Seeker of the Lost Ark
Vendyl Jones certainly looks like an archaeologist, or at least like an aging, Hollywood back-lot version of one, as the tall Texan stomps about the desert near Jordan dressed in leather boots and hat, a tan shirt and tan slacks held up by snakeskin suspenders.
Balding and bearded, Jones puffs on a calabash pipe as he describes for documentary filmmakers his quest for the legendary lost Ark of the Covenant. In a West Texas drawl, he lingers on Hebrew words and biblical references as he speaks of the gilded wooden box that some religious scholars believe houses the stone tablets (Jones contends they were actually sapphire prisms) that Moses brought from Mount Sinai. According to some believers, finding the Ark will mean the arrival--or return--of the messiah, world peace, or the beginning of the end.
With the possible exception of Harrison Ford, Hollywood probably could not have cast a better person to play the role of an archaeologist-cum-adventurer than this 70-year-old former preacher from Grand Prairie. Jones' story is fit for an old-time movie serial. Unfortunately for him and his supporters, to some legitimate archaeologists it's also just about as plausible.
For the documentary-makers in Europe and Israel who have turned Jones into a minor celebrity, Jones' appeal is neither science nor religion; it's his claim that he was the role model for the swashbuckling hero of director Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jones rarely misses an opportunity to mention the connection to reporters. "Take the first and last letter of my first name," Jones says, "and you get 'Endy Jones.'"
Spielberg denies Jones' claim, but that didn't matter last year when Jones went with a Spanish television crew to Petra, Jordan. Jones has never stuck a shovel or scraped a trowel near the city, but part of the last Raiders sequel, 1989's Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, was shot nearby. Jones says he was embarrassed by the slim, unscholarly premise for his appearance but decided to be a good sport for the cameras. "I leaned back and pulled a hat over my eyes," Jones recalls. After shooting some footage, the crew wanted to introduce him to the local mayor. Jones says the mayor approached him and practically spit on the ground in disgust. "That man is not Indiana Jones," Jones recalls the dignitary's saying. "He is just acting like Indiana Jones." After much explaining, the Spanish crew finally persuaded the mayor that Jones was the authentic article and Harrison Ford, whom the mayor had met, was the actor.
But just how authentic is Jones? From Jerusalem to Grand Prairie, from baptism to his own brand of non-Jewish adherence to the Torah, Jones lives a life that is alluring to romantics and anathema to skeptics.
Jones believes he has a key to solving the Middle East crisis through archaeology, and he has persuaded contributors to provide him money and sweat to dig for it, but he has not been so lucky in enticing Israeli government officials or academics to buy into his quest. Jones believes the Israeli government fears his work because he is about to find biblical treasures supporting Jewish territorial claims, and that will upset the Middle East peace process.
Israeli authorities say professional rather than political concerns make them unhappy about Jones and reluctant to give him permits to dig.
"I don't want to talk about him," says Itzhak Magen, the director of antiquities in Judea and Samaria for the Israeli government, who has apparently grown tired of the attention given a man he considers without credibility. "It's not for political reasons that we don't give him permits. It's for science reasons."
Acclaimed archaeologists also distrust Jones' work. "It's a shame to mislead the public. What a tragic waste of money," says Robert Elliot Friedman, a professor of archaeology at the University of California in San Diego and the author of the bestseller Who Wrote the Bible? about the historical period from which Jones hopes to find his treasures. Jones, Friedman says, exaggerates his findings. For example, Jones claims he has found items from Solomon's Temple without enough evidence to corroborate him.
But for Jones' followers--and he has enough to support a mansion in Grand Prairie, a second house in Israel, and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in digs--the man is pursuing a purpose holier than simple academia. "I think he is doing God's work," says Janet Lewis, a 64-year-old resident of Seven Points, Texas. She drives 85 miles on Sundays to attend Jones' classes on the Torah, saves money to give to him, and works in his office as a volunteer. "He will find the ashes of the red heifer and then the Ark, and the world will change," she says simply.
"I have always believed and stated that our work is a work of destiny," Jones wrote in a recent letter he dispatched to some 8,000 people on his mailing list to raise money for future excavations,
In three decades of digging in caves in Qumran, a region near the border of Israel and Jordan, Jones has made several discoveries--some of them dubious--that he links to the temple built by King Solomon, where the Ark was once supposedly kept. Before invading Babylonians destroyed the temple located in what is now Jerusalem, Jones and others believe religious leaders secreted away the Ark and other artifacts. Jones, relying on his interpretation of historical but controversial documents, thinks the objects were hidden in the caves in Qumran.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Jones too expects to try a third time to unearth the Ark of the Covenant from a Qumran cave. This summer, he received a permit from Israeli authorities to drill into one of the underground caves in Qumran. He was, however, explicitly barred from excavating or even moving stones. He planned to drill down into the cave, drop in a lipstick-sized camera, and determine if the cavity was worth pursuing further. Israeli authorities insisted that Jones only reach his drilling site by helicopter--to reduce ecological damage--and the whole effort became an unbearably expensive affair, Jones told supporters, amounting to about $2,500 a day in costs. Moreover, he found nothing.
"I was distressed because of the political jeopardy that the pagan Gentile nations have forced on Israel at this hour," Jones writes in another missive to his followers. "Opening this chamber...would shock Israel and the world into a new mode of thinking."
He also noted that the effort put him $42,000 in debt and that the summer had caused a slump in donations.
"This is a solemn call to arms," Jones said at the end of the letter. "Our work, and eventually our survival and our future, depends [sic] on your prompt response."
To academics like Friedman, who see money that could go to his graduate students wasted on Jones' efforts, the Grand Prairie former preacher proves just one precept: "You can fool the public for quite a long time."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.