By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Jones also believed in Christianity in his youth. Born in Sudan, a town of 1,000 people northwest of Lubbock, Jones was reared as a fundamentalist by his parents, who owned and operated a barbershop and beauty parlor. Jones laughs--as he often does when he talks about himself--as he recalls the story of how his mother read the Bible to him. She started by rolling a newspaper as if it were a megaphone, directing it to her womb and reciting the Book of Genesis to him in her first trimester. By the time he was 9, he says, he had read about one-third of the Bible.
High school photographs of Jones show an odd bespectacled boy. At age 17, he says, he underwent an experience that forever committed him to God's work. An experiment in chemistry class backfired, and the explosion put him on the floor. For a moment, he thought he was blinded. "God give me back my sight, and I'll do anything you want," he remembers saying. As it happened, the soot was easily wiped from his glasses, but he kept the promise nonetheless.
In the mid-'50s, Jones studied to become a preacher at Bible Baptist Seminary, a now-defunct school in Dallas, then served for about a year at a congregation in Virginia and later in North Carolina. Even in seminary, Jones says he had his doubts about his religion.
"I was in the assembly for three weeks," Jones recalls. "This guy brought this lecture on the Holy Trinity. I asked if they had seen the [term] 'Holy Trinity' in the Bible...and the dean called me to his office the next morning."
Most Baptists, Jones says, "are so narrow-minded they could piss through a keyhole," but his dean was tolerant and admiringly asked his student how he got so many of his classmates to comb through and carefully review their Bibles. (The story is typical of Jones, who has a way of talking about himself that is at once self-denigrating and boastful.)
By the early '60s, Jones was still Christian but had begun studying the Torah and other Jewish writings. In 1967, he moved his family of five to Israel so he could study at Hebrew University. A steadfast supporter of the state of Israel, Jones volunteered to help the Israeli Army during the 1967 Six-Day War. Colorblind, Jones says he served as a forward spotter because he was able to detect certain camouflages better than others. The fighting ended quickly with an Israeli victory and a modicum amount of fame for Jones, whose story appeared in Time magazine. "No Americans were known to have joined the fighting--or were needed--but at least one, the Rev. Vendyl Jones of Sudan, Texas, lent civilian support," Time correspondents wrote in a breathless June 1967 account. "Wandering near the Jordan border from a kibbutz where he had been working, the Baptist minister started talking to the Israeli command, who soon discovered that the Rev. Mr. Jones possessed a rare skill..."
It was the first score in Jones' lifelong knack for garnering superlative--and unquestioning--media accounts of his achievements.
Jones' interest in archaeology dated to his teens, when he and friends excavated Indian artifacts in West Texas. In Israel, Jones, who says he studied with an archaeologist at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, merged his biblical studies with his digging.
To map his excavations over the years, Jones has relied on biblical references and clues from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts that were produced roughly 19 centuries ago but are not fully understood by today's scholars. Believed to have been written by an enigmatic sect of Jewish mystics who, some contend, created Christianity, the scrolls were unearthed in 1947 by a bedouin shepherd in Qumran.
Initially shrouded in secrecy, the scrolls and their academic interpreters have been at the center of numerous controversies in the Middle East. Ever since the scrolls were found shortly before the United Nations established Israel, the ancient texts have fueled religious and conspiracy theorists. John Allegro, one of the original members of a team of scholars tagged to dissect the tattered manuscripts, ruined his academic reputation when he insisted that the scrolls proved Jesus was just a cheap sequel to the real Righteous Teacher described in the old texts. Another Oxford-trained scholar also lost much standing when he advanced interpretations of the scrolls that led him to tell Israeli newspapers that Judaism was a "horrible religion."
Jones has focused on one particular scroll, the only one made of copper, which was found in the same general area but five years later than the others. While most of the scrolls are religious writings and stories, the Copper Scroll reads like a simple inventory. Jones and others believe that the scroll provides clues to discovering archaeological evidence--such as the Ark--that might establish that Jews have a God-given right to the land of Israel.
Jones believes you can read through a coded text of the Copper Scroll to find 32 sites for temple treasures. But, he says, you have to read it diagonally.
Throughout the '70s and the '80s, Jones made his way to and from Israel. In the United States, he picked up preaching work where he could get it. Elbert Peak, a television minister who broadcasts in Abilene, recalls that Jones would come and help with "prophecy conferences" that Peak produced for his congregation.