Last week a very special person died. His name was Vendyl Jones, alav hashalom. He was not Jewish, and that is probably the most remarkable thing about him. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but when you look at his life’s achievements it’s actually quite remarkable. Vendyl Jones dedicated his life to correcting misconceived notions about Judaism, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
Yes, I repeat, he was not a Jew.
Vendyl Jones was born and raised a devout Baptist, even serving as a church’s pastor for a couple of years. It was during that time that his studies led him to discover possible incongruities in later editions of the Christian bible with regard to anti-Jewish statements. This discovery prompted him to contact a nearby rabbi, and shortly later he was learning Hebrew alongside elementary school children in a religious school so that he could better understand the Bible from a Jewish perspective. While Vendyl never converted to Judaism, he worked both in America and in Israel alongside the quasi-established (in 2004) Sanhedrin in establishing and running the B’nai Noah movement, stressing the need for gentiles to follow the seven Noahide laws. (Two of his five children did, however, convert to Judaism.)
Another passion of Vendyl’s was archaeology. Combined with his love for religion, Vendyl was fascinated from a young age with the search for ancient, biblical artifacts, especially the Ark of the Covenant. In 1967, Vendyl Jones moved his family to Israel to further his Judaic education. That same year the Six Day War broke out and Vendyl proved himself an asset to the Israeli Army due to a specific kind of colorblindness he had that made camouflaged enemy soldiers stand out.
After the war, Jones began working with an excavation crew at Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Back in 1952, the Copper Scroll was found in cave 3 in Qumran. For years the Copper Scroll (called such because the text was engraved backwards on a roll of copper, causing the letters to protrude correctly on the reverse side) proved an enigma, eventually understood to be a copy of a sort of ancient treasure map (with markers along the lines of “Canyon of the Crescent Moon“) giving 64 locations where silver, gold and other treasures were hidden (including such items as priestly garment and possibly even ashes from a red heifer). This scroll was dated back to ~70 CE, around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. In a separate matter, a missing tosefta (Mishnaic text) was found in the Cairo Geniza in 1896 under the section of Keilim, describing various vessels from the Beit Hamikdash that were hidden away by Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) a number of years before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. The text mentions the five men put in charge of this task: Shimor HaLevi, Chizkiyahu, Tzidkiyahu, Chaggai, and Zecharia, and that Ezra Hasofer was with the author of this tosefta in Babylon when it was written. The text goes on to say that after completing their work, Shimor HaLevi et al made a list of these treasures on a… copper tablet!
Back to our story, in 1968 Vedyl Jones discovered two of the landmarks deciphered from the Copper Scroll, and over the next ten years discovered many more. Finally, in 1977 he began excavating at the sites he found. For ten more years he came up empty-handed, but in early 1988 his crew discovered what the pharmaceutical department of Hebrew University, after intensive testing, agreed was a certain kind of biblical oil used for its fragrant smell and for anointing kings. Four years later Jones made his next great discovery: a hidden silo filled with 900 pounds of reddish, organic material that tests proved to be 9 of the 11 ingredients comprising the ketoret (Incense). The remaining 2 inorganic materials were found nearby in the same cave.
Through further deciphering of the Copper Scroll, Jones believed he located the position of a chamber at the end of a long tunnel – Tzidkiyahu‘s “cave” – that begins just east of Sha’ar Shchem (the Damascus Gate), passes under the Temple Mount, and is believed to descend to Emek Achor where these chambers are located. It is widely believed that there is a maze of tunnels and passages under the Temple Mount, an idea supported in the Gemara, and that the Ark of the covenant is was moved there when the First Temple was attacked. If this is indeed the case, it’s possible that the Ark is still buried under the Temple Mount or, as Jones hypothesized, was moved through the tunnels under the Temple Mount along with the other Temple treasures to the chamber at the end of the tunnel, around which he had been doing his other excavations and made his other discoveries. Wanting to begin the dig for the Ark, The Israeli Antiquities Authority took away Jones’s license for unclear reasons, denying him the ability to excavate into that chamber or under the Temple Mount. Upon reaching this anticlimactic roadblock, Vendyl Jones then turned his resources towards finding the biblical city of Gilgal (which he believed he did indeed find), and pursued that until he fell ill and eventually passed away.
Many important religious figures, among them Rav Goren and Rav Steinsaltz, as well as the Temple Mount Institute (Machon Hamikdash), endorsed and praised Vendyl Jones for his work. Despite false rumors that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas based and named their multimillion Indiana Jones character after Vendyl Jones, Vendyl Jones will forever be the real Indy.
I must admit that for quite a while I dreamed of being an archaeologist like Indiana Jones. Ok, ok, so archaeology isn’t really as exciting as he made it seem, but I wanted to go on adventures and discover hidden treasures of the past. (Having Indy kick Nazi butt just made him all the more heroic to me.) When I was a camper on Mach Hach I liked to pretend on hikes that I was Indy, jumping from rock to distant rock and swinging from vines. As part of the same summer program I took part in an archaeological dig-for-a-day and had the certificate they gave me at the end written to “IndiANNA Hertzberg” (I was ever so proud of that – I still have that certificate!).
Anyway, the true location of the Ark is still unknown. Is it under the Temple Mount or in a cave? Maybe it’s in the Vatican or in Ethiopia (as recent theorists like to believe). For all we know Jones was on the completely wrong track, although it’s fun to believe he was right. It’s a real shame that he didn’t get to fulfill his lifelong dream of finding it, but his contributions both archaeologically and religiously to Jews around the world and to Israel will forever be remembered and praised. And who knows? Maybe “IndiANNA Cohen” will pick up where he left off…