Seeker of the Lost Ark

Vendyl Jones says he's a crusading archaeologist searching for long-lost biblical treasures. His critics sya he's more worried about self-promotion than science.

In 1988, Jones announced he had found a jug of anointing oil in the caves that dated to the time of the temple. The find brought him front-page coverage in The New York Times. In 1992, he held a news conference to declare that he had found a reddish-brown powder deep in a man-made chamber of a cave. Citing chemical research, he claimed the powder was ritual incense used by Jewish priests.

Jones contends the discovery of the Ark might only be a dig away--except that the Israeli government won't give him a permit.

If Jones is right, the Israeli government has good cause to be concerned about his search. Locating remnants of Solomon's Temple could inflame the territorial battles burning in the Middle East. The probable site of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem is now occupied by the third-holiest Muslim shrine in the world, the Dome of the Rock. Faithful Muslims believe the gold-topped mosque is where Muhammad ascended into heaven. Efforts like Jones' only encourage messianic-minded fundamentalists, both Jewish and Christian, into hatching schemes to gain control of the temple's former location.

Documentary-makers in Europe and Israel are fans of Jones, seen here in an unbroadcast film, Vendyl Jones and the Treasures of the Copper Scroll. The scroll, top, contains directions to the the lost Ark of the Covenant, below,--if you read it diagonally, Jones says.
Documentary-makers in Europe and Israel are fans of Jones, seen here in an unbroadcast film, Vendyl Jones and the Treasures of the Copper Scroll. The scroll, top, contains directions to the the lost Ark of the Covenant, below,--if you read it diagonally, Jones says.

With the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks teetering, Jones believes his search has become even more important. He wants to prove the Jews' God-given rights to the land before the Israeli government makes concessions.

"What I am doing has real political ramifications," Jones says. "If I find the Ark, it is going to have a hellacious impact." He hesitates for moment and then adds, "Of course, most people think I have a one in 100,000 chance of succeeding."

"Thank God for this," Jones prays as he glances around his high-ceilinged living room, large enough to serve as a high-school auditorium. Jones' colonial-style manse, into which he moved this year, sits in one of those neighborhoods that makes one marvel at what Texas real estate developers will plop on a prairie. On a badly paved road near where Arlington meets Grand Prairie and where crowds flock to the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, sits Jones' house, behind its ostentatious façade of six columns. Jones also owns a three-room apartment in an Orthodox Jewish settlement in Israel, where he lives during his excavations. He says he is the only non-Jew in the community.

In the last 20 years, Jones has, through his writings, talks, and conferences revitalized the Ben Noahide (Hebrew for sons of Noah) movement. With an estimated 500 families in the United States and scattered pockets of adherents worldwide, the Noahides, as they call themselves, follow a religious path they believe non-Jews traveled almost 2,000 years ago. That's when some non-Jews still studied the Torah and believed they had to follow universal laws given by God to prophet Noah, Jones explains. According to the Noahides' interpretation of the Torah and rabbinical teachings, the "seven laws of Noah" prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft, and the eating of flesh from a living animal. A final law encourages support of a legal system.

Jones meets almost every Sunday afternoon with his followers in his Grand Prairie home. At a recent gathering, about 15 mostly middle-aged or older people sat in chairs scattered around his capacious living room. Almost all had Bibles open, either in their laps or on tray tables. Janet Lewis and more than a dozen other participants dissected a portion of the Old Testament that, according to Jewish law and calendar, was read to Jewish congregations around the world that week. In speaking to each other, the Ben Noahides refer often to Hashem, the deferential Hebrew moniker for a deity that they respectfully do not name.

On the walls of Jones' living room are homemade posters blessing the Torah and the Jewish people for teaching the book. Menorahs and reliefs of Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem decorate the shelves.

Several times in the past decade, Jones has helped arrange conventions of Noahides and invited rabbinical scholars to teach the Torah. At first, the rabbis were skeptical, but some have embraced the movement, particularly more Orthodox and politically conservative leaders such as Rabbi Michael Katz in Florida. "These people are really impressive. They are trying to learn," says Michael Dallen, a close ally of Katz, an Orthodox Jew, and an author of a book about Noah's teachings.

"I'll get the people, you get the teachers," Jones recalls he told the chief rabbi in Israel before arranging a Ben Noahide convention in Fort Worth in 1990 attended by 350 families.

On a typical Sunday in his home, the crowd is much thinner. "We don't do any advertising. People come when they want," Jones says. "I could have built a religious empire if I wanted, but I didn't." In front of a reporter, he told his congregation: "I am not a prophet. This is a non-prophet organization."

Typically, those interested in the Noahide movement are former fundamentalist Christians. They are often professionals with some disposable income, some time, and some interest in pursuing a richer spiritual life.

"It's hard when you always wanted to be a Christian and then you change your faith," says Lewis, who heard about Jones through a friend and then a newspaper article before she began attending his classes 13 years ago.

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