Longform

Seeker of the Lost Ark

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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."

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen