It was one of the most anticipated scientific announcements of all time, and it pitted the world of faith against the world of rational thought, under media fire. So when cutting-edge carbon-14 testing revealed the Turin Shroud to be a fake, it appeared to be the final chapter of a relic that had been revered for centuries as the cloth in which Christ’s body had been wrapped. when he was supposed to have risen from death on the first Easter nearly 2,000 years ago.
But one man – David Rolfe, a filmmaker whose documentary The Silent Witness had worn the shroud in the public eye in modern times, and who had converted to Christianity as a result of his research – was not ready to give it up. He was convinced that the carbon dating, carried out in 1988 under the direction of the British Museum and the University of Oxford, was wrong. And now he claims he has the evidence to prove it. This week sees the release of a new movie, Who can he be?in which Rolfe argues that, far from being a definitive misfire, new discoveries in recent years have again opened the question of its authenticity.
Rolfe is so convinced that he issues a $1 million challenge to the British Museum. “If they believe the shroud is a medieval fake, I invite them to repeat the exercise and create something similar today,” he says. “Because from all the evidence I’ve seen, if it’s a fake, it’s the most ingenious fake in history – and of course it dates back nearly 2,000 years, at a time when counterfeiting techniques were much less sophisticated.
“They said he was knocked up by a medieval trickster, and I say, well, if he could do it, you must be able to do it too. And if you can, there’s a $1 million donation for your funds.
According to the Gospel accounts, it was when they discovered Christ’s burial cloth on the floor of his tomb that his followers first believed that he had risen from the dead. Through the centuries, the shroud has been revered as that same piece of cloth.
Rolfe became aware of it around 45 years ago, after putting out a request for ideas for documentaries, and writer Ian Wilson, who had investigated the shroud – then kept in Turin Cathedral – got in touch. . Rolfe was not a believer, but he found the story of the shroud fascinating. The documentary he later made won a Bafta in 1978 and brought the relic to international attention.
“My program never said it was genuine, but it did ask questions, such as how the image of the crucified man ended up on the fabric, and did its provenance match the chronology of Christ,” says Rolfe.
The most powerful moment for him came when he first took photographs of the four-meter-long shroud and saw that the image of the dead man’s face was much more pronounced in the negatives. “It was almost as if it was created for the age of photography,” says Rolfe.
In the mid-1980s, the Vatican, owner of the shroud, agreed in principle that it could be dated using the latest technology and entrusted this task to the British Museum. A few years later, the verdict goes around the world: the fabric dates from the 13th or 14th century, and cannot be authentic. It seemed that the relic had had its day.
But Rolfe, now in his 70s, was determined to demystify the demystification. “Five [testing] protocols were agreed upon, but they were all dropped,” he says. Under the glare of global publicity, the tests have become a political hot potato for the British Museum. The sample used for the tests, Rolfe explains in his new film, was too small and taken from a corner where the shroud had probably been repaired over the centuries.
Many would say that even if the shroud were proven to be the burial cloth of the man named Jesus who was crucified 2,000 years ago, it does not constitute proof of his resurrection, the central tenet of the belief. Christian. “Carbon dating might show it definitely dates from the time of Christ, but it’s still hard to see this as evidence that he rose from the dead,” says Richy Thompson of Humanists UK. “Some people believe that, yes, Jesus was a real person, and we know the crucifixion was a thing in those days, and Pontius Pilate is a well-documented historical figure.
“What a lot of non-religious people would say is where is the evidence? Because if you’re going to make extraordinary claims, you need solid evidence to back them up. And the fact that people believe [in the resurrection] is not in itself proof that it actually happened.
Rolfe is unfazed: he says the image on the fabric appears to be from a massive burst of radiation, emitted in a split second.
When it comes to carbon dating, he’s certainly not the only one to be skeptical. Barrie M Schwortz, a photographer who documented the shroud in 1978, says “trouble” would be a good word to describe the events of 1988.
“Today, there are at least six peer-reviewed scientific papers that challenge carbon dating results,” he says. According to him, the actors involved were in a rush to get the job done, as they wanted to get carbon dating on the map. “These tests made it a household name, and today it is widely used in archaeology,” he says. “I’m Jewish so I don’t have a horse in this race, but I’ve come to believe this is the genuine burial cloth because I watched the science.”
The British Museum is less willing to get involved this time around. “Any current questions about the shroud would best be put to those currently caring for it in the Royal Chapel of Turin Cathedral,” a spokesperson said.