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published in Uptown Express June 1990
The following was an early version of Vendyl Jones's fabricated personal history. It may be the first time he tried the story out. Be aware, though, that his claims about being the prototype of Indiana Jones and the script being stolen from a friend of his is completely untrue. No doubt many other appealing facets of the story are also false.
"I've often said I'm not religious; it interferes with my faith. Once you start organizing and making doctrinal creeds and statements and confessions of faith and all that, you've already derailed the faith. I think everybody has to find God in themselves. It's a faith experience." These are the words of Vendyl Jones, the "real" Indiana Jones.
Vendyl and Indy are not quite one and the same, but Vendyl Jones is the man upon whom the character of Indiana Jones was based. His deep Texas drawl and colorful good-ol'-boy homilies belie the years of education, intense study and personal searching that brought this Southern Baptist boy from West Texas into the international spotlight as a biblical scholar and expert on biblical translations. Defending his own interpretations, he points to the Greek, then the Hebrew original to show a word omitted, a phrase added, a questionable interpretation. Though his expedition made what may well be the most important archaeological find of the century, unlike the screen character, Vendyl Jones does not search ancient sites from a passion for antiquities. He is not even an archaeologist by profession. His search for holy relics is an extension of his very personal lifelong search for the word of God.
The 19-year-old Vendyl Jones could not reasonably accept everything he was taught. During a seminary class, having challenged his professor's interpretation of the Trinity, Jones relates that he said, "My next question is do you have to believe that to finish this school, because if you do I'll go check out now." That incident resulted in being faced at his door by a trembling student, Bible in hand, saying, "Brother, you're going to hell, you're going to hell, you're going to hell."
I shouldn't say this," Jones says apologetically, "but the guy wasn't playing with a full deck to start with." The earnest student thumbed through his Bible looking for the proof he needed to convince Jones that he was wrong. Finally, coming up with nothing, he mumbled, "Well, I don't know my Bible very good." Jones's response was: "If you don't know your Bible very good, what in the hell are you doing in here telling me I'm going to hell. Maybe you're the one that's going." Then followed two debates, first pitting Jones against a panel of students and then against another panel that included a professor. Jones won both debates. He had read his Bible, and he knew it didn't say what they were trying to get him to accept. He says of his master's degree in theology, "It took me longer to unlearn it than it did to learn it."
The young seminarian was feeling his frustration at the limitations of the English translations of the Bible and hungered to get to the source. This led him, at the age of 26, to enroll in a Jewish Hader Talmud Torah. His classmates were five- and six-year-olds. While still reaching for mastery of the necessary tool of the original language of the scriptures, he began his studies, undertaking Bar Mitzvah studies through the Hebrew University Department of Judaica. He studied Kaballah with Haim Shivelli and Sefer Tanya and undertook Hasidic studies at the Lubervitcher Yesheva Chabad in Jerusalem.
"Aramaic is the nearest language there is to Hebrew, and they had to translate it [the Bible] from Hebrew to Aramaic and from Aramaic to Greek and from Greek to Latin and from Latin to German and then from German to English." The loss of nuance in meaning from language to language is not the only problem encountered by the English-speaking Bible student. Some English translations were deliberately changed to meet the demands of poetic license, as in the King James version, others to harmonize with the politics of the time.
"As a Christian," he explains, "I want to know what did Jesus actually say in the language he spoke."
In the 1960s Vendyl Jones began studying the Copper Scroll, one of the 20,000 scrolls that were discovered in a cave in 1952 and came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Very few of the scrolls have been published, and, says Jones, "I know why they won't. Because just the ones they read completely shook the foundations out from under a lot of theology." Jones relates that some of the priest-scholars who did early work on translations of some of the scrolls have left the priesthood. He says, "You know it's hard to be a saint and a scholar."
In 64 A.D., the Temple of Solomon was destroyed, but before its destruction the temple priests hid the important religious relics in caves in the Qumran area. The Copper Scroll is a riddle which, when decoded, will lead to the hiding places.
This "treasure map" from which Vendyl Jones works is made of hand-beaten copper sheets "about half the size of a Torah scroll." A message was etched into the copper; the sheets were fastened together with brads, rolled, then stuffed with mud. It is believed that they were then baked at a low temperature. Opening the Scroll was an arduous process of carefully cleaning out the soil as the copper was slowly unrolled. "Which is rather foolish," Jones declares. "If they had separated the clay with each part, they would have an impression on the clay, but they lost some of the sentences."
The scroll mentions the Kalal, a bronze vessel that contains the Ashes of the Red Heifer. Citing the 19th Chapter of the Book of Numbers, Jones explains that the ashes were used in water purification.
Also listed on the scroll is the Mishchan, which, says Jones, "is translated in our Bible as the tabernacle that Moses built in the wilderness that was used as a Jewish temple until Solomon's temple was built about 900 B.C. So it was used for about 500 years as a tent meeting place." The items they expect to find with the Mishchan are all listed, according to Jones, in Exodus Chapters 25 through 27 and 35 through 37.
The story upon which "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was based came about, Jones explains, in 1977 when Randy Fillmore, a script writer, was in Israel to do a story on the Israeli army. When the army refused to cooperate, Fillmore visited a kibbutz, but found it too uneventful to suit his purpose. Then he happened to meet some students who were working at Jones's archaeological dig. The students brought Fillmore to the excavation site, and Jones agreed to let him work with them for a few weeks.
"We would stay at the cave in the afternoon; we would stay up there a couple of hours, and he would just interview me on this thing, and then of course I was teaching at night and he was taking notes."
Fillmore became excited when he found that the Mishchan was mentioned in the Copper Scroll. "He said that would make a fantastic story. I said well I didn't want to push this ark business because every jack leg in the country would be over there. I've been talking about the Ashes of the Red Heifer because anybody who'd go out and look for a pot of 2,000-year-old ashes has to be out of his mind. Which I don't mind. You know I am out of my mind. I enjoy it."
Fillmore finished his manuscript, which he had titled The Search for the Ancient Ark, and returned to the United States, where he left his script with an agent in New York. Both agent and script disappeared. They were never certain exactly what happened in between, but they did learn that the manuscript was sold first to one person, then another, and finally to Philip Kaufman who sold it to Spielberg and Lucas.
"Now this thing has been rewritten and hashed up and glamorized and Hollywoodized and everything else," declares Jones, "but a lot of the real story s there—the jealousy between the two archaeologists was going on right there on the dig. We were playing cloak and dagger trying to avoid this one man because the guy we were working with had his discoveries taken away from him several times by this same person who had more political clout." The crew posted a lookout, and when a car was spotted, everyone would duck into the cave, peering out with binoculars to check the identity of the visitors; frequently they were members of the rival archaeologist's staff. Once they were graced with the presence of the man himself. Says Jones, "he was down there with a pair of binoculars looking up at us and we were looking down at him."
The World War II backdrop for the film, relates Jones, is a variation of a World War I incident when a German archaeologist in search of the Lost Ark was stopped by the British.
"The snakes were exaggerated," declares Jones, "but fighting the Arabs was not, because I had a little scuffle with some in the Old City with my crew there when Fillmore was there." Jones overhead an Arab say, "Look at his money!" "What they saw was a plastic telephone book in Jones's back pocket which they mistook for a wallet.
"They have a couple of ways they pick your pockets over there, and I was prepared for either strategy," he declares. "And anyway when they went for my wallet we had five Arabs lying on the ground that couldn't get up. And Fillmore said, 'I wish I'd had a shot of that!' He was real turned on by it. So that got in."
Two scenes from the movie became prophetic, depicting events that were yet to happen. In the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is chased from a South American cave by a giant boulder triggered by a booby trap. "The movie came out in '81," Jones explains, "and when we went on the excavation in '82 we had the same thing happen, except it was a lot bigger and a lot dirtier. This big boulder—it was a booby trap, it was actually a booby trap, and we sat there and got pictures of it. Of course we were ready for it and nobody got hurt, but it was a lot bigger and nastier."
The second event was related to the movie scene in which Indiana Jones places a medallion on the end of a staff so that a shaft of light may pass through its inset crystal. The blue light mentioned in the scroll was discovered in 1988, seven years after the similar incident portrayed in the movie. But since the Copper Scroll mentions the blue light, and the text was available before the making of the movie, this coincidence does not have the same mystical quality as the boulder incident.
The Copper Scroll excavations are organized and sponsored by the Judaic-Christian Research Institute, the organization founded by Vendyl Jones to share with other seekers his passion for getting to the source. The Institute has two major programs—education and archaeological research. The excavation crews are groups of volunteers who pay their own expenses in order to be able to be a part of Jones's great dream—to unlock the secrets of the Copper Scroll and find the treasures from the ancient Temple of Solomon.
The Institute's 1988 excavations unearthed what the Israel Exploration Society has labeled the find of the century—the first organic material that has been found from the second temple. Carefully wrapped in palm leaves in the bottom of a three-foot pit, the diggers found a clay flask of perfumed oil believed to have been extracted from the now-extinct ancient persimmon plant. Listed on the Copper Scroll is such a flask containing the oil that anointed the heads of the kings of Israel. A series of landmarks were located, just as described on the scroll.
Though a 1989 expedition revealed nothing further that was listed on the scroll, another is scheduled to begin in November of 1991 and will be the most ambitious yet.
The Institute's educational program is a series of courses in Hebrew and biblical interpretation for home study, but students are encouraged to work together in study groups and seek instruction in Hebrew scriptures at local synagogues. Though all texts are in English, courses in Hebrew are offered, and Jones personally encourages all serious students to learn the language of the original writings. He insists that a motivated student can begin to read Hebrew in a very short time.
The texts include good translations of the scripture, the Torah and Haftorah, and the commentaries of Rashi, a 10th century commentator who wrote the "Cliff Notes" of the torah. Institute students study the Jewish Prayer Book, books of Psalms, and the Bereshit. Hebrew for Genesis, the Bereshit is 4,000 pages in two volumes, which guide a word-for-word study of the possible meanings of each word in the Book of Genesis. "For example," explains Jones, "the word bereshit, the first word in the Bible, which is translated in the beginning, actually means in the head of things, the word head meaning the mind."
"When you get into this kind of studying," declares Jones, "there is no time for theology. When you're studying word by word, sentence by sentence, precept by precept, line on line, here a little, there a little, adding and building, it takes about three or four times through the Torah to really comprehend how magnificent and incomprehensible the whole thing is. You don't master it; it masters you."
Some rabbis are suspicious of the motives of gentiles who approach them for instruction. Jones tells of a group who were refused instruction by a rabbi in their community. The group leader called the rabbi's superior in New York and asked for intervention. Begrudgingly, a class in the Seven Laws of Noah (the only instruction a rabbi is required to give non-Jews) was begun, but when it had ended the initially reluctant teacher offered to continue working with the study group.
"We're not building a church," declares Jones. "We're not building another denomination. We are taking non-Jews back to the source of their responsibility."
Speaking of the Seven Laws of Noah, the topic for his June 4 appearance in Houston, Jones says, "They are not religion. They are seven moral principles for governing mankind." Jones lists the Laws, which include sanctions against illicit sex, and when queried about the difference between "licit" and illicit sex, responds, "Well under the Noachic Covenant, incest, rape, adultery, and prostitution."
"The amazing thing," he continues, "is that the prostitute was never condemned. It was her customers. Because if you didn't have a market it wouldn't exist. Under the Noachic Covenant a man can have as many wives as he can afford and concubines. There's no such thing in the Noachic Covenant as sex outside of marriage, because sex is marriage."
"When Swaggart was screaming about Bakker, I thought, boy, you better go back and read the book again. You know, consider yourself lest ye also be tempted. And it turned out that here's a guy that's going to a prostitute. I mean Jim Bakker said this is my concubine, and according to the Noachic Covenant there would be no condemnation. I always say that if Jim Bakker had just got up on television and got Jessica Hahn, brought her on and just said, Folks I did it, and if you had the choice—" Jones suspends his sentence suggestively with a chuckle.
"On the other hand," he continues, "Swaggart not only went to a prostitute, but bragged about that he played with himself and didn't actually have sex with her, which has a bigger condemnation under the Noachic Law. Masturbation is not a sex offense; its murder. It's casting seed."
Despite his own traditional Christian upbringing and a personal moral code that demands sexual responsibility, Vendyl Jones does not agree with many traditional sanctions.
"Making something a taboo creates problems; it does not solve them. I was raised in West Texas, of course in a little Southern Baptist community where all sins came in the form of the skirt or bottle. It [the community] was dry as the weather. I mean there was no legal alcohol nearer than 141 miles away. But you couldn't get down the street on a Saturday night for the drunks, fist fights, guys passed out on the street."
Jones tells of a California psychiatrist who years ago searched for the major causes of people's mental disabilities. He describes it in his own colorful way. "When he really got into people and their problems—you know, things that warp peoples' minds and their personalities, that cause nervous breakdowns and suicides and all that—when he really got inside, you know the thing that was the biggest dominant thing that causeded it? It was guilt. Most of it was sex-related guilt. In other words we bring people up 'No, no, that's naughty. Don't look at that, that's nasty. That's sin, that's sin. Don't do that. Daddy cut it off, Mama sew it up.' In creating our taboos we have created a problem, we've not solved it."
Jones's personal life, as that of many others in contemporary society, has challenged his vision of "happily ever after." His first marriage of many years ended in divorce. A second marriage, undertaken with the misty-eyed bliss of intense passionate love, also ended in divorce after a hectic four years combating his partner's desire that he give up his work for a more traditional job with traditional benefits.
Several years of introductions through well-intentioned friends ensued. Jones no longer trusted his own judgment and vowed to never again sink into the emotional abyss of love. But life alone has pitfalls of its own, and he longed for a companion, someone to share with. He had to take care not only that his relationships were beyond reproach, but, because of his visibility in his work, that they also appeared beyond reproach. "There are a lot of people out there who are just booger pickers," he explains.
"I made such a blunder in my last choice that I decided I'm going to find a professional that can try to put this together. So I got a matchmaker," he declares. "I gave him a list of 26 things I wanted and he came up with a lady who had 18 of them. But she had some others that I didn't have on my list that compensated for the things that she didn't have. We've lived together eight years as of day before yesterday, and it's been wonderful. The only thing is, I didn't want to fall in love. I did not want to fall in love again."
Jones had the perfect relationship and he was happy, and without getting "emotionally involved to where I don't have good sense like I did before." At least that's what he thought until he learned that his wife had a brain tumor. The doctors did not expect her to survive the surgery.
He found himself "in such a traumatic state that I couldn't even talk to my own children. I mean I completely cracked up. And I'm not the type that's emotional. I don't cry. I couldn't draw a breath that was not in weeping."
Not only did his wife survive, the day after surgery she was able to step into a shower. The tumor left "a hole in her head" that created problems that required a lengthy period of adjusting medications, but now she has been symptom free for several months.
"But I had to go through that to realize how close we'd become. I realize that I'm stuck worse than ever now." A delighted resignation colors his voice. "You see love and marriage are two different things," he explains. "It's wonderful when it can happen together."