Seeker of the Lost Ark

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"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.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen