Hey, this could be the best thing to happen to religion since Barney Frank declared himself an atheist. On the other hand, it will probably be another food fight over the authenticity of relics, which are fairly irrelevant to faith in general. Archeologists will have a field day with the discovery of the relic in the remains of a seventh-century church in Turkey, though, and it’s a fascinating find regardless of its origin:

Archaeologists working at an ancient church in Turkey believe they have unearthed a piece of the cross used to crucify Jesus.

But it could take years of analysis before the world will know for sure.

“We have found a holy thing in a chest; it’s a piece of a cross,” said one of the archaeologists.

Workers believe that cross is the one Jesus died on Friday, April 3, 33 A.D.

Believe is the operative word here. It may well be that the original church in Turkey believed the relic to be part of the True Cross, even without the use of carbon dating. There may have been an oral and/or written tradition that supported the belief at the time, although that tradition may or may not be recoverable now. Clearly it was an object of veneration, which would make that belief at the time very clear; after all, what other chunk of wood would call for that kind of treatment by a Christian church of that period?

Carbon dating, though, can’t provide a definitively positive answer to that question, as a moment’s thought makes clear. It could set the date of the lumber’s production at or near the year of the Crucifixion, but it can’t tell the date of its use nor the victim executed on it — or even if it was used in an execution at all. At best, archeology can only provide correlative data that might tend to support or discredit the claim, but can’t offer much proof in either direction. Science is of limited application in cases like these, especially with a lack of information about the object and its provenance.

That doesn’t make the story any less fascinating. Perhaps it will remind people of the rich Christian traditions in Turkey and the surrounding regions, or inspire more interest in archeology. Hopefully, it will inspire some to embrace Christianity, which was the purpose of relics all along, but that embrace won’t rely on the results of carbon dating.