Right now, for instance, three highly technical disputes have erupted over materials linked to Scripture:
-In the most important development, scholars say tests on remains from a dig in modern-day Jordan indicate the biblical country of Edom existed during the era of Kings David and Solomon, if not earlier. The find could undercut skeptics of biblical history.
-Prosecutors in Israel filed fraud charges Dec. 29 involving a purported first-century inscription of Jesus' name. But this month a prominent archaeology magazine will assail the government's scientific evidence.
-New testing indicates the Shroud of Turin, a celebrated relic said to be Jesus' burial cloth, could actually date from his time. That opposes scientists' earlier conclusion that the artifact is a fraud from the Middle Ages.
The unending popular interest in such matters is undeniable.
Says Niels Peter Lemche of the University of Copenhagen, part of an arch-skeptical faction that treats most of the Old Testament as politically motivated fiction: "The public, that is people not members of the fraternity of biblical scholars, are still mainly interested in history. Did it happen as written or did it not happen? That is the question most often asked when talking to an audience of lay persons.
The public's fascination is evident to Lemche in the success of Biblical Archaeology Review, a 30-year-old glossy magazine with 120,000 subscribers. It explains scholars' ongoing dustups for lay readers.
Consider the excitement over the magazine's 2002 report about a first-century burial box for bones (an ossuary) with an inscription that reads, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." James led the early church in Jerusalem and depending on which Christian tradition is being invoked was Jesus' brother, stepbrother or cousin.
Some immediately suspected the inscription was a hoax perpetrated in ancient or modern times. Israel's new fraud indictments say the ossuary's owner was among five men who forged dozens of biblical artifacts.
The magazine's editor, Hershel Shanks, says the issue being published Feb. 15 will argue that nobody can yet decide whether the inscription is fake because Israel has thoroughly "bungled" the scientific evidence.
Meanwhile, the important Edom research has added fuel to one of the hottest archaeological disputes of recent years.
The Bible reports that Edom was a well-defined land southeast of the Dead Sea that had kings before Israel (Genesis 36:31, 1 Chronicles 1:43), barred Moses during the Exodus (Numbers 20:14-21) and warred with King David (2
Samuel 8:13-14, 1 Kings 11:15-16).
But many scholars have claimed the Bible got it wrong, and no Edomite state existed before the eighth century. Part of their thinking stemmed from the fact that physical evidence of Edom was lacking. Meanwhile, Lemche's camp claimed that far-later writers invented David and Solomon and their kingdom, which the Bible says began around 1000 B.C.
Related to that, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein made a controversial bid to shift the usual dating of major sites in the Holy Land to say they came just after Solomon's reign. Unlike Lemche's group, Finkelstein doesn't deny there was a Solomon, but his theory means the Bible's record of Solomon is hugely distorted. The argument between Finkelstein and most archaeologists' older chronology was pursued in Science magazine and at a recent radiocarbon summit in Britain.
Now comes the report on Edom, in the current edition of the quarterly Antiquity, by Russell Adams of Canada's McMaster University, Thomas Levy of the University of California, San Diego, and other colleagues.
They say pottery remains and radiocarbon work at a major copper processing plant in Jordan indicate settlement in the 11th century B.C. and probably before that, with a nearby monumental fortress from the 10th century era of David and Solomon. They are convinced the site was part of the Edomite state.
University of Arizona archaeologist William Dever had been skeptical about Edom's existence that early but says this "discovery is revolutionary" and lends credibility to the biblical kingdom of David and Solomon.
The Shroud of Turin dispute also involves radiocarbon tests, those done in 1988 on threads from the famous relic, which bears the faint image of a crucified man. The tests dated the cloth between 1260 and 1390. But in the current edition of the journal Thermochimica Acta, Raymond Rogers of Los Alamos National Laboratory argues that the tested threads came from later patches and might have been contaminated.
Rogers' major point is that his chemical tests found no vanillin, a compound in flax fibers that gradually disappears. From that, he calculated that the shroud is 1,300 to 3,000 years old and could easily date from Jesus' era.
The cloth is "from the right time but you're never going to find out if it was used on a person named Jesus" through science, Rogers notes.
Indeed, given the difficulties in interpreting the meaning of scattered items that by chance have survived from ancient times, the latest findings probably won't settle any of the three debates if any of them can ever be truly put to rest.