.
We drove out to his home and we went first to where he lived with his fellow priests and we then walked down to where I was going to stay. Just walking from his home to where I was going to be staying, a walk of around 500 meters, took such a long time because people would cross the street and talk to him. Clearly this man was loved in this Parish. Normally they moved Priests around from Parish to Parish after a number of years but they would not let this man go. He had baptized, married and buried generations of people in this town and they absolutely loved him. We went to a brand new Hilton hotel in the town and he took me in to the lobby and he said to the manager of hotel: “This is my friend, David, from London”. And the manager said: “Father Rinaldi, if he’s a friend of yours, he’s a friend of ours, and he stays here with our compliments.” So I stayed in this delightful hotel free of charge. That was a measure of the man and how much loved and respected he was.
Father Rinaldi took me to Milwaukee to meet somebody called Harry John who inherited hundreds of millions of dollars when his Grandfather, who had founded Millers Brewing, along with rest of the male members of his family, died in a plane crash. He was a Catholic and created a foundation called the De Rance Foundation, which dispensed grants, and Father Rinaldi thought that if I presented the idea I wanted to make a film about the Shroud of Turin, Harry may well be able to finance it, but I had to pitch it to him.
People were arriving at his door all the time pitching things. The routine was you would arrive in the morning, have a meeting with him in his office, you would then to go to mass, because inside his office he had a small chapel, and then you would go to lunch and over lunch you would pitch your idea. There was another pitch going on and this same lunch. There were two architects who, fortunately for me went first. Now Harry John was not blessed with a particularly analytical mind, but he was head strong and decisive. His minders were always worried he was going to give all his money away, which he eventually did, by the way, and lost it all – but that was years later.
The other people in this pitch laid out on the table a map of South America and pointed out to Harry various sites. They would say ‘Look Harry, where you see these crosses these are promontories and we have secured options on these promontories right the whole length of South America and if you look Harry, look at all these promontories, they themselves make the image of a cross along the length and breadth of South America. Here they paused for effect. “On these Promontories we are going to build mini-monasteries. In South America there are no shortage of men who will want to be in these monasteries and they are going to pray (further pause) for World Peace!”. “How much”, asked Harry? “It is only going to cost 25 million dollars”.
Wow! I only needed a couple of hundred thousand dollars, but, I thought, if they are asking for 25 million then I am not asking for enough. So I did my pitch and said I only needed half a million dollars. Comparatively, this seemed really good value and Harry said “Yes”, almost straight away.
I walked away at that moment with a down payment of $35,000 and flew back with the promise that he would finance the rest of the film. The Holy Shroud Guild, in the form of Fr. Rinaldi, acted as the intermediary but I had full editorial freedom.
It meant that I would get a share of the profits of the film and that The Holy Shroud Guild, would, too. When the film was made – and was very profitable – The Holy Shroud Guild used its share of the profits to fund what was STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project), the first detailed scientific examination of the Shroud.
If you think what half a million dollars was really worth in 1976, it was really a lot of money and I could do dramatisations, get the best people to work with me. I could then travel freely for research. Father Rinaldi knew of some other Shroud scholars, I then discovered by chance, while waiting for a long-delayed plane in Saudi Arabia, the existence of Max Frei, a criminologist and pollen expert who had the pollen evidence that linked the Shroud with all the places it had to have been if it was authentic. There were the American scientists who had just discovered the Shroud’s three dimensionality. In Los Angeles, there was Dr Robert Bucklin, who was a forensic expert who could show just how consistent the apparent wounds on the Shroud are with what we now know about Roman crucifixion. None of which were in my original proposal and I introduced them all to each other. In those pre-internet days, they worked largely in isolation. Wilson’s theory was dependent on the Shroud being in Anatolia and sure enough Max Frei had found pollens from that part of the world. So, everything came together.
Now when I finished the film I wanted it to find its own length. There was not enough material to make a 90 minute feature film. It came in at 55 minutes. I just let it find its own pace. In those days in the UK there were only 2 channels: BBC and ITV and they had set a limit that would only pay 25 dollars per minute. Most films they bought in came from America and they agreed amongst themselves they would not pay more than $25 per minute for anything. It was a cartel.
I had enough money left in the budget, to rent a small cinema just off Piccadilly. We were on the run up to Easter. The Sunday Times came to a preview and they said: “If you give us an exclusive we will give you the cover of our colour magazine on Easter Sunday”. The film was going to open on Easter Monday. Perfect. But that was all the publicity I had.
In those days we were going through a period of newspaper strikes and the week before Easter there was an announcement that The Sunday Times would be going on strike over the Ester weekend. At that moment I thought I was done for – without that publicity, no one would know about it.
When Sunday came, I went down to the local newspaper shop and the only thing available to read was the magazine. Because it was in colour it was printed ahead of time, and it was also free! The only thing you could get to read on Easter Sunday was the magazine, with the picture of the Shroud on the front cover, publicising my film. On Monday the queue was three hundred yards down Piccadilly.
Because it was 55 minutes long I could show it every hour, on the hour, from 11 o’clock in the morning to 9 o’clock in the evening. In the 6 weeks it was in that cinema it out-grossed Saturday Night Fever, which was playing in a big cinema around the corner. In ten days it was sold all around the world. It was a huge success and that year it won the British Academy Award.
What was the reaction of Vatican, Catholic Church, Anglican Church, to the film?
One of the things gave the film great credibility both in Protestant Church and in Catholicism was that we had a very famous theologian and bishop, Doctor John Robinson, who was Dean of Trinity College in Cambridge. He had written a very controversial book called Honest to God and he was the first Anglican theologian to say NASA has been up there, I think we have to be more cautious about thinking heaven is some kind of located place up there and he became quite iconoclastic. Even today some people still think heaven is up there, a place up in the skies. He came into the film because he found some of the evidence around the way there appeared to be a jaw band around the chin of Jesus, he was also an expert on John’s Gospel – the Church embraced the film. I know in Italy they showed the film and it was this film that trigged the Vatican to give permission for STURP tests of 1978, one year later, and it is all tied in together because profits from the film the Holy Shroud Guild received went to seed the finance for STURP.
You could say Ian Wilson sending me those papers – that was the beginning of a trail that set the Shroud off on to its ascent right up until 1989.
Interestingly when I made another film in 2009 – The Shroud of Turin, material evidence (the link to see it on You Tube is at the bottom of this post) – it was co-funded by myself and BBC and interestingly it had a Muslim presenter – Rageh Omaar –, a British reporter in Iraq when war started. The film looked at all the circumstantial evidence suggesting the carbon dating of Shroud of Turin was wrong.
At the heart of the programme was a new theory from John Jackson regarding carbon monoxide which could have explained why the carbon dating was wrong and we asked the Oxford Radiocarbon Unit to collaborate. As a result of that Professor Christopher Ramsey who was the head of the unit (he was a student when the radio carbon dating was done, he was there at that time) was prepared to say on film that perhaps we should re-look at the C14 result in light of all the other evidence as it appears to be a lone “outlier”. That was a significant breakthrough. Another significant aspect of the 2011 film was that Turin, beyond my wildest hopes but probably due to my long standing relationship with them, took the Shroud out of its glass casing in order for me to film it without any barrier. When Rai (Italian TV) heard about the film, and that the Oxford Radio Carbon Unit were saying positive things about the authenticity, they made me an offer for the film that was way above the usual rate. However, they wanted to show it at the same time as the BBC. It was quite difficult to arrange this because the schedule was tight and the editing complex. I had to fly out the copy of my tape with my (brilliant) Italian associate producer Alessandro Pavone. He took the master tape out and they paid a lot of money for it. When he arrived with the tape he was taken to a room along the corridor and I’m as certain as I can be that it was the Vatican that had given Rai the money. They must have wanted to see what was in this film as soon as possible. There had been a rumour triggered by an indiscrete comment from a Turin official that the evidence in the film was going to prove conclusively the carbon-14 was wrong. However, Prof. Ramsey did not go that far. I’m as sure as I can be that it was not Rai who purchased the film, because their budget is limited, but behind that purchase was the Vatican.
How have you been able to conclude that carbon test was wrong?
It is important to see the movie. At the end we didn’t prove it, but the film is a very full summation of all the counter-evidence. In a more recent film I made independently with the assistance of Pam Moon: A Grave Injustice, I am able to spell out the case even more succinctly.
A big influence on me was the experience I had as a direct result of the success of The Silent Witness. I was asked to produce and direct Channel 4’s first major series on a Religious theme to be co-financed with ITV: Jesus the Evidence. The project was “ revelation” for me. ITV in those days did have a lot of money and I had a substantial budget, a couple of years to do the research and a very good researcher working with me: Jean Claude Bragard. He would eventually go on to be Head of Religion TV at BBC. I then asked Ian Wilson to write the book associated with it.
I was shocked by what our research uncovered. In essence, the clergy had failed to communicate to the laity the fruits of New Testament scholarship which had raised doubts regarding their historical veracity. The Catholics even excommunicated scholars who dared to publish such suggestions.
Protestantism, by its very nature, was less punitive. They simply restricted discussion about it to the cloistered environment of Universities’ departments of Theology. No one had wanted to disturb the laity with this problematic information. I was shocked by this. So, some of the images in Jesus – The Evidence are somewhat overly iconoclastic. These included a rather crass exploding image of Jesus and the Sacred Heart. Interestingly, my dear friend Fr. Peter Rinaldi told me: “David it is the best thing you could do. We should have gotten rid of that image a long time ago”. However, it did upset a lot of people. One of the things that motivates me today is Father Peter’s memory. He was worshipped in his parish and yet within a few years of his death, after the carbon 14 test, his parishioners felt embarrassed by their association with the Shroud. They got rid of the shrine and all the other material was disposed of. Last time I looked I could not even find a reference to Father Rinaldi on their website.
My passion for the subject still exists because, despite the Carbon 14, the Shroud remains one of the most remarkable mysteries. Because of the work I did on Jesus the evidence, one thing I’m absolutely certain of is that Jesus was an historical character, was crucified by Pontius Pilate and after that, eventually, the world changed. Much more than that is open to question.
…and then began the mystery, according to what happened after he has been crucified. Till crucifixion is history, then it starts the mystery!
When I go back to the core sayings of Jesus that even the most critical of the New Testament scholarship accepts to be authentic there is enough of a philosophy and a way to live your life that is enough for me. Appreciate the mystery of creation and to love your neighbour as yourself. If you combine those two things you do not need anything else. So that is why I am happy to call myself a Christian, but whether other people would call me a Christian is less clear.
I just came back from a holiday in Split, in Croatia which is where Emperor Diocletian built his retirement fort. He was the last great persecutor of the Christians. There was the temple to Jupiter that he had built and Diocletian was a son of a God. In the Hellenic world if you wanted to promote anybody to any kind of stature they had to be some kind of Deity. Perhaps that’s what happened to the memory of Jesus.
What’s your personal belief about the eventual authenticity of Shroud?
The best way I can describe it is in a letter I wrote to a hypothetical forger – assuming there was a forger of the Shroud. In the letter I’ve congratulated with him on everything he has been able to do to create this forgery. By the time you get to the end of the list of everything he actually did, to create this forgery, in the middle ages, it is very difficult to believe that anybody but someone super human could have done it. That is my best answer (the letter has been attached below).
When I spoke to Father Rinaldi, the first time after the Carbon 14 result, I asked him how he felt about it. He said “I believe the Shroud is a miracle! Why does it have to be a 2000-year-old miracle?”. That was an interesting answer, too.
What do you think about the idea Jesus spent part of his life in India?
Christianity flourished in the Hellenic world and therefore we must look at the early days of Christianity as being strongly influenced by Hellenic culture and imagery. The early years of Jesus are conspicuously absent. The general thrust of his teachings echo things that are in the Vedas and are consistent with much of Buddhist thought. These both pre-existed. We also have to acknowledge the fact that there were well-established trading routes between Palestine and the far East. I certainly would not want to rule out the possibility – either before or after – of there being some probability that Jesus went to India.
The case for it has been made in some detail, I have seen one film about it (Jesus in India), and of course, you have the undisputed genetic evidence of the spread of the tribes of Israel, and that is there for all to see. The dispersal of the Jews in to that region of the world is not controversial. So, there is lots of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it is a possibility and that it demands to be considered.
Which kind of thesis do you feel could be more authentic – the belief that Jesus has been to India before the Crucifixion, or after, or both?
I think either or both are possible. It would be no greater miracle for him to have “descended” in to India as it would have been to have “ascended” in to heaven. Such stories are not part of the canon of Christian literature but we know there were lots of things that have never come down to us because they were destroyed, so who knows?
Have you some projects, nowadays, some movies?
The answer is yes. It is yet to materialise. I have learnt to make films independently, if you go to a broadcaster to get a film commissioned it is very difficult to get editorial independence because the commissioners first of all are weary of doing anything too controversial, they have a TV company to support and also you get layers of editorial control. In my experience, I was very lucky when I did ‘Jesus the Evidence’ because it was made for Channel 4 and it was their first religious commission, and when Channel 4 was established in this country it had a mandate to be different. The other TV channels each had a religious supervisory committee with representatives of the church, Channel 4 did not have that, so when we made ‘Jesus the Evidence’ there were no religious authorities that could have any influence – only post-facto. – They did view it and did not like it. It was also relayed to me that the Queen – who is Head of the Church, and thereby ‘defender of the faith’, was ‘not amused’ by ‘Jesus the Evidence’. I suspect that if I had lived a few hundred years earlier I would have been tortured on the rack. Fortunately, in the UK anyway, we live in a more enlightened day.
I think we have to be careful not to discard the essence of Christianity (and religion per se) just because some of its writings are clearly suspect. As I said earlier, if you distil things down to the essence of the story of Jesus of Nazareth you have a way to live.
I see many people are genuinely and strongly interested in this topic of Jesus in India, but I can image as well that some environments would be very much disturbed about the spreading of these kind of ideas…
Only amongst those who have something to lose, and certainly amongst Catholicism – and to orthodox Catholicism it would still be anathema – in this country it would be not a problem at all. I think exploring the idea would be something that British people, including Anglican Christians, would be really interested in. I don’t think that is a problem at all. There is certainly circumstantial evidence. Finding more than circumstantial evidence is yet, as far as I can see, to be done. The existence of that tomb, in Srinagar (Kashmir), interesting though it is, is not sufficient. There is plenty of scope for speculation. What I do think is within our grasp, and certainly I would hope for a film I am embarking on now, is to understand a lot more about what caused the image on the Shroud. We do have a tangible object in the Shroud, we have its image, there is non-invasive technology now, thanks to the huge business there is now to establish the authenticity of works of art. Determinations using chemical methods, spectroscopy and other analytical techniques right down to the molecular level are now readily available.
Then there could be an alternative to another Carbon 14 test?
Not in terms of dating, but there is more that can be done in establishing the nature of the image without further recourse to the Shroud itself. I obtained pure digital data from the Shroud when I was allowed to film it in HD without a glass interface. One of the things I am hoping to do in a new film is to actually use this data. It could show that it is an ointment residue, which is the Ahmadiyya contention. In the same way, you could determine whether it was some kind of scorch.
A letter of congratulation to the medieval forger who created The Shroud of Turin
Your choice of an image left on a Shroud is a perfect encapsulation of the mystery that surrounds him. Here lies a man that died in the most vile and cruel way yet devised by mankind. The awful details reveal it was what we only now know to be a Roman crucifixion. This is uncanny because when you were commissioned you had no knowledge of these details. And you have managed to fool even a forensic pathologist with its accuracy. Congratulations.
You have echoed the bare facts we have about the man’s life by making it ethereal but perceptible enough for it to be recognised for what it is by crowds at a distance on a glaring hot day when thousands flock to see it held aloft in the open air. Congratulations.
By restricting yourself to a monotone you have emphasised the singularity involved in the event of this man’s life and death. Indeed, the image is its own singularity as it has no known comparison or equal in art or science. Congratulations.
This tone, so sparsely applied, has, centuries after your work was completed, yielded to a new science of photography an image of even greater perceptibility. An image that you could never have seen. Congratulations.
You have maintained such evenness of hand of the single tone along its entire length and breadth that science developed centuries later has been able to translate your pains into a lifelike three-dimensional representation of the man in death. Congratulations.
Somehow, as well as making sense as a two dimensional depiction, you have applied the blood and arranged the position of the limbs to enable it to make sense even when wrapped around a corpse – even to the soles of the feet. Congratulations.
Your canvas has been a linen cloth of dimensions used at the time and woven on a loom that worked under the strict laws that governed the man’s world. Congratulations.
The cloth is nothing like the rough linen grave clothes discovered in the excavated tombs in the hills of Jerusalem. Its quality matches the esteem in which those who followed held the man it would have wrapped. It is the purchase of a rich man. Congratulations.
Despite our preference you have been brave enough to leave him naked and kept him devoid of any artefact that would allow one group above another to claim him for themselves. Yet, you have kept his dignity and repose. Congratulations.
Indeed, you have excelled even this. This savagely tortured man in death is at peace with himself and with us. Indeed, he appears, somehow, to have transcended his fate and conquered death. Congratulations.