Vendyl Jones (BBC)
Vendyl Jones is a Texan whose ongoing search, in a cave near the Dead Sea, for the treasures of the Second Temple provided the germ of the idea for the Indiana Jones films. His work lured me out some weeks ago to hear him talk about his dig, in a lecture sponsored by the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists.
What I learned, however, was not archeology but rather how susceptible we are to relying on information offered by an "expert" on whom the mantle of authority has been bestowed.
In his talk - the venue, at a Los Angeles synagogue, itself lent a certain authority to his pronouncements - Jones described how he has used the text of the "Copper Scroll," a Dead Sea scroll so-called because it is engraved on a thin sheet of copper, to try to uncover the hidden Temple treasures. Guided by the text, Jones asserted, he has found the "double" cave that the scroll describes - a cave with two mouths separated by a stone column, in which certain priestly families hid such objects as the Ark of the Covenant, the priestly breastplate, the "holy anointing oil" and the purifying "ashes of the Red Heifer," along with a huge amount of silver and gold.
He is additionally certain that he is digging in the right place, he said, because the "blue light" mentioned in the scroll corresponds to a startling blueness that shines into the cave, through its collapsed ceiling, right onto the focal point of his dig.
Most convincing of all, some years ago he found a flask of the "holy anointing oil" used in the Temple, corroborating his belief that the other sacred objects are also buried there. All it will take to find them is time and effort, and he intends to keep trying.
Certain anomalies in Jones's presentation troubled me even that night - notably his insouciant announcement, "I won't bother to deal with the objections of other scholars." Looking for clarification, I searched out Professor P. Kyle McCarter, Professor of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, who has extensively studied the Copper Scroll and whose translation of it has been published by Princeton University Press.
When Jones proclaimed during his lecture, "I believe...that everything named in the scroll will be found," we in the audience felt sure that his search was a legitimate one, based on real, even if partly unorthodox, scholarship. But McCarter cast doubts on the very core of Jones's project.
First of all, McCarter said, no
objects from the Temple are named in the Copper Scroll - not the Ark of the Covenant, not the ashes of the Red Heifer, not even the "holy anointing oil." There is, McCarter said, no reason at all to suppose that these objects are meant. The Scroll names only silver and gold.
Moreover, what Jones claimed was "the anointing oil," McCarter explained, had been identified only as an oil, manufactured and widely used in the ancient Dead Sea area, of the same type
as the Temple anointing oil. Though the find had excited archeologists, Jones took a long logical leap to identify it as the
Temple anointing oil.
Finally, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of "double caves" in the area; caves with collapsed roofs through which the blue light of the sky shines are similarly common. But that doesn't really matter, since - listen up, now! - the Copper Scroll does not mention anything about a blue light.
That Jones spoke under the auspices of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, a praiseworthy and productive organization, suggested that he is an authority in his field, and Jones did nothing to dispel that impression. But in fact, the success of his presentation depended largely upon the ignorance of his audience.
A burly fellow with a Southern drawl, Jones has an ideological agenda beyond soft-sell fund-raising for another dig. A pro-Jewish messianist who has rejected the divinity of Jesus and accepted the Torah's view of the obligations of non-Jews, he believes that the discovery of certain objects from the Temple are necessary precursors of the Final Days.
However, it is ultimately not Jones, whether deluding or self-deluded, who is my concern here, but rather the fragility of reliable discourse. His lecture, while on a benign subject, was an example of something we increasingly find around us, on subjects abhorrent to us. We hear many others who supply "proofs" through "scientific inquiry" that, say, the Holocaust never happened or that Jews ran the slave trade. How awful, we rightly lament among ourselves, that such people can manipulate the ignorance and need of their followers.
But that night, I saw many members of my own community, well-dressed, well-educated American Orthodox Jews, similarly full of enthusiasm for falsehoods masquerading as science. Some of them so much wanted their own private hopes to be validated - that ancient, sacred treasures will soon be found, that the traditions by which they live are literally true, that the Messiah is on his way - that they seemed like members of a cult, believing uncritically and willing even to deride as impertinent an Israeli graduate student who asked a few rude questions of Jones after his lecture.
We who were in the audience that night will want to reconsider how we decide what to trust. Religious people especially, who by definition assert the reality of what cannot be seen, should be particularly wary of the sort of gullibility that comes from wanting too much to believe.