Masquerader of The Lost Ark

Is a renegade Texas archaeologist the real Indiana Jones?

In a modest Arlington living room, all eyes are fixed on an old Sears color television. On the screen, beneath the whir of a VCR, a familiar shadow stalks across the jungle. The chiseled jaw, the bullwhip, the fedora: It’s Indiana Jones. But the real entertainment comes from an orange flowered sofa near the set, where 62-year-old Vendyl Jones kicks back a tumbler of cognac and critiques the movie as if, in some wild Walter Mitty fantasy, he were watching himself in action.

There’s Indy up to his knees in slithering snakes. “We had that,” Jones drawls. There’s Indy walloping wicked Nazis, sneaky Arabs, and rival archaeologists. “We had that,” he says. There’s Indy clambering into caves, hanging on to ascending airplanes, outrunning a gigantic rolling boulder. “Oh, hell, that’s miniature compared to what we had,” he says. “Ours didn’t come rolling down a tube. Ours was more like a shotgun effect, with five-hundred-pound boulders flying everywhere, with tons of dirt and dust.”

As if to prove his point, Jones pulls out a business card embossed with his name, then marks through the first and last letters of his first name, so that the card reads, “endy Jones.” “I may not be as young or as handsome as Harrison Ford,” he grins, running a callused palm over his shiny bald head, “but I sure part my hair straighter.”

Although it has been eleven years since the premiere of the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, a television prequel to the saga, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, is about to begin its second season on ABC’s prime-time schedule. So the issue of Indy’s origins is hot on the minds of his fans—or at least on the mind of Vendyl Jones. Had it not been for his own exploits, Jones maintains, Indiana might never have been born. It is a not a claim he whispers shyly. As he travels the world, Vendyl Jones tells how George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s swashbuckling hero was inspired not by some chiseled archaeological legend but by a jug-eared, potbellied amateur. Judging by the number of newspaper stories written about him lately, the message is getting through. When he makes one of his many appearances on radio or TV, Jones’s interviewers frequently salute him with the thundering Raiders theme song and introduce him as “the real Indiana Jones.”

Never mind that Lucas and Spielberg say they’ve never heard of Vendyl Jones. The way Hollywood really got the idea for the first Raiders movie, Vendyl says, is a tale befitting yet another Indy sequel—an action-adventure story whose cast includes a phantom writer, a thieving literary agent, crooked competitors, and much, much more. At the center of the action is, of course, Vendyl Jones himself, leading the sort of real-life treasure hunt that filmmakers only dream of. “The basic difference is that’s fiction, and we’re dealing with facts,” he insists, as he watches his namesake careen across the screen. “And if you compare our digs with the movie, the movie is a drag.”

This fall Vendyl Jones is plotting his ninth Israeli excavation, an experience that will make the adventures of that other guy seem like the antics of a California wimp. He swears he’s close to unearthing priceless biblical artifacts, maybe even the lost Ark of the Covenant. So from North Texas to the Middle East, the question persists: Is this the real Indiana—or just another Jones?

Long before Harrison Ford ever cracked a bullwhip, Vendyl Jones was in the ancient caves of Israel, following a treasure map taken from the Dead Sea Scrolls and searching for the kalal, the bronze vessel containing the sacrificial ashes of the red heifer. Described in Numbers 19: 2, the ashes were vital for cleansing all those who stood before God in the ancient temple of Moses. Hidden by Jewish priests before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, they are believed to be buried with other temple treasures—chief among them the Ark of the Covenant, the chest bearing the stone tablets that God gave Moses and whose power can be restored only after being purified by the ashes. With the excavation of these treasures, it is said, the prophecy of the Bible will be fulfilled. God will return to the earth in a tongue of fire. The tented temple will be restored in a blaze of transcendent glory. Jews from all nations will return to Israel. And peace will come to the Middle East.

Over eleven years and five excavations, Vendyl Jones dug in the hellishly hot desert, defying the skepticism of those he calls “the swivel-chair academicians.” Dig after dig, as he came up without the temple treasures, the critics cackled. But in 1988, on his sixth outing, Jones and his team of volunteers unearthed a two-thousand-year-old juglet of oil mentioned in the copper scroll of the first century—oil believed to have anointed the ancient priests, kings, and prophets of Israel. The find made the front page of the New York Times and was lauded by National Geographic, Omni, and CNN. More important than the publicity, though, it gave Jones credibility. “He knows more about that area than anyone I know,” says Robert Eisenman, the chairman of the religious studies department at California State University, Long Beach. Sholomo Goren, Israel’s former chief rabbi, has praised Jones for “working for the good of Jewish people around the world.”

A Baptist preacher and Talmudic scholar, Jones is the president of the nonprofit Vendyl Jones Ministries, a.k.a. the Institute of Judaic-Christian Research, which from its Arlington industrial-district offices runs his desert excavations, publishes a monthly newsletter, and operates an audio- and videotape enterprise in its mission “to correct misinformation against Judaism, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel.” Jones also leads teachings in B’nai Noach (Judaism for non-Jews), holding local weekly Torah readings and helping to establish B’nai Noach groups around the country. With the aid of a part-time secretary and a two-man staff, and with only four hours of sleep a night,

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