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.

Jones also received help from Christians who were beginning to buy into his line of thinking about Noah. "I think he was mostly just supported by free-will gifts," Peak says, "which was good for him."

It wasn't until 1988 that Jones claimed his first Copper Scroll-related find: a jug of oil located in the caves in the Qumran area. In a front-page story in The New York Times, Jones said it was the vessel for anointing oil used by the religious leaders in Solomon's Temple. His digging had been in association with Hebrew University, so the press accepted his claim readily at the time. In academic papers published a few years later, however, two Haifa university professors stated that the oil found inside resembled what is extracted in modern times from date stones. "No such oil was known in antiquity," the professors wrote.

Four years later, Jones, who was spending his summer in Israel and winters in Texas, made another discovery. He held a news conference in the Qumran desert to announce he had excavated 900 pounds of red dirt. Standing beside Jones, a chemical analyst who produced a paper on the stationery of Israel's famed Weitzmann Institute of Science, identified the compound as very likely having eight of the 11 spices that supposedly constituted the holy incense used in Solomon's Temple to purify worshipers.

Mark Graham
Really old-time religion: Vendyl Jones leads a gathering of Ben Noahides at his Grand Prairie home. Members of the sect say they follow religious laws handed down by Noah, of Noah's ark fame.
Mark Graham
Really old-time religion: Vendyl Jones leads a gathering of Ben Noahides at his Grand Prairie home. Members of the sect say they follow religious laws handed down by Noah, of Noah's ark fame.

When reporters later called the Weitzmann Institute, however, they were told that Jones' effort had no connection to the school. The scientist who had stood by his side at the news conference was merely a consultant, the Weitzmann officials said.

Asked about this discrepancy these days, Jones defers the question to Jim Hooter, a man he calls a bio-paleontologist in Iowa. Hooter does not link himself to any academic institution, but he says that he found 14 spices in the compound, including all the spices of temple incense and three additional kinds of cinnamon.

The incense discovery brought Jones a flood of publicity, but it also invited trouble. A week after his news conference, the Israeli antiquities authorities yanked Jones' permit to dig.

"This isn't something personal," an Israeli government spokesman told The Associated Press at the time. "The main problem is we never give a license to someone who isn't an archaeologist."

For Jones' followers, who helped him by giving money and volunteering on the digs--flying to Israel for months at a time and arising at 4 a.m. to labor in sweltering heat--the discovery of the incense provided proof: The Copper Scroll's clues could lead to rebuilding the temple.

"Things were really stacking up," says Don Hutchison, a 73-year-old wealthy real estate developer from Kansas City, Missouri, who has been with Jones on most of his digs and contributed significant amounts in the past two decades to his expenses. In 1986, Hutchison heard Jones talk of his discoveries on a local television show in Kansas City.

Impressed, Hutchison called the television station and asked to meet with the former preacher, who was already talking about his interpretations of the Torah and its meaning for Gentiles. "Vendyl asked me if I was into the Bible," Hutchison recalls. "I told him I had read it five times. He said to read it five times more and then come talk to him."

Hutchison flew to Texas to meet Jones and became more excited about his work. Jones was living in Arlington then and had an office where he had established what he called a research institute to handle the administration of the flow of funds from his followers. Soon, the archaeology and the Torah reading became inseparable. "It started opening up my mind," says Hutchison, a former fundamentalist Christian. "It wasn't the archaeology. It was something that made sense. There is something going on when this man can pull the things he can out of the Torah."

Jones impresses Hutchison and others when he often drops prophetic notions into his writings and talks. In a letter to prospective financial supporters, for instance, Jones includes a photograph of himself standing beside one of the caves in Qumran where, at that particular angle, anyway, his profile seems to have been carved by nature into the stone at the entrance--a hint of destiny, he writes.

Some of Jones' one-time followers have found his prophecies a little too self-serving. J. David Davis, a former Baptist preacher in eastern Tennessee, who stripped the steeple from his church when he transformed his former Christian congregation into B'nai Noach in 1989, met Jones in the early '80s. The two men say they were once close, but now Davis concedes he keeps "a dossier" on Jones to provide detail for reporters about some of his more dubious claims.

"I totally reject everything he says," says Davis, who previously participated in some of the digs. "A man can say anything. He has found a vial of oil, a mile away from where he says it was. You can have a press conference and have nothing." Davis eventually peeled from Jones' movement because, he contends, "The emphasis would always shift to archaeology and raising money."

In a quarterly newsletter to adherents, Jones wrote: "All the mystery is still there, so near yet so far away...How many times did Moses have to go up Sinai before he succeeded in receiving the Torah? Three times."

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