Longform

Seeker of the Lost Ark

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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.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen